When I was at Seminary (Vicar training college), one of my fellow Seminarians had a T-shirt which read Nobody knows I’m a Lesbian. That shirt always raised a smile amongst the student body: (a) because of its inherent irony; (b) because it was a slightly risqué thing to wear in a Church of England Theological College, and always threw the staff into a welter of indecision about whether they should deal with it or not; and (c) because the wearer happened to be a man.
I forget now whether the man in question actually had a political point to make or was just being a bit provocative, but lately I’ve been wishing for a similar T-shirt, one that says Nobody knows I’m autistic. I would wear it with pride. Probably inside out and under a jumper, and only when I’m not going out in public.
Because, you see, it’s true; nobody knows that I’m autistic. Well, almost nobody. I haven’t told the Church authorities, I haven’t told my Parishioners, I haven’t told members of my family or any of my friends. I haven’t even told any medical professionals, which is to say that I still haven’t plucked up the courage to get formally diagnosed (partly because I have a morbid fear and dislike of all things medical; and partly, I admit, because I’m a little bit scared they might tell me I’m not autistic – because, you know, there’s probably some other totally logical explanation for my social and communication difficulties, sensory overload, meltdowns, narrow focus, stimming, special interests, language problems, prosopagnosia, emotional regulation difficulties, executive function failures, etc., etc., etc.).
So nobody knows I’m autistic, apart from one or two people who worked it out for themselves and have been brave enough to say so. People who don’t know me well, or who do know me well but are generally insensitive anyway, continue to do all the things that make life hellish for me, like standing too close, or talking to me when I’m in the middle of doing something else, or expecting me to answer the phone and be vaguely coherent and remember what we talked about afterwards.
But recently I’ve come to realise that over the years I’ve been in this Parish, the way people interact with me has changed. When I first came here, my phone used to ring off the hook; nowadays almost everybody texts or emails. If I’m invited to dinner, the invitation now comes with a full description of what’s on the menu, who else will be there and what sort of time the evening will end. If I’m being asked to do a task, people now ask if I want reminding, and if so, how often and by what means. Every so often, someone will present me with a glass of water before I realise I’m dehydrated, tell me to put on a jumper before I realise I’m cold or produce my sunglasses before I’ve even registered that I’m finding the light too bright. This morning after Mass, someone even told me to sit down and thrust a puppy into my arms. I hadn’t noticed that I was suffering anything more than mild irritation, and it was only after I’d sat stroking the puppy for a while and it had fallen asleep on my lap that I realised how dangerously close I’d come to a public meltdown.
Realising all this makes me feel a bit embarrassed, as if I’ve become like those stroppy celebrities who have people running around them in a blind panic all the time checking that they’ve got the right kind of sparkling water in their dressing rooms. There are plenty of clergy who become high-maintenance dictators in their own churches, and I definitely don’t want to be one of them. Priesthood is a call to serve, not to be served. I don’t want my Parishioners to feel that they’re constantly treading on eggshells or having to keep me sweet. I haven’t been open with them about my autism partly because I’m still a bit ashamed of it (hello, internalised ableism), but mostly because I don’t want them to feel they have to rally round their “special needs” Vicar.
But really, this is self-delusional bullshit. They do rally round me, and they do realise I have specialised needs, whether or not they’d ever use (or even think of) the A-word. In our Church, we make all sorts of little accommodations for people who are colour blind, or hard of hearing, or a bit unsteady on their pins, or emotionally vulnerable. Nobody thinks these are unreasonable adaptations or that the people concerned are being demanding or difficult; it’s just normal human behaviour to be sensitive to one another’s needs and help each other out.
I’ve spent most of my life pretending not to be autistic, and frankly, it hasn’t served me well. I can’t even begin to recount the number of friends I’ve lost, jobs I’ve screwed up and horrendous situations I’ve got myself into, simply because I’ve been unable to admit to myself or anyone else that there are certain things I just can’t do, or won’t manage without support. The only reason I have survived this long in my present Parish is because I am surrounded by people, both in the Church and in the wider community, who just somehow get it, without being told, and are decent enough to try and provide me with the accommodations I need.
So, yeah, nobody knows I’m autistic … except that quite a lot of people do. And despite all the things that make living in the NT world really difficult, like air fresheners and fluorescent lighting and knobbly socks, there are lots of people who subtly and intuitively work to make my life easier, not because they’re saints or do-gooders or Autism experts, but simply because they’re half-decent human beings. I’m grateful to have them in my life, and I’m blessed to have them in my Church.
I don’t want to suggest that my Church is some shiny, happy Christian utopia where everybody is always a sunbeam for Jesus. It isn’t. We still have fallings-out and frustrations, and some days they all drive me batty and I could cheerfully murder the lot of them. But somehow it’s become a place where stimming is ok, executive function disasters are tolerated and everybody accepts that sometimes it’s just necessary for the Vicar to pretend to be a horse.
Plus, did I mention that we have puppies? Really. How awesome is that?