Excerpt from ‘Excuse Me, but Your Otherness Is Showing’ by Joanne Limburg
There was always something other about me, and people noticed it. They couldn’t have said what it was they were noticing, but they sensed it in the room. I noticed them noticing. Sometimes, as I was walking down a street, or through a corridor, I would register that this person or that was visibly disconcerted by looking into my face; sometimes they looked bewildered; sometimes they seemed uncomfortable and shrank back. It was the nameless something at work. Some people sensed it as vulnerability, explaining things to me very slowly and carefully, or asking me if I was all right; sometimes people interpreted what they sensed as a physical fragility and insisted on carrying things for me when I hadn’t asked. Some people caught it as predators catch the scent of prey. Some felt repulsed or a little threatened and shunned it. Most people, at least some of the time, laughed at it. A few were drawn towards it, and when they laughed, laughed with it.
I remember how it bewildered the medical student I met at a mutual friend’s party in the early 1990s. We had been talking for about fifteen minutes or so, when she asked, apropos of nothing, ‘So do you do something artistic? Are you an artist, or a writer?’ I said I wrote poetry. ‘Ah, I see,’ she said. ‘I thought it must be something like that.’ She said this with satisfaction and some relief, as she might when a consultant had asked her a question about a patient during a ward round, and she had got the answer right.
And she wasn’t wrong: I did define myself as a writer. I hadn’t published any writing at that point, let alone earned anything from it (unless you count the £10 book token I’d won in a Puffin Club poetry competition some years earlier), but I felt at my most comfortable when I was communicating via a screen or a page. When I wrote, I could devote my whole energy to thinking about exactly what I wanted my words to mean, without having to worry about how I’d approach all the hurdles that littered my spoken interactions. I didn’t have to worry about whether, or how, it would be appropriate to initiate a conversation; I didn’t have to address two listeners at once; I didn’t have to follow the conversation like a musician might have to follow an unseen orchestral score, anxiously waiting for the right moment to come in; I didn’t have to judge when it was the right moment to leave the conversation; I didn’t have to concern myself with the possibility that, in my face, or voice, or posture, or clothes, or some other aspect of my appearance, my non-specific otherness might be showing. The page never did a double take, never laughed at me, never flinched or frowned or criticised; it never exchanged smirks with an adjacent page, or whispered to it behind its hand; it never pinned me to a wall at a party and demanded to know why I refused to have sex with it. So if the otherness was being a writer, there was some compensation.
At the time of the party, in the early 90s, another form of words to describe the otherness – a more medical form of words, suitable for use on a ward round – was beginning to gain currency in the English-speaking world. It would take another twenty years before I understood how the words applied to me. I hadn’t heard of Asperger’s Syndrome. I had heard of autism, but, like most people, assumed that it was rare, and invariably meant absent or very limited speech, an apparent lack of emotional response to other people and a complete inability to care for oneself. Other people, meanwhile, didn’t seem to talk about autistic people as though they were people. To be autistic, I learned, was, by definition, to be empty in some way; autistic people lacked language, symbolic thought, empathy, social knowhow – the ingredients that human beings like to think define them as human. It was fine to write about them as if they’d never read it. It was perfectly reasonable to talk about them as if they’d never hear.