Autistic at a Wedding, the Doctors and a Gig

Autism is Not a Thing

I realise not everyone knows that autism isn’t a thing. So I’ll just reiterate that. You can’t isolate it under a microscope and go “Aha! There’s some autism!”. It’s a way of being in the world and processing the world, which is why most autistic adults polled (by the National Autistic Society) prefer to say they’re an autistic person, rather than a person with autism. It’s part of our very identity.

Autism Influences What You Pay Attention To

Here’s an analogy for autism which is sometimes not just an analogy. Most people, if confronted with a line-up featuring an avocado, a trombone, a bicycle, a snowdrop, a person and a game of Battleships, would be inexorably drawn towards noticing and interacting with the person first. Bits of their brain would be pinging “Person, person, person”. Autistic people don’t have such a strong automatic brain-ping just because it’s a person.

In addition, other bits of their brain and body may be registering strong signals which average people would filter. Maybe things like “Ooh, it’s hot in here…my wrist feels funny….what are those shapes in the light…my retina is fuzzy” which further dampens down the “It’s a person, take special notice!” signal. It doesn’t even necessarily mean they prefer, say, snowdrops, to people. It’s partly that people move around, make noise, change, shift and can be over-stimulating and confusing. If your brain filters less stuff, then you’re not necessarily going to seek out things which would overwhelm it (although you might do, as a sort of “high”).

As an example; I tend to notice dogs more quickly than babies, partly because I feel more comfortable with dogs and know how to read them. If both a baby and a dog are coming towards me at the same time, then I’ll “see” the dog first because it lights my brain up more, as well as being less scary. I am aware nowadays that this is technically a social faux pas, and most people, especially women because of the social conventions that require women to be more nurturing, would notice the baby first. Then make baby noises and want to hold it. I expect however, if the apocalypse had finally happened, then I might notice the baby first because I’d be thinking “Phew, a baby, we may be able to continue the human race” (as I am quite invested in humanity really, despite our flaws).

If You’re Less Able to Pay Attention to People, It Takes Longer to Learn How to Communicate With (or Like) Them

To cut a lot of long stories short, the lack of an automatic “Person Brain Ping” tends to mean that instead of easily, unconsciously embedding loads of learning about social relationships and how to express them (including emotional displays) from a young age, autistic people learn about lots of other stuff too. Surely an evolutionary advantage to have some people keeping their eye on other balls- but it does mean that in a world which increasingly requires people to display an unassisted, socially orientated sort of “normal”, then autistic people can be at a disadvantage.

The consequent relative difficulty identifying, describing and feeling emotions is known as alexithymia. Now, technically, everybody is born alexithymic. Babies don’t emerge going “I’m actually feeling rather low as it goes, with a temporary slight element of euphoria now you’ve given me that milk”. They learn emotions in conjunction with others, who might reflect their own bodily sensations back to them. They also learn the ways to display emotions which are “appropriate” to the time and contexts they find themselves in. (Which are ever-changing. Think of the “stiff upper lip” that Second World War pilots were supposed to display, whilst it was de rigeur for Gulf War Pilots to express anxiety and fear in news interviews; if they didn’t people would have judged them as emotionally dysfunctional as beliefs about emotions had changed so much, even in fifty years).

Many autistic people have some degree of alexithymia. Not displaying emotions can often be taken as not having any. In my experience, and that of many others, it can be that there is a degree of “cut-off” from one’s own feelings and sensations, but this is quite likely to be due to experiencing yourself and the world as a sort of roiling mass of confusing sensations, affects and perceptions which don’t bear easy relation to words (or to the gestures and expressions that other people use to display them). I’m wanting to keep these blogs medium-length, so I’m now just going to sketch a few contexts in which I’ve moved from pretty alexithymic, to reasonably emotionally expressive over the years. I’m not saying that this move is necessarily always a good thing either, but it has embedded me more in the social world. It also means I’m very alert to people expressing emotions in a way that feels “true”, versus ways that feel “false” and thus confusing.

1. Weddings

So, weddings did not used to be occasions of high feeling for me. There was often nice food but awkward conversations and music that was too loud. The rote performance of things people seemed to do just for the sake of tradition, like photograph set ups that took ages or wedding vows that were the same as everyone else’s or particular (usually uncomfortable) dress codes didn’t make sense to me. I think this was a mixture of the very conventional weddings I went to in my twenties, and the fact I wasn’t as connected with my own feelings. In my early thirties I went to the homemade, intimate pub wedding of a poet friend and enjoyed that more but remember asking another poet friend, in quite a Mr Spock-like way “Why are people crying?”. He said it was because they were happy. I just didn’t get it.

Then, at my own wedding, which I’d unknowingly arranged to be as autism-friendly as possible, with an afternoon-tea theme, poems, fifty guests and a nice, quiet lighthouse setting, I felt a thing which I called “The magic cloud of love”. It seemed to be something that the goodwill of the guests (who, under what seemed quite sensible criteria were all people that we liked) transmitted to me. It didn’t come just from me, or my husband, it was shared. I expect things were going on with similar heart rates, neurotransmitters like oxytocin and May sunshine. Anyway, once sensitised to it, I’ve been able to feel it at other weddings. In fact, when asked to read a poem at a friends’ wedding more recently, I felt the communal magic cloud of love and my own happiness for the couple so strongly, I choked up at a couple of points in the poem.

