Distant Family

I got a message from my brother last night wanting my phone number; he called me later. Our father is in hospital. It’s been more than 2 years since I had any contact with him (or my brother for that matter). Seems that it’s never good news that brings the family together.

The lack of contact had nothing to do with my gender transition: it started well before I came out. Just… separate lives I guess.

I don’t know much about what’s going on at this point–although it’s more than I knew this time yesterday. I didn’t know he’d been undergoing chemotherapy for myeloma. I didn’t know he’d been having back trouble that led to a fall before his recent hospitalization. (Until my daughter told me last month, I hadn’t heard that he’d remarried.)

I’m informed that he’s to have an MRI scan Monday and we should know more following that. My brother’s going to phone me when there’s more news.

I’m not sure how I feel yet. I never had the same closeness to him that I did to my mother. I have very few memories of doing stuff with him; mostly going to rugby matches (usually with my brother). But he got me my first computers, provided that means for me to discover my passion for programming.

I’m thinking about whether I’ll make the journey to see him: my brother tells me he’s not very lucid much of the time, and I live about 250 miles away. More than that, I don’t know what I’d say: we don’t have a lot in common and to be honest, as I said earlier, we live separate lives. I suppose it might sound callous, but if he weren’t family there’d be no connection between us these days.

Still, there’s a lot of history there, living under the same roof for nearly half my life. I’m torn between the lack of a current relationship and a sense of filial duty.

Love Thy Neighbor

The girl sat with her grandfather looking out over the expanse of forest that blazed green under the long, warm rays of the setting sun. Resting her head comfortably against the old man’s brown arm she waited patiently for him to tell her one of his many stories about his younger days in this place.

“All these trees,” he began. “You’d never believe how different this land was when I was your age. So many people. All gone now.”

“Gone where, grandfather?”

“Just gone,” he replied. “It was a long time ago.”

He paused, lost for a minute in recollection. His eyes took on a distant look and started to glisten. He blinked, slowly shook his head, and continued.

“We don’t talk about it, your grandmother and me. None of us who are still here talk about it.”

“What happened? Was it bad?” she asked, a hint of fear touching her voice.

“Bad?” He chuckled briefly. “Oh, no. Not bad. Not then at any rate. Later… but you’re too young to hear about those kinds of things.”

“Aww, please grandfather. I’m not too young. I’m nearly ten. Anyway they told us about the war at school.”

“I know,” he said softly. “Still, there are things they don’t tell you, things they don’t know. Things we saw…”

He shivered and despite the warmth of the sun she felt a chill run down her.

“Grandfather?” Her concern showed plainly as she continued, “It’s all right. You don’t… I mean, it’s all right if you don’t tell me. I don’t want you to get upset.”

“No, you’re family. You should know. And ten already? How fast the time goes! No, you’re old enough to understand. Your father won’t thank me for telling you, mind, but it’s your right to know the truth.”

So the old man told her about those long gone days. About the people who came to this land from far away, escaping a war of their own, looking for shelter and peace. About how they were welcomed, taken into people’s homes, given food and clothes.

He told her how some people had been afraid of the newcomers because they spoke strangely and had different customs. And he told her how his father had spoken to the town, explaining that these were just people like themselves. People with families they loved. People who dreamed of living free from the fear of attack, free from conflict, free from hate.

And then he told her how the enemies of these refugees had followed them across the sea, how they had continued their war here in this land.

“Petra,” he said, “she’d been a teacher but the council here wouldn’t let her teach. They said she wasn’t qualified here so it didn’t count. She worked–oh how she worked, ever hour of the day–and in the evenings she tutored your father. I paid her. It wasn’t much but we weren’t rich.

“Well, as I said, when the others came from her land we thought they were the same and welcomed them as well. We never knew, not till later. If we’d only listened to those who arrived first, but we never did, you know. Not until it was too late. Oh, we knew there was something up but, well, they kept to themselves…

“No, the problem was that we kept them to themselves. For all our talk of welcome we never invited them to belong. We carried on as we had before, not realizing that our guests were becoming our neighbors, that they had made this their home. We never stopped thinking of them as outsiders.

