Life with a disability can sometimes give rise to unspoken questions and sensitivities, but amid the awkwardness there can be humour.
The following is an edited version of a sketch performed by Maura Campbell, who has Asperger’s syndrome, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
I come from a family of VIPs. We all have letters after our names. My husband has ADHD. And my son and I have ASD, which stands for Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
Autism affects how a person perceives and relates to the world around them, but I don’t actually feel “disordered” as such. I think of it more as having a set of differences.
Basically, I was born with the social skills of a used teabag.
Over the years I’ve improved by carefully observing the humanoids in their natural habitat, mirroring other people and such, but I still have some social blind spots and I have a limited amount of social energy. Because of that, I experience high levels of social anxiety.
Like many women on the spectrum, I had a late diagnosis. I was 44 when my Asperger’s syndrome – a form of autism – was confirmed so for most of my life I had absolutely no idea why I found interacting with other people so problematic.
I think my defining characteristics growing up were probably my honesty and directness.
One night, as a senior manager in the civil service, I found myself at a dinner hosted by a national newspaper during party conference season. It was in the late 1990s.
I was seated beside a very non-descript bloke, who seemed pleasant enough. He introduced himself and manfully tried to keep a conversation going with me – small talk is not my strength. After an awkward pause I finally asked if he was a journalist.
“No,” he said, “I’m an MP.”
“Oh, what did you say your name was again?”
“Iain Duncan Smith.”
“Sorry. Never heard of you,” I said.
As well as autism, I have something else in common with my son – we both have curly hair. His curls make him look like a cherub. Mine hang so I look more like Dougal from The Magic Roundabout. All my life, for as long as I can remember, I have longed for straight, smooth hair.
I used to work with a woman – let’s call her Janice – who had great hair. She wore it in a nice bob which was very elegant. I wanted Janice’s hair. I had hair-envy so bad.
After a while, we went off to work in different departments. But a few years later I ran into her at a meeting with loads of people sitting round a big table.
“Janice! What have you done with your hair?” I said. Her hair was now short and curly. It didn’t suit her nearly as well as the lovely bob. “Your hair was far nicer before. Why did you do that to it?” I asked.
A strange hush descended on the room. I looked around and everybody had their heads down.
Janice smiled and replied: “Oh, you know, it just grew back that way, after the chemo.”
I realised immediately what I’d done. I felt truly awful. I started to apologise but Janice just laughed and told me it was absolutely fine.
Janice had worked with me before and so, while it must have appeared to everyone else in the room as though I had just been really rude, she knew I’d meant no harm. She chose to see the funny side.
Maybe it was even a bit of a relief for her that, for once, someone didn’t tiptoe around her illness. I had trampolined on it. Maybe she was just being kind. I don’t know, but I was incredibly grateful to her for being so gracious.
It wasn’t the first time I’d put my foot in it and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
I can only speak of my own experience, but I’ve observed that honesty and directness can be something of an “over-strength” for many autistics.
It’s often the result of our inability to be fake or insincere. We tell it like it is. I hate lies and I would rather get it wrong socially than tell an outright lie to someone.
It can also be because of a thing called “context blindness”, which sometimes leads people to assume – incorrectly – that we don’t empathise.
I think my son may have inherited the honesty gene from me as well.
One night recently, while we were snuggling together on the sofa, he poked me in the stomach. “Wobbly. Is wobbly. Too wobbly!” You know what? I couldn’t have been prouder.
Storytelling Live: Tales of the Misunderstood
Maura was one of seven people with a disability or mental health difficulty to perform a story about awkward moments as part of BBC Ouch’s storytelling event at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
You can also read:
Look out for a special TV programme which brings all the tales together.