Part of the reason I’m now able to feel it is because I’ve named it, I think. Autistic people can struggle with proprioception (feeling where your body is in space, balance, touch etc) and interoception (being able to identify the sensations inside your body). Because I now know what the internal feelings for “There’s a magic cloud of love going on in the vicinity” are, I can fully experience it.

2. At the Doctors

So, talking of interoception. Doctors expect you to be able to name what’s going on inside you. They also expect that if you are in pain, then you’ll show them it on your face and in your gestures. You might have a special “pain” voice. I didn’t really know this until very recently.

Autism aside, I grew up in a place and time where you were expected to get on with things without making a fuss. I recently read a memoir about a Lancashire farming family who “never spoke” and I thought, compared to our family they were positively garrulous. I sort of took it for granted that people didn’t necessarily express negative feelings. I remember making a work call the day after my Mum died, and having to mention it to explain why I couldn’t be somewhere. The woman on the other end of the phone said ”But you sound so well and cheerful!”. I thought to myself that it would have taken more effort to work out how to do “The voice you’re supposed to have when your mother’s just died” than “Normal voice I’d have on a work call”.

I genuinely imagined that Doctors mainly took account of the symptoms you told them about, and any tests they did on you, not how distressed you seemed. But, post-diagnosis, having read other autistic people on the subject, I know that doctors do take account of that other stuff. Studies show they also consistently underestimate womens’ pain, so there’s a double whammy there. Anyway, I now wonder if that’s why whenever I mentioned past eating disorder problems, I’d made it sound more like a bit of a bother, than a major trouble, so my bulimia was never treated or attended to (It may also be that things have moved on considerably in the past twenty years).

Last year I had an allergic reaction to anti-fog goggle mist and my eyes kept swelling up, made worse by drops that pharmacists prescribed. I was thoroughly fed up after a couple of weeks of this, and worried that I’d have to do another gig with red eyes. The doctor didn’t seem to see it as very urgent, but then, remembering that expressing some actual feelings might be useful, I purposely told him how worried I was about the gig and even cried a bit. They weren’t fake tears in any way, but they were tears I would usually have held in (or maybe, not bothered to let out?). It seemed to have a miraculous effect anyway, because he immediately rang the dermatologist and I got me an appointment for the next day.

3. On Stage

And finally, talking of gigs, I have probably learned most about how non autistic people need to have me express emotions in my work as a professional poet and comedian on stage- but at the same time, it’s also a context in which being fairly alexithymic has significant consequences (positive and negative). I do however get constant feedback about what works and doesn’t work (sometimes instant feedback- in the form of laughter, or feedback afterwards when audiences come up and talk about their reactions to particular material or poems). I’ve learned that if I allow myself to connect to the feelings in my poems, without becoming overwhelmed by them they’re more likely to “transmit” themselves to members of the audience. It’s a form of the emotional self-regulation that usually happens when a primary carer contains and reflects back a baby’s expressions and emotions to it.

Sometimes however, I forget that words can conjure up emotions a lot more quickly for many people than they can for me. A few months ago I did a small, intimate performance in a village hall. After a poem about being connected to your ancestors down your maternal line, which I know people can find emotional, I then moved on to one of my funniest poems about two women swimming breaststroke in the pool while talking and obstructing everybody else. One young woman had had to go out at the end of the ancestors poem because she was crying so much, and I said to her later, when she bought a book, that I’d planned my set so that people would immediately have something to laugh at after the emotional poem, so I wished she’d stayed for the funny poem (!).

I can also be out of step with people as a gig attendee. At a poetry festival not long ago, I went to a one-person show that had a lot of emotional content. Possibly because I was thinking about my own stuff and in very analytical mode, it didn’t impact on my emotions at all. But when we came out, I was sat at a table of people I didn’t know well and started analysing it a bit, and realised we were at complete odds. They were sort of shell shocked, and wanting to stay in the emotions they’d just experienced, to the point that I felt like cheery old me was being utterly insensitive to where they were. (Though at the same time I had a really strong urge to talk to someone who wasn’t in the middle of feeling lots of feelings so we could just have a good old chat about it).

Conversely, the following day I was so tuned in to the emotions of the poets I was seeing, I kept streaming with actual tears in sets that other people didn’t seem to find as emotional at all (particularly, I noticed, when it was poems about people holding their feelings back). I couldn’t really work out why one day I’d had no emotions, and then next day loads and did wonder if it could be because the previous day I was very tired, whereas the next day I’d slept much better.

Emotions continue to be a mystery, often an inconvenience and something that can both divide us from, and connect us to other people. I realised I haven’t covered anxiety or anger at all. Perhaps that’s for another blog in the week I have impulsively committed myself to…

The Undiagnosed Autistic People

I’m giving myself permission to blog about autism every day this week. There is SO much I could say and usually I don’t say it. There are other “messages” I’m supposed to transmit like- “Come see my show about Northern women” or “I’m really normal for a poet, honest” or “Do book me for that workshop, I’m great at running them”. Anyway, this week I’m jamming my own signals. Starting by writing about the many undiagnosed autistic people I meet.

