Is My ‘Otherness’ Autistic?

This is a question I’ve been interrogating since my self-assessment at 53 as apparently having an Aspergers-flavoured autistic neurology.  I say ‘apparently’, not because I doubt it, but because it is still only one description of my experience, among many – or to paraphrase Dr. Stephen Shore: when you’ve met one description of reality, you’ve met one description of reality.

I tend to think of ‘myself’ as a multidimensional event, an accumulation and cross-pollination of influences and experiences, many of which seem consistent with particular descriptions of autistic perception. But there are many aspects of my life that can’t be as easily explained by autism, which reach beyond autistic description, or present a ‘chicken & egg’ loop.

The question about my ‘otherness’ came into focus when I began the lengthy process of formal diagnosis a couple of years ago.  In scanning the autism ‘narrative’, I’ve read a multitude of first-hand accounts by adult autists saying they’ve always felt somehow different or ‘other’, and that their diagnosis helped explain this experience in a way that felt validating, and a relief.  Most often the ‘otherness’ in these accounts is described in the context of childhood (& adult) bullying, social exclusions and feeling misunderstood in general.  Clearly these experiences are common and real for a great many autistic people, and in many cases deeply traumatic, but I do worry a bit about the human tendency to ‘identify’ with popular ‘isms’ to the exclusion of other factors.

I’ll explain this further by way of personal biography, but I’d also like to set a conceptual framework / context as a foundation:

At its most fundamental, ‘Otherness’ can only ever be a subset of a whole; it requires a dualistic or binary frame of reference, and suggests some kind of elemental awareness: comparison.  The biological world is rich with signals of ‘Other’, determining and differentiating relationships between species, not only as a matter of survival but more broadly as an expression of Nature’s complex balance.  Physics describes these relationships in the language of forces that attract or repel, create (mutate) or destroy. Human consciousness, also of the same expression, has at its core a primal self-awareness, long before we named it ‘I’, which has evolved into a deeply pervasive concept of ‘difference’ or ‘seperateness’.  All mystic and spiritual traditions, the entire history of scientific, artistic and philosophical expression, have grown in fractal complexity from the same interrogation of this profound conscious awareness: that the biological unit you inhabit seems somehow ‘separate from’.  A transpersonal perspective might suggest that even as a cell is a form of biological (living) intelligence, its division of self contains memory of the separation in its DNA.

In reviewing my life as I completed various autism-focused assessments for my diagnosis, I realised that my experience of ‘Otherness’ in life (somewhat appropriately) did not even fit a conventional ‘autism’ box – hence my question.  It also underlined how much the accepted autistic frameworks (like so many other accepted frameworks) still assume a very Western middle-class, anglocentric worldview of what is considered ‘normal’.

‘Otherness’ by generation and culture

My parents were 19 when I was born in 1965, an era when conceiving a child so young, and especially out of ‘wedlock’, was still considered a moral & social disgrace.  My parents were of a young adult generation that experienced radical social upheavals, including the invention of teenage ‘otherness’ in the 1950s.  Many young people of that era, through the evolution of Western ‘teenage’ culture, were experimenting with a sense of self-definition, rebellion and personal freedom – a deliberate separation from convention.  For my parents, their personal expression shapeshifted from late-50s rock’n’roll culture, to creative beatnik (early Beatles era), to embracing the full-blown counterculture of the late-60s and early-70s – ‘hippies’, in the generic common parlance.

From the outset, I was born into a culture of ‘otherness’ that was a zeitgeist of the times, and further accentuated by the fact that my parents were so young, and quite independently-willed by nature. In the early 1970s, in a general climate of fear brought on by the Vietnam War, my parents joined an exodus of people leaving city life to try self-sufficient living (as per ‘the old ways’) in the country.  We moved from the Sydney suburb of Willoughby to the isolated valley community of St Albans, in the Hawkesbury River region of NSW, Australia.  Scattered throughout the valley were a fascinating mix of ‘old’ traditional farming families (still milking their own cows, churning their own butter, ploughing their fields with draught horses, keeping bees etc), more urbanised ‘city slicker’ transplants (with an eye to progress, real estate, commercial farming etc) and the colourful soup of creative searchers known as ‘the hippies’.

