Conversations with my younger autistic selves


Warning: this article made a few of my friends cry. In a good way, thankfully.

 

Today is my thirtieth birthday. And, since I’m the oldest in my group of friends by a few months, they all insist that I’m getting old.

I’m not going to pretend that they’re right. I’m not even halfway to being dead (God willing).

 

But I do have a lot to look back on. One of the only advantages about having no job stability is that it means I’ve been loads of places and done loads of things. Oh, and working with kids means you get to watch them grow up- which a lot of people will claim makes you feel old very quickly.

I know I’m only thirty, but it feels like I’ve lived a long time. And that’s such a blessing.

 

I made this a few years ago for a reason I can't remember. Probably just because watching yourself grow and change is so interesting.

I made this a few years ago for a reason I can’t remember. Probably just because watching yourself grow and change is so interesting.

 

Like most adults, I would love to go back in time and give advice to my younger self.

But… which younger self? My outlook on life has changed entirely every few years, depending on what part of adolescence/adulthood I was at, what my job situation was, how my mental health was doing, and just generally what life experience had taught me.

 

So, in this article, I will be talking to four of my younger selves.

 

You are about to meet me at 10 years old, 15 years old, 20 years old and 25 years old. All of them are strikingly different (to each other, and to the person I am now).

A little introduction to each of them:

 

meTobyTinker
Me at 10:
This child is, to sum it up, endearingly crazy. Just on the verge of figuring out that he’s different (not just ‘different’, but different), Me at 10 is still at that beautiful stage in life where he doesn’t know he’s being weird… and therefore is totally unafraid of being himself.

Me at 10 is happy with the person he is, but is aware that some others aren’t. But who cares? Whenever he’s criticised for being odd, he always has his daydreams to escape into.

 

 

 

AberystwythMe at 15: Right in the most heated part of teenage angst, Me at 15 is starting to find out what kind of adult he wants to be. He is extremely self-aware (and self-conscious), and knows beyond doubt that he is different to almost everybody his age. He’s under no illusion about his strengths (both personal and academic), but he still struggles socially. A lot.

We’re meeting Me at 15 right in the middle of his adolescent journey of self-discovery. (Despite its awkwardness, 15 was perhaps one of the most important years of my life.)

 

 

WWLMe at 20: Halfway through a maths degree, life is going well for Me at 20. His school years are far behind him, and after a tricky start at university he has settled down with lots of friends- some from taekwondo, some from the Christian Union, and some from his maths course. He is still very definitely very different, and has wondered increasingly whether there’s something diagnosably wrong with his personality. But he’s always put it down to exam stress.

Me at 20 has found his feet as a student, but has no idea how rocky his next decade will be. Adulthood won’t work out the way he planned.

 

0624_22notlookingMe at 25: Having just come out of a gruelling teaching course with mental cuts and bruises, Me at 25 is struggling to get a job because he struggles so much with interviews. He believes he is failing at the only career he ever wanted, and is several years away from the therapy which straightens out some important issues.

Most crucially, Me at 25 finally knows he has Asperger’s. On the one hand it’s very relieving to finally have a word for it, but Me at 25 is not yet at peace with his autism. To him, it is still something that makes him pathologically offend people and lose friends, and it gets in the way of him being everything he wants to be.

He doesn’t look sad in this photo, because he’s working with his youth group- the only place on Earth where he is consistently happy.

 

me3And me at 30: Well, this blog teaches you pretty much everything about me. I’ve left teaching (having worked in special ed too along the way) and I’m excited about new things. But most importantly, I no longer see my Asperger’s as a negative and (for the most part) I’ve stopped blaming myself for other people’s perceptions. The anxiety’s still there in not-so-small doses, but most of the original reasons for it are gone.

And, in case you haven’t gathered, Me at 30 is totally fine with the whole bloody internet knowing about his Asperger’s.

 

So, even though the thought of five Chris Bonnellos in one room would give some people nightmares (especially since one of them is me as a ten-year-old boy), let’s get started.

