Sunday 20 September 2020

My autistic career

How did I get where I am today? (a look back at my career history in the light of my autism identification in 2018).

In many ways I’ve had a successful career. I became a Professor in 1997 at the age of 40. I have directed research institutes, served on scientific committees, won awards for teaching, founded new programmes, and published a respectable array of books, articles, and other outputs. My musical compositions have been performed around the world and I’ve had commissions from leading orchestras and ensembles as well as the BBC. 

But it has not been a straightforward journey at all. My autism has been fundamental to my success, but also an obstacle at times. Because I was unaware that I am autistic, this has caused a lot of confusion and difficulty which I am only now coming to put into perspective.

Several years ago, my university HR department sent me a request to give an account of how to become a professor. Their idea was to offer advice on career progression to junior academics. I realised that this was an impossible task. How could I explain that I had followed no obvious career path, and that more or less everything that has happened to me has been a matter of chance? 

I have only ever applied for one job in my life, and that application failed at the interview stage. Everything else has come about because somebody somewhere spotted something about me that they saw as valuable. Needless to say, I am very grateful to those people. If I’d known at the time that I was autistic, I might have had a better grasp on what was happening. As it was, I had no idea what was going on. I have steered a nomadic course, driven by interests that I have over-thought for a living.

It would be tempting to see my success as the product of privilege. As a white male who was sent to private school, you might assume that the path would be smoothed out for me. I wouldn’t want to deny my privilege, but even so this was not really the case. I left school  traumatised, unqualified to enter university, without any financial support, and the fabled ‘old-boy network’ was nowhere to be seen. Life has been a real struggle at times, and my relatively recent success has been the result of sheer determination. This is purely down to my autism. Every day of my life I have had to overcome sensory and environmental challenges. This is the way I have lived as an autistic man, and it tended to produce a persistent mindset. I use routines and structure to drive me forwards and I learn to survive in a neurotypical world by ‘masking’. 

My first encounter with the world of work came after a period of pennilessness and trying to survive in London. I had signed on to the dole on leaving school and the unemployment office eventually found me a temporary job. This involved transferring a massive pile of paper traffic surveys into a data format that could be processed. I worked with another young man in an office just off Oxford St. Every day, I would transcribe data. Each lunchtime I would eat the same meal - a mini pork pie and a pint of milk - in the café at Selfridges, where I always managed to get the same seat. I took the same route to work each day and did the same things in the evenings. The tube was a synaesthetic dream*, as I tasted or smelled the colours of the London underground map. It was really autistic heaven and I would still be doing it today were it not for the fact that it was only ever temporary. The only downside was that my co-worker wanted to chat constantly and insisted on playing his radio. I found that talking about my interests soon discouraged him though. So we worked together side-by-side, but were agreeably quiet most of the time.

When that job ended, I tried screwing glass base-plates onto mannequins, but could only survive for a week because of the hellish environment (noise, fluorescent lighting, social interactions). After I left, everything really fell apart. I had almost no money and ultimately nowhere to live. I was forced to go back to my parents’ house, which was quite a challenging environment too, but at least I had a room. There I was able to re-sit my A-levels. This time I managed to get good enough grades to get a university place. Out of the school situation, I could control my environment better so there were fewer social and sensory issues. I finally figured out that what was required in exams was not direct answers to the questions with original thoughts, but rather the regurgitation of a set of memorised ‘facts’. This I could do, although it bored me to do so.

So, I did much better and was awarded a place at a university. By this time, I had convinced myself that I was really not very good academically, so it was a surprise to find that I came top of my first year group in the examinations, with an overall grade of 88%. Suddenly, I had a glimpse of what was possible. Luke Beardon has stated that autistic people are better suited to PhD level work than to school work, and this was really true for me. The deeper I was able to go into a subject, the more I flourished. I found that I knew far more already than most of my fellow students and, apparently, my tutors recognised the fact. I was positively encouraged in my interests, which drove me into some very obscure but highly rewarding areas of music and literature.

