Having just completed the first draft of my novel Impasse Day, I thought I’d have a ramble on the experience of being an author on the Autism spectrum.
By which I mean being an Autistic adult, living in Australia, trying to complete any large, long-term project.
Without my wife, Jo, and without encouragement from my family and friends, I would have no chance. There is no support infrastructure in Australia for people on the spectrum, in fact there is precious little for people with mental issues, period.
As an anecdote, my psychiatrist told me of a man in his recent experience. This man has severe schizophrenia, to the point that he is unable to use public transport without risk of a paranoid episode. He was being asked, with a straight face, by the government’s out-sourced “disability employment” agencies, to find work.
To me, this came as no surprise. Australia as a nation is essentially a thin layer, bolted on top of a resources gravy-pot owned by a handful of super-rich families. Its government is largely accidental, and inconvenient to those rich.
Ahem, but I’m off-topic. A bit.
Currently I am supplementing the household income with some side-work, having “crashed out” of a lucrative software career some years ago.
What went wrong?
Well. Have a search around and you’ll read about “Autistic burn-out”, sometimes from knowledgeable sources and sometimes from the gibbering’ly wrong.
Also you’ll hear about Executive Dysfunction. This is an important concept, and it goes hand-in-hand with the “burn-out” phenomenon.
All my life I have fought with severe Executive Dysfunction. In fact it’s probably the main thing that a lot of Autistic adults wrestle with, but is not often enough talked about. It’s something Autistic adults have trouble expressing about their troubles.
We hear a lot about Anxiety – in particular Social Anxiety – and it’s true: this is a major problem for a lot of those on the spectrum.
But often, certainly in my case, a lot of that anxiety stems from Executive Dysfunction.
Never knowing, for sure, if you are going to complete what you start. However big, however small.
It is something not taken seriously, even by those who suffer from it, and consequently they themselves help to sweep it under the carpet. They are embarrassed about it. And it often does get laughed at.
“Oh you’re just lazy!”
(Not that anybody, ever, in the history of spoken English, ever started such a sentence with “Oh!”, but this seems to be how these examples are to be written.)
Yep. Definitely lazy. Multiple high-paid jobs, home ownership, being a landlord, composing music including a hit, a degree in the hard sciences, marriage, a published book, maintenance of a deep bush property later … yep. Definitely lazy.
And people will go on about energy levels. You just need to eat properly, sleep properly, get a routine going and get your energy levels up!
It’s got nothing to do with energy. Let me explain –
Executive Dysfunction ranges widely:
At one end there is finding it a little difficult to start projects, to “get motivated”.
This is quite common, even in Neurotypical people. But it is not “severe” Executive Dysfunction. It is the equivalent of “feeling a bit down”, as opposed to the experience of Clinical Depression.
But at the other end of the Executive Dysfunction range, there are people who cannot walk without prompting.
I saw a dramatic example concerning an elderly gentleman. He was wheeled in a wheelchair, by a doctor, out onto a lawn. He was asked to stand up, which he duly did. Then he was asked to walk forward. He simply could not. He could not find the “initiating” sequence to set his legs in motion. The doctor then dropped a handkerchief on the grass, and asked the man to step over it. He did so! And as soon as he did he was able to keep walking.
In that gentleman’s case it was creeping brain-damage due to senescence that plagued him. But the same effect can manifest due to a variety of causes.
Those on the spectrum often suffer from it.
I know I do.
I have keen interests in lots of different areas, and trained-up skills across a selection of these. I even have histories of achievements in some of them. It makes little difference.
I realise I need to do something. A fraction of a second later I feel this push backwards, sometimes with a little “pulse” of anxiety. It happens in the very, very start of things, when one is weakest.
It is like trying to lift a heavy weight, but not being able to get even as far as tensing one’s muscles.
And speaking of muscles, many on the Autism spectrum have some form of unidentified muscle and tendon pain. I do, and it’s another thing that isn’t discussed much.
All movement hurts slightly, and has done since I was little, and this seems to be a very common spectrum experience. But you have to talk directly to other Auts to hear of it.
Sometimes silly diagnoses, like fibromyalgia, are thrown out, but they mean nothing. It could be neurological. It could be some form of Arthritis. Nobody is sure what the cause of this real, most physical pain is.
Every day is a struggle from getting out of bed, to getting household chores done, to getting longer-scale chores done to …
Getting things I want to do done.
Helping the people I love.
Pushing my life forward.
And then, I am supposed to find some “lift” to get vast projects like novels finished, and re-launching my software or music careers?
Well, yes, it can be done. And I do it. And others do it. And we try not to complain, because there’s just no point.
But it’s hard.
Oh! Here’s another “Oh!” sentence:
“Oh, everybody has that! Get over it!”
(It’s a cliché, but those on the spectrum really do hear those three little words quite a lot, Get over it!)
No. Not everybody has this. Only some people have it. It’s subtle, and it’s hard to convey, and it’s hard to convince people that it’s real so most of the time we don’t even bother trying.
All our lives.
And from there, I think you can see reasonably easily how “burn-out” often occurs in later life among the Autistic. Like other sufferers of chronic pain, they simply get sick of it. And fighting things gets harder as one enters later life, also.
Anyway, what of Authorship?
I am Autistic, a high-functioning Aut (I prefer that term to “Autist”), which – current research suggests, anyway – means I have significantly more synaptic connections than the average person.
In my case, my strangeness enables me to polymath, spanning several scientific and artistic fields (Yay alliteration!). Not everything, though! I’m still struggling to learn a single second language, and don’t ask me to paint anything!
I am able to hold very large structures in my head. I have several that I fiddle with from time to time, mainly revolving around software or physics concepts.
But there are others, and my stories are some of them.
Impasse Day for example, exists as a giant structure in my mind. I can’t completely keep track of the whole thing at once, and sometimes have to “play through” sections of it. This is almost exactly the same process as composing a piece of music – closely focusing on one section, like a watchmaker, means you have to step back and re-appreciate the whole, to get an idea of where it’s going.
I write in, what sounds to me like, a very similar way to how Alan Dean Foster describes the process: seeing a “movie” in my head, and writing down what I see.
One thing my Autistic mind is good at, most of the time, is spotting inconsistencies. I can feel them, even if I can’t put my finger on exactly what or where they are straight away.
This is the deep, sub-language parts of our mind – anyone’s mind – at work, where so called “instinct”, or “gut feel” lives.
It’s a real thing, and in Auts it is particularly strong.
In fact some Auts live down there, or “back” there, and are utterly unable to articulate what they are experiencing in their own, deep universe.
Those of us Auts who can push what’s in our head out onto the page, or the screen, particularly if it ends up being entertaining – we …
Well, we are damn lucky.
And it’s still hard!
Anyway, I hope you enjoy Impasse Day when it’s finally ready!