“So when more arrived we didn’t think much of it. Not at first. Oh, there were some mutterings from the first wave but we didn’t think much of it. After all, they were from the same place so they had to be the same, right? Oh, if only…

“The first we knew was when Petra stopped tutoring your father. We tried to phone her but there was no answer; we just assumed she had gotten tired of it. Oh, we heard wild rumors about vigilante mobs among the refugees, about people disappearing, but we didn’t pay it much heed. It wasn’t affecting us, life was normal.

“And then Petra turned up dead, tortured, mutilated. We put it down to some rogue elements among the refugees. Like I said, it didn’t affect us. So we carried on. It was only later when our own people started to disappear that we became alarmed.

“And that’s when I spoke out. I said that these refugees were a bane on our society, that we had made a mistake bringing them into our homes.”

He stopped, tears appeared, running down his cheeks. His voice cracked as he continued,

“Oh, I was so blind. Why did we not see? Why did we keep those first ones at arm’s length? By the time we knew those who followed them were different it was too late, we were at war with them. And they were among us. We were frightened.

“So we turned on all of those who were outsiders. It didn’t matter if they were good or bad: they were not of our people. Those who would have stood with us against the evil we turned away: we didn’t trust them. And by rejecting them we–I–made enemies of those with whom we had no quarrel.

“I used to think ‘If only…’ but no good comes of that. What happened happened. I was a leader. I had influence. I could have… But what’s the point of going over past mistakes. I didn’t and we are where we are today.”

“But grandfather… I thought we won the war?”

“If you call that winning. Yes, in the end there was only us left. But what we lost… Those who would have been our friends, who would have stood shoulder to shoulder with us, were caught in the middle. Attacked by those who had followed them from their homeland and failed by us, who they had thought their friends. I have such regrets, I miss them.

“And after the war who wanted to remain in that town, to be reminded of our cowardice and mistrust? So we moved away, did what we could to erase it from memory, from existence. But I can’t forget, and I hope you will not forget either. I hope you won’t make the same mistakes.

“I can’t go back and change the past, but maybe, if you remember, you can change the future.”

The old man fell silent, and the girl sat there while the sun finally sank below the horizon, seeing in her mind’s eye the old town alive with two peoples living together as one.


I’ll not wear a poppy.
I used to; in years gone by
I would blindly conform
To the conventions
Of society.

But now I notice
So many people policing,
Shaming the objectors.
I will not be coerced
And so I will remain
Poppy free.

Those who insist
That all must display
This symbol of past wars
Are denying others
The very freedom
That they say so many
Died to protect.

I need no paper flower
To call to mind
Such sacrifice. But
Foremost in my thoughts
Are those swept up
In conflict’s tumult.

I cannot help but think
Of other times and places
Where people were forced
To wear some symbol.

Or where refusal
To overtly demonstrate
Allegiance: wear the badge,
Join the Party,
Was cause for suspicion,

So I condemn those
Who would deny
Freedom of choice,
Freedom of conscience,
And I will go poppy-free:
A conscientious objector.

Bullying: Resurrecting Buried Trauma

When I was about 13-14 I was bullied at school. Not physical attacks; it was nothing so obvious. Name calling, “teasing”. I was the quiet one, the one who didn’t get involved in playground games but would rather spend time around books. I didn’t have anyone I’d call a friend, not because I didn’t want friends but because I had no idea how to form friendships.

I became more and more fearful of being at school. I used to fantasize on the journey there in the mornings about opening the car door and jumping out, although I was too afraid of injuring myself to attempt it. At the time I couldn’t articulate how I felt: I wasn’t able to put a name to my emotional state. My grades declined and I often didn’t complete homework, leading to punishments. I felt completely alone, insecure and vulnerable.

Things reached a climax one morning. I’d dressed in my uniform as usual but I guess my fear and anxiety had risen to some critical threshold and when my father called for me to get in the car I stayed in my room. He got impatient, started shouting and came into my room to fetch me. I was afraid of the shouting and when I saw a clear path past him, out of the room, I bolted.

I ran across the hallway and into the room opposite, slamming the door shut and leaning up against it. He banged on the door, demanding that I open it and come out: I didn’t move or respond. He broke through the door, breaking it from its hinges. I think at that point I had broken down in tears: my memory is not clear. I think my mother must have intervened because he left and I was able to return to my bedroom, wedging the door closed with a screwdriver driven into the door frame.

I stayed in my room for weeks, even months, only venturing out occasionally during the day when I knew it was only me and my mother at home. I don’t know what went on outside my own little world during that time but eventually, because I’d not been attending school, social services became involved. I was taken, rather unwillingly, to see a couple of child psychologists.

