Stranger in a Strange Mind

(an informal refelection on my interior world)

I was encouraged to write this by an earlier piece by Margaret Pelling in the Your Autism magazine. I had seen her piece and spotted the parallels. I had explained to her that as a consequence of my formal diagnosis, I’d been stirred to collect my thoughts around my condition, monotropism, a variant of Aspergers, and I was particularly interested in exploring how I thought, how I perceived and how I communicated, partly because my job depended on doing these as well as possible. I had also thought that a view of autism from the inside, albeit only one specific inside, might counteract all the views of autism from the outside.

I work as a professor in an English university, one that is dedicated to inclusion and opportunity, in an Institute of Education but I come from a computing background. Several years ago, I was diagnosed as ‘suffering’ from a ‘disability’, Asperger Syndrome . Whilst the diagnosis, by a clinician from the National Autistic Society, only formalised what knowledgeable friends and colleagues had been telling me for the previous four decades, having the condition formalised was still a shock and it continues to provoke all sorts of introspection and reflection. 

From reasons that become clear later, I baulk at ‘disability’ and ‘suffering’ but I recognise their legal significance and social force. Talk of ‘superpowers’ could back-fire.

These last couple of years have represented a personal ‘paradigm shift’ that is, the reassembling of all my quirks, failures, anxieties and discomforts viewed from the ‘normal’ or neuro-typical paradigm now re-viewed around a new one, ‘Aspergers’, that provides a more coherent and satisfying framework and helps me understand my experiences, relationships and identity. I am now starting to feel comfortable in my own mind.

I am however conscious of constantly also falling into a different identity, or at least a stereotype, namely ‘absent-minded professor’. In the context of the university sector in its current neo-liberal managerialist incarnation, being ‘absent-minded’ is not an entirely benign attribute, nor one for which there is an obvious ‘reasonable adjustment’, and one that has cost me dear. 

In relation to the world of work, in my case the university sector, there is provision for employers’ making this ‘reasonable adjustment’, whatever that might mean, for each individual. This is, I guess, a legal attempt to place each individual back on a par with their colleagues, though in practice even this can be tricky as realisations only trickle in slowly as one’s inner world and one’s understanding of the outer world adjust to the impact of the diagnosis. It does however also categorise the condition as a deficit, something to be made up for, without the recognition that it might also be a strength or a gift to be exploited for everyone’s benefit. Chris Packham and Greta Thunberg would certainly endorse this position, and in fact, Aspergers seems almost fashionable. Putting Aspergers on a ‘spectrum’ was with hindsight perhaps unhelpful since everyone is presumably somewhere on that spectrum and many are keen to claim so.

One of our students, giving a doctoral presentation on his research on SEN provision suddenly remarked with some heat about the autism community had grabbed the limelight and hijacked the SEN agenda, whilst a recent Guardian article argued that autism as a term or diagnosis was virtually valueless because of its nearly indiscriminate breadth and inclusivity. So, it is not straightforward.

I do however wonder if we are ‘institutionally neuro-typical’. Almost certainly, but whilst it may be possible to revise explicit processes and procedures, for example, staff recruitment, appraisal and promotion, pinning down the more subtle interactions, responses and biases will prove much more difficult. My default is to assume that ‘neuro-typicality’ is in the institutional air we breathe, ubiquitous and pervasive. It feels that way.

These reflections about neurodiversity have however contrasted with a half-remembered remark that, in academia, ‘coming out as working class is twice as hard as coming out as autistic’. This may perhaps refer to working class academics in Russell Group universities, since, another half-remembered remark, ‘Russell Group universities are sheltered workshops for people with Aspergers’ reveals that the university sector is not homogenous and undifferentiated. Perhaps the non-Russell Group universities are harder on Aspergers but easier on those of us with working class origins. I work in a non-Russell Group university, one dedicated to non-traditional students, those with no history or experience of university in their family, street or community. I have often been struck by the volume of rhetoric for these non-traditional students compared to the complete absence of any rhetoric about non-traditional professors or even non-traditional lecturers.  So in that sense I feel potentially doubly unsupported or un-understood.

Autism does have a variety of professional consequences. Intellectually, logical positivism or critical realism were my obvious instinctive epistemologies, albeit poorly understood ones, and my initial disciplines were ‘hard’ stuff like engineering, applied maths and astrophysics. Conversely, the language of some disciplines, and perhaps some ways of talking about sociology, can seem heavy with metaphors and neologisms that pass me by. 

I subsequently realised I had made the mistake of confusing the language of a subject with its substance, and actually once the language was understood the substance could be really quite easy, though I struggle with aspects of learning languages. And I recently realised, when asked about my experience and expertise with a particular methodology, that yes, I had had that experience and expertise but the ‘tunnel vision’ of monotropism means that each new experience and expertise wipes the slate clean of any previous ones.