So as a boy, my immediate culture was one that explicitly defined itself by deliberate ‘otherness’ – ie rejection of ‘mainstream’ societal norms and separation from the consensus culture. Instead, my culture embraced ‘otherness’ through creative freedom, independent thought, individual expression – living outside all established boxes of the time.  In my culture, I learned to think for myself, to question, to speak my mind and to challenge.  I was surrounded by the exploration of new ideas – the full spectrum of artistic expression, spirituality and mysticism, philosophy, psychology, intellectual and political debate.  We lived without electricity, television, and many other material habituations of mainstream culture.  We ate all manner of healthy and exotic foods, including locally produced cow & goat milk, homegrown fruit & veg, preserves, freshly baked bread, and we experimented with food from other cultures and dietary systems.

While the above might sound idyllic, I was also exposed to all the other ‘othernesses’ of my culture: open sexuality, drug use / abuse and public nudity; relationship fluidity and family breakdown; man-hating feminism; domestic instability and emotional unpredictability – including many situations that today would be considered abusive to a child’s development.  Throughout my life I’ve been reminded that my childhood experiences are still so far removed from the consensus culture, so ‘other’, that ‘most people’ can’t form a picture or sense of what I describe. While I’ve known many people from turbulent and abusive childhoods, I’ve only ever met less than a handful of people of my generation who grew up in the same cultural context.  (I would also make the distinction here that the ‘hippy’ culture of the 70s was a very different beast to the more palatable – for better and worse – versions of ‘alternative lifestyle’ that have emerged since the 1980s). 

These formative environmental experiences created a deep and lasting sense of ‘otherness’ in me that has permeated my life ever since.  My parents were both the ‘black sheep’ of their families, and any visits to our ‘straight’ suburban relatives reinforced the stark contrast between my world and that of my cousins.  In our small valley community, there were often very severe divisions between the ‘hippies’ and the ‘rednecks’, and while there were also efforts towards tolerance and understanding among many of the adults, I was always conscious of being categorised negatively (by the ‘straights’) as a ‘hippy kid’, lumped in with the indiscriminate behaviour of the adults in my culture.  Naturally I often wished for a ‘normal’ (the ‘other’ of my own ‘other’) life according to the binary of comparison – as many children do (‘the grass is always greener’ etc).

In the context of my autistic ‘otherness’, it seems to me that many traits now described as autistically-innate (eg my ‘precocious’ intellect, early passion for reading and drawing, astute observation and blunt honesty, pronounced self-awareness, preferring the company of adults, deep thinking and strong ethical values) were equally qualities encouraged within my culture.  Environmentally, the beautiful rural bush setting of the valley was also a very conducive incubator for other autistic traits (my deeply reflective nature, my emotional & kinesthetic sensitivities) and provided some balance to the moments of emotional chaos. My move to Tasmania 20 years ago was to seek out a similar isolated, rural environment in support of my natural temperament and sensitivities, long before I learned I was autistic.

Into the mainstream

By the late 70s, my mother and stepfather wanted to distance themselves from the ‘hippy’ culture, and we moved from the valley to a quiet coastal community north of Newcastle.  The dominant cultures were much more broadly ‘Australian’ and conservative, with room for ‘eccentric characters’ within certain parameters.  Coastal living, with its relationship to the ocean, fishing, swimming and surfing, creates its own set of distinct cultures as well.

I was 14 and had completed my first 2 years of high school at St Albans via postal correspondence – self-guided homeschooling, working in solitude according to my own schedule, a situation in which I thrived because I had complete autonomy.  Now I had to attend a large public high school (servicing 1500 students over a wide semi-rural territory), an hour’s bus ride from home. The school had a rough reputation, and I had no experience of mainstream teenage peers, so the culture shock was profound.  I felt completely displaced from everything that had been familiar to me, my interest in learning declined and I had my first encounters with deep chronic depression. 

Autism aside, my cultural ‘otherness’ at this school was obvious.  I was used to the company of adults and craved intelligent interaction. I managed to form close friendships with a couple of other misfits of similar craving, and we helped each other through.  My experiences of bullying were mild; I witnessed the pecking order of teenage culture firsthand and observed other misfits who were clearly at the bottom of the chain, who were aggressively harassed on a daily basis.  I expected to be beaten up on my first day, but when this didn’t eventuate I had the strange realisation that I existed in some other category that marked me as just ‘too weird’.  Perhaps my dark aura of depression was too real or intense, and had a repellent effect.  The worst I experienced was on the bus rides, when I was systematically harassed by a couple of little Yr 7 shits who only got away with it because their dads drove the schoolbuses.  On these trips I generally tried to bury myself in a Kafka novel or stare out the window, which earned me the constant taunt of ‘zombie’, and when I was unresponsive they ramped up their attacks by loudly pronouncing me ‘gay’.  At my mother’s suggestion, the next time they tried it I reached over and rubbed my hand suggestively on their thigh, and they backed off therewith.  That was momentarily amusing, but I still dreaded those two hours that bookended my days at that school.

Another strange kind of bullying came from my high school Art teacher.  Drawing had been my (autistic) obsession since I was 4, and I was technically and conceptually advanced for my years because I’d immersed myself in self-guided practice for a decade.  From the outset, this teacher clearly disliked (or was jealous of) my precocious ability and made a point of squashing my creativity at every turn.  Under a better teacher I could have flourished in those years.  Instead I responded by weaponising my creativity against him, targeting his self-proclaimed Christian beliefs with graphically atheistic artworks.  Not surprisingly, he failed me both years, abusing his authority when it was clearly a case of personal and ideological difference.

(As I say, mild stuff.  I would encounter far more systematic and damaging bullying behaviour as an adult, in the form of narcissistic abuse from an ex-partner.  This bullying spanned two decades, led to chronic depression, breakdowns and suicidality, and undermined my relationships with my two youngest children.)

Art School Otherness

When I discovered I could attend Art School in Newcastle for two years in place of Yr 11 & 12 at the high school, I jumped at the chance.  In my 16th year I moved out of home, into a small terrace house rented by a second-year Art School student who was a friend-of-a-friend.  It was my first experience of independent living, and I finally felt I could approach life on my own terms (relatively speaking).  Of course I was completely irresponsible, socially naive and lacking all sense of organisation, but I’ve always said that in those two years my education was more about life than art – even with all of my very unconventional childhood.

In the context of ‘otherness’, what I found here was that almost all my art school peers (and most of our teachers) were ‘other’ in some sense.  We knew we were social misfits and bonded strongly as a collective – the art school provided a subculture within which we could explore and share our diverse yet mutual ‘otherness’.  Most of us were poor, so we shared whatever resources we had; in various combinations we ate together, drank and experimented with drugs together, we slept together, philosophised together, loved and unloved together.  We were a tight community of ‘otherness’ in the face of the dominant Newcastle cultures of suburban conservatism, yobbo violence, homophobia and general anti-intelligence.  In those years of the early 1980s, Newcastle also had a fertile musical ‘underground’ that brought together subcultures of punk, psychobilly, new wave, ska, 60s psychedelia and more – all of whom, despite their musical tribalisms, also shared solidarity in the face of the dominant conservative culture. 

I lived and evolved in Newcastle through most of the 80s. My closest friendships included gays, heroin addicts, convicted criminals, acid casualties, academics, hippies, bogans and people who just refused to fit any label.  I have no idea who among them might have been autistic, but in these friendships I found a commonality of ‘otherness’, and through our travails, a shared humanity.

In those years, I also gained a different and specific sense of my personal ‘otherness’: as a free agent, existing somehow in the spaces between groups & territories.  In my friendships, I was often drawn to individuals who identified with a certain subculture (eg punk, bogan, junkies etc) and embodied it in their lifestyle, but who were themselves still somehow anomalous to their subset, eg they demonstrated deeper thinking, creativity, sensitivity or humane values, or a broader perspective on life.  For my part, I was genuinely just interested in them as people; but consistently these individuals told me they could confide in me, entrust me with their deeper selves, in ways that they ordinarily wouldn’t.  From this feedback I gained a more positive sense of myself as ‘other’, ie as somehow transcending boundaries of ‘type’ and accessing deeper common human experience. 