They spoke to me as to a young child, completely failing to make any kind of connection with me. I think when I did respond to them I was monosyllabic. There was never any indication that they had any insight into how I was feeling and I wouldn’t have been able to enlighten them given my alexithymia. I knew I couldn’t go back to that school, but I couldn’t even explain the reasons inside my own head. Not for years, until I eventually learned to identify and put names to my emotional experiences.

You’ll notice I haven’t described, except in the broadest terms, what bullying I suffered. If I do retain any detail about it in my memory I am unable to access those portions of my life. Approaching where they are locked away triggers warning pangs of fear even now, nearly 30 years later, and I back away.

I know I still have issues that stem from being bullied. Any teasing is immensely hurtful to me. I’m often afraid to be as expressive as I’d like to because I expect to be ridiculed. Even though I often don’t show much feeling, particularly negative emotions, I make an effort to give nothing at all away about how I feel unless I’m somewhere I feel comfortable. I’ve suppressed some aspects of myself for so long I wonder if they’ve withered away.

Most days I don’t think about that period of my life, and I’m happy about that. However the recent activity centering around an awful article on ADN that casts bullying in a beneficial light has brought old feelings back up towards the surface, unsettling me. I hope I’ve explained here why I fail to see anything positive about bullying.

UPDATE: Starting to wish I’d not written about this: it’s triggered stuff I’d rather not have to deal with. It’s too late now: the damage is done and I’ve got to let the tears and residual anxiety pass. Get on with my life. But we can never completely leave our past behind us.


Reading a play in Spanish earlier–a language in which I am far from fluent–it struck me that as I read I don’t think about the English equivalent of the words and sentences. They have meaning without any conscious translation to my native written (and spoken) language.

I’ve found I have a certain facility for learning to read some languages: basically those that share some common roots with English. This includes Latin, Middle English, French, Dutch, German and Spanish. (I’m keen to add Celtic languages such as Welsh and Irish to my list as well, but my available time is finite.) There’s no trick to it: it appears to be a consequence of how my mind works.

My lifelong immersion in English had hidden from me the non-verbal nature of my thoughts, because whenever I come to communicate them I use that language. But, as I have described before, inside my mind there are no words, only impressions: feelings and visions. Meanings in elemental form.

When I read a text the parts I recognize cause these impressions of meaning directly. The parts I don’t recognize I must consciously, mechanically translate to English first. I quickly become familiar with new words, at which point this intermediate English stage no longer happens. At that point I’m reading fairly fluently. I generally find it takes several hours, maybe a few days, to reach that stage.

There’s a curious effect of understanding the meaning directly (i.e. without translating via English): if I express that meaning in English I use my own phrasing and structure. I often find it more difficult to render a literal translation than simply to convey the essence of the original. This is something I have also noticed when I’m reporting information (text or conversation–it doesn’t make a difference) that I encountered in English.

If somebody asks me what another person said to me in conversation I am usually unable to recall their words, instead simply retaining the underlying meaning. The implication is that I do not require English (or any equivalent language) for thought. I describe my thinking as visual but the reality is much richer and involves more senses than just sight: touch, smell, taste, hearing and emotions are also involved. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as sensory rather than visual?

Most of the time it is effortless to translate my thoughts into English, expressing myself through writing or speech. But sometimes I will hit a block: I know what I want to express but can’t immediately find the words to convey that meaning. My choice of words is also very important to me. I like to find le mot juste, the exact word or phrase that matches what I mean. Failing to do so causes much frustration.

Exactly the same mechanism applies to programming. I “see” the structure of the code, how it operates, how the parts interact. The actual computer language used to express this is mostly irrelevant: I’m fluent in several and have no difficulty expressing equivalent meaning in any of them. To me there is no essential difference between writing in English and writing in C++ or Perl. It is only that computer languages operate in a restricted domain, defining sequences of operations. Natural languages are much more extensive in scope.

The common link is that they are all forms of communication, ways to express or record what is inside one’s mind so that it may be transferred to another mind. This also applies to computer languages: sure, programs are converted into machine instructions, but the reason that programming languages exist–as opposed to using those low-level instructions directly–is that they provide a means for programmers to express what is in their minds in a more natural way, one that is closer to the mental model than the binary codes that are the end result.

