Lynn’s bit: As a team we have fully embraced the explosion of understanding, articles, books and advice about autistic girls. It goes some way in undoing the long years of girls being ignored in research, male stereotypes and the myths surrounding autism.
BUT – we also work with autistic boys and although we do use books written for girls with the boys, (its good advice for them too), we noticed a gap for advice from autistic men to autistic boys about being safe and growing up as an autistic man. So I reached out to some autistic men that I admire and asked them to write something for the boys we work with – and I’m going to share them as a series in our blogs.
Also to come in the series we will have advice about being safe when someone is gay, about being a black autistic man, about college and work and a blog about different expressions of gender.
The first one is from Pete Wharmby. If you are on Twitter, he does some great threads about being autistic and is an ex-teacher. https://twitter.com/commaficionado He has also written a book which comes out in 2023.
Here is his post:
I was diagnosed as autistic when I was thirty-four years old, in 2017. As such, I went through much of my life (including huge life events like university, dating and becoming a parent) without realising that my brain was different to everyone else’s – I assumed that any difficulties I had were down to some terrible personality flaw or hideous aberration. I had experienced many intense difficulties in my life – not least with my mental health – and blamed myself for each and every one of them.
But after a serious bout of depression soon after becoming a dad for the first time, I took a closer look at myself to try to figure out why I wasn’t handling life. After all, loads of people become dads and handle it pretty well; why was I struggling so badly? It is particularly hard to find parenting this difficult, by the way – there’s a kind of biological need to parent well, so to struggle makes you feel not just a failed dad, but a failed human being… possibly even a failed living organism. This, as you can imagine, does not help feelings of depression.
And so, I sought help and eventually persuaded my GP to refer me for an autism assessment. I had self-diagnosed myself (tentatively), based on those quizzes and questionnaires you can find online (each of which concluding I was autistic as) so I felt confident. The assessment was tough, dredging through my life for little nuggets of autism, but my confidence had been well-placed and the doctors verdict was that I was… well, autistic as.
After that, though, there was no support. Its astonishing to me that adults can be given this life-altering news and then receive nothing. Not even a phone call checking in. I walked off with a sparse handful of pamphlets and a glum mood. How is anyone meant to cope with such news?
The world is a hostile place for autistic people. Some of that hostility is wide, scattershot, affecting us all. Some is targeted specifically at other groups. Female autistic people, for example, are very likely to have their diagnosis called into question, without cause, simply due to their gender. Black autistic people experience similar, as well as other insidious prejudices. Male autistic people have it lucky, then, in some very minor respects: after all, if we’re white and cis then we perfectly fit the stereotype, and as such are way more likely to be taken at face value.
But it doesn’t always feel much of a consolation, and the danger of toxic masculinity causes big problems. As we sit silently considering our situation, finding it difficult to open up or even accept there is a problem, we can slip into very dangerous territory. Loneliness, anger, confusion and despair can well up very quickly and lead to horrifying outcomes.
I felt this very keenly in those difficult few weeks after diagnosis, and as is my style, I turned to the Internet for solace.
There’s an awful lot of excellent information out there for newly diagnosed autistic girls and women, thanks to the sheer number of new diagnoses and the incredible insight and communication skills of many autistic women. This is thanks in turn to the growing awareness of how autism presents in women, which is long overdue and a very positive shift.
However, there is also (at present, at least) a bit of a dearth in decent writing for autistic young men. This is understandable in some ways – after all, male autism has dominated things for decades. But as we enter this new era of neurodiversity and more progressive ideas about autism, an ironic lack of male-oriented texts starts to be a bit more noticeable and an equivalent of, say, Siena Castellon’s The Spectrum Girls’ Survival Guide is nowhere to be seen.
So, to try to fill that void a little, I present a few thoughts about how to navigate life as a young autistic man, drawing on my own experience.
- I’ll start by considering those first few days after diagnosis. I remember them vividly, and I can say that being confused or upset by a diagnosis of autism is a perfectly valid response. Being told that your brain is different to everyone else’s, in ways that are pretty disabling, is a huge deal. It can take time and effort to reconcile how you feel about that, and it is perfectly natural to experience negative emotions as a result. My advice would be to work through the new information slowly and gently, and don’t expect to make peace with it straight away. That will come, but it will take time.
- Speak to other autistic men. One thing that men generally experience, even when neurotypical, is a kind of awkward silence around anything emotional or topics that may touch on vulnerabilities. This is part of the ‘toxic masculinity’ that people talk about. However, in my experience men are actually fairly willing to share autism stories, perhaps because they are shared or because there can be an element of humour (poking fun at neurotypical behaviours, or self deprecation about not understanding small talk and so on). Hearing other men talk about their lived experience can really help you make sense of your own.
- Be very careful of ‘mate crime’ and similar phenomenon. This is where unscrupulous people take advantage of those in vulnerable situations (for example autistic young people setting off in to the world) by befriending them, only to then use them for their own ends. This can be financial, so you end up paying for their stuff or lending them money, or it can be more insidious, like a person befriending you in order to ‘recruit’ you into their ideology. You see an awful lot of the latter occurring online. It’s good to be vigilant.
- Be kind to yourself. Autistic people can push themselves far too hard in order to fit in, or do the kind of things they feel they are ‘supposed to be able to do’. I spent my twenties making myself do a whole host of things I would never do now I know I am autistic. Yes, I suppose I’m glad I pushed through to do some of it, but not all. If I could live those years again I would be more choosy with my nights out, social events, job volunteering and so on, I order to preserve my energy and stay more mentally healthy.
- Be very mindful of mental health. It is no coincidence that autism co-occurs with severe anxiety disorders, depression and other serious conditions – after all, being autistic is hard and we don’t get much support. So, with that in mind, treat your mental health with respect and try to pre-empt any issues. Don’t push yourself too hard, don’t set unreasonable expectations for yourself, talk and share your feelings with trusted people. If you can, try to find a therapist who specialises in neurodivergent individuals: this can be a great way of offloading some difficult mental baggage, especially if you don’t have many people in your life whom you can confide in.
- Finally, I think a really important bit of advice for autistic people generally is to e joy those aspects of being autistic that bring joy. ‘Autistic Joy’ is a huge topic at the moment and I think that’s a good thing. Aspects such as special interests, hyperfocus and attention to detail can be truly wonderful and bring a lot of pleasure. Being autistic is to be different – and difference comes in all sorts of guises. Focus on the positives.
Autism is a very varied thing. Advice for autistic people – even when from other autistic people – can be difficult to gauge because so many of us experience things so differently. However, there are many commonalities where folks can find community and solace. Finding that community and others to share experiences with is the key, I think, to managing the autistic experience.
Gradually, as the general public’s understanding and acceptance of autism and other neurodivergencies grows, things will begin to improve and life will hopefully start to become more manageable. Until that day, though, I hope my suggestions and ideas help you navigate things.
Pete Wharmby’s new book is released in March 2023 and can be pre-ordered here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Untypical-world-autistic-people-should/dp/0008529264