 

(I can barely express how therapeutic this was to write, by the way.)

 

Introductions

Me at 30 sets out the chairs in a far-too-perfect pentagon, and awaits his younger selves.

Me at 25 arrives first, far too early, because he wants a few minutes alone with Me at 30. After all, once the others arrive he’ll probably be choked out of the conversation.
age5  Me at 30: “You look familiar!”

age4  Me at 25: “…”

age5  Me at 30: “Let me guess- you’re struggling with whether to make a comment about whether I’ve aged, because you think either answer may offend me.”

age4  Me at 25: “Yeah… you don’t look older, though. Sorry if it came across that way, I’m-”

age5  Me at 30: “It didn’t. But you’re good at finding things you must have done wrong. Blaming yourself was always your speciality.”

age4  Me at 25: “The others too. Except Me at 10.”

Me at 25 looks at Me at 30, wondering if he’ll reveal whether that problem ever resolves itself. Me at 30, perceptive as ever, doesn’t notice.

age4  25: “So…”

age5  30: “You want to ask what the future’s like?”

age4  25: “…Yeah.”

age5  30: “Pretty exciting. You go through a bunch of crap over the next few years, but being 29’s pretty awesome.”

age4  25: “Is everyone still alive?”

age5  30: “Most of them.”

age4  25: “…”

age5  30: “And you do get a teaching job in the end. On your thirteenth interview. But it-”

Me at 15 walks into the room, and stands wordless in the doorway.

age5  30: “Nice to see you too.”

age2  Me at 15: “Yeah, er-”

age5  30: “My name’s Chris. I’m double your age. This is what you look like after fifteen years of pretending to be an adult.”

Me at 15 offers a nervous grin.

age4  25 (whispers): “Less of the non-literal stuff. He’s even more autistic than we are.”

age5  30: “Autism’s not something you lose over time, Chris. You just learn your way out of some things. And don’t underestimate the lad either- he writes some bloody good stories.”

age4  25: “They were mostly James Bond rip-offs with Sonic characters.”

age5  30: “Yeah, but they were awesome. Just ask Corwin and Ben. We’ve both read to them.”

age2  15: “What are you guys talking about?”

age4  25: “Nothing important. Just waiting for the others.”

Me at 15, unable to detect lies even if they come from transparent people, nods and waits.

Me at 10 walks into the room with a massive, massive grin.

age1  Me at 10: “Hey guys!”

age5  30: “Hey! Haven’t seen you in a while!”

age1  10: “How old are you?”

age5  30: “Thirty.”

Me at 10 can’t hide the freaked-out look on his face. He doesn’t really want to, either.

age5  30: “Yeah, I’m you in 2015. We live on the moon now.”

age1  10: “Is that a joke?”

age5  30: “Um, yes. Yes it is.”

age1  10: “…Mine are funnier.”

age4  25: “Oh no…”

age1  10: “What’s wrong? Wanna hear some?”

age2  15: “Well we already know them, don’t we?”

age1  10: “The old guys might have forgotten!”

age4  25: “Old guys?”

age5  30: “Trust me… we won’t have forgotten them.”

age1  10: “But you’re triple my age!”

age5  30: “Christopher, every one of us remembers the number plate of the idiot that pulled out in front of Mum when we were you.”

age1  10: “H476ACH?”

age5  30: “That’s the guy. Trust me, we’ll remember your jokes.”

age1  10: “Yeah, but most people remember things like other people’s number plates, don’t they?”

Me at 25 and Me at 30 wonder whether or not to tell him.

age1  10: “So where’s us at twenty?”

age4  25: “Probably still walking. He hasn’t seen the point in taking driving lessons yet.”

age1  10: “And us at five?”

age5  30: “Yeah, he couldn’t make it. He’s too busy eating Play-Dough, lining up his toys and counting to forty in French. And pissing off his teacher by not listening to her.”

age2  15: “Well if she’d actually been nice to the weird kid…”

Me at 10 is shocked at Me at 30’s language. Then Me at 20 walks in, noticeably fitter than the rest of us.

age5  30: “Wow, I haven’t seen so many autistic people in one room since I worked in special ed.”