It’s a bit taboo to diagnose people without being a psychologist or knowing someone’s full developmental history. But myself and many autistic people can’t help it. We notice, even if we don’t say. We have autism-dar (like Gaydar). Sometimes it’s so obvious to me it’s distracting. I can see someone’s brain and a body working and processing the world in a particular way. I want to say “Hello! We share a neurotype, but you possibly think autism is only Rainman or The A Word or Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time” or children locked up in padded rooms”.

It’s more obvious since I’ve got to know more autistic people and begun to recognise and accept my own traits more after my diagnosis eighteen months ago. I’m sure I have blind spots. And because of my life as a poet and performer who lives in a Northern town and travels all over for gigs, there are certain types of undiagnosed person I come into contact with way more regularly. The categories I’m about to list are coloured by a very “Me” lens and my own prejudices and biases. However, in that respect they’re much like the categories uncovered by psychologists and other medics everyday…

1. Autistic Creatives

The arts can be a great environment for autistic people. Quirks and different ways of seeing the world are positively welcomed, there is less pressure to conform or fit into one particular working environment.

Autistic creatives are perhaps particularly less likely to be diagnosed because of the common misinterpretation of “lack of imagination” in the diagnostic criteria- which as Dr Lorna Wing, who came up with the concept of the autistic spectrum once told me- actually means a lack of SOCIAL imagination (and ALL the diagnostic traits will usually become less obvious as people mature and learn).

This is perhaps even more acute for creative men, who actually fit the “female” profile of autism more closely and thus will have their traits dismissed. The undiagnosed autistic creative person is often able to focus with brilliant precision on their craft- be it music, writing, visual arts or performing. Their enthusiasms and passions spark and arc and can be a way to communicate and share with others. They can be open, exploratory, warm and charismatic – all further confounding stereotypes about autism, making them less likely to be diagnosed by themselves or others.

The art that an autistic creative makes or facilitates can resonate universally, but also function as another sort of autism-dar. I’ve spoken to several fellow autistic women writers for example, who recognise Virginia Woolf as thinking, processing the world, writing and being in a way that fits our neurotype.

The fact that I’m an autistic creative myself and see so many others thriving in similar lines of work contributes to me sometimes feeling I’m “making a fuss” by having a diagnosis. They’re proof positive that fulfilled lives without labels are perfectly possible- though I do sometimes think they might be a lot kinder to themselves in the context of a neoliberal capitalist system which can chew up and spit out flexible creatives if they knew more about the ways they experience the world differently.

2. Maverick Women

I love to meet a maverick woman and recognise her as a fellow traveller in the autistic mode of being-in-the-world.

She’s usually deeply honest and critical of the world around her, often in the interests of fighting causes for others. Learning hard lessons about what women are “supposed” to be and do and say and look like, she might ignore them entirely, conform to some degree whilst maintaining her independence, or cast them aside with relief at a certain point. She might be a loud maverick, whose voice carries above others or a quiet maverick who subtly, stubbornly goes her own way, often to the bewilderment and (possibly) eventual admiration of her peers.

She’s less likely to be diagnosed because there is still a lack of recognition in the diagnostic criteria that autism is just as common in women as in men, and a lack of understanding about how the different ways women are socialised can mean their traits are “masked”. She’s expected to do emotional labour so often learns how to do so, and gets on and does it.

3. Nerdy Men

This is in deep contrast to the nerdy man, who is most likely to be picked out as “Weird”, “Probably Aspergers”, though cruelly often not actually diagnosed due to being from the wrong generation or read as just a quiet introvert.

They’re the Dad or the husband who is much castigated for having no clue about social or relationship rules, because people are less likely to take the time to explain them to men than to the women they’re trying to get to do their emotional labour.

Psychologically open nerdy men are great, psychologically closed ones, I find a challenge. Happy to be sat next to them on a bus if we happen to share a special interest, otherwise I’m sorry to leave them to their perpetual bewilderment at how the world and people work. It’s interesting when this category of undiagnosed person turns up as a doctor or a psychologist…

Finally (Is this all sounding a bit horoscopey?) we have the category of:

4. People Diagnosed with Something Else

As people less likely to absorb gender schemas, there is a high correlation between being trans and autistic. But, due to the huge challenges in recognition for trans people, it may often be difficult to recognise or seek the possibility of an autism diagnosis too.
Ditto a strong correlation between anorexia and autism in young women- to the point that there are calls for anorexic women to be automatically screened for autism. (But we really are still in the early days of recognising this). Hence also why many autistic women are misdiagnosed with depression, anxiety or particularly Borderline Personality Disorder. That’s apart from the fact that these things (and associated trauma) can commonly be co-morbid with autism.

I haven’t been diagnosed with anything else personally, though did occasionally try to interest doctors in me having an eating disorder in my twenties (bulimia) without much success. I suspect my inability to adequately “perform distress” or articulate symptoms clearly wouldn’t have helped.

Anyway, this is in no way a definitive list or attempt to describe the complexities of autistic being. It’s some observations of the categories of people I meet who are likely to be unrecognised as autistic. It can be hard work pretending not to see them.

