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.
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:
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.
Me 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.)
Me 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.
Me 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.
And 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.)
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.
Me at 30: “You look familiar!”
Me at 25: “…”
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.”
Me at 25: “Yeah… you don’t look older, though. Sorry if it came across that way, I’m-”
Me at 30: “It didn’t. But you’re good at finding things you must have done wrong. Blaming yourself was always your speciality.”
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.
30: “You want to ask what the future’s like?”
30: “Pretty exciting. You go through a bunch of crap over the next few years, but being 29’s pretty awesome.”
25: “Is everyone still alive?”
30: “Most of them.”
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.
30: “Nice to see you too.”
Me at 15: “Yeah, er-”
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.
25 (whispers): “Less of the non-literal stuff. He’s even more autistic than we are.”
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.”
25: “They were mostly James Bond rip-offs with Sonic characters.”
30: “Yeah, but they were awesome. Just ask Corwin and Ben. We’ve both read to them.”
15: “What are you guys talking about?”
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.
Me at 10: “Hey guys!”
30: “Hey! Haven’t seen you in a while!”
10: “How old are you?”
Me at 10 can’t hide the freaked-out look on his face. He doesn’t really want to, either.
30: “Yeah, I’m you in 2015. We live on the moon now.”
10: “Is that a joke?”
30: “Um, yes. Yes it is.”
10: “…Mine are funnier.”
25: “Oh no…”
10: “What’s wrong? Wanna hear some?”
15: “Well we already know them, don’t we?”
10: “The old guys might have forgotten!”
25: “Old guys?”
30: “Trust me… we won’t have forgotten them.”
10: “But you’re triple my age!”
30: “Christopher, every one of us remembers the number plate of the idiot that pulled out in front of Mum when we were you.”
30: “That’s the guy. Trust me, we’ll remember your jokes.”
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.
10: “So where’s us at twenty?”
25: “Probably still walking. He hasn’t seen the point in taking driving lessons yet.”
10: “And us at five?”
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.”
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.
30: “Wow, I haven’t seen so many autistic people in one room since I worked in special ed.”
25: “I get a job in special ed?”
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.
30: “Oh. Yeah. How much do you guys know about Asperger Syndrome?”
15: “…It ends with the word ‘syndrome’ so it can’t be good.”
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.
10: “What are we talking about?”
10: “Do I become a pilot?”
15: “Well I wanted to be a teacher, but I’ll be a teacher with a disorder, right?”
20: “Are those even allowed? People are scared of disorders where I come from.”
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
10: “Is that why I’m so good at maths?”
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.
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.”
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.
20 (whispers): “Bloody hell, Mum and Dad were right- we did learn to talk in paragraphs before we learned to talk in sentences.”
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.”
10: “Yeah, why don’t people bother doing that? Are they trying to be clever? Because it doesn’t work.”
15: “They’re usually trying to be diplomatic.”
10: “Mum and Dad use that word all the time. I still don’t know what it means.”
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.”
25: “Really? It’s done nothing but get in my way so far.”
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.
30: “You’ve known for a while that you’re different.”
30: “So, is this news a relief or a worry?”
15: “I’ll tell you when you’ve explained it to me.”
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.
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.”
15: “You’re talking about-”
30: “Yeah. That. We remember it well. Do you know why you’ve kept it to yourself?”
15: “Because nobody else would get it.”
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.”
15: “So… am I weird or not?”
30: “Depends who you’re asking. Everyone’s weird by somebody’s standards.”
25: “The whole world’s weird by mine.”
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?”
15: “The bullies.”
30: “Exactly. Because they matter to you right now. But they don’t for long.”
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.”
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.
30: “Now, you at least know what autism is.”
20: “Yeah, I’ve babysat an autistic lad.”
30: “He’s so cool, isn’t he?”
20: “Yeah, he is. So… me and him have more in common than we think?”
30: “Well autism’s different for literally everyone, but yes. For you, it made you really intelligent but made you suck at understanding people.”
20: “Like the guys in my university halls last year.”
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.”
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.
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.
30: “Wow… where do I even start with you?”
25: “Tell me whether I make peace with last year’s news.”
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?”
25: “Because it makes me offend people all the time and I don’t get why.”
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.”
25: “You’re saying it’s other people’s fault they’re offended by me?”
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.”
25: “If I’m so great, why can’t I get a job?”
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.”
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…
20: “Maybe that’s always been our problem.”
25: “Maybe it always will be.”
10: “It’s never been mine…”
15: “Enjoy it. It’ll last another year or so.”
25: “Ok old guy, so what about you? What makes you so positive?”
30 (to self): “Why does everyone always think I’m positive about everything?”
20: “Because you just spent the whole meeting giving us self-help advice.”
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.”
10: “If it’s before 10:18pm you’re not really thirty yet!”
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.”
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.”
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.
10: “One last thing, Chris…”
10: “…What’s it like being old?”
30: “I’ll tell you when I get there.”
10: “No, I mean… what’s it like being a proper adult?”
Me at 30 smiles.
30: “On Saturday me and my friends went Go-Karting for my 30th birthday.”
Me at 10 suddenly has a huge optimistic grin.
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.”
10 (walking through the door with a smile): “Maybe I’ll be able to do that one day.”
30 (smiling): “You will.”
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international 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). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook