“I have to tell you something about myself, something important,” I said to my boyfriend. We were lying on a bed in a University dorm, a girl and boy who at nineteen were taking our first tentative steps into the world of relationships.
“You can tell me anything,” he said.
“There’s something wrong with me,” I said. “I mean, socially. I mean, I’m autistic. Well, on the autistic spectrum, and it sometimes makes me seem weird, or socially awkward, and it’s difficult for me to get things — you know, body language things.”
He paused, then broke into a smile. “You’re silly,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with you that most people don’t have. Sure, you’re a little socially awkward, but you know what, that’s adorable.”
I let it go. I could have pursued it, could have explained how difficult school had been: how I’d gone to see lots of educational psychologists before finally being sent down to London to see Francesca Happe, a specialist in autism, who — after one hour of tests, which seemed like games at the time — diagnosed me with Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, a form of autism. It meant that while I was bright, and loved reading and chatting, I struggled desperately to read social signals. The language of the body, that which makes up an estimated 60% of communication, was almost closed to me. So instead I fell back on words — the safety of which I could understand, as their clarity left nothing to puzzle over or decipher.
In the years between twelve and nineteen, I had taught myself a lot — forcing myself to go out and read faces as you would a foreign script, learning to figure out certain movements and postures. But it did not come naturally to me, as it does for most people. Still, as a nineteen-year-old, newly at University, I could for the first time in my life “pass” for normal, or neurotypical. I felt a bit like a fraud, but it was also exciting to move among my peers and feel, for the first time, fully accepted as one of them. Sometimes I feared the mask would slip, that I would be discovered, but I seldom was — although sometimes in conversation, someone would develop a puzzled look on their face.