I recently did some work in a school where there were a lot of autistic students. They told me gleefully that they’d diagnosed one of their teachers. My autism-dar had pinged too. She fell into the “Maverick woman” category and it was clear that she was a skilled and inspiring teacher, and a great fit for her students who saw her as a role model. What a pity that ignorance and stigma deprives so many others of those role models…

National Poetry Day-Change Poems

It will look like I’m everywhere today as I was one of twelve poets commissioned to write a poem about their local area. The theme? Change. Can’t think of any national situations in which that’s particularly relevant at that moment…

I haven’t got an actual gig though today, though I’ll be doing radio interviews. I’m off to Kent for the Deeds and Words Festival at Tonbridge School & was booked to be at Swindon Poetry Festival on Sunday but they cancelled the gig as they’d underbudgeted.

My National Poetry Day activities change every year. Depending on where I’ve been, who thinks of me, who’s got money & how around I’ve been (higher profile doesn’t necessarily lead to consistently more gigs for a jobbing poet like me though. I’m not a poetry superstar, but I’m probably perceived as too expensive to invite along to your local open mike). I therefore have to not take it as a litmus test of how “well” I’m doing as a poet. That lies somewhere else in how happy I am with my writing and performing. And I’m currently having a post-PhD second wind. I know what I want my next collection to be/do. I’m getting better at balancing what I want to write with what I think can get a platform or an audience (and currently knowing I need to say “sod it” to thinking about what the market might want which is a luxury I can only afford because of my work as a jobbing poet.

Anyway, poetry and people are always in flux.

Here’s a link to my NPD poem, some of the other videos from poets and my article.

On Boredom

Maybe nearly everything in my life is because I have a lower boredom threshold than most people.
I will not talk about the neurotransmitters norepinephrine or dopamine next, interesting though I find them. I will not talk about running around a classroom as a little girl because I didn’t do that. I sat quietly. Running about from boredom was for my twin brother and we divided roles up with an instinct for balance we wouldn’t be credited for.

When English lessons became the reading aloud of set texts and Cider With Rosie, Measure for Measure and Juno and the Paycock were rendered in a babel of uncertain voices, I read ahead to stave off the overwhelming feeling I would die if I had to hear words at this speed any more. This was fine until it was my turn, or I got more than a book ahead.

Me holding off a feeling of boredom similar to the relentless needling ache which made the hummingbird tattoo on my upper arm one November afternoon in Newcastle usually looks like me reading a book, or a phone screen. Sometimes it sounds like me talking very fast and interrupting my own thoughts to disagree with them. Sometimes it looks and sounds like me saying words under a spotlight with an energy that means dopamine and norepinephrine fire in other people’s brains and they think they like me.

Society seems to be worried that the internet means it’s attention span is too short, but it could reassure itself by hearing most people speak on a platform, or by standing in a post office queue and seeing how many people are not tapping their toes or each other.

In a college room that would look the same now, on a playback device that would look very different now, I heard a three minute BBC local radio news bulletin and a one minute commercial radio news bulletin. The BBC bulletin contained some unnecessary detail about a council bin collection problem. Time slowed down even more while I heard it, though perhaps I should reflect on the fact that I can’t remember anything that was in the commercial radio bulletin. I went to work for it anyway. Commercial radio. Even though the level of pay and job security was about half of that of the BBC. But I could read the news without tapping my toes impatient for my own voice to be over.

I went out into a new world in a succession of radio cars, mostly Audis and VWs, until they took them away from the news room and gave them to the advert people. So then I stopped going to press conferences and recording accents I didn’t grow up with and lived more for nights of poetry and interpersonal conflict and cigarette burns in the back of my wrap dresses before the smoking ban.

Sitting in a staffroom with trays of Cadburys Fingers and copies of the TES on low coffee tables I zoned out while I was telling a teacher about the poems I would get her Year 5s to write and woke myself up by suggesting instead that we get them to imagine they were in the “Poetry Idol House”. A couple of projects with loud and joyous finales and banners in the school hall later, I worked out how to get them to write poems about things other than the thrill of imagining we were in the Poetry Idol House.

I thought doing a PhD would be as boring as filling out a form or conjuring a date from infinite possibilities suggested in an email, but it was a succession of new tasks and ideas and reading. It was like swimming rather than running for two hours with only endorphins flooding in, and no joint pain afterwards. It was a shiny, slim-fit jacket round all the intense brain activity that would otherwise disappear into Thirsk’s mackerel sky and I am naked without it.

I told my husband that I think we’re mainly together because he’s not boring. Not because he runs restlessly round a field or gambles on dogs or reappears with hospital bracelets or bruises, but because his thoughts and words come from an alert brain and gut.

I am trying to do fewer things because I have been so very busy for years but my brain is buzzing like a trapped bluebottle and most options to keep it awake involve the short-term pain of more boredom. An email chain, a handbook, a contract. So, for now I’ll write things like this and add them to the world’s unsettling hum.

After Olivia Laing

I read Olivia Laing’s Crudo and Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and I am not them or Kathy Acker or Virginia Woolf or Gordon Burn (whose prize they’re both nominated for, not the former presenter of The Krypton Factor), but I can feel a sudden urge for stream of consciousness. I haven’t swum for days. I had started going under the surface. No more head up breast stroke, eyes swivelling like a meerkat. I was my own pivot. Front crawl, the first new physical skill since learning to drive. Mostly underwater where gold bubbles fell through cloudy river like prizes. The world on mute and only the breath in front of me.

