Is my child a psychopath?

What will my child become?

I think that question is pretty much universal among parents. Whether it’s a daily obsession or just an occasional thought, we all take our child’s current characteristics and project them into an imagined future. Will she be happy? Will she be nice? Will she be clever, confident, artistic, musical?

On other days, we worry. Will she be mean? Will she get into drugs? Will she end up neurotic, psychotic, and confined to an institution?

And on our worst days, if you’re anything like me, we wonder if there’s any possibility, no matter how small, that she might grow up to be a serial killer.

It’s not such a crazy question, when you think about it. Every serial killer was once a child; ergo, right now there are children among us who will one day grow up to be serial killers. Children whose parents feed them and bath them and dry their tears and rock them to sleep at night. Children who are innocent and cute and totally harmless. Or rather, who seem to be.

But we reassure ourselves that there are signs – there must be signs. We’d know if our child harboured a darkness within, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we?

In the past week, my four-year-old daughter has landed two humdingers that, while making me laugh at the time, have made me wonder in retrospect.

We were in a minibus on the way back from a family Christmas get-together when, apropos of nothing, she suddenly said, ‘Why did the clown cross the road in front of a car?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Why did the clown cross the road in front of a car?’

‘Because he wanted to die!’ she said, and burst out laughing. To be fair, we all laughed, because it was darkly funny. But it’s not exactly one for the family album.

Then, earlier today, we were watching Swallows and Amazons. When we got to the scene where Uncle Jim shouts at John, I said, ‘What a nasty man.’

‘Yes,’ said my daughter. ‘They should kill him.’

‘Whoa,’ I replied. ‘You don’t think that’s a bit of an overreaction?’

She just shrugged. With the absolutism of a child, the penalty for meanness is death. Yikes. Where does this end?

I’ve always been interested in the ‘red flags’ that might indicate future criminality. It’s perhaps inevitable, given my age: I was 13 when two 10-year-olds murdered the toddler James Bulger, close enough in age to the killers for the case to fascinate and horrify me; likewise, I had just finished school when two high school seniors murdered thirteen of their classmates at Columbine. I remember the media wringing its hands, blaming video games and movies, society and Marilyn Manson, while the man on the street put the blame a little closer to home: on the absent parents and on the killers themselves, evil oiks who should have been drowned at birth. Trying to understand why these things happen is programmed into my psyche.

Given the vast number of crime shows filling the schedules, I’m definitely not alone in wondering what makes someone a monster. Is it innate or learned? Are they born imprinted with the desire to kill, or does something turn them from well-adjusted members of society into stone cold killers? And can we ever identify those among us who might one day become murderers?

Luckily, there are multiple lists of the early characteristics of serial killers available online. Of course, children displaying these behaviours and backgrounds aren’t necessarily going to grow up to be Ed Kemper, but most Ed Kempers have them in some combination.

The big three, the trifecta, the so-called Macdonald Triad, are:

  1. Bed-wetting after the age of five.
  2. Arson.
  3. Cruelty to animals.

If you noticed any of these in your child, I think you’d be worried anyway, regardless of whether or not they’re predictive indicators for serial killing. While the first one is often indicative of child abuse or parental neglect, the three together might make you sit up and take note.

In addition, most serial killers have the following backgrounds:

  1. Troubled family life with a history of substance abuse and/or psychiatric disorders.
  2. Child abuse.
  3. Witnessing extreme violence.

While such things are just as likely to make someone a victim as a killer, these characteristics in combination with arson and animal torture, are hardly things you’d look for in a potential babysitter.

And the more subtle behavioural clues that might predict future problems:

  1. Thrill-seeking/risk-taking.
  2. Aggression.
  3. Antisocial and manipulative behaviour.

True, that seems to describe every child, but the intensity of these three, combined with the previous six, are things to look out for.

Other positive correlations between early behaviours and serial killing are:

  1. Inappropriate sexual behaviour.
  2. Voyeurism.
  3. Substance abuse.

You’ll notice that nowhere in the early signs of serial killers does it say, ‘Makes bad jokes about suicidal clowns’. Phew.

All joking aside, I don’t think my daughter will grow up to be a murderer. She’s kind and sensitive and remarkably well-adjusted for someone with two autistic parents. As a parent, I know my daughter. And that’s why I don’t believe a pair of ten-year-olds could murder a toddler, or a couple of teenagers gun down their classmates, without there being a multitude of red flags that their parents chose not to see.

If you’re wondering if your child is a psychopath, unless they’re fascinated with fire and torturing animals, odds are that they’re not. Nor does having a difficult childhood or watching some bad movies make your child a monster unless they were born with something monstrous inside them. People don’t wake up one day and start murdering – in interpersonal violence there is always a progression, an escalation, from the minor to the major, unless they have a personality-changing bump on the head like Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Albert Fish and Dennis Rader – which makes head trauma another sign to look out for.

So don’t worry about what your child might become. It’ll probably be worse than you hope and better than you fear.

But if they fit all twelve of the above, you might consider talking to someone, for all our sakes!

Autism at Christmas: advice to make everyone feel welcome

*This is a re-post of something I wrote in January 2018. With Christmas fast approaching, I thought it would be helpful to remind everyone how you can help your autistic relatives enjoy the festive period by following a few simple steps: 

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, and a wife with the same, I have just experienced an incredibly stressful holiday season that has left my nerves in shreds and my marriage hanging on a knife-edge. For the avoidance of future issues, and to help out my fellow Aspies and their families, I thought I’d share what happened to me and offer some friendly advice on how to make things run more smoothly.

1. Keep the disruption short

My wife asked if we could spend a few days over Christmas with her sister and family, a four-hour drive away from home. As a supportive husband and father, of course I said yes. Two or three days at somebody else’s house is about my limit.

It wasn’t until two weeks before Christmas that I discovered my wife had actually arranged six days with her sister. I protested and tried to change it, only to be told by the wider family that it had already been arranged and changing it would be inconvenient. For them. The neurotypical ones.

Not wanting to cause a fuss, I loaded the car with everything including the kitchen sink (a toy for my daughter), and we set off.

In short, it was two rather pleasant days, two rather annoying days, and two days in which I wanted to push people off the quayside and throw stones at them as they struggled to stay afloat.

People with autism need space to recharge our batteries. I’m not talking simply physical space – we need mental space, a way to escape the slowly building pressures and strains of being forced into relentless and unpredictable social situations. Such a thing is generally impossible in an unfamiliar environment filled with somebody else’s stuff and driven by rules and routines different from your own.

