Sensory Overload | Some thoughts a year on

Last month, I was alerted by Google that a year had passed since I cycled for over an hour in the Dutch heatwave to deliver the thesis that I had spent the previous 10 months working towards. I felt weird about it then and still do now – yes, it was a relief to finally get the exhausting amount of work off my back, but the process kicked a ball down a hill that refused to stop moving even past the deadline. Certain sentences haunted me, arguments I had underdeveloped, inconsistencies in terminology, large glaring gaps in logic that screamed “DAVID DID A LAZY”. Yes, I successfully managed to write an entire thesis on autism in the media without mentioning Rain Man once, but those sentences with passive voice? oof.

Forgive the tooting of horns, but I did pretty well, all told. I graduated with a very good grade and got a job the week after I finished the course. I’ve been very fortunate, not just to successfully start the next stage of my life but to move into a field where I could spare myself having to think about autism day in, day out. The research I undertook showed parts of humanity that at times genuinely disturbed me, and I didn’t know how to express that to family, my closest friends or even to myself. By contrast, my job at the minute usually requires proofreading press releases about construction equipment – the most worrying thing I typically have to deal with on a regular day is listening to a bunch of Brits talk about football: a circle of hell for sure, but a mercifully light one compared to what came before. It’s hard to imagine a situation further from the postmodern academic wormhole of neurodivergent chaos I enmeshed myself in for months on end.

But… I kept thinking about it. Or rather, the neurodiversity paradigm continued to truck along, and I had acclimated my sensitivities to the ongoing developments of what I had covered. The Autistic Dark Web continued to be a thorn in the sides of autistic-led Twitter, wearing its reactionary influences far more clearly on its sleeve. The British driving authority proposed that autistic drivers must declare their diagnosis for risk of a fine before backtracking. Measles outbreaks continue to crop up as a result of anti-vaccination scaremongering. The so-called “Gender Critical” use autism as the flimsiest of excuses to justify their transphobia (when they’re not using it to demonise neurodivergents). Cultural representation of autistic characters remains pitifully overwrought. The systematic abuse of autistic people in care homes remains a serious issue while posts such as this that advocate cruelty against the autistic reach the upper levels of Reddit karma-farming every other day.

I also encountered stuff that was a little more positive, if still acknowledging the difficulties. A classmate sent me this interesting piece on autism’s place in cultural theory that I think about often. Katherine May articulated many of the frustrations I had felt, only much more well written and vital. I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Silberman in Sheffield – NeuroTribes was the book that kickstarted my original idea, and getting it signed by the man himself seemed a nice capper. Public figures like Greta Thunberg and Chris Packham refuse to shy away from their autism as they indefatigably try to mitigate wrongs against the environment.

I initially wanted to go into these particular episodes in greater depth – both as a mea culpa outlining where I had failed when writing the original thesis, and as a purging of sorts, an exercise to get the rapid turning of the autism gear in my brain to subside ever so slightly. In the act of writing this, though, I’m not sure I entirely feel up to it. What can I say about these issues that hasn’t been better articulated by those who’ve dedicated so much more of themselves to the cause than I ever have, ever could? How could I depend on the resources afforded to me by the university that I have now been locked out of? It’s nice that my student card doesn’t expire for another 4 four years of cheap bus tickets, but I’d trade that for some access to scientific studies, please.

There’s also that ever-lingering elephant in the room. Sensory Overload was an academic exercise, at times an incredibly typical one (I cite Foucault, for fuck’s sake). Therefore, outside of some sneaked-in gags and admissions of personal sympathies I wrote the entire thing in a dispassionate voice, the observer on the side that may have a horse in the race but won’t tell you if they are in possession of hooves. I’ve only ever ‘come out’ as on the spectrum to very few people – I could probably count them on one hand – and my experiences when I did so were rarely positive. I told one friend, who immediately suggested I was trying to make up for my inadequacies as a white man and pretend I was special. Another friend took on the information and spent a few more months hitting and gaslighting me regardless. I’m not so oblivious that I didn’t assume others would surmise that there was something going on. I remember two mutual friends having a discussion on a Facebook thread over how much I reminded them of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory. I was not tagged, but speaking of autistic people as though they are not in the room and can’t peg on to their little social obliviousness theory has been common in my experience.