But I used Anti-Fog Mist on my Goggles, just once so as to be like a proper wild swimmer who bought things off, and my eye became irritated and now is irritated by everything else and is red and puckered and streaming, and if my pancreas or other internal tissues react anything like my eyelid has done to emollients that Doctors and the internet assure me are benign, like E45 or Diprobase or Simple Eye Balm (Whose ingredients list suggests it’s anything but simple) then it’s time for me to imbibe fewer chemicals. So I’m like Wittgenstein only noticing he didn’t like well-done toast in his sixties, except that what I’ve finally noticed is that as well as being hyper-sensitive to people acting in accents that are not their own, I’m sensitive to lanolin, vaseline and chemicals ending in “eth”. I’m as satisfied on discovering this as about anything else that distinguishes me. Though now my skin needs a barrier against it’s new rawness to the world and it turns out Vaseline won’t do and the coconut oil success might only have been temporary. I’ve never found it too easy to let things get inside me before.

The other eye though still looks out smug and white and clear and says we can gaze on this without any trouble; whether it’s sun sparkling through giant hogweed on the banks of the Tees which, because of the Tees Barrage, has no tides and is thus like a long, thin lake, or on news headlines about the world burning or on the reddening cheeks and firm gaze of a Swedish woman who stood on a plane until others stood with her and said somebody being sent to die was more important than getting somewhere safe on time.  The voice of the English man trying to take her phone, telling her not to make a fuss was recognised by those watching the video, as the voice of every English man who has used a Corby trouser press, telling his daughter not to make a show of herself whilst Europe looks on at very English men and women trooping in and out of lobbies like Trumpton characters, appalled at the show they are making.

But I am not one-eyed Tiresias either or whichever acceptable Greek myth gives a street poet cultural legitimacy. And the poets are removing their sunglasses and other eyewear to ask whether it matters that a publisher is erratic or is a better word eccentric. Is it part of their charming character, the obsessiveness required to run a small press when poets photograph their square-shaped poems for free to millions, to provoke and write hostile contract clauses or repeatedly threaten to withdraw themselves or their website, whichever is currently in most trouble. Why, some poets ask, would we require anything other than a man who will change his profile picture for ours for we are flexible and fluid. We are Giddens’ ideal mobile labourers. We will not be reading the characterisations of us as exploited cultural labourers from a man who is Hayley on Coronation Street’s brother. And with one eye half-closed I read the biographies of writers who don’t live in a place where job descriptions like “Ethical fashion model” would be laughed out of them and where the word “colloidal” silvers pages. Though I weary of the obligation to be just eccentric enough and just down to earth enough.

On Twitter, autistics cry out to #Takethemaskoff and be their autistictrueselves. That might perhaps in my case be a self which can talk in an incessant stream softened by a Yorkshire accent, which is tamed by sounding like either a parody of itself or of somebody else, as this blog. But it would not be recognised as something underneath an autistic’s mask. For a mask to be recognised as a mask then whatever is underneath it must be recognised as real. I gave twenty minute careers talks on how to be a poet once when Tony Blair’s government was betting on culture to plug the holes left in society by the eighties. In one school, children thought I was drunk. Once I shared a draft poem with songwriters and realised in an autistic world all of my poems would do the equivalent of going into this much ecstatic details over vacuums. Nowadays I can see people visibly recoil or smirk sometimes when I forget to turn myself down. I become off-putting as a small poetry publisher detonating on Twitter unless I do it on stage where it is permitted and can be refracted by an audience. Then I am not a tidal river, only a long thin lake you can travel on.

Notes after Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette

I’ve not yet watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix because I watched it live in London earlier this year, after trying desperately and failing to see it in Edinburgh last summer. I’m bad at watching things twice, though this would repay it I know. This is a good interview with her in the Guardian. So much that’s rich in it. I’m glad she’s still speaking and adding context to the show for many selfish reasons including;

1. Whenever I talked about my research on resistance and comedy, people would often launch into monologues about Stewart Lee’s innovation with form and I would sometimes say “There are also other comics innovating with form, in a way which plays with the comic-audience relationship differently” and they would look at me blankly, unsure how to cope with the idea that “Held up as an example of innovation due to having lots of cultural capital” and “Innovating” might be separate things.

2. In this interview she says that comedy is a form which is more accessible to people with less socio-economic capital because there are fewer gatekeepers. A strand of class criticism runs through her work and she makes the tension of social mobility visible in her movement between comedy and art criticism. See, look what can be done with comedy as an art form and give it Arts Council funding. (Actually, lots of practitioners from poorer backgrounds I know who straddle stand up comedy and other potentially subsidised forms are savvy enough to source both public and commercial funding and audiences for their work. The boundaries between forms like stand up and poetry and theatre are increasingly porous).

3. That’s why at a crucial point in Nanette I wanted to say “But, stand-up is able to do way more than you say it can, as your show itself proves, so you don’t have to give it up”- but she seems to have concluded that now. This applies times a hundred after the success of her show on Netflix. Stand-up is a brilliant form for people from marginalised backgrounds to challenge stereotypes without necessarily ONLY self-deprecating or minimising their experiences.