Silence.

age4  25: “I get a job in special ed?”

age3  20: “I’m autistic?!”

Me at 15 is silent because he knows he’s finally about to discover what made him so ‘individual’ during his time growing up. He’s been wondering for years now.

Me at 10 is totally distracted by that scene from the Sonic The Hedgehog cartoon where Sonic finds his uncle imprisoned inside a robot and the whole episode makes it look like he’s going to get rescued, only for Sonic and friends to fail at the last minute and have to leave his uncle behind. It was a really sad twist, and he still feels cheated by it.

age5  30: “Oh. Yeah. How much do you guys know about Asperger Syndrome?”

age2  15: “…It ends with the word ‘syndrome’ so it can’t be good.”

age4  25: “Well I’m trying to make peace with it…”

Me at 10 finally deciphers the tense mood in the room and comes to his senses.

age1  10: “What are we talking about?”

age2  15: “Adulthood…”

age1  10: “Do I become a pilot?”

age2  15: “Well I wanted to be a teacher, but I’ll be a teacher with a disorder, right?”

age3  20: “Are those even allowed? People are scared of disorders where I come from.”

age1  10: “Chris, what’s wrong with me?”

Me at 30 raises a hand and, using that commanding facial expression he always used as a teacher, shuts everyone up.

age5  30: “Ok, this is getting out of hand. Let me explain to each of you what Asperger’s actually is.”

 

Explaining Asperger’s to Me at 10

Me at 30 turns to Me at 10.

age5  30: “You know how people sometimes don’t seem to get what you mean? Like, it’s really clear in your own head but other people struggle to translate what you’re saying?”

age1  10: “Yeah?”

age5  30: “It’s because you see the world differently to other people. Your brain works things out a little differently. You use methods that other people don’t when you’re trying to reach the right answer.”

age1  10: “Is that why I’m so good at maths?”

age5  30: “Well, it’s not that way for everyone with Asperger’s… but in your case, yes. You end up with a maths degree. In all fairness though, that’s down to hard work rather than just being clever. That’s a lesson you’ll have to learn one day.”

Me at 10 wonders why his future self is telling him off.

age5  30: “Anyway, seeing things differently isn’t a bad thing. In fact, the look on your face tells me you love the idea. Yes, it means that other people find you confusing once in a while, and it’s true the other way round too… but people will value your words because they won’t think of the same ideas by themselves.”

age1  10: “Kind of like that D.A.R.E. lesson when we were asked what the consequences would be if you took a knife to school to protect you from bullies… and I said that the knife might fall out of your schoolbag and you’d confront the bullies not knowing that you were actually helpless and it would all backfire on you, and David said ‘only Chris would think of something like that’?”

Me at 30 decides not to tell Me at 10 that the ed-psych wrote down “slightly odd personality” in his report earlier that year. The boy is fifteen years away from discovering that little gem.

age3  20 (whispers): “Bloody hell, Mum and Dad were right- we did learn to talk in paragraphs before we learned to talk in sentences.”

age5  30: “Anyway, that’s one symptom of Asperger’s. There are others too, like taking people literally when they mean something else, and not getting hints. You prefer people to actually say what they mean.”

age1  10: “Yeah, why don’t people bother doing that? Are they trying to be clever? Because it doesn’t work.”

age2  15: “They’re usually trying to be diplomatic.”

age1  10: “Mum and Dad use that word all the time. I still don’t know what it means.”

age5  30: “Anyway, the not-getting-hints thing- that’s part of Asperger’s. People will go on and on about what it stops you from doing, but as you get older your ability to think differently becomes a handy one.”

age4  25: “Really? It’s done nothing but get in my way so far.”

age5  30: “Oh, stop being negative. I’ll get to you in a bit.”