All of these episodes are well over five years ago, with the toxic people in my life long cut off, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t leave some lingering resentments. That would be petty, however, compared to a much more complicated problem. I spent five years in higher level education, with a year in between degrees working in retail. After the social nightmare of secondary school, I barrelled into college with a clear goal of fitting in and making friends, and made a 24/7 effort to do just that. I was masking, obviously – taking constant conscious notes from the people around me, using their world to inform how I participated in class, how I approached people, how I dealt with customers. I embarrassed myself a lot – a lot – but I did get the hang of it, living life in a way that for years was alien to me. When I struggled through a year abroad, an abusive friendship, a final year marred by student politics and a very serious depressive episode, they presented themselves as episodes where my coping mechanisms just stopped clicking, and it was my job, so I thought, to reformulate my mask and get on with things.

This is something that many non-autistics do not understand, as it can sound faintly ridiculous. I had work, I got along with people, I did well in class, all true. But it was EXHAUSTING, and not just in the manner associated with garden-variety introversion. I’ll spare the details, but I had burnt out from the whole thing more than once.

This does not mean I regret my experiences or that the friendships I’ve made to this date were sought out insincerely. That would be clearly bollocks. My friends are dear to me and the stuff I’ve learned while I struggled to be a human in a neurotypical world have helped me become a better person. If anything, I regret the times I’ve hurt others while I struggled with my own pain, the creative work I was putting out into the world that I knew in real-time didn’t square with my values or work ethic but I farted out anyway. Those times highlighted how unintuitive the enterprise is to people like me, how difficult it can be to articulate that without sounding adrift or self-pitying when that is not my intent. Although it was first and foremost an academic thesis, with the primary goal of getting a good grade, Sensory Overload reads to me now like an attempt for me to articulate those feelings I had long struggled to recognise, albeit through the arguments and lived experiences of others as though I were a human aggregator.

I doubt that I will dive into a project this laser-focused on autism again for a good while. I doubt I have the stamina to be as academic, to take on such weighty topics without descending into juvenile humour every few sentences. I could sit here and write a point-by-point breakdown of where I went wrong in the thesis, but it would be pointless rehashing of the arguments I made over a year ago, not to mention kind of self-cannibalizing and insulting to the prospective reader, as if they don’t understand the concept of time passing and perspectives shifting. Ableism remains a day-to-day occurrence, and I may go deeper into it, but I don’t feel any real impulse at the moment.

I have not yet decided what I’ll do next with this site. I have playlist ideas, and I’ve been juggling creative ideas around for a while without anything sticking just yet. In the last couple of years I have been very inspired by certain #extremelyonline creators who’ve seemingly founded an exciting, new avenue of self-expression, mostly on YouTube, which I know I don’t have the fortitude to even consider. Sensory Overload reads to me like I had found a voice, but an authoritative, academic one that doesn’t reflect my day to day world, the David that laughs at the sex number and has medium-to-warm takes on superheroes. Look, I’m just saying, if cinema is dead, is that such a bad thing? fun stuff, you know.

When I decided to write an ‘epilogue’ to Sensory Overload, it was intended as a consolidation, instead it reads more as a journal entry, trying to make sense of what occurred a year before when I was too tired and stoned to understand what was going on. Like the main event, I imagine I’ll look back on this piece a year from now and wish I had a better grasp of what I was going for. Or, hopefully, maybe I’ll be too busy working on the next thing to notice. Maybe by then I’ll understand enough about Foucault to know not to cite him to look smarter.

Thanks for reading. xxx

One thought on “Sensory Overload | Some thoughts a year on”

  1. David, your blog will soon be added to our Actually Autistic Blogs List (anautismobserver.wordpress.com). Please click on the “How do you want your blog listed?” link at the top of that site to customize your blog’s description on the list (or to decline).
    Thank you.
    Judy (An Autism Observer)

    Liked by 1 person

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