Unravelling Time

Since first hearing about the exhibition Unravelling Time at The Abbey in Sutton Courtenay near Oxford I made up my mind that I would visit to experience it for myself. And when this turned into an opportunity to meet in person my online friend Sonia Boué, one of the artists participating; well, there was no way I would have missed it.

The big day dawned and my excitement was bubbling over, manifesting in rubbing and flapping my hands, bouncing up and down, and standing or walking on tip-toes. There’s just something about the way this feeling wells up inside that physically lifts me so I become unable to keep my heels on the ground!

It was a beautiful sunny day for the hour’s drive from where I live to Sutton Courtenay; I parked outside the walls surrounding the grounds and walked up the driveway through the trees. At first sight the Abbey is a modest building, the east elevation providing few clues to what will be found inside. I followed the path around to the south to get a more complete feel for the place in its surroundings.

There was a strong feeling of peace about the place, a pervasive calm silence that lent itself perfectly to opening the senses and reflecting on the experience. I had wondered about being dominated by the history of the building but instead of intruding it provided an understated background warmth: it fit into the environment as if it had grown there, and was pleasantly human in its scale and proportion.

I walked back to the entrance, pausing in the archway to snap a photo of the welcome notice before entering the central courtyard, a beautiful space enhanced by symmetrical planting. On this balmy autumn day it had a Mediterranean feel emphasised by the vine and fig tree in the north-west corner.

It was through this tree that I first caught sight of Sonia, seated on a bench by her installation and deep in contemplation (deleting photos on her phone to free up space, as it turned out). I don’t know if I made some sound or if it was the movement that caught her attention as I approached; she rose to greet me with an expression of pure delight and (after checking that I accept–one of the great things about meeting other neurodiverse people is that they are often conscious of such things that may prove unwelcome) we shared a warm hug.

How apt the exhibition title, Unravelling Time, as time from that point ceased to function in the normal fashion. Instead we chatted and Sonia guided me through the exhibits in a single perfect moment. I glanced at my watch a couple of times to check that time’s flow continued because I had no conscious awareness of it.

Since our journey through the exhibition began with Sonia’s own assemblage, Refuge, that is where I will start my exploration of the works and my responses to them.

The suitcase sits on the ground under the sheltering canopy of the vine, yet the effects of the outdoor environment are visible in the peeling paper lining and the patina on the mirror. This place is only a temporary rest, a chance to recover before moving on. The gathered twigs evoke an empty nest, the home left behind. Gazing into the mirror puts the observer right inside the piece, surrounded by the trappings of an itinerant existence. A clothes hanger sits in the suitcase lid, but I must presume that what it held is being worn: possessions reduced to the clothes on your back and what you can carry.

Finally, two paintings. The smaller one next to the hanger and a larger one suspended from the vine above. The hanging of the painting echoes a domestic scene but that illusion is broken by the realisation that we are not in an enclosed space but directly beneath the skies. The larger painting shows a background of a texture and colour that puts me in mind of dense vegetation, a rich yet ominous natural world imprisoned behind the linear order of man-made structure. But that structure shows imperfections: it is scarred and blasted. What might at first appear to be a refuge is revealed on closer inspection to be a place of fear, darkness, even death. The smaller painting is a reduction of the larger one; reduced in the sense that it portrays only the clean regularity of constructed objects. This is how home is remembered; the larger painting shows what became of it and caused us to flee. It’s not in the suitcase: we don’t intentionally carry it and yet there it is. A haunting memory of trauma.

From here we moved indoors to the Great Hall with its high timbered vault of a ceiling and dark, almost black, oak panelling. In the middle of the opposite wall was a fireplace and stretching out from it, most of the way across the room towards us, was Kate Hammersley’s Time Transfigured. My first impression was of a giant ball of yarn unravelling as it was swatted across the floor by some curious cat. As we walked alongside the intricacy of the dry bracken, its zig-zag arrangement recalled lightning bolts and the crystalline tracing of ice on a window pane; ice out of fire. Approaching the fireplace the woodsmoke scent of the ashes became apparent, something that reminds me of the warmth and comfort of home and hearth.

This is a piece that contains both connections and contrasts. Fire, that living element, evoked by the red-brown fronds; flames represented by fuel, travelling out from its seat of ashes. The complex recursive detail of the bracken represented something living despite being dead and dry; the fireplace is where it belonged, destined to become a mere pile of ashes, and yet it had come out into the room, its questing tendril exploring the space.