 

Telling the teenager how to be his own person

Me at 30 turns to Me at 15.

age5  30: “You’ve known for a while that you’re different.”

age2  15: “Yeah…”

age5  30: “So, is this news a relief or a worry?”

age2  15: “I’ll tell you when you’ve explained it to me.”

age5  30: “Ok. When you’re a teenager, having Asperger’s can feel kind of like you’re on the wrong planet. And there’s a constant balancing act between being your real self, and being the person you’re expected to be. But that’s the same for most teenagers, to an extent.”

Me at 15 tries to come up with something insightful to say, but can’t.

age5  30: “You’re in the middle of finding yourself, Chris. And you’re doing it your own way, which is awesome. …And we both know that nobody else will have found themselves with the same path that you’re using.”

age2  15: “You’re talking about-”

age5  30: “Yeah. That. We remember it well. Do you know why you’ve kept it to yourself?”

age2  15: “Because nobody else would get it.”

age5  30: “That’s it! It’s something that only applies to you, and you know it. Having Asperger’s means you’re approaching things from your own quirky angle, but it’s only quirky from everyone else’s perspective. It’s normal to you.”

age2  15: “So… am I weird or not?”

age5  30: “Depends who you’re asking. Everyone’s weird by somebody’s standards.”

age4  25: “The whole world’s weird by mine.”

age5  30: “Basically Chris, ‘weird’ and ‘not weird’ aren’t things you should concern yourself with. You’re on the verge of adulthood now, and it’s important that you discover yourself through your own eyes, not everyone else’s. Because let me guess whose eyes you’d be using to judge yourself?”

age2  15: “The bullies.”

age5  30: “Exactly. Because they matter to you right now. But they don’t for long.”

age3  20: “He’s right. I’m the next Chris up from you and they haven’t mattered to me in ages. In fact, last time I saw a group of them, I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. Me and my friends had grown up, and they hadn’t.”

age5  30: “See? You haven’t got long until they vanish out of your life forever. Do you want to become an adult that you’re happy with, or waste time becoming the adult they’re happy with?”

Me at 15 nods. He knew this all along, but it’s always good to hear someone else confirm your own thoughts.

 

Dealing with me as an adult

Me at 30 turns to Me at 20.

age5  30: “Now, you at least know what autism is.”

age3  20: “Yeah, I’ve babysat an autistic lad.”

age5  30: “He’s so cool, isn’t he?”

age3  20: “Yeah, he is. So… me and him have more in common than we think?”

age5  30: “Well autism’s different for literally everyone, but yes. For you, it made you really intelligent but made you suck at understanding people.”

age3  20: “Like the guys in my university halls last year.”

age5  30: “Perfect example. But you found your housemates in the end. And if you’re going to struggle a little with how people work, you might as well surround yourself with trustworthy people like you have over the last few months.”

age3  20: “Yeah. …Hey, wasn’t Chloe O’Brien from ‘24’ autistic?”

Me at 30 takes a nostalgic moment to remember how big ‘24’ was, back when he was at uni.

age5  30: “Yeah, and she was bloody good at her job. Find a place where you can play to your strengths and you’ll be known for the same thing.”

Me at 30 turns to Me at 25.

age5  30: “Wow… where do I even start with you?”

age4  25: “Tell me whether I make peace with last year’s news.”

age5  30: “Well, answer me this first. Why aren’t you at peace with it? Even the teenager knows he’s different and the kid isn’t far from working it out himself. Why are you struggling with something you’ve known for most of your life but never had a word for?”

age4  25: “Because it makes me offend people all the time and I don’t get why.”

age5  30: “We’ve talked about this- you’re very good at blaming yourself for things you shouldn’t. And other people are very good at spotting self-blamers and offloading their issues onto them.”

age4  25: “You’re saying it’s other people’s fault they’re offended by me?”

age5  30: “I’m saying you’re making the same mistake as you did at fifteen- you’re relying on other people to define your identity. Even worse, you’re letting them decide your self-worth. Bloody hell, Chris, you’re a qualified teacher with a maths degree, you’re a writer with loads of potential, and your local youth group just made you Captain. And you forget all of that the moment someone belittles you.”

age4  25: “If I’m so great, why can’t I get a job?”

age5  30: “Because there’s a difference between being good at a job, and being able to talk about how good you are at the job. There’s a bit of Asperger’s in that too.”

age4  25: “Yay.”

age5  30: “It’ll take you a few years to start therapy- you’ll wait longer than you should- but it’ll tell you where your real anxieties lie. And they’re not in the person you really are. It’s not even the fact that you’ve got two degrees and you’re still unemployed, single and living with your parents. The root of your anxieties is your perception of what others might think of you.”