While I enjoyed specialising, I also began to realise that academic disciplines were far too constraining. At school I had been made to choose between “science” and “arts” subjects. I generally chose the arts side, but it really was upsetting to have to give up subjects like chemistry. I couldn’t see the difference between empirical research founded on objective observation and subjective representation based on lived experience. The two were simply different sides of the same thing, it seemed (and still seems) to me. The path I pursued as an undergraduate and subsequently was all about work that straddled these two areas.

The conventional view of autism is that “special interests” are narrow and highly focused. Reading the literature, I often see that music and computing, which are my two biggest special interests, are common amongst autistic people. Becoming a professor is usually the result of ever-increasing specialism within a narrow field of enquiry. What distinguishes one professor from another is often quite a small difference between their fields of expertise. In my case, my specialism has been a kind of interdisciplinarity - being able to make connections across disciplines which others fail to spot. I would go further and say that the structure of the modern university is an articulation of neurotypical thinking. Autistic people can certainly flourish within this structure when their interests happen to coincide with the disciplinary focus, but they can also flounder badly when the structure runs against them. I’ve had both experiences in my time as the university has changed around me.

So, I completed my undergraduate degree very successfully and then took a Masters, but after that found myself once again living in London with no obvious source of income. Once again, the social and sensory issues that had challenged me before reasserted themselves. I did not realise what was happening though. If I had had the autism diagnosis then, I would have been so much more able to cope. As it was, I lived a pretty hermetic existence and rarely went out. I tried to earn a living as an independent artist, but that was hopeless. I formed a music ensemble which was quite successful, but it lost loads of money and was unsustainable. I did some occasional work copying music parts, which just about covered the rent, but for quite a few years I was living pretty much hand to mouth on the dole once again.

I read voraciously, though, and consumed as much new music as I could find. Essentially I continued the work I’d done on the degrees, following my nose and researching things that interested me. I’d spend a lot of time in the Reading Room at the British Library as my investigations became ever more obscure. I wrote and published articles about my research. I even appeared on the radio and TV quite a few times. 

The advantage of this way of living was that I was able to control my environment a great deal, had very little social life, and followed my interests. At the time, I thought I was failing, but now I can see that I was living the way an autistic person would want to live. My sense of failure was the result of trying to do what the neurotypicals were doing. I was judging myself by their standards and constantly finding myself wanting. I’ve discussed this in a previous post titled “getting it wrong”.

My academic career, meanwhile, took another wrong turn. I enrolled as an MPhil student, but found myself unable to abide by the conventions required by that kind of degree. So I did some amazing research (all of which was subsequently published to considerable interest) but I presented it in such a way that it could not be accepted by the university. Years later, when I did my PhD, I finally figured out how this kind of work should be done properly, and succeeded with no problem. It takes me a long time to process conventional imperatives like this. Much of my anxiety comes from that sense of being constantly on the brink of total failure. I think this is another autistic trait: an ability to hyperfocus on the local without being able to view the global. That’s something that would need to be tested more scientifically, but it is my conjecture and there is lots of psychological research that supports the idea.

This period of my life was brought to an end by an invitation from a well-known composer to work in France on a big operatic project. So, I had gainful employment in rather grand surroundings and ended up living in Paris, which I did enjoy. Even there, the pattern of life was not dissimilar to the way I had lived in London, but I did have a regular job to go to. About a year after that ended, the same composer invited me to give some part time lectures at a polytechnic.

My initial encounters with lecturing were pretty disastrous. First, I massively over-prepared everything, so the poor students were inundated with far too much detail. Second, I was plunged into a world that relied completely on social interaction, which was not my strongest point. Third, it rapidly became apparent that the students did not like me at all. I remember being given a set of “reflective journals” written by students during a project that I co-supervised. Every one of them was full of negative accounts of me, my personality, my teaching style, even my dress sense. I very nearly quit at that stage.

I also ran into trouble with authority. There were many incidents, but two will suffice to illustrate the point. My office was a horrible colour, made worse by fluorescent lighting. So one weekend I went in and repainted the walls in a low stimulus colour and installed a standard lamp. The following week, I was hauled in and disciplined for “vandalism”. Apparently I was not allowed to customise my working environment. They sent some people to restore it to the original colours and they removed the lamp. These days, I would be able to get things changed as “reasonable adjustments” but, at the time (1980s) no such provisions could be made.

The second incident arose from managers repeatedly lying to me, both in person and in writing, about some crucial resource issues. Eventually, I wrote a memo to a senior figure pointing this out in what were undoubtedly strong terms. For this I was severely disciplined and very nearly fired. Many years later, I was given access to my personnel file and found that this incident had resulted in a memo about me which accused me of all sorts of terrible (and untrue) things. This had been left on my file for two decades. Happily, I was allowed to destroy it, but I suspect it did affect my career progression.

It’s not hard to see the autistic traits here. Autistic people are famously driven by a strong sense of justice and affected by their environment. I had tried to remedy both. What I learned was the limits of my ability to influence and change things. But I did not necessarily conclude that I was powerless. I figured out, slowly, painfully, how to operate within this kind of environment. This was a people-facing job involving many complex interactions every day. How could I manage that? By learning the rules that governed behaviour. I realised that I could easily deliver a conference paper to a room full of academics, whereas I could not have a random conversation with a stranger in a bar in town. I found the rhythm of the academic year, the structures and patterns that govern academic life, the conventions and often incomprehensible rules, strangely reassuring. I worked out how to teach and got the students to like me (I have won several major awards for my teaching). And as my understanding deepened, I began to operate within the structure to improve things, by challenging disciplinary and structural boundaries, by enabling others who shared my sense of what might be possible, and by initiating whole new hybrid disciplines that grew out of my own interests and expertise. I masked a great deal, as I had learned to do as a child, and I suppressed many things about myself, for sure, but I did manage to make progress.

This was not a smooth progression. There were very many failures and missteps, especially when it came to social interactions. For a very long time I made the mistake of assuming that the people I worked with were also friends. Now, so many of them (including the person who gave me the opportunity in the first place) will no longer speak to me. I still have no idea why. But I do know that I have never really been able to fit in with any particular group and of course I now understand that this is an autistic trait. As the years went by, I got better at being able to work professionally alongside people without revealing myself to them too much, so colleagues from the past 15-20 years are generally  better disposed towards me than those from 20-30 years ago. But I remain puzzled and upset by the trail of people who I thought were friends but who turned out to dislike me.

My professorship was awarded following a great success with my research publications. In 2005 I founded a research institute that explicitly combined work from across the university, and I have gone on to do the same at other universities. My moves to these other universities have always been by invitation. I’ve never applied for those posts (indeed, the posts were never advertised). My role has frequently changed within the institutions too, so I have never needed to be interviewed, except on one occasion.

In the late 1990s, I was persuaded that the key to academic success would be to apply for a job elsewhere. I went for the interview and made the elementary mistake of answering their questions literally and in quite an autistic way with information overload and too much enthusiasm. Needless to say, I did not get the job and I resolved never to do an interview again. Years later, I encountered the chair of the interview panel at a conference and he was kind enough to tell me that he regretted my non-appointment, saying: “we now know what we missed”. That was very reassuring. A wise manager once said to me: “the secret to academic success is: stick around”. He was right. The important thing is persistence. It takes me a long time to process ideas, situations, people. With persistence I can get to a successful position. I have never had any particular career goals. I have just followed my nose. But persistence has got me through to where I am today. Never give up!

Finally, I would say that since my identification two years ago I have become increasingly an advocate for autistic academics and students. I work a lot with the academic support people and through the disability forum to improve the lives of colleagues and students. I am trying all the time to help the students to achieve their best and to create pathways that are sufficiently flexible to allow them to succeed. This is an important part of my work. I am grateful for my diagnosis because I now understand how and where to focus my efforts. And I am just beginning to look into contributing to autism research somehow.

*I’ll discuss synaesthesia in another post, but basically it is confusion of the senses, so you can taste colours, for example.