In the light of the Russell Group remark, perhaps the stereotype of the ‘absent minded professor’ is quite easy to understand. In the years following the diagnosis, my focus has shifted from the social aspects to the cognitive aspects, to actually trying to figure out what my thinking consists of and how to make it more effective. In correspondence with an Aspergers specialist, I said,

Stuff flies around inside my head and it feels like juggling plates. How to catch one bit without dropping the others, how to exploit any creative highs, how to stay on the cusp of stimulation/arousal without toppling into confusion or burnout, how to pursue an idea wherever it goes without losing track of the point of it or of where it started …. And so on


In terms of a computer metaphor, I think I work best with a mind like a browser with several tabs open at once or several documents being created at once, but one extra jeopardises the whole process.

I subsequently recoiled from recycling such a lazy metaphor.

In a recent development, my employer was looking, as a form of ‘reasonable adjustment’, to appointing a part-time support worker, what I have described as a ‘cognitive guide dog’, to help with all the institutional procedures, documents, departments and roles that continue to baffle me. 

More recently, and ironically, in preparing for some out-of-the-ordinary, complex, stressful interpersonal interactions, namely my university ‘deleting’ my post and making me redundant, I made the following notes, 


It takes me a while to assimilate and process information, to catch up

I can digress, following some interior chain of thought or association 

I can also get stuck on a line of argument, doggedly, rigidly

I have a tendency to see and evaluate in starkly black-and-white terms

I struggle with multiple simultaneous modes (eg chairing a meeting whilst taking notes; listening whilst reading)

Metaphor, abstraction and illusion can pass me by and what I hear, I take literally, once I’ve disambiguated it.

My language can be slightly baroque as I struggle for precision 

I can have a kind of panic attack (that I described as having double-glazing coming down between me and the outside world, a kind of brain-freeze).

But back in the interior, I wonder if everyone is so aware of their own consciousness and its stream, of what thoughts and ideas seem to be emerging from the murk at the back of their consciousness to the clarity at the front. It sometimes feels like my mind has a mind of its own. Certainly, keeping up with multiple chains of thought means, for me, the impossibility of typing merely one sentence without several typos. I will always type the wrong repeated letter before going back and correcting it, so for example I’ll type ‘coorect’ not ‘correct’. I am these thoughts, not ‘me’ trying to manage them, they are me. And my sentences can ramble on and on, brilliant in themselves but lacking disciplined direction. It does as I say however often feel that my mind has a mind of its of own, deciding when to obsess and when to distract.

Coming from an arid working-class suburban family, I was probably in my teens only too happy to undergo the embourgeoisement and acculturation that my Russell Group university education offered. That observation now makes me wonder whether being acculturation into neuro-typicality held similar attractions, becoming socially acceptable and perhaps just ‘eccentric’ rather than fully cognitively different. Though to be honest, Aspergers probably insulated me from my sterile negligent family surroundings and offered some kind of safe passage through an emotionally deprived childhood. I gravitated into the values of the youth counterculture of the late 60s,/early 70s which was tolerant of oddness and I often answered, ‘the call of the weird’.

I do notice that the dominance of my interior or internal world and its monologue can be a problem and sometimes when I know I must concentrate on something, I become distracted by the business of concentrating on concentrating. I do know I have to concentrate on some tasks, delicate or risky ones for example, but as I say, I end up concentrating on concentrating rather than concentrating on the task; my focus turns inwards as the internal monologue tries to tell me to concentrate. 

Monotropism might all account for apparent absent-mindedness. And perhaps too, as for other documented cases of Aspergers, account for the attraction of rock-climbing, ice-climbing and white-water kayaking, of activities where being ‘in the moment’ is probably a prerequisite but where methodical painstaking preparation and training are also vital. Conversely, I also enjoy mopping, hoovering, hoeing, sweeping and strimming; they feel like a relaxing domestic Tai-Chai.

I have an incomprehension about death, specifically about the end of consciousness, my consciousness. Perhaps everyone has it. I’m so aware of the strength and permanence of what goes on inside my head that the fact that it will stop is incomprehensible. And afterwards, nothing… and nothing perceiving the nothing. And nothing to cling to, no afterlife. Sometimes, especially after a haircut, it feels like consciousness is very fragile and only a centimetre beneath my skull, between my ears, underneath my hands. I would dearly like to believe in such an afterlife but there seems no reason, no evidence, no justification. What we see is what we’ve got and even assuming there’s some purpose or direction to life, let alone any after-life, seems straining credulity and clutching at straws. It may all be precisely the mess that it seems. I wonder if this is merely the autist straining to see beyond the concrete and the specific.