Moving on to one of the windows, affixed to the wall at one side was Traces by Anna Morris. A set of three small curved rectangles of board, each about the size of a sheet of paper folded lengthwise, the geometry similar to a set of modern wall lamps. Contrasting their contemporary form, the surface detail presented the essence of the Abbey. Rubbings captured the textures of the ancient timber, the painted rendering of the walls, the countless impressions of its history upon the fabric of the building.

Three photographic prints by Jonathan Moss were next to receive our attention. Symmetry was a very strong element, from the perfect squares of the prints to the images themselves. Visual reflection stirring mental reflection. The first, by the side of Traces, featured the walled garden with its old brickwork and white-painted timber-framed glass house hosting rows of vibrant green crops; the upper half reflected perfectly below as if by a supernaturally still pool. Another showed the creosote-dark planks of the end wall of an outbuilding reaching up and drawing the eye skywards: a sense of grandeur transcending the humble nature of the construction.

Through the French door to the garden and Madi Acharya-Baskerville with her work, Drift-in-land. The sinuous bend of a tree trunk provided the frame over which was tented a fishing net bearing numerous items of flotsam and artefacts discarded or washed up on the shoreline: magpie decoration. The net itself caught by the tree, bearing its haul of shiny, colourful objects: trash and treasure. The tent suggesting shelter conflicted with the net as a trap, its adornments lures to draw in the unwary. But also the tent with its decoration as a shanty-town dwelling, scavenged material assembled to provide some small refuge from the elements, some personal touches of home. And that too causes reflection on the trap of poverty.

We walked on through the trees, past an extensive woodpile under a canopy: fuel for the winter fires. Opening a weathered door, we entered the walled garden. What an exquisite space! Protected by the enclosing walls, tidy rows of herbs and vegetables for the kitchen occupied beds between the narrow, neat grassy paths. The smell of rosemary: I rubbed the leaves between my fingers and inhaled the comforting scent. In the west wall was a bricked-up archway; affixed to those bricks were the two painted panels of Ellen Hausner’s Through the Wall. Blending with the brickwork at the edges, these panels opened holes through the wall, hinting at a space beyond and drawing the mind of the viewer into that space. Directing me to pierce the physical barrier of the wall with my imagination, to think beyond the apparent limits. I was reminded of the wardrobe in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories: travelling through an everyday, commonplace object to the realm of fantasy. And also Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere in which the character Door possesses the ability to open portals between the mundane surface world and the rich, hidden realm of London Below.

Following Sonia through the garden I observed how she would trail a hand, touching plants, stones, a wheelbarrow. Making with her fingertips the same sensory connection to the environment that I make visually. Where I observe the textures and imagine the sensation of feeling them, Sonia takes a direct approach: this is evident in her artistic performances as sand or other material flows through her fingers.

Completing the circuit, we re-entered the Great Hall by the same door we had left it, this time following a passageway past a laundry area to a welcoming sitting room named the Hearth. Tucked into a corner by a gothic double-arched window were Helen Ganly’s three reliquaries on the theme of the medieval Empress Matilda, granddaughter of Norman king William the Bastard and child bride of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V of Germany. The first was a square black box, its lid apparently bejeweled. Opening it (carefully) revealed a hole through which could be seen a portrait of Matilda in historical style, illuminated by some unseen artifice. Two further boxes opened to reveal scenes reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts, this impression reinforced by beautifully ornate capitals and alliterative Latin words that we were only partly successful in translating. These boxes were situated on a drop-leaf table in the fashion of an altar; despite my lack of religion I felt that I was meant to kneel before them.

Hung on the wall opposite the windows was a framed work by Les McMinn, A Study for Stained Glass, which offered such a wealth of detail upon detail–colour, shape, texture–that my eye was drawn all over, peering deeper and deeper into the individual elements and being rewarded with still more. I felt the need to step back from the piece to gain an appreciation of the form of the whole: seeing a lowercase ‘a’ emerge from the collection of amorphous shapes provided my link with the Library that inspired the work. A host of fragments, each unidentifiable yet carrying a wealth of information, were brought together into a simple letter, the basis of all our written communication.