4. She’s talking openly here about being diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Condition (or Autism Spectrum Disorder, as the Guardian possibly insists). In the show, HG talks about the importance of stories as a tether and of shame being overcome-able culturally. (Her ASC is not part of her show, which focuses on her experiences of terrible homophobia). It’s still part of ASC diagnostic criteria that you might struggle with humour. Autistic people are still too often punchlines to jokes, rather than authors or subjects of stories which address the complexities of their lives. The fact that an autistic comedian is being so hugely successful with a deeply sensitive, emotional and hilarious show is part of a story which can act as a tether for autistic children and adults (and their families) who are often only hearing about deficits and “can’t”s via the reductive medical model.

5. Her show itself performs anger and tension and refuses to defuse it for the audience so that everybody can go away feeling better. Whilst that’s part of her performance that feels particularly revolutionary to audiences used to everything being wrapped up in a tidy bow of laughter, the interviews and commentary on Nanette demonstrate that she’s also mobilising another affect/emotion that can be revolutionary in stand-up- love. Or if that sounds too soppy – deep acceptance. Her trust of the audience in making herself vulnerable and expressing her previously hidden feelings, including anger, shows an acceptance of herself, but also of them. That can, in turn, help them to self-acceptance around their own traumas. Conjuring love in the room is not seen as particularly revolutionary- but in these times it certainly is. Experts at it include Sarah Millican and Barbara Nice- though love often hovers, unfashionably and unnamed in stand-up settings everywhere.

6. I was doing gigs at The Stand in Newcastle throughout 2012 and 2013. Open mike spots, unpaid tens and fifteens, some paid tens and fifteens. I’d been doing quite well as a stand up poet for a few years and had stepped back from the stand up circuit with relief. I’d never done very well there. Some paid support slots and usually a feeling of deep discomfort with how stand up put me in a box and led to me to be a much less interesting, thoughtful version of me as a performer. I could see that performers who were able to talk about men and women as different species and be relatable did well. I wasn’t relatable- but I wasn’t weird enough, or knowing enough then about my weirdness, to play up to it. This was somehow resolved when I did stand up poetry because I could be all of me at once and declaring you’re a poet already says you are coming at some sort of left angle to the world. Anyway, I decided not to do any self deprecating material at all in these Stand gigs. Meanwhile I saw Bridget Christie, Hannah Gadsby and Rachel Mars do shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 in which they all at some point took clothes off (onesies for Bridget and Rachel, standing in a swimming cossie for Hannah). They were telling me that stand up comedy could be self-controlled exposure but I couldn’t quite hear it. Just heard lots of angry young men doing material about rape and how awful women were and didn’t have the craft or binary thinking to deal with it. That’s when I decided to do a show nobody would care about because nobody was listening to me anyway- and my show about not wanting children became my first Radio 4 show and featured on an impending film documentary about women who don’t have kids. So in a very mini-way, I have also struggled to break out of the limitations of stand up as a form- and found a way to do that within stand up. It can expand to fit because it’s not only a commercial form that happens with big shiny lights around it and blokes with jokes, but is part of the folkloric, human need to have one person channel thoughts and jokes and stories in a way which makes them and an audience thrum with something which isn’t just thoughts or feelings, or being told, or listening, but the thrilling, transformational chaos that happens in the third space between.


Interview with Hannah Gadsby

The Quirking Class Manifesto

It’s okay not to want what most other people want, in the way that they want it.

Applying the word “Failure” is a means for some people to stop other people doing certain things in a certain way.

Applying the word “Success” is a means for some people to keep other people doing certain things in a certain way.

Beware of any communication treating the concepts of “Independent” or “Dependent” as absolutely good or absolutely bad.

You probably do, and did, things earlier or later than other people. Time is relative. We’re all sometimes tortoise or hare.

Your work may look like play and your play may look like work to other people. That’s okay. The boundaries between the two aren’t as rigid as society makes out. Working at play and playing at work is often the key to happiness.

You’re right to be wary of the phrases; “It’s always been done this way”, “Just because” and “That’s just the way things are”.

You may never feel that you belong- but there are lots of places where you can belong by not belonging.

You exist in a place and a time- but there are lots of other places and times, past and future you could live by.

Learning doesn’t only happen when other people tell you they’re teaching you, often especially not then.

A community to value is one that values you.

Sometimes you might need to be helped to have help and supported to have support. (The rare) people and organisations which understand that, may well be your best help. It may take a lot of trial and error to find them.

This manifesto could also be drawn, sung, danced or sculpted or signed;

a translation of any communication or piece of art is always an act of kindness.

Labels can be useful, until they’re not useful;

it’s okay to point out that some of these manifesto points sound like fridge magnet slogans or Instagram poems.

Comedy lets you say two contradictory things at once- and also doesn’t.

Talk about the things that others don’t want you to talk about; money, sex, politics, grief, cucumbers;

it is just as important to learn how to be listened to as to learn how to not be listened to.

It is just as important to learn when and how not to listen as to learn when and how to listen.

If all you that you ever said, demonstrated, practiced, believed, lived, Tweeted, skated, swam, ate, painted, excreted was that there are multiple truths, then you would have been kinder to the world than most people in it.

The thing we call “you” and “not you” are only ever intersections of times and places, but this is one of the insights that is hardest to work into conversations about shopping, football and Love Island. Find the people who will have those conversations.

Autistic on Love Island.