In this way I discovered I was able to dip in and out of different groups without attaching myself to any, and without having to participate in the inevitable behavioural codes that a group identity expects.  I felt myself as somewhat fluid, mercurial, and able to find some form of relatedness with most people. Of course, there was a fair bit of trial and error involved in this process, and my trusting nature landed me in some uncomfortable and downright dangerous situations.  But those years were another important formative overlay on my childhood experiences of social ‘otherness’.

The Transpersonal Other

I developed a very different set of definitions, or frameworks for, ‘other’ when I lived in Melbourne through the 1990s, from the ages of 25 – 35.  For me, this was a decade of deep personal upheavals, new understandings and self-transformations – very much a period of chrysalis in my evolution.  Early in this process I encountered the transpersonal perspective via Jungian psychology, in which myth, symbol & archetype immediately made sense to my creative pattern-making mind. I was especially drawn to Jung’s model of ‘Other’ via conscious exploration of the Shadow elements of Self.  In tandem with this framework, I also delved deeply into other experiential transpersonal traditions, such as shamanism and Buddhism, and body-based approaches to emotional release, mindful awareness and psychological integration: deep bodywork, reiki, shiatsu, yoga, Stanislav Grof’s holotropic breathwork, rebirthing and many other dynamic and cathartic processes. 

In those years, the zeitgeist I aligned with was a very broad spectrum of ideas that were commonly lumped together (somewhat negatively) as ‘New Age’.  In reality, it was an infinitely diverse web of people with a common commitment to living as consciously as possible – emotional intelligence, truthful communication, humanitarian values and a holistic exploration of the Self as multidimensional. In this wide-ranging network of people I felt welcomed and appreciated for the simple fact of my Being, and I experienced a sense of belonging to a community of ‘otherness’ in which we shared a common language full of new experiences and exciting ideas.

Naturally this ‘movement’ attracted individuals who, in some sense or other, were non-conformist – questioners, innovators, pioneers, fringe-dwellers and misfits, mavericks and outliers. Many of them were highly-skilled professionals in their fields, including top-tier corporate settings. In retrospect, I’m sure it would be reasonable to assume that many of these people were themselves autistic.  I can certainly see how many of my own Aspergers traits (eg deep self-awareness, sensitivity, authenticity, attention to the present, communicating as honestly as possible) were among the qualities this network aspired to, and so found a perfect home.

In terms of social ‘otherness’, everyone in this network was seeking to free themselves from unhealthy or oppressive aspects of consensus ‘mainstream’ culture and history, yet still find ways to live in an integrated way within the dominant culture – unlike the counterculture of my parents’ time, which shared similar ideals but was perhaps a more reactive ‘othering’ of itself from society. 

I had so normalised this shared language (of deeper perception, emotional honesty & non-ordinary experience), that when I briefly took on a conventional 9 – 5 job (in the art department of a commercial giftware company), I quickly realised how very ‘other’ my ‘normal’ was.  In fact, the bar was pretty low: one morning, in general conversation with the other two artists in the department, I began to relate a dream I’d had, a fairly pedestrian one by my standards; admittedly my colleagues were very dissatisfied with their jobs and cynical by default, but I was shocked to find that just mentioning dreams in conversation immediately elicited a strong negative reaction, and judgments of me as ‘one of those spiritual types’ and in need of a ‘reality check’ – which I definitely got.  Upon checking my ‘reality’ against theirs, it was clear that we operated from a  vastly different set of values, and I knew which version I preferred. 

Happily, I befriended another artist there who’d been hired on a freelance basis. He had a much more expansive approach to life & consciousness, and we hit it off immediately, with a burst of creative ideas. We both quit the company to pursue a creative partnership and beyond that, an enduring friendship.

Conversely, I experienced my ‘otherness’ even from within a group I felt a profoundly shared language with.  In the latter 90s I was connected to a particular community of people who were exploring some of the deepest self-transformative work I had yet encountered.  Through this collective I attended several intensive residential trainings, drawing on processes from traditional Aboriginal wisdom, shamanic initiation, Tantra, Zen Buddhism, deep trance phenomena, and the cutting-edge work of consciousness researchers such as Dr John Lily, Terence McKenna, Stanislav Grof, and Dr Jean Houston, among others. 

