Managing Autism & Solitude
by Paul Jordan
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
My brain was rewired after I was born, the result of a premature delivery and various postnatal procedures and interventions that caused right-side cerebral palsy, autism, and a deformed right forearm. As a result of all of the aforementioned, when I was a small boy, I could not interpret facial expressions or non-verbal language, and preferred to be around adults, who were a lot more patient and knowledgeable than children my age. They also tolerated my rambling about obsessive narrow or special interests. I paid attention to the words coming out of the adults’ mouths and I always took their words literally. That is how my brain is programmed. For about the first fifteen years of my life, I enjoyed solitude because I could not interact with other children without the presence of adults such as parents, grandparents, or teachers. When I was small, I would read, watch television, listen to cassettes and, two Saturdays per month, ride buses to the other side of town where nobody knew me and I could sit and enjoy riding in a big vehicle as a form of solitary recreation. I had some ability to interact with the other children, especially after prompting by teachers, yet I could not relate to them by role playing or imaginative play—realizing that something had more than one purpose, for example—wooden blocks. Sometimes I was frustrated as I regarded myself more as a little man who wanted to remain around adults.
Clinical psychologist Professor Tony Attwood, an internationally recognized expert on autism, once said at a presentation, that an easy way to manage autism is for an autistic child to sit in their bedroom, amuse themselves and not interact with others. I managed to do this, especially when I was in primary school. One summer, when I was about six years old and my aunt and cousin were visiting from Europe, I was with my family and friends of ours whom my parents have known since the 1970s, having a barbecue by the river. I spoke to the adults, played on the playground equipment—which did not require interaction. I must have gotten sick of trying to interact with the other children—who innately understood not the invisible word and communicative intent—but the visible facial or bodily gestures. I got so frustrated that I went and sat alone in the car. My father came and asked me to go and personally say goodbye to these people before we left. This action of saying goodbye to them before I saw them another time, felt unnecessary as I had enough of being around them for the day and simply wanted to go home. Above all, I enjoyed solitude because I did not have any idea, before I was taught this in psychotherapy, how to take other people’s perspectives or viewpoints.
Allistic children (those who are not autistic), have brains that are wired to recognize facial expressions, bodily gestures, and voice tones. They learn to take perspective or attain theory of mind (knowing that someone else’s beliefs, desires, and intentions differ from yours) by role playing—often impersonating workers. I did this too to some extent, role playing supermarket cashiers and bus drivers whom I would frequently see in public. I now know that operating a cash register, bagging groceries, and driving a vehicle needed the individual to concentrate on what they were doing and not interact with others very much. Another aspect of listening to people’s words is loving song lyrics and music. I would watch and kind of fall in love with music videos because they were visual depictions of these songs. I would love watching them on weekends before I started Saturday morning German classes for nine years.
Unfortunately, as puberty took hold and when I was 14 years old, in the ninth grade, I started crying abruptly one morning in pastoral care group—known as tutor group. One of my buddies alerted the tutor. ‘Ma’am, Paul’s crying’ he told her. I couldn’t quite explain why, however I sensed that my peers could all do manual work (retail work for wages was possible at 14 years and 9 months). They all seemed to be able to talk to girls without adult presence or supervision. Granted, because of my paralysed arm I couldn’t do manual work and interacting with strangers would have been awkward. My father even said to me something like ‘all your buddies do manual work, it’s all manual labour. Use your brain’.
At fourteen, I was a fluent speaker of French, German, and Japanese, with the aptitude to be an interpreter yet I did not realise that I had to hold a university degree and be accredited to do that work. I also concluded that I was becoming interested in girls despite my awkwardness— specifically a classmate at German language school on Saturday mornings during school terms. She was a tall Macedonian who showed interest in me, but stopped attending classes the next year. The other girl was the daughter of my parents’ friends—who was a gentle, very attractive blonde teenager who was my age and I developed a crush on her. I was becoming sexually aware due to puberty, aware of sexual attraction.
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However, I lacked the maturity required to manage this properly. I now understand that, despite awkwardness and bullying, I wanted to interact with peers and schoolmates because of a desire to fit in with others despite not being able to do this without adult supervision or facilitation. I was depressed due to not being able to relate to peers well—with a four-year developmental delay that didn’t rectify itself until 2006, as I had not socialized with other kids during early childhood. I mean that my interpersonal skills were back then four years behind those of my classmates and peers. By 2006, my development had progressed to where I was 18 years old behaviourally, so interactions with peers were easier, as I didn’t feel as though I was lagging.
When I was a university student in 2002, I still preferred to be alone because of awkwardness interacting with classmates. I had the social skills of a 14-year-old, no longer wore a uniform and a vacant day on the Monday-Friday timetable made it appear that I had nothing to do. I didn’t realise that the undergraduate was responsible for directing his or her own studies. The following year, 2003, I dropped one of my two degrees and studied English literature. Sitting in the library reading the required novels for the courses I was studying and writing essays on a desktop computer in the library, this taught me that I had to be alone to concentrate and complete the work. It is true that in my twenties before I had psychotherapy, I would become somewhat immaturely very emotionally attached to certain people, especially to females with whom I was infatuated. I missed them and wanted to be physically with them although this was impossible.
As a small boy, as I said, I loved listening to music, and learned new words from listening to lyrics. Two songs I remember are Solitude Standing by Suzanne Vega when I was three and listening to a cassette of hers my dad recorded. The other song was Eurythmics ‘We Too Are One’—title song of their 1989 album. The line that struck me at five years old was ‘people like us are too messed up to live in solitude.’ I thought because it sounded like attitude it was a temporary state. Living in an apartment my father owned when I was 25, looking after myself, being involved in a university club and studying for a Master’s degree, I knew I was always anxious about the possibility of damaging fixtures and fittings.
Autistics are prone to anxiety because their amygdalae—the structures that process emotions—are larger than normal. I underwent psychotherapy – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – delivered by a retired professor and faculty dean. This therapy was invented by Professor Steven Hayes of the University of Nevada in 2000 and focuses on accepting what is happening, identifying negative thoughts and feelings for what they are and breathing into tension until it dissipates. These are the exercises I do daily to manage my innate anxiety.
The theory behind this is Relational Frame Theory. Basically, one thing is related to another based on contextual cues not physical properties. The cues are personal—I and YOU, spatial HERE and THERE and temporal NOW and THEN. Autistics can learn to take perspective— taking other people’s using the phrase I AM YOU, AT THE SAME TIME, YOU ARE ME.
As I published a guidebook for autistics in 2017, the coronavirus pandemic gave me the opportunity as an autistic involuntarily celibate man in his 30s to sit in solitude at home and write books to sell. I am an involuntary celibate because I grew up with adults who were married couples—best friends. Sexual behaviour is a private matter with married couples, and I saw overt companionship so encountered incompatibility and misunderstanding from young women. My rewired brain cannot secrete serotonin and dopamine by itself, so anything pleasurable can be addictive. Hugging releases serotonin and dopamine. After maturing with psychotherapy, to manage my anxiety and learn to take others’ perspectives, at 32 I looked after a colleague’s children and realised I could be a capable father—so intercourse has a purpose.
Writing was the only work I could do at home other than work for my parents, who are attorneys. I work at home in solitude without any distractions. This is an obvious advantage. However, a lot of autistics, due to their brains being wired differently, have what you call a photographic memory. Memories come and go as mental images and can cause frustration when they are of people and situations you would rather forget. My advice is try to accept this as if you are looking at photographs.
I hope this essay teaches the reader to use solitude constructively, and how to better assist and understand autistics.