Without this release, as time goes on you become more tired, more stressed, more prickly, more antisocial, less able to cope. And then you look and act like an asshole as you start to isolate yourself, avoid eye-contact, mumble two-word responses to questions, and refuse to participate, all as a way of surviving. And are told this isn’t the way you’re supposed to be behaving over Christmas. By neurotypical people. Who you already warned that you’d get like this if you had to spend six days with them, but who chose to ignore it anyway.

So to the families of Aspies – think carefully about the duration of the holiday arrangements, and when your loved one is showing signs of stress, leave them alone. You might think that trying to include them in activities will bring them out of their funk, but in reality it’ll likely make things worse as they’ll feel pressurised and even more trapped than they already do.

2. Keep the numbers small

I had been informed that there would be a total of eight people at Christmas, including myself, my wife and my two kids, perhaps because it was known that I’d become anxious or refuse to go if this number was any higher. So imagine my surprise when a further seven people turned up, to take up every spare room in the house and leave me to feed the baby on a hard wooden chair at the dining room table every night.

I’ve mentioned many times before that autism is an exhausting disorder. When I’m with other people I spend inordinate amounts of mental energy consciously processing those things that most neurotypical people take for granted, namely how to have a conversation, when it’s my turn to speak, what I should talk about, how I should phrase things, where I should look, how much eye-contact I should make, how to interpret what they’re saying, reading their body language, regulating my posture and my proximity, working out relationships, the appropriate register, making sure I’m not talking too loudly or too soft, dominating the conversation or saying something inappropriate. I do all this to ‘pass’ for normal in a process called masking, and it is incredibly stressful, overwhelming and draining, and causes massive anxiety.

That’s with just one other person. Put me in a house with fourteen other people and I’m on overload. I can’t mentally process so many inputs and interactions, and something has to give – normally my peace of mind and my ability to function. I tend to come across at these times as arrogant and antisocial as I struggle to regulate what I say or how I should say it. My coping mechanism is to withdraw from the social encounter, deal with people one-to-one, minimise the number of simultaneous interactions – something that’s impossible in a crowd.

So if you want your Aspie family member to have a good time during holidays, less really is more.

3. If you make a plan, stick to it

It is well known – so well known, in fact, that it’s hardly worth mentioning – that people with autism hate change. I have discussed this many times and pointed out that it’s slightly more nuanced than that. My wife, for example, cannot handle change that involves the cancellation of something already arranged. I am the opposite – cancelling things doesn’t really bother me, but adding things in with little or no warning makes me freak out. The looseness of Christmas exposed my wife and I to both of these types of change, leading to great emotional distress for both of us.

Our second day was a case in point. It had long been arranged that everyone would go for a walk at the beach in the morning and in the afternoon someone would kindly look after our kids so my wife and I could head off to a coastal village to have a look around and spend some adult time together.

We left the house at 11.45 and arrived at the beach for 12.30, which by my reckoning, as a stickler for accuracy, is not morning. A minor point, perhaps, but incredibly frustrating for a person with autism. An hour’s walk in the wind and rain at the beach and I was more than ready to go back to the house, head off to the pretty village, and spend some quality time with my wife.

Unfortunately, somebody suddenly announced, ‘We’ve decided we’re all going to the pub for a drink.’ And that was that.

My wife was okay with this, as an additional activity is fine for her. I, on the other hand, panicked. Telling me I have to go into a stressful social situation – a dark, noisy, crowded pub at Christmas with people I don’t know very well – with barely a couple of minutes to get my head around it caused me massive unnecessary anxiety. For other people, going into a pub is probably a pleasant experience – for me, it is a torture that must be endured, and I need to mentally prepare myself for that. Unable to do so, I found it horrendous.

Unfortunately, staying at the pub over an hour, walking back to the car, driving back to the house, meant it was nearly dark by the time we got there. Then the person who said they would look after our kids had to prepare the food for dinner, thus we were unable to go to the coastal village. While I found this annoying because I’d been looking forward to it, my wife found this change of plan – the cancellation of something already arranged for no good reason – very upsetting and difficult to process.

Most of the people I know with Asperger’s suffer problems with anxiety, and changing plans tends to send our anxieties skyrocketing. Indeed, it can ruin our whole day as dealing with the psychological and emotional fallout lasts for hours. So if you must add or remove something from the schedule, make sure it’s for a good reason and not simply because of a sudden whim. A little sensitivity goes a long way to sparing your Aspie relatives a great deal of unnecessary anguish.

4. Don’t expect others to conform to your emotional standards

I lost count of the number of times I was told to cheer up, be happy, enjoy myself, join in, stop being a bah humbug, as though my emotional reactions were somehow ‘wrong’ because they differed from those of the people around me. Not only, therefore, was I expected to behave in a neurotypical manner and suppress my natural tendency towards a quiet, ordered life, I was also denied the right to feel my own perfectly normal emotions.

I was even told that, as my kids made it ‘magical’, I should feel magical. I asked precisely when an adjective had become an emotion and if such a feeling could be described to me, and therein lies the rub – people with autism often struggle to understand or appreciate their emotions. I certainly approach them from an intellectual viewpoint, and I find the concept of happiness, as it relates to me, very confusing.

To me, happiness isn’t about feeling good, it’s about not feeling bad. If I am ‘enjoying myself’ it means I feel absolutely nothing – the everpresent irritation, the tightness between my shoulder blades, that electrical storm of focused energy that buzzes around inside my head as I process, process, process, are not there. It doesn’t mean I’m smiling or jumping up and down. If I’m reading in a corner I’m quite possibly quietly content.

But like most people with Asperger’s, I won’t lie, and perhaps that’s why I stand out. I found Christmas extremely difficult, and when people asked how I was feeling, I told the truth. While everyone else was supposedly having ‘such a good time’, I spotted tears when they thought nobody was looking, heard whispered arguments from behind closed doors, noticed when formerly talkative people fell strangely silent and when couples sat beside one another without a single word passing between them beyond mildly passive-aggressive statements. So maybe I’m not so different after all.

I played with my kids and made sure they were happy, and I’m not sure why everyone was so bothered that I should display outward signs of pleasure for their own gratification. It seems to me less about making sure I’m enjoying myself and more about feeling threatened that somebody isn’t buying into the same sentimental bullshit that they are.

So don’t heap added pressure on your Aspie relatives by expecting them to feel a certain way – we’re already expected to behave in ways that don’t come naturally. Allow us our own emotions and to react exactly how we react, and we’ll do the same with you.