Also in this room, on the mantlepiece, were two in a series of 11 photographs by Paul Medley entitled Hidden Histories. These photographs, distributed through the Abbey, showed a set of moments featuring a couple in the very settings where they were displayed. These frozen instants of time together suggest a narrative: we read feelings and intentions into the poses and expressions, and taking the series as a whole we feel the satisfaction of piecing together the story of these two people. But a question hangs over our interpretation: we have assumed that the sequence in which we encountered these photographs is the same as the sequence in which the events occurred. How different might the story be if we assemble them in a different order?

We made our way back across the courtyard, passing Claudia Figueiredo’s Celebration 2, an enigmatic ring of wood embellished with blue and gold under the fig tree where I had first encountered Sonia. That ring, formed by branches growing into each other, was a remnant of a tree that had stood in the Abbey grounds for over 200 years. Its complete circle mirrored the path we had taken, the passage of time and distance returning us to our origin: an endless cycle.

Again entering the building, this time via the kitchen door, we crossed the passageway into the Root Room, the site of the final installation on our tour. Water Maps – Gower Peninsula was an audio-visual collaboration between Ann Rapstoff and Vicky Vergou. A video showed the patterns of flowing water as they change along its course from spring to sea; the magical way in which the incident sunlight forms patterns as it is reflected and refracted. Meanwhile the sounds of running water and breaking waves provided a background, with occasional spoken fragments that were presumably intended to evoke associations. For me this was the least successful of the works. I found the audio to be at odds with the characteristics of the flowing water that was seen on the screen: it did not match what I expected to hear based on what I was seeing, and I found the spoken words distracting. Some of this is no doubt a consequence of the dominance of my visual thought processes.

In an afternoon filled with countless impressions that had my mind serving up image after image as it raced through associations of ideas, sifting and finding patterns, there is a stunning contrast with the calm I felt in the company of Sonia. It is unusual for me to feel so completely at ease, so entirely unselfconscious. As a result it was an afternoon of relaxation and pleasure, of exchanging thoughts and observations, of mental stimulation amidst serenity.

I don’t recall asking a single question–that’s not something which comes easily to me–but conversation didn’t stall at any point. I can’t emphasise enough how natural our interactions felt: a mutual understanding that meant we had no need to divert into distracting explanation.

I’ll finish with my impression of Sonia herself. Contact and connection are the key aspects: she is constantly in touch with the people and objects around her, observing and sampling at a very conscious, direct level (whereas I retain images in memory but rely on my subconscious to conjure forth impressions and associations). This directness was exhibited in her gaze: I found myself to be the frequent focus of her eyes from behind the lenses of her glasses. This can be something I find threatening but instead I felt trust and security. Everything she does is an extension of her self, from her artistic expression to the way she interacts with the people around her. Such honesty of purpose is beautiful to observe and receive; it inspires an openness in response that creates a strong, intimate bond of friendship.

Thank you, Sonia, for being my companion through this amazing experience.


Religion and Belief

I’m not a believer, nor a member of any religion. I never have been. My wife, on the other hand, is Catholic and has a strong belief in god. For her, belief is a source of strength: a firm anchor that she can rely on to remain fast in the face of an ever-changing world.

My mother felt similarly; she wasn’t religious in the sense of attending church or praying regularly but she maintained her strong faith. I was always puzzled by people’s belief in the divine. I have never felt any sense that there was some ubiquitous presence. There’s just me and the universe around me.

My natural curiosity has led me to speculate about religion and belief since I was a child. A particularly cynical child who could not imagine any benefit from subscribing to the archaic, male-dominated, hierarchical view of the world promoted by the Christian churches. I had–and still have–a consistent world-view that works for me with no obvious gaps into which I feel compelled to fit a divine entity.

However, as I have matured I have come to recognize that their beliefs do provide comfort to some people. Something to hold on to: as long as they maintain their grip they cannot become lost. It provides a sense of security, a safe haven. A sense of familiarity and unchanging stability that feels like home.

That is a feeling I can identify with, although my personal comfort derives from being in a predictable environment with well-established routines. In some ways this mirrors the trappings of religion with days being measured by regular masses and prayers, the familiar Sunday attendance at a church service. Echolalia substitutes for the recitation of the Rosary; stims rather than the sign of the cross. Subconscious ritual.

Understanding leads to acceptance. I can understand why their faith is so important to some people, I can see how it gives them strength and support. I accept them as they are.

