It’s difficult to be positive when you’re standing on an NT rug

This is a blog about surviving at work and being autistic (the so called ‘mild’ version) and artistic and passing as NT. Artists only sometimes get paid for what they do, though a_n have done a great job of trying to change this. My mother always wanted me to work in an office (which I do for part of my time), or be an air hostess, but she didn’t know about my struggles outside of home, and my teachers didn’t really know what to do with me. I think they were relieved when I eventually left. I always wanted to be an ‘artist’ (another story). Sometimes, as Boy George said recently, “being yourself is political”.

I have realised after a lifetime of passing and what that means — everything I experienced at school transfers by default to the workplace, in a slightly different adult version.

At school, I didn’t know what to do or understand what was going on. I learned what to do by copying others. At secondary school I didn’t speak, I had no friends, and most of the time I was terrified. I wanted desperately to fit in. I was fascinated by the most popular children, and thought that if I looked like them others would like me. But I didn’t look like them.

I knew what to do at home. At home I drew, I made things, and before starting secondary school, wrote and organised plays and got friends in the street to act in them. The performances happened in our front room at home. I invited other children in the street to watch as an audience… and pay to come in. I organised jumble sales on the front garden wall. I made an insect zoo in my dad’s shed, and remember a butterfly laying tiny pearls (eggs) on the side of the glass covered box in a perfect geometric pattern. All this was intensely absorbing and exciting.

I have worked in all sorts of jobs, and I have had difficult experiences in all of them. I always thought this was because I couldn’t do things in the same way as everybody else, I tried to hide this and blamed myself. I have spent a lifetime hiding. I understand now, that I am not a failure, I just think different.

My first job at 15, was a Saturday job in a supermarket stacking shelves. My mother pushed me into getting a job, I would not have gone out of the front door otherwise. My younger sister used to walk with me to get there. After stacking shelves for a few years they wanted me to go on the till. This was something I found terrifying and was hopeless at. One Saturday I was called into the office and told this would be my last day, and not to come back. This was confusing and devastating. The thing is if I was allowed to go on stacking shelves I probably would have still been there.

I couldn’t speak at school or most places outside of home, but could at home — this does your head in. In the last few years in my current workplace there’s been a big emphasis on cross departmental working. This relies on NT type communication skills, and being able to initiate communication. I still cannot talk to certain people in other teams, including authority figures — there’s no real reason I can think of, they seem like nice people, but I end up worrying that I’m not doing my job properly because I’m not making new connections. A few years ago I was unable to introduce myself to a new authority figure who had joined the organisation, the feeling of failure was overwhelming and triggered months of depression.

The feeling of failure is a familiar one. There are the sorts of failures others might experience — like not getting funding for an arts project. Then there are the other failures like not being able to speak when expected to, or not being able to fill out the holiday chart on the wall in the office — because to get to it I would have to squeeze between people as they are working and would need to interact to do this. Interaction like this needs thought, I have to be ready for any unexpected comments, so I put it off. I have thought about doing it when everyone has left, but I forget because by that time I am really focused on what I’m doing and madly trying to finish within my work hours (but always end up going over my hours), and filling in the chart would mean I have to switch gear and disrupt a train of thought that’s taken all day to get to. There’s always anxiety but the level of anxiety does not necessarily match the size of the thing that is causing it.

There’s a sort of unspoken rule among autistic people, that we should be positive about all the things we are good at, and I totally get this, but I’m not really sure what I’m good at. It’s difficult to be positive when you’re standing on an NT rug that may be pulled from under you at any moment.

I’m not really sure who I am because I have shut out who I am for so long. Looking back on things I have achieved, I can’t connect with them, it seems like they’ve been done by someone else, not me.

IMAGE  The top part of a computer screen fills the lower two thirds of the image. Obscuring the ‘Facetime’ camera at the top of the screen is a red rectangular sticker with ‘EXPOSED’ in white capitals on it twice — one ‘EXPOSED’ being upside down.

12 thoughts on “It’s difficult to be positive when you’re standing on an NT rug

  1. “I’m not really sure who I am because I have shut out who I am for so long” Pretty much everything you’ve written here I could have written about my own life. The quote from Boy George at the beginning of this post is really important, and thank you for quoting it. Until recently, I felt ashamed and embarrassed about being autistic, perhaps because I was diagnosed so late in life. But now I am trying to change that attitude and talk about it more because there are thousands (millions?) of us out there who, like you and me, have grown up with this notion that they are wrong and the way they behave is wrong. But what is really wrong is that we have to function in an NT world and we are not made that way! I would love to see more autistic people working together, making art together, exhibiting together, running businesses together. Creating spaces in the world that are Aut spaces. Spaces where we are understood and not wrong and where our way of being and doing is the right way!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much Susan for taking time to comment. Totally agree. We need these conversations – to feel less alone, to address the unlevel playing field out there, and make autist friendly ‘spaces’ – in minds as well as in physical space.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing this Autistatwork and Susan Kruse it really helps finding other people who have believed that they are the cause of their ” perceived failure’ and doubting self worth… like you, I now know that what i saw to be my faults/weaknesses were not really so but that I am different.

    However, there still isn’t a place for us in the world although some autistics can find some accomodation if their strengths lie in IT or mechanical /engineering etc type of areas or for others in the areas of ” detail/precision” in specific NT prized areas . For the rest of us , and possibly especially non ‘ realist representational artists” whether in visual, written, or performance it can be almost impossible… we may be admitted in the door but after a few steps our ” difference/non-compliance ” is found challenging … we can’t conform to the protocols.

    Emphasis on ” can’t” but usually ” can’t” is interpreted by NTs as ” Won’t” and either way there is then no longer a place in ” their game/plan/ show” etc.

    I also was DX after a long life of searching who I was and why I was as I was/am and now find that over 60 yrs have passed. Now that is a problem as ageism seems to exist even in Autismland…as I find I’m still very much alone, possibly because I may relate in a ” different” way not employing the current vernacular /lingo etc. and having difficulty navigating online media etc. Or maybe my issues are not yet those encountered by some… yet I feel my issues have a universality, at least to those who spent many decades before finding their appropriate context … that of being Autistic… validation of existence, a shared existence in some ways but not so in others… being ignorant as a child finding their way in a new shared and established Autistic Culture.

    Hopefully we may somehow overcome the tyranny of isolation common in the arts and even more so as autistic artists.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comments. I echo them all. …”can’t conform to the protocols” interpreted as ‘won’t’, underlies so many of the struggles I have faced, and still face, in my own life. But since 2015 I have found the most brilliant support on Twitter and via blogs from other autistic people and from those who are artists, this has helped to overcome feelings of isolation, opened up another world and literally given me a voice. Being accepted and understood is life enhancing, and I just didn’t expect this when I first joined Twitter. We are in the process of putting the needs/access/inclusion of autistic artists on the Art World table, and the more voices we have the better. So welcome to our community/’the tribe’! You might like to read Sonja Boue’s blogs on in #solidarity Sonja


  3. Very interesting to me as a mom of a teen with autism, to hear your comments about “not being able to talk”. We are experiencing this in our house now as well as in the wider world. I will try to be a little more careful about not “pulling the rug out” from under his feet as you so aptly put it. I find it hard not to resent or feel offended when I get no response or only limited responses from my previously quite verbal and social son. I’ll try to remember your experience and be more compassionate in the future. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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