5. Turn off the gosh-darned music

As soon as the household arose, the radio went on. As it was rigged up throughout the house, the music would play in the kitchen, the dining room and the lounge, at quite a loud level, right up until bedtime. This was despite people coming and going, having conversations, playing games, making phone calls, watching videos on their handheld devices, and everything else that goes on in a house at Christmas.

My God, it was overwhelming. It was like a thousand tiny drills boring into your brain morning, noon and night. When you’ve heard Shane MacGowan slur his way through Fairytale of New York six times by lunch, you’re ready to agree with that line ‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.’

People with autism tend to have oddly-balanced sensory systems. Normally, we have very sensitive hearing and struggle to filter out one sound from another. Stick me in a house with fourteen other people over Christmas and I can hear three or four simultaneous conversations, making it very difficult to pay attention to my book and thus get the mental space that I need. Add music to the mix and my sensory system is utterly overwhelmed, especially when that music is loud.

So spare a thought for your autistic relatives over Christmas – a quiet space or some quiet time is certainly in keeping with the Christmas spirit of peace and goodwill to all men.

6. Don’t lecture from a position of ignorance

While walking towards the aforementioned (awful, awful) pub, I explained my reservations to a member of my wife’s family. ‘For me,’ I said, ‘going to a pub is the equivalent of sitting a really difficult exam. I discussed this last month with Luke Jackson, an autistic author, and we agreed that while for most neurotypical people going to the pub is relaxing, for those of us with autism it’s jolly hard work. You see, you go to work, get stressed, and then go to the pub to unwind. But while you’re unwinding, we’re becoming more and more wound up. Afterwards, you go home and go to bed because you’re relaxed. We go home more stressed than when we left, and then have to spend a few hours unwinding and de-stressing before we can be relaxed enough to go to bed, which is awfully tiring and has a knock-on effect for the following days. That’s what it is to have autism and why I’d rather we didn’t go to this pub.’

Quite clear, I thought, frank, easy to understand. So how did he respond (other than, ‘Cheer up, you miserable bugger.’)?

He said, ‘Oh, how ridiculous. No, I don’t believe that at all.’

‘Well, that’s the way it is.’

‘No, of course it’s not.’

And that’s the level of understanding I tend to get from my wife’s family. This is just one of multiple examples over the six days of me explaining to someone how my autism affects me, only to have them disagree with it. What? Why on earth would you belittle and undermine my understanding of my own condition and my own behaviour!?!

With all humility aside, I am an expert on Asperger’s Syndrome and how it affects me. I’m sought out to give speeches educating people about autism and I’ve written a well-received book about it, for Christ’s sake, one that’s sitting in the health section of every Waterstones in the UK. So why on earth would you dismiss what I say because you think you know best about a subject you have never studied, experienced or lived with?

Probably because there were some subsequent discussions about how ‘Asperger’s didn’t exist in my day,’ and how there are far too many people walking around using modern diagnoses as an excuse to cop out of life. Because that’s not condescending at all!

So if you want to keep cordial relations with your Aspie relatives, be sure to treat their expertise with the understanding and appreciation it deserves. Unless you’re a bigot, in which case we probably don’t want anything to do with you.

7. Bringing up the supposed links between MMR and autism isn’t going to win you any friends

I always find it strange that people dare bring this up. Without knowing very much about it, surely they know it’s a controversial conspiracy theory and therefore inappropriate to raise with people they don’t know from Adam. I don’t go up to somebody with cancer and say, ‘Hey, have you heard they have a cure for cancer, but they keep it hidden because they can make more money treating the disease than curing it?’ because that would be remarkably insensitive.

I have explained at length that MMR does not cause autism, and am armed with enough facts to shoot down any and all attempts to suggest otherwise. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people like my mother-in-law and various people in the house over Christmas telling me that my wife’s autism was caused by the MMR jab.

‘Andrew Wakefield was paid a hefty sum of money to find a link between MMR and autism so people could make compensation claims,’ I told them. ‘He was also marketing his own competing vaccine. This is what we call a conflict of interest and why his study has been completely discredited.’

‘He’s very popular in America.’

‘He had to go to America because he was struck off by the GMC for faking his research.’

‘Well, I still think he’s right.’

‘No, he’s not. The only study suggesting a link between MMR and autism had a sample size of twelve and was faked, whereas meta-analyses of studies featuring over 14.7 million kids – yes, 14.7 million – showed no statistically significant difference in rates of autism between those who’d had the vaccine and those who hadn’t.’

‘Well, I think that if you’re genetically predisposed towards autism, the shock of having three vaccines at once can trigger it.’

‘But where’s the evidence for that? If that was true, proportionately more people who’d had MMR would have autism than those who didn’t have the vaccine, and that’s not the case.’

‘She was different after she had the MMR. I know she was.’

And so I had to bite my tongue, or else I’d say something suitably cutting. Emotion trumps logic every time, and that’s damned annoying.

So don’t bring up this crap with your Aspie relatives during an already stressful time and then argue against facts with feelings. As I said, autism is my area of expertise, and trying to make out that you know more than me about it just makes you look ignorant.

8. And lastly, compromise is not a dirty word.

Nor are compassion, empathy or understanding. It seems odd that those of us with autism, who have clearly defined and specific needs, are the ones expected to fit in with everyone else. Yes, the ones who, because of their condition, have the least capacity to modify their behaviour to suit others are the ones who have to make the effort to adapt their behaviour to suit others. It doesn’t really strike one as fair, does it?

I’m not saying that the neurotypical side should make all the movement, but surely we could meet somewhere in the middle? It might make Christmas a little more enjoyable for all of us.

It’s never too late to pick a new path

As a 23-year-old who had just finished a degree in film and just started a degree in nursing, I did something very stupid for someone living in a student house, working twelve-hour shifts in hospitals and care homes, and who didn’t have two pennies to rub together: I bought a violin.

Why a violin? At school, I used to watch other kids leave early to go to their violin lessons, and I was desperate to be one of them. There was something so sophisticated, so otherworldly, about those little black cases and those gorgeous wooden instruments. They spoke of a history and a culture almost unimaginable to a kid raised on Christian music and whose cultural horizons ended just outside the front door.

The violin stirred something in me, a nameless and poorly understood yearning for sharp suits, Corinthian columns and a tender beauty barely glimpsed behind a gossamer veil. I was terrified that if I reached out towards it, it would shatter – that such a fragile magnificence would never survive the cold light of day – but nonetheless, I wanted to throw myself into this feeling, and either triumph or be consumed.