What I cannot accept is intolerance. Whether it stems from religious teachings or the influence of others in society does not make a difference: intolerance is the opposite of acceptance. It’s hate instead of love. It destroys instead of supporting and nurturing. If your faith truly gives you strength, then be strong enough to love and accept those who are different from you.


Imagine you couldn’t speak, couldn’t sign to communicate with other people. How could you let them know when you were feeling discomfort or pain? Whether you wanted to go some place, or simply be left alone where you are?

How would you feel when doctors decided you were not competent to make your own decisions about your life? When they took you away from the places and people you were used to? When they denied you access to the tools you use to communicate?

How would you like to be medicated against your will when your distress is interpreted as non-compliance and “bad behavior”? To be punished–hurt and abused–when you are simply acting in a way that is natural for you? To be incarcerated, institutionalized and denied your freedom because somebody believes that not speaking means not thinking?

This has happened to many, many people who are autistic or have other neurological conditions affecting their ability to communicate in conventional ways. It is still happening today. Places like the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts inflict pain and fear in an attempt to force compliant behavior; instead they cause long-term harm including PTSD.

Sharisa Kochmeister was denied the right of access to her communication devices, deemed not competent and made a ward of Jefferson County, Colorado. She has been removed from her home and family, and they have been prevented from contacting each other except for a very few highly-constrained supervised visits.

What will it take for all of us to live secure in the knowledge that we will not face such arbitrary denial of our rights? That we will not be detained against our will? That we will be presumed competent regardless of our means of communication?

I Am Autism

You don’t know me.

You see me sit, rocking.
You hear me talk to myself,
Repeating phrases from the TV.
You watch my hands as they flap
And touch. Seemingly random,
My patterns escape your notice.

You don’t know me.

You see me on the edges,
Quiet, listening but not speaking.
You hear my outbursts:
Violent eruptions of sound and motion.
You note my non-compliance
With black marks in your ledgers.

You don’t know me.

You try to change me,
Remake me in your own image.
You teach me that I am broken.
You punish me for being myself.
You make me fearful and anxious,
Afraid to break your rules.
You drive me deep inside myself.

You don’t know me.

You don’t empathize with me.
You don’t learn about me.
You don’t try to understand me.
You fear me, hurt me, hate me.
You don’t love me: if you did,
You would accept me as I am.

You don’t know me.
You don’t know Autism.

Finding Work

Some of my readers will be aware I finished working at Quantel at the start of this month. After more than eight and a half years–by far the longest I’d spent at any one place–I felt it was time to move on. A merger with another company had brought a lot of new faces into the office, and a recent department restructure on top meant too much change: it no longer felt like the same place I’d become used to.

There was a lack of clarity in my mind about where I fit into the new, different organization and my comfort was disturbed. I was suffering high stress levels and recurrent anxiety attacks and decided it would be best for my health if I left. I was confident I had the means to keep Anne and me going until I could find a new job.

The day I left I met with the department head and HR; they shook my hand and wished me well. I slipped out quietly. The emotionally charged process of saying goodbye would have been too much for me. It all seemed a little unreal as I drove home, closing the door on that chapter of my life, but I did feel an increasing sense of relief as the stress dissipated. I simply relaxed for the rest of the day, refreshing myself and recovering from the weeks of exhausting, overwhelming mental turmoil.

The next day was a Friday. I woke feeling energized and strongly motivated, and quickly set to work putting together an up-to-date resume which I posted to a website I’d used the last time I was seeking a new job. Within hours I started receiving emails and phone calls from recruiters.

Now phone calls are a thing that often cause me problems. Conversation and interaction with strangers are things that can trigger anxiety. But it’s a question of context: in this case the interactions were predictable and hence manageable. I had a clear picture of what I was looking for and was able to easily communicate that. Plus I’d been through this kind of process before and understood how it works.

In a nutshell the process goes like this: I put my resume together with an emphasis on my skill set and experience. I post my resume and details in a place where I know recruiters will see them. Then I sit back and wait. The recruiters do the leg-work of searching among their lists of open positions for ones that match what I’ve got and when something comes up they contact me and market that “opportunity” to me. They earn their money through commission, just like sales-people, so they try to make sure they offer suitable matches based on the information I’ve provided. The better the definition I give them of what I want, the more appropriate the jobs they approach me with.

It worked very well. Within a week of starting my search applications had been submitted to several companies and I had my first interviews arranged. In the past, over 8 years ago, I’d almost always been asked to attend these first interviews at the company offices where I would meet people face to face. Not this time. This time around the first contact was conducted by phone (plus an initial web-based test in a couple of cases).

My biggest area of concern was that I usually get mistaken for a man on the phone. It’s just the way my voice sounds, the effect of hormones on my development as I grew up with a body that increasingly diverged from the way I felt it ought to be. But I needn’t have worried: the people phoning me had my details in front of them and I’d deliberately used my full name, Alexandra, as a gender hint rather than my usual ambiguous Alex.

I know that many people find job interviews to be highly stressful experiences. I’m unusual in that I don’t. Not any more, at least. When I was looking for my first job all those years ago I did suffer with nerves. I was going into a place I’d never been before, meeting people I’d never seen before, and had little idea what to expect. These days I have a degree of familiarity with the process which makes it largely predictable.

I also have a lot of confidence in my technical skills. I’ve got a lot of experience behind me and I know that I can provide an answer to pretty much any relevant technical question. I work in a technical field, software development, and it’s those concrete technical skills that mean a lot in the interview. They’re not the whole story though: the bottom line is that the interviewers are looking for somebody who will fit into their existing organization. It goes both ways too: I need to feel that it’s right for me and I’ll be comfortable there.

This is the point at which I throw most of the standard interview technique advice out of the window. Typical advice mentions such things as researching the company in depth, practicing answers to common questions, and having prepared questions to indicate your interest. My research consists of finding out what technologies underpin the company’s products. I’ve never practiced my answers or even spent time thinking about what they might ask me in advance. And I don’t compile a list of questions to ask them.

Things I do spend time on beforehand: I take reasonable care with my appearance. I dress in a suit, make sure my nails are tidy and the polish isn’t chipped, and wear light, neutral makeup. After all, an interview is a formal setting so it’s important to conform to business conventions regarding appearance. Beyond that, though, I favor the honest approach: I speak and act as I would normally in a work environment. I want the people interviewing me to see me as I am rather than me putting on an act, trying to appear as somebody I’m not and impress them with my people skills (such as they are!). After all, if successful I’ll be working alongside them and there’s no way I could keep such a pretense going.

That avoidance of pretense was also the reason I never considered trying to present as anything other than my everyday female self. I’m a trans woman in the (lengthy) process of transitioning who has not yet started any medical treatment. My view going in was that if somebody I met was not comfortable with this, with me, that wouldn’t be a good place to work. I’m the person you see in front of you and if you can’t accept me as I am then we’ll not be working together. As things turned out I saw no indication at any point that being trans affected how I was treated.

Things I commonly get asked: there are always questions about particular projects I’ve worked on in the past and about relevant experience I’ve highlighted in my resume. Not things I need to rehearse because, obviously, I was there and did those things. I can speak about them at length, and indeed tend to do just that. Interview advice is usually to keep your responses short and to the point but that’s not me. If I’m offered a chance to infodump about something I’m interested in I’ll grab it. My interviews usually overrun the scheduled time as the interviewer and I end up conversing about common technical interests. It’s not intentional, but it seems to work out well.

In fact, a couple of my technical interviews started with the expectation that some of the time would be spent taking a written technical test. The interviewers in both cases arrived with a sheet of questions, but they presumably decided it was unnecessary after a few verbal exchanges. I must confess that I enjoy the chance to talk about the technical aspects of my work to people who have the knowledge to understand the details, and tend to make the most of the opportunities that an interview presents.

I mentioned above that the interview process goes both ways. Yes, I need to find a job, but it has to be one where I’m confident the role and company will suit me. I can reasonably expect that I’ll be in a job for a number of years, so it’s important to me that I choose carefully. I rely on my gut feeling for this: I form a subconscious impression of a workplace as I talk to the interviewers. I need to feel comfortable with these people because I’ll potentially be working with them, so if there’s something that makes me uneasy–even if I can’t consciously identify what’s causing it–I’ll decide against accepting an offer should one be forthcoming.

The end of this tale is that I received a verbal offer at the end of last week, only two weeks after I began searching. It’s the quickest job hunting experience I’ve ever had: it seems there’s plenty of demand for software developers. I’m feeling very happy, excited and positive about this next step in my career, and I’m really enjoying the absence of stress and anxiety right now.