Why did Niall Aslam leave Love Island? Two weeks ago we were only told it was because of “Personal reasons”, now he’s braving the stigma connected with an Autism/Aspergers diagnosis and spoken out to say this was behind his decision to leave. Here “Aah, because of Aspergers” the journalists and commentators are saying, “Yeah, er social difficulties and that” they add. The chances of getting some meaningful insight from them into what this means are about as high as for Adam Collard (the gas lighting one) deciding to train as a Relate counsellor after he leaves the show.

Now, I don’t know Niall and I’ve only watched one episode of Love Island (I didn’t inhale, but I could see a slippery slope of addiction beckoning if I carried on), so I really can’t speak for him, but I can give some insight into why being in an environment like Love Island might be hard for an autistic person. This point of view is important, because while we’re getting some of the cliched medical criteria in the stories about his diagnosis, we’re not getting the insights built up by the many actually autistic people who are finally getting their voices heard about the daily realities of life on the spectrum (I would recommend the #actuallyautistic hashtag on Twitter as a good starting point here). These insights would tend more to point to sensory sensitivities and things like autistic burnouts and social hangovers, which aren’t even mentioned in the descriptions of this way of processing and experiencing the world which have been written by psychologists and psychiatrists.

Many of the doctors still believe that an autistic way of being is not as normal or valid as a non-autistic one. They’re not that interested in the inside view or feeling of being autistic. Along with the stigma associated with the diagnosis, which Niall is bravely confronting by being open about it, an autistic person who only hears the medical view of the condition (Perhaps when they’re diagnosed as a child as Niall was), is less likely to reach the self-understanding necessary to live well as an autist. It’s partly why the suicide rate for autistic people is NINE TIMES that of the general population.  Anyhoo, that’s a rant for another time. I’m just going to suggest some reasons why the Love Island environment would be hard for an autistic person and hope that this also adds to some people’s understanding of the condition (I struggle with the word condition, autism is more about how someone’s brain and body is wired, it’s not separable from them and it’s not one single thing. Language around this stuff is hard).

  • The noise! Loud voices echoing across the pool, twenty people all talking at once and  shouting about the “Do bits society”, the bleep of the phone. It would basically do your brain in. Lots of  autistic people wear noise-cancelling headphones when they go out into public spaces.


  • Smells. I imagine there were sometimes choking clouds of Lynx and Elnett to walk through before a re-coupling. Partly, I jest, but basically it would have been a very intense sensory environment and that all contributes to overloading an autistic brain. Also tastes- I imagine the housemates don’t get that much say over what they eat and when. Many autistic people have food preferences and sensitivities.


  • Social overload. This is the biggie. This is not about social competence- Niall, for example, clearly made good friends in the villa who were devastated that he left- it’s about the energy cost of actually talking to people, reading their body language signals, working out what to say etc. For non-autistic people this stuff is their native tongue- for autistic people it can be like speaking a foreign language, even if they’ve learned it pretty well.  Autistic people talk about “Social hangovers”; a sort of brain fogged, exhausted feeling after doing lots of socialising. It’s one of the reasons that working environments can be difficult for autistic people. They’re fine getting on with tasks in their own way and time, but then socialising, whilst often enjoyable and desired, uses up lots of extra energy. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of downtime or alone time in the villa and this would be necessary to recharge batteries. It’s also a setting which is ALL about talking about relationships, feelings, emotions and trying to read the signals of others. Do-able, but flipping heck, hard work for anybody.


  • Lack of control. Autistic people experience the world as very intense. They don’t all have rigid routines and can enjoy spontaneity BUT you’d need to have some sense of control over your environment, down to things like where you slept and who with. It would be good to know what was going to happen on a daily basis and when to some extent. The world of Love Island is at the whims of producers who can suddenly introduce twelve new housemates or a jaunt out to that car park or  get you to go into the hut and spill your guts. I’ve noticed that some reality shows do have very structured environments and routines which can be great for neurodiverse people (I suspect ones like Fame Academy/Strictly/Splash etc where you’re learning a skill and then have to perform at a certain time can be quite good) but there would be a constant high stress load around the not-knowing.


That is not to mention any additional mental health or low self-esteem issues which can go alongside autism when you’ve spent your life recognising that you don’t quite fit and trying to work out the rules that other people seem to know instinctively.

In future, I’d think an autistic contestant on Love Island would need at the very least, their own room where they could have as much time as they needed to relax, recover, decompress from sensory and social overload and reenter the fray in order to shine to the full as the very splendid “rainbow fish” they are. Hopefully they would also have had chance beforehand to get to know and accept their true selves and their needs, with the help of other people who understand, accept and support them. Self-Love Island, if you will…

Free Speech A Problem For a Council

A Shocking Reason For Losing A Gig This Week: Giving a quote to a local paper two years ago, when asked, saying that councils shouldn’t charge libraries business rates. Yes, really.

Having been booked to host Hambleton District Council’s awards since last November, I was told with a week to go that they were going to “take a different approach” and have them hosted by a local radio dj instead (they did not have one booked) and would still pay me £250. (I pay my taxes to them-they’re effectively wasting my own money). The award hosting consisted of delivering a script. I was also to perform two poems.