Trouble was, I didn’t come from a musical family. There was an acoustic guitar in one corner for the occasional folk song and an organ in the other for hymns, but my parents weren’t particularly musical. They knew what they knew, and what they knew wasn’t much. While many of the children around me had rich educations in classical, or jazz, or blues, or rock, thanks to the tastes of their families, my brother and I knew the Christian songbook and little else.

But that doesn’t mean my parents weren’t open to our learning music. Being two years older, my brother was the trailblazer by which to gauge our musical potential, and his musical potential was, frankly, shit. My parents bought him a trumpet and paid for endless lessons, and over a couple of years of tone-deafness and refusal to practice, he hadn’t progressed beyond making fart sounds. In fact, I think his favourite thing about the trumpet was draining the spit from it.

So when it was my turn, I was rewarded with the recorder, a cheap, plastic abomination of an instrument that is torture for anyone within earshot, including the player, and a music teacher (the school’s head) so frightening that my hands would literally shake as I played. We learnt and played in a large group, and if there were any squeaks she’d stop mid-piece and make you all play solo so she could work out which of you to shout at. Needless to say, my recorder experience was not a crowning success.

When I later floated the idea, multiple times, of learning the violin, it’s therefore no surprise it wasn’t met with any enthusiasm. It was a waste of time and money for someone who hadn’t shown an ounce of musical flair, so while other kids had these fetishistic attachments to polishing pads and reeds and bows, gleaming metal and shining wood, I sat and watched and envied and swore that one day I’d learn violin.

Then something happened in my teens. My brother bought a CD by a band called Nirvana, whose singer had killed himself a couple of months earlier, and through the bedroom wall I heard something that I just couldn’t ignore. When he got bored of Nevermind after a few weeks, I bought it off him, and played it endlessly. For the first time in my life, I felt a visceral connection with something beyond myself, some intangible sense of the sublime, and I wanted to disappear into it.

Luckily, there was an acoustic guitar downstairs. Getting some guitar books with chord shapes in them, and watching a video that explained tablature, I threw myself into learning the guitar with the typical obsessiveness of an autistic teenager. I played every spare moment I had, teaching myself by ear, mastering techniques I didn’t know the names of like hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, natural and pinch harmonics, tremolos, palm-muting, pick slides. Eight to ten hours a day, I drove my family absolutely nuts repeating the same riffs over and over until I could play them perfectly without looking.

There were, however, a few massive problems with my training. As a lonely social outcast, I saw the guitar as my gateway into the larger world of music. If I could master the guitar, I thought, people would think I was cool and want to be my friend. The guitar was therefore a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I didn’t play it because I enjoyed it, though there was an element of that – what I enjoyed was impressing people with my ability, turning my obsessiveness into a positive and using my guitar-playing to compensate for my social deficits.

That meant that while I was focused on playing songs and riffs and solos, I wasn’t interested in anything to do with musical theory. You don’t need to understand why something works, I thought, in order to make it work. If I’m impressing someone with the solo from ‘Enter Sandman’, what does it matter that I can’t read music or know any scales or what all the notes are?

Looking back, I think this was partly because of my autism, since we’re often great at rote learning but lack a genuine, broader understanding of a topic. But in larger part, I think it’s because I’ve always had a massive inferiority complex to ‘musicians’. I was useless at music – the recorder showed me that. It’s too hard. I’m not capable; I’ll never be able to learn music; I’ll never be able to learn scales. Every lunchtime I watched the other kids go off into that glorious, unreachable world of orchestra and band practice, a world I knew was beyond my grasp.

I therefore ‘mastered’ the guitar without really knowing or understanding anything about the guitar. It got me out and about, it got me into bands, it got me socialising, but that was where it ended.

‘I can play the guitar, but I’m not musical,’ I used to say. ‘I know nothing about music.’

At 23, I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be me. I thought that being able to play the violin would make me interesting, so I bought one – not because I wanted to play it for itself, but so I could be somebody else.

Of course, in an age before YouTube and on a shoestring budget with unkind (or sensible) housemates, teaching myself the violin the way I’d taught myself the guitar wasn’t something I had the time or inclination to pursue. After a few weeks I put it in the back of the wardrobe with the idea that I’d learn to play it eventually.

And there it sat for sixteen years.

It was a constant reminder that I’m not musical; that I don’t have what it takes to be a musician. Musicians are a special, select group, walking among us like gods who inhabit a mysterious, divine world that we mere mortals can only dream of.

A few weeks ago, I took it back out.

Earlier this year, I was in a really bad place. Nearing forty, I thought I’d reached the end of me. Nothing really gave me any pleasure. I didn’t look forward to anything, didn’t get excited, didn’t care if I lived or died. It was too late for me to do anything, I thought. Where I am now was where I would always remain.

One of the side-effects of depression, something I’ve struggled with all my life, is a lack of motivation. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say depression was invented by a diabolical genius – it makes you unwilling to do the very things that help lift you out of depression. Particularly if it’s something new.

So a few weeks ago, I decided I’d try to force myself out of my depression by teaching myself the violin. I spent hours watching videos online and trying to apply what I’d learnt, the cat-screech wail of my instrument testament to my utter lack of musical ability.

I was about to give in as the failure I always knew I was, when I suddenly came to a startling realisation that I wish I’d known sixteen years ago:

I don’t like the violin.

All these years I’ve spent looking up to violinists, I’ve been fixated on what they are rather than what they’re playing.

Even a good violin, played by a good violinist, is whiny. I don’t mind it as part of an orchestra to highlight or accentuate movements, but on its own it isn’t very pleasing to my ear. Why would I want to invest that much time and energy learning to play something in a room on its own that I don’t like the sound of in a room on its own?

So I asked myself the question: what do I like? The answer should have been obvious from the start.

Four years ago, while feeding my baby late one night, I was flicking through channels on the TV when I came across a concert by 2Cellos, a classically-trained Croatian two-piece. They were playing Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and there’s no other way to describe my reaction than that they blew my freaking mind. I had never seen such passion, energy, grace and talent, and when, a few days later, I recorded their 2013 concert at Pula Arena, I discovered that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is the least of their triumphs. I then watched it more than fifty times, and bugged everybody in my life to watch it too.

For four years I’ve listened to people playing the cello and loved every moment of it. What started with 2Cellos moved on to Hauser and Yo-Yo Ma, ‘Schindler’s List‘ to Bach’s ‘Cello Suite No.1 Prelude‘. My favourite piece of music of all time is the opening four-note run in 2Cellos’ version of ‘Now We Are Free’ from Gladiator. It’s the bit where, in the original, Lisa Gerrard sang ‘We de(ee) zu’. I can’t explain why but those four notes resonate with something inside me. They communicate in a language beyond words, as if I have strings in my heart and God is playing them. People talk about having a ‘God-shaped hole’, and as someone who’s spent his whole life feeling disconnected, I’ve longed for the touch of the divine. Listening to the cello is the closest I’ve ever been to heaven.

So it is strange that never once in all that time, even in passing, have I ever considered learning to play the cello. It genuinely never occurred to me; didn’t cross my mind for a second. I see movies set in space and wonder if I’d make a good astronaut; I go to the doctor and wonder if I’d be a good doctor; so how big a mental blindspot must I have to obsess over cellists and never once consider learning to play the cello?

I guess it’s because I thought cellos are for musicians. They’re for other people, better people; people who went to orchestra at lunch, who understand music and would’ve been able to play the recorder. I believed, without question, that mine is to watch in humbled awe, to listen and be moved, not to participate. I never believed the magic could be mine to hold.

But why not? I suddenly realised, in this blinding explosion of the obvious, that I don’t want to play the violin – I want to play the cello. Not because of how it’ll make me look, not to make friends, not to join an orchestra or bore my family with recitals – I want to play the cello because I genuinely like the cello. I want to play it for me. I want to sit in a room on my own with nobody listening and play it for its own sake, with no other goal than to play. I want to feel the notes vibrating in my chest, and I want to understand it all.

For the first time in forever, which I know sounds awful for someone with a wife and two young children, I feel excited about the future. I feel hope. It’s like being a kid again, the first day of a new school. There’s a long journey ahead, but you look down at your feet and watch yourself take your first step, and you step into a larger world, a more colourful world, a bright place of endless opportunities, where things will never be quite the same.

I’m not unrealistic. I know it’s going to be hard. I’ll become disillusioned at times, there’s going to be plenty of frustration and tears, but it’s better to be on a path you want to follow than on literally any other path. All I know is that a year from now, I’ll be a better cellist than I am today; that in five years, I’ll be better than that; and in ten, who knows how far along that path I’ll be?

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking we can’t do something because we’re too old, or we’re not good enough, or we failed in the past. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I can’t do music, that I’m too old to learn a new instrument, that unless you have a musical background growing up, there’s no place for music in your life. Therefore, for my whole life, I’ve been completely full of shit.

It’s never too late to pick a new path. Nothing is impossible.

I’m looking forward to the coming year.

I’ve been accused of ableism!

I once spoke to the horror author Murial Gray, author of the criminally-overlooked masterpiece Furnace, about an unpublished writer accusing her of plagiarism. She was actually quite flattered, and said, ‘That’s how you know you’ve made it as an author.’

I carried that little nugget with me all my life, but I no longer agree with it. My new philosophy is this:

‘You know you’ve made it as an author when you’re accused of an -ism.’

Among the many five-star reviews of my book An Adult With An Autism Diagnosis: A Guide For The Newly Diagnosed (yes, I am blowing my own trumpet), there’s one that describes my view of the Autism Spectrum as ‘ableist’. Since ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities, and since I am a person with autism and thus disabled, I’m not entirely sure how I can discriminate against myself. If I were prejudiced, and held the belief that disabled people are inferior to non-disabled people, I can’t imagine why I’d have married an autistic person, or why I fight for the rights of people with autism – hell, even why I’d ever stick up for myself. At face value, this accusation is clearly utter nonsense from someone who uses neo-liberal shibboleths without engaging critical thought.

However, as someone who wrote the book to help people who, like me, were diagnosed with autism later in life, I’m conscientious about making sure it does the job it’s meant to, so rather than dismissing criticism out of hand, I try to see if there’s anything I can learn from it. As evidence of my ableist approach, I’m accused of depicting autism as a straight line from ‘not very autistic’ to ‘very autistic’. This may well be a fair point, but it’s certainly worth addressing.

There are many different models of representing the Autism Spectrum. I had considered creating a diagram of a very common one that maintains the Autism Spectrum is like a 100-piece jigsaw, with each piece an autistic trait. Everybody on the planet, so the theory goes, has several pieces; once you have around 60, you’re diagnosed with Asperger’s or High-Functioning Autism; once you have around 80, you’re diagnosed with Classic or Kanner’s Autism; nobody has all 100. Thus two Aspergic people with 60 pieces might only have twenty pieces in common; their autism, or how it manifests, might therefore be markedly different, and would certainly be different from someone with 90 pieces who has Classic Autism.

The reason I rejected the jigsaw puzzle model is that I disagree with it, because the difference between autistic and neurotypical people is one of kind, not amount. You can’t count up behavioural traits and then draw a line with ‘autistic’ on one side and ‘neurotypical’ on the other. That would certainly be ‘ableist’, and by implying that everyone is on the Autism Spectrum, it devalues the reality that we are different.

I chose to depict the Autism Spectrum as a line from high-functioning to low-functioning because that is how it is spoken about, both in professional circles and among the autism community – or, at the very least, the people with autism, their families and support workers that I hang out with. Since DSM-5 merged the different autism diagnoses into the single umbrella term ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ and defined it as Level 1 (requiring support), Level 2 (requiring substantial support) and Level 3 (requiring very substantial support), how else are we to create a diagram of the Autism Spectrum than a line of increasing severity/decreasing ability to cope without support? (And to be fair, my line runs horizontally, not vertically, to avoid the idea that Levels 2 and 3 are ‘beneath’ Level 1).

Ableism is also levelled at the idea of defining people by their difficulties, but I think there is an important nuance here between ‘describing’, which is neutral, and ‘defining’, which carries a value judgement. The comedienne Francesca Martinez has a joke about why people judge her by what she can’t do because of her cerebral palsy, instead of by what she can: ‘Nobody says of [Irish President] Bertie Aherne, “Yeah, great President, but have you seen his golf? It’s shit!”‘ We should not be defined by our disabilities, that is true, but in a book about autism and how to help autistic people find peace in a neurotypical world, what else should I mention but the ways in which we are different from neurotypical people and the difficulties that can result from our interactions with mainstream, everyday neurotypical society?

Having lived with autism all my life, and suffered when I didn’t understand it or how it affected me, I don’t think it’s helpful to be unrealistic. It is a neurotypical world out there, not an autistic one, so it’s not belittling people to say that those of us with autism start out with a disadvantage that we need particular tools, techniques and skills to overcome. Nobody expects a wheelchair user to climb stairs, or a blind person to navigate a sighted world without a stick (although some do), so why should it be any different for a person with autism?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a whole bunch of people out there who think autistic people should be wrapped in cotton wool and sheltered from the world, and I agree that that’s bad, because if you stop people from experiencing the negative things that can happen in life, you also deny them from experiencing the good; but equally bad are those who insist that something like autism is no impediment to anything, and you can do anything you want in life. No, you can’t. There will always be limits to what a person can achieve, and pretending there aren’t is disingenuous. That’s not to say a person with autism isn’t valuable for who they are, or that they can’t be incredibly successful in their chosen field – look at Susan Boyle, Guy Martin, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Greta Thunberg, for example – but finding out what you can do in light of your limitations is not demeaning a disabled person, it’s simply channelling their potential in the direction that maximises their chances of reward and minimises the risk of failure. I think that’s pretty good advice for anyone, autistic or otherwise.

To accuse me of ableism is also to overlook pretty much everything I say in the book about how people with autism are different, not worse, than neurotypical people, and should not be judged by what they can and can’t do. In particular, I use a model I made up called the Mini and the Tractor. When those of us with autism are born, we’re given a Mini, while neurotypical people are given tractors. On the roads – those things we can do – we speed along quite happily, and are often able to overtake people in tractors. But either side of these roads are ploughed fields – the things we can’t do. While neurotypical people drive through them at the same speed, people with autism struggle, and bog down and get stuck, and often need a person with a tractor to come along and pull their Mini through the field and put them back on the road. We aren’t worse than neurotypical people – far from it – we simply have different wheels suited to a different surface.

How someone could have read that and inferred from it that I think people with autism are inferior to neurotypical people, or that people with ASD Level 3 are less valuable than people with ASD Level 1, is surely finding things to confirm your preconceptions – that I’m ‘ableist’. Indeed, the critic has read into my text a value judgement – better and worse – that I don’t think the material suggests.

So where has the accusation come from?

I don’t know the reviewer, of course. I’m sure they genuinely think my views are ableist, but I’m not sure they have the same interpretation of what it means as I do. What I suspect is that, like much of modern discourse, they’re coming at it from the viewpoint of intersectionality – that society is structured as a matrix of domination, with privileged groups oppressing others who need to fight back. At its most simplistic, this means dividing the world into powerful oppressors and powerless victims, and I think people are always on the lookout for examples where they can fight on the behalf of the oppressed by using words that end in ‘-ist’ and ‘phobe’ – like, say, when an author says something that appears to objectify disabled people. The disparity of our perceived power relations – me as an author, the privileged oppressor, imposing my view on the powerless reader, the oppressed – might be what triggered the accusation of ableism.

But here is my objection to that whole ideology: I am autistic. I am the very group I am oppressing. I am able to speak about autism because I am autistic, so it is my status as an (apparently) oppressed person that enabled me to become an author and thus have the power to oppress myself with ableism! Given that the average non-fiction book sells a mere 2,000 copies in its lifetime, netting its author around £1250 spread across a number of years, I think that might be overestimating my power in any case.

I guess, really, the ultimate test is to ask someone from the oppressed group how they feel, since apparently the best judge of whether oppression exists is the person feeling oppressed, rather than any external measurement or evidence, even if others in that group have a different opinion.

So, Gillan, as an autistic person and thus a member of an oppressed group, do you feel the idea of an Autism Spectrum that runs from ASD Level 1 (high-functioning) to ASD Level 3 (low-functioning) is ableist and discriminates against you as an autistic person?

No.

Well, that settles that then.

Still, if someone thinks the best way of defending the right of disabled people to define the terms of their disability is by criticising a disabled person for defining the terms of his disability, who am I to argue with such logic?

(Oh, and if you want to work out your intersectionality score, and thus your level of victimhood compared to others, just use this handy Intersectionality Calculator).

Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Truth Era

A reader asked my opinion on a conspiracy theory currently doing the rounds that a number of high-profile suicides, such as Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, who I mentioned in my post Suicide Isn’t Painless, were, in fact, murdered. The theory, an offshoot of the Clinton Body Count and Pizzagate conspiracies, is that they were murdered to prevent them exposing a paedophile ring led by the Clintons and Jeffrey Epstein and composed of numerous politicians and celebrities. She asked why I thought people were so keen to believe celebrities were murdered, rather than committed suicide. This is my response.

I’ll start with the general and then move to the specific.

I think there are four main reasons people prefer to believe celebrities were murdered than that they killed themselves. The first is that fans tend to feel a kind of ownership of our heroes. We’ve had their songs, their movies, their images in our hearts and our living rooms for so long, and our lives have been so shaped by their words and philosophies, they’ve become our personal gods. So how could they do this to us? They wouldn’t.

The truth that we never knew them and they were never perfect and never owed us anything or actually cared about us is far too hard to accept, so we decide they didn’t leave us, they were murdered. That way, we pass the blame to an innocent party and our hero remains perfect and blameless. It’s the reason so many people claim Kurt Cobain was murdered. I mean, why would a guy obsessed with suicide, who told his mom as a kid that he wanted to join the 27 Club and wrote a song called ‘I Hate Myself and Want To Die’, go ahead and kill himself? Instead of hating Kurt Cobain and holding him responsible for the hurt he caused us, we can hate that evil Courtney Love, who had him killed because she’s a talentless hack (actually, I think there’s a lot of misogyny in these theories – it’s always the wives who are blamed, never the men themselves. Yoko Ono ended the Beatles, not John Lennon; Sharon Osbourne ended Black Sabbath, not Ozzy; Max Cavalera’s wife ended Sepultura, not Max Cavalera, etc.). And if your favourite celebrity was murdered to stop them revealing a paedophile gang, it transforms a suicide into a heroic martyr, so that’s even better.

The second reason is that, as vulnerable biological organisms, we’ve evolved to spot cause and effect in order to protect ourselves. While this has mostly served us well, we’ve developed an erroneous, instinctive belief that big effects must have equally big causes. The destruction of the Twin Towers was too big to be caused by a bunch of Palestinians armed with box cutters and led by a man in a cave, so it must have been a massive conspiracy; Diana was far too important a person to die in a simple car accident, so it must have been an assassination; our hero was too rich and famous and successful and talented to hang himself in a hotel bathroom, so it must have been murder. We don’t like to believe that our heroes are as vulnerable as ourselves, and that no matter how big and successful you are, you’re just as frail and insignificant as the next man, and could just as easily die from slipping in the shower as having a noteworthy demise.

The third reason, related to the previous and applicable to most (if not all) conspiracy theories, is that we’re terrified of chaos. Since the year dot we’ve invented gods to explain the mysterious workings of the world – why this volcano erupted or that year’s harvest failed. We want to believe that things happen for a reason, and if we can spot the signs, we can control our fate – if only we sacrificed more virgins, we could have prevented that flood, and suchlike.

I think the rise in modern conspiracy theories correlates with the decline of our belief in God – we’ve replaced a mysterious, invisible, vengeful deity with a mysterious, invisible, vengeful cabal, whether we call it the Illuminati, the New World Order or the Bilderberg Group. It’s more comforting to believe that someone, even someone bad, is controlling things – that it’s possible to control things – than accept that shit happens, there’s no grand plan behind it all and there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves. Sometimes one man with a rifle can kill a president; sometimes the biggest luxury liner in the world can hit an iceberg and sink; and sometimes the people we look up to can kill themselves with little explanation. Conspiracy theories give meaning to the meaningless, and the illusion of control where none actually exists.

And fourthly, and most simply, I think believing in conspiracies makes people feel special. ‘You other idiots think they killed themselves, but know the truth, because I’m more intelligent, and more perceptive and better informed than you.’ You see this smug, superior mindset all the time with conspiracy theorists as they cherry-pick their evidence and twist facts to suit their political agenda – that’s why they always shout, ‘Wake up, sheeple!’ – because they’re better than us ‘sheep’. Reducing the complexity of the world into good vs evil, and aligning yourself with the forces of good, makes you a hero, and not a schmuck who lives in his mother’s basement. I can understand the appeal.

On the specifics of Cornell and Bennington, I have no doubt whatsoever that they killed themselves. You just have to look at their songs, statements, substance-abuse problems and mental health issues, and the massive death-rate among rock musicians and vocalists, to realise that their committing suicide is not particularly unlikely.

One of Cornell’s best friends, Andrew Wood from MotherLoveBone, died of drugs in 1990 (the survivors went on to form Pearl Jam), while the numbers of dead musicians surrounding the grunge scene, and therefore known to him, is staggering: Mia Zapata (The Gits), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Kristen Pfaff (Hole), Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), Bradley Nowell (Sublime), Jonathan Melvoin (The Smashing Pumpkins), Layne Staley and Mike Starr (Alice in Chains), and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots), to name but a few. It was a self-destructive, nihilistic movement. Cornell wrote loads of songs using death and suicide as metaphors, like ‘Pretty Noose’, ‘Like Suicide’, ‘Your Time Has Come’ and ‘Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye’, so his suicide isn’t that unbelievable.

Chester Bennington was similarly troubled. Most Linkin Park songs are about struggling with depression and addiction and self-loathing. From what I’ve read, it seems that Cornell was the rock that Bennington leaned on, a hero and a friend who helped him through the hard times, so when Cornell killed himself, there was little hope left for Bennington. He sang at Cornell’s funeral, then killed himself on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday. Again, listening to Bennington’s lyrics, it’s not necessarily surprising that he killed himself.

Of course, the fact that their autopsy reports and inquests are a matter of public record should put this subject to bed, provided, of course, you trust the police, coroners, pathologists and jurors involved. You’d need a pretty good reason to doubt the institutions and mechanisms we’ve developed to make sure murders can’t be passed off as suicides, and you’d have to believe in an all-powerful and infallible group of people that can manipulate crime scenes, witnesses, family members, multiple law enforcement officials, medics, coroners, pathologists, courts, jurors, and the press, without leaving a single trace of themselves anywhere. I don’t think such an organisation, or even the capability, exists outside movies and the imaginations of conspiracy theorists.

Which brings me to the whole Pizzagate rubbish and the proliferation of online conspiracy theories. Back in the past, there were gatekeepers standing between nuts and a mass audience, and rightly so, because not all ideas are of equal merit or value. In the past, the crazy guy down the road who lives in a caravan and wears a tinfoil hat to stop the CIA from stealing his thoughts would just have been a harmless eccentric; now, with a keyboard and an avatar, that person can do some real damage.

The internet has been celebrated for being ‘democratic’, in the sense that nobody can monopolize discourse, the little guys disseminating their ideas alongside the big boys, but that freedom is a double-edged sword. People have been conditioned to believe that what they read is true, and this conditioning acts against them. While many content creators are conscientious, dedicated to reasoned argument, fact-checking and accuracy (I like to think of myself in this category, or rather, I aspire to it), many are not. Some are insane, some don’t realise what they’re doing, and some are deliberately untruthful. As is often the case, the extremists ruin it for the rest of us.

If you met someone in the pub who claimed that the first African-American President was actually born in Kenya, and was therefore ineligible to be President, you’d probably conclude you’re talking to a racist and dismiss it out of hand. However, if you put that in black-and-white on the internet, with some spurious but official ‘evidence’ taken out of context, people are going to believe it, particularly if it reinforces their prejudices about the kind of people they don’t like, and more so if it is ‘something The Establishment doesn’t want you to know!’

And then it snowballs. People copy and repeat the lie. They add more ‘evidence’. They link to other sites that support the same lies, making it seem as though a consensus has been reached. Then the mainstream media picks it up. Refuting it just makes you sound guilty. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the lie takes on a life of its own. It gets so big, it seems impossible to deny.

That’s how you end up with Pizzagate. A white supremacist pretending to be a New York Attorney ‘leaks’ that the police are investigating evidence from Clinton’s emails that point to Hillary being at the centre of a paedophile ring. Before you know it, the internet is positive, without a shred of evidence, that there is a vast conspiracy of (Democrat) politicians and (liberal) celebrities running a child-trafficking paedophile ring using pizza restaurants as fronts to carry out Satanic rituals. All fun and games, until a man walked into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington DC with an AR-15 and fired three shots while attempting to rescue non-existent sex slaves.

That’s why conspiracy theories aren’t harmless fun. They destabilise society and have real world consequences. They breed an atmosphere of mistrust. Large swathes of the Arab world deny the Holocaust happened, and accuse Jews of blood libel (murdering children and using their blood to bake holy bread). Anti-vaxxer hysteria is bringing back diseases that we’d almost wiped out. Second Amendment activists harass the parents of murdered children because they think high school shootings are performed by ‘crisis actors’ so the government can take away their guns.

And what happens? You no longer know who to trust. You no longer know what’s true and what isn’t. We live in a Post-Truth era, an age of Fake News, where people will believe and share whatever rubbish they’re told on Twitter and Facebook without checking a single fact. And when you no longer trust the government, the politicians, the media, who do you turn to?

You turn to populists. You turn to people like Trump.

The sitting President of the United States is the greatest example of the dangers of conspiracism. This is a man who kickstarted his political career with the birther conspiracy, who ran his campaign on the idea of combating a nefarious ‘Deep State’ that secretly runs America (in league with the ‘enemy-of-the-people’ news media, of course), and claimed Ted Cruz’s father murdered JFK. This is a guy who lies through his teeth while calling truth ‘fake news’, who claims that climate change is a hoax, vaccines cause autism and the Clintons murdered Jeffrey Epstein. When the head of the country tells you conspiracy theories are real, the truth goes walkabout.

And why? Because knowledge is power, and destroying the basis of knowledge – truth – destroys the currency of opposition. In a kingdom without truth, the best liar is king. And we all know Donnie’s the best of the bunch.

To quote the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels,

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

So what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. I’m not in favour of censorship, and I think it’s too late for that anyway. On the other hand, I think more could be done to separate reputable news sources from the blatant liars. Perhaps there could be some body set up that you can submit your work to for fact-checking, and they could provide you with a tick or a digital certificate you can put on your website that shows your article has been verified. That way, you’re not blocking anyone, but you’re creating a two-tier system of verified and unverified data. Sure, there’d be flaws in the system, but I’m just spit-balling here. Wikipedia, once an incredibly unreliable source of information, has definitely become more trustworthy over the years, so perhaps crowd-sourcing is the way to go, although such an approach tends to prioritise consensus, mainstream interpretations over equally valid but less popular ones. I’m smart enough to know I’m not smart enough to solve this.

But three things I do know: nobody is infallible; three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead; and the Clintons had nothing to do with the deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington.

Why you should vote

With a General Election in the UK tomorrow that will likely change the way we live for a generation – either by delivering Brexit (Conservative) or re-nationalising utilities and transport (Labour) – most of the people I’ve spoken to have no idea who to vote for, and, therefore, have decided not to vote.

True, it’s a difficult choice – it can seem a little bit like choosing which plug socket to jam a fork into, because we’re going to suffer either way – but if you’re crippled by indecision, here are some things that might help you out of that deadlock.

The difference between left and right is one of opinion, not morality.

I am sick and tired of hearing this banal, simplistic dichotomy of left=good, right=evil; or, to put it another way, Left is right and Right is wrong. You hear all the time from celebrities, campaigners, news sources and anonymous internet users that if you vote Labour (or Democrat in the US), you’re a good, selfless person who cares about the poor and rescues drowning puppies, whereas if you vote Conservative (or Republican), you’re a selfish, uneducated, boorish racist who hates puppies and never tires of seeking out rivers to throw them into.

The world doesn’t work like that. People can’t be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ based on their voting preference, not least because there are really (realistically) only two choices, and picking one doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say and do, just that you disagree with them less than you disagree with their opponent. Rather than being a moral choice, that agreement or disagreement is simply your opinion on how a society is best structured.

Typically speaking, the Right, whether that’s Conservative or Republican, believes in individual responsibility and the free market. They think people should be rewarded for their efforts and punished for their failings; that independence, innovation and hard work should be encouraged, while dependence should be discouraged. They think a free market with the minimum of governmental oversight will give the consumer a fair deal based on the mechanism of competition, and that tax-breaks for the rich will make them spend more money and found new companies and invest in philanthropic enterprises, so the wealth will trickle down throughout society, and everyone will benefit. Essentially, they think people should be left to their own devices and all will come good.

The Left of Labour and the Democrats believes in collective responsibility and the regulated market. They think society controls who succeeds and who fails; that hard work is not properly rewarded and that society needs to take responsibility for your failings. They think the market needs governmental regulation because the mechanism of competition does not give the consumer a fair deal, and that tax breaks for the rich only make the rich richer. Essentially, they think the only way it will all come good is if there’s someone in charge making sure it does.

And that is the difference. True, some people who vote for the Right are racist xenophobes who hate the poor, and some people who vote for the Left are dyed-in-the-wool, hardline Communists, but that’s a minority. Voting Labour doesn’t make you a good person any more than voting Conservative makes you a bad one – it simply means you have a different opinion on whether the basic unit of society should be the individual or the group.

And as someone who sees himself as a political centrist, believing in some things from the Left, like the welfare state, and some things from the Right, like government non-interference, while simultaneously opposing things on both sides, I have no home.

It doesn’t matter who you as an individual vote for

As much as the UK champions itself as a democracy, really it’s just an elected dictatorship. Once somebody is in power, they can pretty much do whatever they want for five years, and no amount of protesting will prevent them from, for example, massively hiking up tuition fees or going to war on false pretexts. ‘People Power’ is only really relevant in an election year, and even then, your voice as an individual isn’t actually important at all, especially if you live in a safe seat.

Take my constituency of New Forest West, for example. Created in 1997, it has seen the Conservative MP Desmond Swayne win every election for 22 years. Voter turnout has been pretty consistent throughout this period: between 45% and 50% of the electorate. The least he has won by is a majority of 11,000 votes, back before the millennium. He won the last election by more than 23,000 votes. It doesn’t matter where I put that cross on my ballot paper, Desmond Swayne is going to win. My political power, as an individual, is zero. My vote has never had an effect on the outcome of an election, and likely never will.

But what about marginal seats? Doesn’t every vote count? No. The last time an MP was elected by a majority of one vote was 1910. Therefore, it doesn’t matter who you as an individual vote for. It doesn’t matter if you stay in bed and don’t bother. You, as an individual, have no say whatsoever.

But you should go and vote anyway

Democracy is a collective endeavour. While it’s true that your individual vote is unimportant, the individual votes add up. It might make no difference if you don’t vote, but if your household doesn’t vote, or your street, or your town, that makes a difference, especially in marginal seats. For politics to work for the people, the people have to engage with it, even if it’s simply to sully your ballot paper as a mark of protest. And while it’s true that deciding who to vote for in this election is particularly difficult, not least because the leaders of both the main parties come across as incredibly odious individuals, if you don’t vote when you have the chance, and after people have fought and died for the opportunity, then you don’t really have the right to complain about the outcome.

My fear is that, with so many people saying they aren’t going to vote because they’re undecided, this election is going to be decided by activists, the people with the motivation to go out and vote. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met many political activists who aren’t extremists, running down the other side while blind to the faults of their own. Do we really want those people, whether Left or Right, deciding our future?