These trainings, held at the Centre For Human Transformation in an isolated bush setting outside Melbourne, allowed a safe & carefully-facilitated space for us to explore emotional catharsis and non-ordinary states of consciousness that might otherwise, in wider society, be misunderstood as ‘crazy’ or ‘cultish’. As participants, we witnessed each other at our most vulnerable, primal, volatile and expansive.  Together we encountered many states of ‘reality’ that defied description, and learned techniques for navigating these mysteries of the psyche, at an individual and collective level.

Between these trainings, when we returned to our ‘usual’ lives, we were able to share a much deeper relatedness with each other through having had those group experiences.  Even so, I came to see that there was still a social hierarchy in the group, a behavioural code and set of expectations against which one was measured. It was confronting then, after several years connected to this group, to encounter exclusion for not participating in ways that met their (ultimately middle-class) social expectations. In the ‘Human Potential’ movement of the time, there was a lot of ‘spiritual peer pressure’ to ‘be your most powerful’, ‘manifest your abundance’, ‘be a real man’ etc, and you could be judged harshly for any apparent failures.

This reminded me of the many hypocrisies and contradictions I observed as a boy in the ‘hippy’ culture, where ‘peace and love’ were not all they were purported to be.  In hindsight, I can view it all as the same predictably human behaviour that tends to emerge whenever we assemble ourselves around any ‘ism’ or group identity. It’s a shame that humans behave this way, though, because often the ideas at the heart of the ‘ism’ are really useful in their original form.

The Artist as social Other

There are two more significant kinds of ‘othering’ I’ve lived with since childhood, which have interfaces with my autism but are not explained by it.  They are the largely the result of persistent societal divisions in Western thinking, and they continue to impact on my life, my work, my relationships and my sense of self in the world.

One is to do with my natural ‘gift’ for drawing, which I perceive now as an enhanced capacity for creative thinking in general, and likely a result (at least physiologically) of autistic neurology.  I began drawing obsessively at age 4 and was told throughout my childhood that I was exceptional at it ‘for my age’ (these days, if I had the privilege of access, I would be professionally assessed as ‘gifted’ or ‘twice exceptional’). Like any child with a natural proclivity, I was just following my impulse, but as a result of social conditioning I came to identify with being a ‘good drawer’ and an ‘artist’.  As people continually reinforced this identity for me, I also learned that it somehow made me different, set apart from – and that this carried many mixed messages.

In Western culture, we have turned ‘art’ and ‘artist’ into something deeply separate in our thinking, and almost irretrievably ‘Other’.  Ideas of ‘talent’ and ‘creativity’ as somehow mysteriously selective – something you ‘have’ or ‘don’t have’ – feed into a collectively unconscious perception that perpetuates all manner of judgments, comparisons, prejudices and assumptions. 

As a boy who happened to love drawing, I learned that my ‘talent’ was sometimes ‘special’ and celebrated, and other times undesirable.  Where I would have preferred more thoughtful critical feedback, I was praised so often and so automatically that I became immune to it; and if I didn’t show obvious gratitude for the praise, I was often judged as arrogant or conceited.  I was continually asked if (or told that) ‘Artist’ was something I would ‘be’ when I ‘grew up’; on one of these occasions I pointed out that I already was an ‘Artist’, and the adult responded that I was being a ‘smartarse’.  All my life I’ve heard ‘you’re so lucky, I wish I could draw like that’, ‘I wish I was creative’ etc, and as a boy I was especially sensitive to how my natural ability often caused my peers to become upset, depressed, jealous or angry. 

At a deep level, these unhappy experiences led me to downplay my ‘gift’, to shrink or hide it – an unnatural distortion of my creative confidence – and this had a lasting negative impact on my adult attempts at translating my ability into ‘work’.  This latter was further compounded by the other message, regularly reinforced in my childhood by ‘mainstream’ attitudes, that ‘being an artist’ wasn’t a ‘real’ job, and that I would never ‘make any money’ unless I worked in commercial design or advertising (which I tried, and soon realised I was too ‘other’ for that competitive environment).

