Greta the Aspie

There’s a strange assumption I’ve come across of late that, by dint of my autism, I must necessarily be a fan of other people on the spectrum. This is particularly odd when the only point of similarity between us is our diagnosis. As a tattooed, shaven-headed, guitar-playing proponent of punk, rock, metal and grunge, is it really likely that I’m going to listen to Susan Boyle simply because she’s Aspergic? And as a fan of mostly horror and crime fiction, am I going to enjoy Chris Packham’s meandering nature memoir because he, too, is on the spectrum? (Short answer, no).

So, in a week during which 16-year-old autistic activist Greta Thurnberg dominated the headlines by not only arguing her case at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, but also giving the Leader of the Free World the worst case of stink eye I’ve ever seen, everywhere I go it’s assumed I must be a fan. People keep asking my opinion of her, and of climate change, and whether we should be running for the hills screaming, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling!’ all because we both happen to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

On the one hand, it’s rather patronising to presume that, because we’re both autistic, I have specialist insight into a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has made it her mission to beat everyone over the head with a virtue stick like a real life Lisa Simpson. On the other, it’s nice that people are talking to me, and since, as a result of my autism, I’m a keen observer of the human condition (even if my conclusions are sometimes way off base), it probably makes more sense to ask me than some random weirdo who sleeps on a park bench and smells of cheese.

So what do I think of Greta Thurnberg?

I have mixed feelings. I think she’s done an amazing job almost singlehandedly putting environmentalism at the centre of the political agenda and bringing the issue of climate change to the forefront of everyone’s minds, and there’s little doubt her autism has played a massive part in this – her obsession, stubbornness, and dogged refusal to be put off by any criticism or negative feedback have all served her well. She’s demonstrated in the best possible way that one person can change the world, if only they work hard and believe in themselves enough. And unlike some environmentalists (*cough* Prince Harry *cough*), she practices what she preaches, travelling by trains and yachts instead of cars and planes. Kudos.

However, the same autism that has enabled her to succeed has, I think, exposed her to legitimate criticism in terms of her message, and created genuine concern about the potential impact of being so notorious so young on both her short-term and long-term mental health.

Climate change is clearly her obsession, but as with many people on the spectrum, while we are fabulous at learning facts and figures, we often lack a genuine understanding of the topic – we’re great at studying the trees, but not so good at putting them together to see the forest. You know, big picture stuff. There is certainly a tinge of millenarian hysteria in her rhetoric, and while she has been emotionally restrained in the past, her speech on Monday was dramatic, scathing, emotional and scolding. It risked undermining the good that she’s done since nobody likes being lectured by a know-it-all teenager who thinks they can solve all the world’s problems because they’re better than you. I should know – as a teen I was insufferable, and, human nature being what it us, I never managed to convince anyone that my extensive knowledge of playground social interaction meant anything in the ‘real’ world. Strange.

Now, before you say I’m a climate change denier, I’m not. The science is unequivocal – the climate is changing. And anyone who ignores the impact of man on the environment and thinks it’s all a conspiracy to charge higher taxes simply doesn’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that we are a massive cause of this. That said, predicting the effects of anthropogenic global warming using computer models is on less sure-footing given our inability to accurately measure the influence of millions of different variables on complex weather patterns, ocean currents and ecosystems. I think much of the panic afflicting young people right now is from taking the ‘worst case scenario’ models. It’s ‘end of the world’ stuff, a doomsday cult with scientific backing, so it’s no wonder that schoolkids are crying themselves to sleep over our impending demise.

I’m not so pessimistic. I think we’re going to be seeing a turbulent few decades involving mass migration of people, increasingly frequent extreme weather events, and lots of highly-charged arguments about power sources and a diet containing less meat and more locally-sourced produce, but I don’t think humanity is going extinct. And the accusation that we’re doing nothing to combat climate change is just as selective a reading of the evidence as climate change denial. We’re not doing enough, certainly; we can definitely go further; but the very fact so many people are engaging with this issue shows that it is being taken seriously by large swathes of the population, including consumers, manufacturers, lobbyists and politicians (with the notable exception of Donald Trump).