I suppose my problem  with any afterlife is part of my problem with religion; trying to imagine what ‘faith’, ‘worship’, ‘prayer’ or ‘adoration’ might actually feel like draws a complete blank, like trying to grasp fog. Is this also an aspect of my autism?

Presumably from the insides of our own heads, we all think we are normal. Just like we all think we are still 21, and thus immortal.

One of the issues for peoples diagnosed with Aspergers is language. I understand that technically British English is a high-context language, meaning understanding it requires context, meaning for example the cultural, social and non-verbal cues and background. This is I think sometimes difficult for those of us that only hear the actual words that are said. Furthermore, the lag between physically hearing something and then assigning it a meaning from the myriad possibilities is a different barrier - very good for puns and double entendre because there’s no filtering or censoring or contextual orientation but fatal for an intelligent conversation where potential interpretations ricochet all over the place whilst note-taking is cognitively impossible, and my responses lag further and further behind everyone else’s contributions. In terms of speaking, as opposed to listening, boredom sets in quickly as most of my utterances have already spent too long cluttering up my head before being spoken and my speaking on-the-fly and unrehearsed offers the chance I might say something that has not lurked in my head previously. 

Another issue is my inability to master any skill or procedure that involves connecting a physical activity on the outside world with a cognitive process on the inside world, in my case, for example, typing, reading music, learning to speak a foreign language, executing formal dance steps, playing the mandolin. Driving and flying both took inordinate effort, though once the processes were ‘compiled’ (Maiden & Rugg, 1996) they were quite easy. 

Looking my videos on YouTube and elsewhere, there is a spectrum from very competent large-scale keynotes to smaller informal events, where my gestures seem to indicate someone desperately using their hands to mould meaning into their sentences. I occasionally suggest the latter might be good Aspergers awareness training material.

There is perhaps a theme running between my vocation to understand the disadvantage that goes with ‘othering’, for example of non-traditional university students and adult literacy students in our own society and those, for example indigenous peoples, at the margins of theirs, and my own history, being neglected and placed in an orphanage for four years as a child (nurture) and being on the autistic spectrum (nature). Incidentally, my four heroes, probably not quite the right word, are Menlove Edwards, T E Lawrence, Kim Philby, Alan Turing, all outsiders and tortured souls in their different ways, caught between different realities, passions and loyalties.

I’ve seen a common thread of muddle, anxiety, procrastination and mistakes that have undermined my productivity and job satisfaction; this common thread embracing most of detailed administrative aspects of my job, no matter how urgent or important, so for example, filling in forms; data entry; registrations; statistical returns; my expenses; annual leave forms; official surveys; end-of-year accounts; especially stuff like timesheets that involve a lot of cross-referencing, grids of data, short-term memory loads and arbitrary formulae, that inevitably get returned to me several times as incorrect. There is an inability to manage the complexity and confusion of smaller detailed tasks, no matter how important.

Instead, I’m inclined to press on single-mindedly with what’s most innovative, interesting and important (and actually, what is unique to my role and what I get paid for) namely writing research papers and funding proposals. It inevitably means the admin drops of the bottom of the list, gets over-looked, I become spectacularly ‘non-compliant’.

Sometimes the resolution of problems or wholly new ideas (even replies to troublesome emails) only occur to me when I’m no longer at a keyboard, perhaps walking to the shops and I just can’t understand why I didn’t think of it weeks earlier. I recognise that I do get stuck in one particular analysis of a problem, even if it is on self-assembly furniture.

To round up some of the minor quirks, I seem to resist neologisms, like currently for example ‘woke’ or ‘snowflake’ even though I’d have no difficulty aligning with the concepts, and always feel the need to avoid informal shortenings, like ‘Bucks’ for ‘Buckinghamshire’. 

I find some phrases or tunes get stuck in my mind until displaced by the next one, sometimes only the tumbler-dryer tunefully telling me it has finished or the word ‘Umslopogaas’.

I do have an aversion to cotton wool and fluffy angora wool, and a propensity to sort and organise, everything from spice jars to qualitative empirical data, and obsess about being more time-efficient, of learning Welsh grammar whilst waiting for the kettle to boil. I also have an aversion to shared spaces with forced intimacy, like shared offices or hotel bedrooms, but would inhabit open-plan offices or dormitories but better still the ‘pink noise’ of cafés and train stations or wind noise of cycling as environments to think and work.

These then are the current reflections on my condition and its role in my relationships with the outside world, perhaps useful to others looking out from the inside.


Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Maiden, N. A., & Rugg, G. (1996). ACRE: selecting methods for requirements acquisition. Software engineering journal, 11(3), 183-192.