 

And in closing…

Thoughtful silence.

age3  20: “Maybe that’s always been our problem.”

age4  25: “Maybe it always will be.”

age1  10: “It’s never been mine…”

age2  15: “Enjoy it. It’ll last another year or so.”

age4  25: “Ok old guy, so what about you? What makes you so positive?”

age5  30 (to self): “Why does everyone always think I’m positive about everything?”

age3  20: “Because you just spent the whole meeting giving us self-help advice.”

age5  30: “It’s what I’ve always loved, and it’s what every one of you loves too- helping vulnerable people. I’m just five, ten, fifteen and twenty years more experienced. Now I’d better wrap this meeting up… it won’t be my birthday for much longer.”

age1  10: “If it’s before 10:18pm you’re not really thirty yet!”

age5  30: “True…”

age3  20: “Technically you won’t be until tomorrow. 2015 is three quarters of the way through the leap year cycle so the world’s clock is three quarters of a day behind.”

age5  30: “Also true. But I’d better end this now- I try to keep my articles under 4,000 words in case the readers get bored.”

age4  25: “Huh?”

age5  30: “Doesn’t matter.” (Stands up from his chair and invites everyone else towards the door.) “Me at 10, keep doing what you’re doing. Me at 15, don’t give the bullies an inch of your self-worth. Me at 20, enjoy uni while you have it. Me at 25… try to build a higher opinion of yourself. Being different doesn’t mean you’re wrong.”

Me at 25 gives a polite but doubting smile, but Me at 30 doesn’t care. He knows the younger him will get there in the end.

All the former selves leave the room, but Me at 10 is noticeably hanging back. The others can see right through him, so they walk out and allow him to be last.

age1  10: “One last thing, Chris…”

age5  30: “Yep?”

age1  10: “…What’s it like being old?”

age5  30: “I’ll tell you when I get there.”

age1  10: “No, I mean… what’s it like being a proper adult?”

Me at 30 smiles.

age5  30: “On Saturday me and my friends went Go-Karting for my 30th birthday.”

Me at 10 suddenly has a huge optimistic grin.

age5  30: “Trust me, your childhood lasts as long as you let it. The trick is learning how to be responsible at the same time as being childlike.”

age1  10 (walking through the door with a smile): “Maybe I’ll be able to do that one day.”

age5  30 (smiling): “You will.”

 

Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).

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20 Comments

    • Thanks a lot! 😀

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  1. Thank you. I’ve spent so much of my life struggling alone with my weirdness. It is amazing to read that someone else has had the same experiences. Your words mean so much.

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks a lot, and I’m glad this site has helped you. 😀 Things are much better for us these days, now that we have the internet and there are so many people out there willing to talk about autism! Like I wrote in this article, I felt my fair share of isolation too while I was growing up.

      Post a Reply
  2. Chris: a fantastically written article. A very interesting read from someone who knew you at 23/24. You may have been ‘different’ but you had a lot of mates on the PGCE that liked you for who you were. Keep up the great articles. I know they are helping so many people. Maybe you could look into writing a novel to help autistic kids?!? Well done and keep posting. It’s good to hear how your getting on. Alexia x

    Post a Reply
    • Hey! 😀 Thanks a lot for the comment, and I hope all’s well at your end.
      You guys were basically the glue that held me together during the PGCE. 🙂 not sure if I ever told you all that, but it helped a LOT to have people who supported me whether or not things were going well. 🙂

      And the autism writing is a plan! 😀 Non-fiction mainly, but I’ve got a few (non-autism-related) fictions works going too. 🙂
      Thanks again!

      Post a Reply
  3. Incredibly helpful for those of us who love young people who are struggling with their Autism. Thank you.

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    • No problem. 🙂 Thank you.

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  4. Can’t wait to show this to my 13-year old, who I would say is in his own way just between your 10 and 15s…
    Thanks for this,
    from 46 😉

    Post a Reply
    • I really hope he gets something from it. 😀 Thanks for the comment! (If he’s interested he’s welcome to read the growing up article too, if he hasn’t seen it!)

      Thanks again. 🙂

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  5. Gosh, I like this. I’m going to have a shot at writing my own conversation with my younger selves. The 15/16-yr-old me will be hard, because she was really ANGRY and the 25-yr-old me was sad and anxious, but I hope they’ll be able to look forward to the 35-yr-old me and keep going. It’s worth a shot. Thanks for this!

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    • No problem. 🙂 Why not have a go? It was so much fun writing this!

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  6. I like! I’ve done a self-reflection, but never so coherently. Honest, open, sprinkled with humor, insightful– this not only had a lot to share people, and told us a lot about your own journey, but is really good writing. Not that you need to be told that. 🙂

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    • Wonderful and detailed compliments- thanks a lot! 😀

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  7. We learn so much from what you share, Chris! Thank you!

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  8. You are an amazing writer. When my son gets properly diagnosed… I am certain, you’re writing will help him feel valued, normal & understood. It will make him laugh outloud, to himself,as he often does…. Because everything you’re saying is true, so deep, intriquette, precise beyond measure, Incredibly funny and entertaining, in the same breath. If you were right in front of me, I would tell you I love you Chris. Seriously. I love you because you’re writing, and your honesty and the time you take to connect so that I can feel like my son will be understood is as if you are writing for my son… For the kid I know struggles on a day-to-day basis so 13. You give me hope and confidence that my son can also share your progress as you have NBA the amazing point in your life that you are… That’s my biggest fear for him is not feeling good enough, worthless and so isolated. You are so highly deeply aware and so educational and your words are beautifully written and I feel like I am talking to my son when he is 30. And now it only 13 today, I pray that he has some of your serenity and self-worth that you have earned, learned and developed.I’m not kidding… my son’s name is James and I think you, your writing & the information, you so eloquently write,are going to save him from not feeling good enough, as he already does on a daily basis and how he might feel once he is diagnosed by a professional. I hope you understand what I’m saying here. This is a complete compliment to you. I feel like God handed you to meet today, through your writing…so I could help my son love himself, exactly has he is!!! You are a blessing.

    Katherine Pittman

    Post a Reply
    • WOAH, those are enormous compliments! 😮 Thanks so much!! I’ll send you that email as soon as I can, and I really hope James benefits from having a printed copy of the article.
      Take care, God bless,
      Chris

      Post a Reply
  9. A sonic themed James Bond…….. I kinda need to read that! Love the conversations between you and, well, you 😉 Never ever stop being you Chris x

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  10. This is great. Really loving your articles and have been sharing them with friends and acquaintances whose kids are on the spectrum. I am finding the essays interesting and insightful, and feel that a number of the ideas in them are applicable to everyone, not just people who are autistic. My 16 year old daughter has an intellectual disability and has several friends who have a diagnosis of ASD as well as ID. I wondered if you had any thoughts that you’ve shared (or want to share) about people who have both diagnoses. I think these essays are brilliant for people with Asperger’s or people wanting to better understand people who are autistic, but it must be a lot harder when someone has less intellectual understanding (or is much less verbal). Did your background as a teacher of special needs kids give you any insight about this? BTW, I have been conscious while writing this of trying for precision of language, and have been finding it harder to do than I would have guessed.

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  11. For a moment I wanted to write something like this. Then I noticed I’m only 16, and if I invite me at 10 he would probably take a book like The full Chronicles of Narnia with him and read in that unless spoken too, while I would be like ‘Hi me, this is awkward. IDK what to say to you.’

    Post a Reply

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