Likewise, I fundamentally disagree with many climate change zealots who seem to think we can save the world by going backwards, banning cars and air travel and returning to a pre-industrial-type lifestyle. That genie is out of the lamp, and it’s not getting put back in. Through the natural earthly cycle, climate change is going to happen whether or not we change, so preparing for it is far better than trying to hold back the tide. We need more technology, not less. Look at how digital streaming services have massively reduced the manufacture of CDs and DVDs. Look at how 3D printers prevent the need for transporting goods from the other side of the world. Look at the new Sabre oxygen-hydrogen hybrid engine, which promises far greener air travel. These are the things that are going to let us reach a carbon-neutral society, not a bunch of Luddites throwing their shoes into the machinery.

When it comes to effecting change, I think Greta Thurnberg is right in targeting the young and will reap the rewards of this stratagem, but not in the way that she thinks. Far too many pressure groups and protesters (like Extinction Rebellion and many of Thurnberg’s student activists) seem to prefer standing on the outside shouting at ‘the Establishment’, and I have no truck with that that way of thinking. If you want system change, you do it from within the system. You train hard and work hard, you become an expert, you get into a position where you have the power to change things – you don’t piss and moan on a street corner. I don’t think the student strikes will change the world, but I think ten years from now, when those same students move into government and academia and industry around the world, that’s when things will change – from the inside.

As far as Thurnberg’s mental health goes, I do worry what kind of support she’s receiving. This is a person with diagnoses of autism, OCD and selective mutism who, by her own admission, has battled depression and anorexia and who is right now at the very centre of world affairs and media scrutiny. Of course, I’m not saying that this in any way detracts from her message or that she should be denied the right to express it, but as someone who has experienced breakdowns and burnouts throughout his life, I wonder how long she can keep it up. My saying this probably comes across as patronising in itself, and if so, yeah, I am, but that doesn’t change that, from my experience of those of us on the spectrum, her mental health is a legitimate concern and she should not be mocked by the President of the United States simply for being herself.

So, in summary, I think Greta Thurnberg should be applauded, not only for highlighting the issue of climate change, battling her way into the corridors of power, and ensuring the next generation of lawmakers and decision-makers will be concerned about the environment, but for practising what she preaches, even if I’m not entirely on-board with the severity of her message, and I have more hope about the future than she seems to be.

The way I see it, while climate change makes the future a terrifying unknown, we’re humans – we’re creative, adaptable, resilient and determined, and I have no doubt we’ve got this. Of course, climate change fanatics, and Greta Thurnberg herself, might call this hubris, since humans can also be stupid, selfish, backward-looking and incredibly resistant to change. It all depends on your perception of humanity, and whether you believe we are collectively a good or an evil. I’m prepared to think we’re better than Thurnberg thinks.

I hope humanity doesn’t prove me wrong.

Working on yourself isn’t selfish

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been struggling with mental illness for a while now. Well, all my life in fact, but it’s been particularly severe of late. I’ve pushed myself past the point of sanity, kept struggling on far longer than I should, sacrificing my health, my hobbies, my self-esteem and my dreams in order to be the best father I can be.

And after four years I’ve burned out and can’t give of my best anymore.

I’ve come to realise, as I should have done years ago, that you can’t look after anyone else if you don’t look after yourself. It’s like when a plane is going down and the oxygen masks drop from overhead – put your own mask on before you help the children with theirs, otherwise you pass out and you all die. I thought that being miserable was part of the job, that feeling empty and unfulfilled was a cross that every parent has to bear and I could stubbornly push on and survive on willpower alone. Now I know better.

You can’t be a good parent if all you do is parent. You have to leave the kids, go out and experience all the wonders that the world has to offer, so you can bring that wonder back into your life and give it to your children. Without balance – without time away to gain perspective – you become stuck in unhealthy and repetitive cycles.

need down time, hobbies and personal goals that aren’t centred on parenting. I need to find space for Gillan the man, alongside Gillan the dad.

At school I was told I wouldn’t find fulfilment anywhere outside a university, and they were right. After my first degree, I was strongly encouraged to do a PhD. Instead, I got a second degree and a Masters, after which I was even more strongly encouraged to do a PhD. That was 2015, a few months before my daughter was born and studying had to take a back seat.

Now that she’s started school and my second daughter is two, I’ve decided I want to go for my PhD, and it’s the first time in years that I’ve felt excited about something, where the future seems to hold possibility and light instead of an endless slog of crushed hopes and forgotten dreams.

