Striking a Path into Neurotypical Space – Jeanette Purkis

I am a forty-three year old Autistic woman. Like many other Autistic people I have some quite significant ‘differences’ setting me apart from my neurotypical peers. Some of these stem directly from my Autism—things like being unable to read body language or not noticing anyone’s emotions unless they tell me or give a strong hint. I don’t usually notice if someone is crying unless they are doing it loudly! I don’t ever ‘do’ eye contact. If I remember I will look at a spot on the bridge of the nose of the person I’m talking with, but more often than not I forget and look somewhere completely different to their face or any other part of them. I also have some things which are not only associated with Autism but which Autistics commonly experience. Prosopagnosia, or face blindness is one. I recognise a tiny percentage of people by looking at their face. I remember being concerned at not being able to spot my own brother after he had been overseas once! Another issue which is not exclusive to Autistic people, but almost all the Autistic people I know experience, is sensory issues. For me this means heightened senses of hearing and smell. Sounds or smells that others are unaware of can be overwhelming, usually in a negative sense.

My life involves a lot of time spent talking and writing about Autism, in the company of Autistic people plus others who have some knowledge of Autism. But I have another life. It’s not a secret life. It is the world of my paid work. I have worked in Government administration for over ten years. I am good at it and I am well-liked at work. The vast majority of my managers and colleagues over the years have been neurotypical. I have come across a few other diagnosed Autistic colleagues and a few people who caused my mental Autie radar to go ‘twang’ quite loudly, despite them not being diagnosed. However, most of the people I work with are not Autistic and often have little understanding of Autism. In fact for many, I am the first diagnosed Autistic adult they have met.

At work I am as much ‘myself’ as I am at Autism conferences and events. I didn’t used to be but I have grown in confidence in myself. Today I wore a handbag two friends had collaborated on which has a design of planets and a rainbow strap (I know, awesome, hey!!), a red skater dress over black pants and patent leather shoes with a design of very bright colourful flowers on a black background. I usually dress in colourful, quirky clothes and shoes with big jewellery as it makes me feel happy. Dress sense is not too much of a difference and others wear quirky things, but other attributes of mine which I do not intentionally hide can be seen to set me apart. I only recognise around 5 per cent of the people I am supposed to at work. I have mastered that skill of working out when someone is upset because they think I am ‘blanking’ them deliberately. I apologise to these people and explain that I have face blindness that it is indeed a ‘thing’ and that if they tell me their name I will know exactly who they are! It is an opportunity to have a conversation about diversity and Autism so that is a good thing. I don’t get embarrassed and I figure if anyone had an issue with me not recognising people after that discussion they probably aren’t someone I want to spend time with!

Sensory issues are another difficult thing to deal with but are an excellent opportunity to discuss challenges Autistics can face. I had a birthday a couple of months ago and came into work to see my lovely colleagues had put up birthday decorations and balloons. It was so nice but I became a little anxious seeing the balloons. I hate popping balloons even if I do it deliberately. I absolutely hate the sudden BANG! I worried that I would leave up my decorations until ages after my birthday due to being anxious about popping the balloons. Instead I waited until a week after my birthday and explained to a colleague the issue I had with balloons and she offered to let them down when I was away from my desk. There was no judgement, just a wish to help. Another recent sensory challenge enabled me to talk to a different group of colleagues about sensory issues. I was at a breakfast with some of the community and disability sector women in Canberra. I don’t eat mushrooms or other fungus so have never tried truffles, so when two of the women ordered omelettes with grated black truffles on them I didn’t know what to expect. Both women were really excited about getting truffles and having heard how nice they are on cooking shows for years I assumed they would be tasty. However to me the sensory onslaught of the truffle smell resulted in me having to move two tables away until all the offending grated truffle was consumed! The women—who are friends and colleagues—said what an eye opener my reaction was about the how severely sensory issues can impact people!

The other thing I really struggle with in talking to non-autistic folks is working out what they feel from looking at their facial expression or body language. I can become paranoid I have upset someone because they seem sad, but I don’t really know and it is impossible to draw on the cues that people who can ‘do’ non-verbal body language type communication can pick up apparently instantly. I address this by being good at checking in and asking, but when I get something mixed up, if I can I will talk to the person I have the concern about and work through the issues. I get almost no non-verbal cues at all but I have significant emotional intelligence which I exercise through being able to spot even quite subtle cues in spoken and written communication.

I have a number of things which many people might imagine would render me incapable of navigating the world of those who do not share my experiences. Over my life I have learned the worst enemy in engaging with the wider world is shame and embarrassment. Thankfully I got past that—after all, why would I be ashamed of my ‘me-ness’?’ Now I get this incredible opportunity to talk to people—and show people—my autistic experience and hopefully open them up to understanding us more and being more  friendly, understanding and respectful when they come across other Autists.

About Jeanette Purkis

Jeanette Purkis is an autistic author, public speaker and autism advocate who also has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She has worked full-time in the Australian Public Service since 2007 and has a Masters degree in Visual Arts. She is the author of three books on elements of autism and hosts an internet radio show. Jeanette has presented at TEDx Canberra in 2013 and at many autism events and conferences, including alongside Temple Grandin in 2015. Jeanette has been facilitating a support group for women on the autism spectrum in Canberra since 2011. Jeanette was the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year and a finalist in the 2017 ACT Woman of he Year awards. She lives in Canberra, Australia.