I still encounter the deeply unconscious response that ‘creative’ is ‘other’, and that unless one manages to ‘legitimise’ one’s creativity by making it fit some social model of ‘commercial success’ or ‘practical use’, that ‘being creative’ is a somewhat self-indulgent luxury.

As should be evident on my website, I’ve worked extremely hard to adapt my creativity to a diverse range of ‘mainstream’ contexts, while keeping my need for autonomy and authenticity intact.  My decades of teaching as an independent arts educator are a good example (although despite receiving regular feedback from other educators that I was an excellent teacher, I was professionally ‘othered’ by the fact I have no academic background or teaching degree, and therefore couldn’t be considered a ‘real’ teacher with any serious pedagogical understanding).  My commitment to survive on my creative skills has not been the common fantasy of ‘living the artist dream’ by any stretch; it has required constant hard work & flexibility on top of whatever else Life has had in mind for me. Which brings me to…

Poverty: the big Othering

Another distinct societal ‘otherness’ that has persisted in my life since childhood is financial poverty. This is a big topic, and its impact on my life has been complex, so I’ll address it more deeply in a separate post.

Both my parents grew out of post-war working class backgrounds, and their choice in the 1970s to move to the country and ‘live simply’, while it enabled many freedoms, also included a great deal of financial insecurity, struggle and limitation.  As a boy, I often felt the social division of poverty acutely; as an adult, despite my gifts and abilities, and my many efforts to change this situation in my life, I’ve still existed almost my entire life below the national ‘poverty line’.

Consensus culture in Australia assumes a very middle-class life trajectory that includes regular income, insurance, home ownership, mortgages, payment plans, credit, bank loans, superannuation and retirement.   When you’re poor these concepts are so far removed from your reality they simply can’t exist. 

Poverty restricts access to a vast array of resources ‘society’ takes for granted. Chronic poverty over a lifetime creates a state of accumulated strain, and further contributes to cycles of depression and hopelessness.  All of which is compounded in crises that require serious support such as medical, mental health or legal services – people are forced to make do with support systems that are inevitably underfunded, overstretched and often inadequately trained.  These are the ‘otherings’ created by a much broader habituated capitalist paradigm, so deeply embedded in human history that it’s virtually impossible to disentangle any aspect of life from it. 

Otherness in Everything

In voicing all this, I’m really just trying to illustrate that my own experiences of feeling ‘other’ are multifaceted and context-dependent – some are particular to my personal journey, others are much broader societal ‘otherings’.  On the one hand, my unconventional upbringing reinforced an independent thinking in me that has led me to continue a somewhat unconventional life. Have I ‘othered’ myself?  Yes and no: in remaining authentic to my sense of self, I have often appeared non-conformist, individualistic, iconoclastic, even selfish or contrary, by other people’s measures.  As a natural expression of my creative Being I have a tendency toward innovation & lateral thinking, and my very broad range of interests (& life experiences) has naturally enabled me to make connections (patterns) that encompass a larger perspective.  I also choose to live somewhat outside of the dominant culture because it does not cater for my needs or nature.  My Aspergers profile suggests that all these tendencies are autistically-innate, but of course this doesn’t account for the environmental & broader societal factors that influenced my development.  Having been diagnosed at 53, I can mostly only apply my autistic perspective retrospectively, and I tend to think that really it’s more a confluence of factors, helpful and unhelpful, that have scaffolded my sense of ‘otherness’ in the world. 

Traditionally shamans and mystics have always inhabited ‘outsider’ status as a matter of social convention – ie their acknowledged role was to embody ‘Other’ for the psychic balance of the whole, to act as a bridge between ordinary (consensus) and non-ordinary realities, and to interface directly with all aspects of Shadow in their community.  I think, more than any autistic explanation, this kind of transpersonal perspective resonates most with how I frame ‘otherness’ for myself; it requires one to take personal responsibility for one’s experience, to acknowledge the ‘otherness’ in all things, and by extension the interconnectedness of all things – rather than reinforcing limiting definitions of ‘otherness’ as either a social deficit or divisive binary, as some parts of the ‘autistic narrative’ seem to be doing.

Any one of us can become ‘other’ at any moment, all it takes is a slight shift in context.  And we all carry an infinite array of ‘others’ within ourselves, if we take the time to look with honesty and clarity.