I’m not unrealistic. With a needy wife and two young kids, I’ll have to do it part time, and without two beans to rub together I’ll have to secure funding, but with a will to succeed I don’t think these difficulties are insurmountable. And as it will make me a better, happier, more contented person, I will be a better father and better husband. To be frank, I’m not good at either right now, and if it keeps going as it is, my marriage is going to fail. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Unfortunately, my decision has been met with decidedly less enthusiasm than I imagined. I’ve been told by various people – people I thought would understand – that I ‘can’t’ do a PhD; that I have ‘delusions of grandeur’; that as a father, with a family to think of, the time and opportunity has passed. The implication has been, almost universally, that to do a PhD would somehow be ‘selfish’, and they think less of me for even entertaining such a notion.

I hadn’t realised that having children means your life is over. Forget having hopes and dreams, forget trying to improve yourself and your situation in life – where you are when you have kids is where you will remain until you die. I should just ‘man up’ and struggle on, I suppose, keep feeling horribly empty, irritable and unhappy, keep failing as a husband and a father, so long as I don’t upset the apple cart. How selfish of me to try and escape that destructive mentality and make something of myself, and in the process become the person I want to be.

There’s nothing noble about sacrificing your dreams when you become a parent. For some people, having a family is their whole life. It isn’t for me. I didn’t cease to be an individual the moment I slipped on my ‘dad hat’. I have many roles to play in this world and I refuse to be pigeonholed into one that is only part of who I am. Turning away from life to focus on on your children makes you insular, one-dimensional, and blind. I’d rather put out my eyes and engage with the world by touch than choose to ignore it.

It isn’t selfish to work on yourself. Nor is it desirable. It’s essential. It makes you a better person and a better parent. Would I want my girls to give up their dreams when they become mothers? No. I’d expect them to take their children with them as they shoot for the stars. And that’s the example I want to give them. Why settle for one or the other when you can have both? Life isn’t about shutting yourself off and staying in the same place, it’s about opening up and going on a journey. This river has been stagnant long enough; it’s time to let it flow again.

No matter what anyone else thinks.

The definition of impossible

Before you have kids, you think of the impossible in terms of massively unachievable goals that affect the very nature of our existence. World peace, faster-than-light travel, a day without anybody mentioning Brexit. You know, big things.

After you’ve had kids, your understanding of impossibility comes much closer to home.

Like, have you ever tried explaining to a four-year-old that the man who lives with Granny isn’t Grandpa but is actually Granny’s boyfriend? What about the difference between a boyfriend and a husband, or why some people get married and some people don’t? It makes faster-than-light travel seem a cinch by comparison.

What about trying to follow the labyrinthine stories they tell through all the twists and turns of pointless details and extraneous information? You might as well try learning ancient Greek without a primer for all the sense it makes.

Have you ever tried fishing poo out of the bathtub without smearing it all over the sides? Or explaining to a toddler that she really shouldn’t poop in the bath.

Why? Why?

Have you ever tried explaining to your kids that Justin Fletcher and Mr Tumble are the same person, or that the distinction between ‘not nearly there yet’ and ‘nearly there yet’ is longer than thirty seconds? I’ve given up trying to make them understand perspective – if they think the moon is chasing the car every time we drive, I’m just going to have to leave that delusion intact.

I’ve also decided not to bother asking what my eldest did at school anymore, because it’s a mystery I will never get to the bottom of. Other than learning that she once saw a pigeon in the playground, whatever happens inside those school gates stays inside those school gates.

And forget trying to get your kid to understand how to tell a joke.

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Izzie. Ha ha!

Izzie who?

Izzie. It’s me. Your daughter.

Oh

At least her chicken jokes are getting better, if only because their randomness makes them unintentionally amusing. Why did the cow cross the road? Because it was the dog’s day off at work, ha ha!

Of course, some people out there are going to argue that these things aren’t really impossible, and they’re hardly universal, applying only to me in my very limited family sphere. To those people, I will say that I’ve come to believe there are some impossible truths that cross all cultures and time periods and afflict every parent in human history: the word ‘no’ will never be the end of it; you cannot cut an onion small enough that your kids don’t pick every last bit out of their dinner; and even if you tie their shoes together and lock them in a safe, when you come to leave the house, one will always be missing.

I’ll leave you with this little nugget about the impossible in the life of a parent: it is easier to get an honest answer from a politician than to get your kids to change their bedtime story.