“I can’t do this bloody PhD. I’m too bloody autistic and too bloody stupid.” Doubts and Hope when Identities Collide.

I started writing this post earlier in the week, when work was feeling hard, and I was feeling pretty low. I thought I knew what I wanted to say here – but then this weekend, a ‘thing’ happened on Twitter that has made me rethink how I feel and has very much reshaped this post.

The ‘thing’ was a conversation among autistic people under the hashtag #illogicalsocialrules. I found it this morning and it’s been quite powerful in helping me to rethink how I see myself as an autistic PhD student studying “social”. So I want to explain why.

Firstly though – the background.

The title to this post is what goes through my head whenever anything feels difficult – when I can’t say exactly what I want straight away, when I feel overwhelmed, when doing a PhD feels like eating an elephant. It’s tricky to explain, and probably falls into that category of “things I feel I can’t say”, because it seems like everyone finds doing a PhD difficult at least some of the time. There’s loads written about ‘imposter syndrome’, and loads of sharing in departments and on forums, about how feeling like you can’t manage, feeling isolated, feeling like an ‘imposter’ is totally ‘normal’ and to be expected. I know the intention of all of this is to be helpful, but as with so many things in autistic life, being told ‘it’s normal’ and ‘you’ll be ok’ doesn’t get at the problem, and actually shuts down any real discussion of the situation. So I need to try to explain how this is for me, and where I think autism fits into this explanation.

The thing about autism as I experience it is that it’s about being neither one thing nor the other.

I have a diagnosis that lists all of the things I can’t do (that I’ll share on here when I finally track down a copy). A neatly typed bundle of failures that is supposed to help me. I have gone through all of the clinical literature and read the  articles that appear almost daily, discussing all of our deficits and all of the hopes for a cure for our muddled, dysfunctional thinking. I know all of the theory around weak central coherence, poor executive functioning, rigid thinking, poor planning and problem solving, deficits in social communication, poor receptive language processing, sensory dysfunction. And I experience all of this – that’s how I come to have the diagnosis, that’s how I “count”. (The current DSM criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder are here if you’re interested – so many failures and abnormalities!)

I also have years and years of being immersed in an autistic community of firsthand narratives detailing what we can do – sharing successes and proving how ‘normal’ and ‘capable’ we can be. I’ve read the articles on ‘5 ways in which my autism helped me get my PhD’, and all the stuff on how our neurology is a ‘natural human variation’. I’ve seen a huge increase in recognition of how autistic women live – and that feels very different from when I was diagnosed, very positive progress.

The thing is though, that none of that helps when I doubt if I can do my PhD – or when I doubt myself more generally and feel like a broken human being. All the deficit stuff, the “proper” clinical stuff is so strong and dominates my thinking – it feels so authoritative, so confident, and it fits with how much of a failure I feel. So it confirms it. I feel like an imposter, but not just that, I feel like an autistic imposter. How on earth can someone with all of that long list of deficits possibly think she can do a PhD? Every time I think about it, the conclusion I reach is “Maybe this is just as far as an autistic can get – maybe autism just makes this impossible”. And the thing about this type of thinking is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – the doubting robs you of your productivity because being so afraid of confirming your failure means that you can barely bring yourself to try.

But I don’t WANT to accept that. I refuse to accept that – because when work is good (as it is just now) it’s the most amazingly, addictively good thing in the world and I will not give that up.

So how does a twitter hashtag like #illogicalsocialrules help with all of this?

Well, to be blunt, it helps me find my place, and it helps me to identify my tribe. My own interest in “social” has sat uncomfortably with an autistic identity that risks erasure if it is seen to be too aware of other people, and of “social”. One of the reasons why those “5 reasons why my autism has helped me get a PhD” articles don’t help me is because they tend to orient towards stereotyped forms of autism that I don’t have. They describe highly routined autistics working in maths and science fields in ways that would make Rainman proud.

But that is not me. My passion is language – all kinds of languages – words, words, words. And how words happen between people. I love watching people ‘act’ in order to be ‘social’. Sometimes it grates because I’m so aware of it and it looks fake and cringeworthy, but it’s what I’m tuned to. In my own language and in other foreign languages – I love spotting patterns and nuances. I’ve had to. But this is just so “unautistic”. We’re supposed to have deficits in social communication, so it’s always felt like I have to choose between an autistic identity (which I need, when the sound of a hand dryer paralyses me, or I’m terrified about going somewhere new because I don’t know what to expect), and an identity that loves language and observing and dissecting the “social” (though might not always “do it right”).

And right there – in that hashtag, there’s a whole group of other autistic people doing exactly what I do. Being autistic and examining the social – sometimes amusingly, sometimes critically, but USING the ‘outsider’ position, and all of the observations that go along with that as a SKILL to pick apart and analyse that which I guess many neurotypicals would take for granted because they’ve never HAD to study it.

So maybe it is entirely possible to be autistic, with all that that means, and to be good at observing and studying the social. Maybe those two can go absolutely, happily, hand in hand. And maybe it’ll all be alright after all.