I asked why, as I couldn’t see a reason for such a decision & was eventually told I could ring the council chief exec who had made the decision after seeing that I was hosting. It was suggested to me, off the record, that it was the Conservative council leader Mark Robson who I stood against in our ward as a Labour candidate six years ago who actually demurred. The chief exec (six days later) has finally told me that because I was once “highly critical” in public of the council’s policy on charging community libraries business rates, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to host the community awards.

This despite the fact that the comment consisted of one sentence a few years ago solicited by the York Press when it asked several writers about the policy. (I said it was a “slap in the face” to struggling libraries).…/14957435.Top_authors__anger_…/…).

This despite the fact that since then I have worked in partnership with HDC on several projects to promote poetry and poetry audiences, hosted their sport awards and done work on a voluntary (& sometimes council supported) basis for Thirsk Clock, Thirsk Community Care. Thirsk yarnbombers and been involved in running literary events in Thirsk in partnership with the White Rose Book shop for several years at minimal rates, in order to promote a stronger audience for literature in the community.

As a professional poet who works for all sorts of organisations with divergent values to myself (not that my own local council has divergent values given that theirs are apparently to be open, fair and respectful. I reject the reason belatedly given, (though if it really is that, then god help anyone who ever criticises a council policy. Or is a Labour Party member doing work for a Conservative-run Council).

I will continue to be a proud member of my community & will be donating my (wastefully duplicated) fee to Thirsk Clock and Thirsk Community Care.

Chief Exec Justin Ives is on If this concerns anybody else.

I am livid, hurt and concerned about the implications of this for people who do work for councils.


Justin Ive’s email:

Dear Kate

First let me apologise for my lack of availability as I am on annual leave for two weeks from Wednesday.

I can assure you the my decision to appoint another person to host the event was in no way connected to your gender, political alliances or abilities. It was brought to my attention that in the past you had been highly critical publicly on the Council’s policy concerning community libraries. Although it is of course your right to comment on any of the Council’s policies, given that this was the Council’s Community Awards ceremony I felt that it would be more appropriate for another person to host the awards. However, I realise that you will have spent time preparing for the event and therefor I paid your fee in full.

I trust this fully explains the reason for my decision.



Sent from my iPad


EDIT: Have now found the context in which I gave this quote, and exactly what I said. Highly critical? Really??


Hi Kate,

I hope you’re well. I’m writing an article about the reaction of writers to the soon-to-be volunteer-run libraries in Hambleton district being told they must pay thousands in business rates. The six other district councils in North Yorkshire have exempted the volunteer-run libraries from paying the charges. I thought you and Alfie may be interested in this, particularly as one of the affected libraries is Thirsk.

For further details:…/14930020.Council_under_…/

I’d be interested in hearing your views.

Stuart Minting | Reporter

Hi Stuart,

Thanks for sending this.

Happy to be quoted as saying that the decision to charge rates is a slap in the face for those volunteers trying so hard to keep these vital libraries going in the face of cuts. Libraries are one of the few places where everyone in a community can go for information and inspiration. They’re accessible, necessary and have benefits far beyond just being a place to go and borrow books. They’re somewhere young people learn to be part of a wider community of readers and somewhere older people can go to stay connected to the community. I appreciate that councils are struggling to balance the books but these volunteer run libraries need all the help the council can give them. If other councils exempt libraries then so should Hambleton.

Could say more.
Having to rush this a.m.

Have passed on to Alfie-he writes regularly in Thirsk library.

All v best


Forgetting Faces

Two days of conferences. Or, as they’re alternatively known, the prosopagnosiac’s nightmare. (Person bad at remembering faces).

Bad ways to greet a prosopagnosiac:

“Do you remember me?”

An answer of no usually seems to offend.

(Offended tone & still not giving your name) “But we met at – “ (name event where there were lots of people, after which I’ve subsequently met a thousand more people. Give no clue what we talked about).

Good ways to greet a prosopagnosiac:

“Hello! My name is – and we met at -”

By turning your name tag towards me so I don’t give into the urge to do this myself.

Neutral ways:

“Hello!” (Happy face and look of recognition). I’ll probably work it out eventually.

Accidentally good ways:

Be visually distinctive and/or don’t ever change what you look like. Particularly your hair.

Drop clues into the conversation early. Like “It was a nice day when we got married. At that lighthouse” etc.

Say mournfully “You probably don’t remember me”. This allows me to say “No, I don’t remember anybody”. Though you’ll usually be happy to find I do remember you once you say who you are/where we met/what we talked about.

Accidentally bad ways:

Look like lots of other people I know.

Say “I’m bad at remembering names too”. Names and faces are a different thing. But this does make me feel a bit better.

Assume I’ll recognise you because you just spoke on stage. This is a very fair assumption, but it turns out I often don’t recognise people who’ve just spoken on a stage because then you were small and far away, and now you’re big and nearby.

Be somewhere that I’m expecting to see people I know, but in another context. For example, I recognised both a comedian and a poet in Hull today but assumed I was just imagining I knew them because I was at an event which wasn’t for comedians and poets. Also, be anywhere I wouldn’t expect you to be. Another town, an event for people who aren’t you, my bath etc.

If I’ve met you more than four or five times or seen your photo a lot then I’ll probably recognise you anyway. Also if we’re related/married. Maybe.

NOT the social anthropologist. Though confusingly I did an ethnographic PhD.