Keeping sane in a crisis: an autistic perspective

As someone with autism who’s neurologically predisposed towards obsessing over danger and freaking out over every little thing, I have forty years experience of battling dread and fear, and so the threat of a pandemic bearing down on us like a runaway train is just another day to me. However, it seems to be something new for large sections of society, and as panic starts to spread, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on keeping sane in a crisis – because if an autistic guy can do it, so can you.

First a disclaimer: I’m not an epidemiologist. Nor are most journalists, or the person on Facebook claiming coronavirus is harmless, or the neighbour stockpiling toilet paper. None of these behaviours are particularly helpful, because they add to the noise and misinformation out there, making it difficult to know what to believe and harder still to keep a level head. That’s why I’ve held off blogging about Covid-19: because I didn’t want to add to that noise.

But since we seem to be at peak saturation for signal clutter, what can it hurt? And hell, in some small way it might even help.

1. Demystify what you’re afraid of

There is nothing scarier than the unknown, except, perhaps, the unknown over which we have no control. There’s a very obvious evolutionary reason for this – the unknown could be dangerous and might kill us, so it’s safer sticking to the familiar where we can manage the risks.

Unfortunately, this means we have a tendency to inflate the dangers of anything new, and downplay the severity of those dangers we face everyday. That’s why we’re afraid of terrorists (odds of dying in a terror attack in the UK: 1 in 7.3 million), flying (1 in 5 million) and sharks (1 in 900 million), and not the death machines parked on our driveways (1 in 20,000, or a staggering 1 in 240 in your lifetime).

One of the best ways of controlling our fear of Covid-19 is to make it familiar, and thereby strip it of its mystique. Look at the bald statistics from a reliable site (like the World Health Organisation and Worldometer) and they’re more reassuring than the unhelpful running totals on websites listing number of cases alongside number of deaths.

As of 9:40, Thursday 12 March, there have been 126,628 cases, of which 4638 have died and 68,325 recovered. More helpful, perhaps, are the stats on current cases: 53,665, of which 47,957 (89%) are mild, and 5,708 (11%) serious or critical. While the tabloids might delight in showing photos of people lying in hospitals on ventilators, and implying there are more than 100,000 of them, the truth is that, globally, there are 5,708. Even if you catch Covid-19, the vast majority will have mild or no symptoms.

And this is good news for the statistics. The mortality rate is based on the percentage of known cases that have died, but if up to 50% of cases are asymptomatic, there are undoubtedly thousands who are infected, or have been infected and recovered, without even realising it.

So how lethal is Covid-19? Answers vary depending on which source you look at, but the mortality rate is estimated to be around 2% (ranging from 0.7% to 3%). This varies greatly by age, however, falling heaviest on the elderly and those with underlying health issues. If you’re under 50, the fatality rate runs at 0.2% of those infected, or 1 in 500, giving you a 99.8% chance of recovery, while those in their 80s have an 85% chance of recovery.

Therefore, if you catch Covid-19, you’re still twice as likely to die in a car accident in your life than die of coronavirus this year. Indeed, not only will you most likely recover, you’ll probably have either no symptoms or the mild symptoms of a cough, a high temperature, and a shortness of breath. This doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous or that we shouldn’t do everything to protect ourselves and those more vulnerable to the virus, but knowing what we face is far easier to deal with than worrying unduly.

2. Put your fear into perspective

Oftentimes, it feels like the end of the world. Especially as an autistic person, you spend your life magnifying things to the level of a catastrophe. Your chest tightens as you’re flooded with adrenaline, obsessing over the danger and letting it consume your every thought, because you can’t avoid the thing that’s coming for you. At these times, it’s best to step back and put things into perspective.

Look out of the window: is the world still there? Is the grass still green? Can you see insects buzzing and flowers growing and clouds scudding across the sky? Then it’s not the end of the world, even if it might feel like it.

For the past few months, people have been comparing coronavirus to the flu. For just as long, people have been saying, ‘Stop comparing it to the flu! Stop saying it’s only dangerous to the elderly and those with underlying health issues! Stop trying to minimise the dangers!’ Such people are, I think, missing the point of why these things are being said.

People are scared. People want reassurance. Comparing Covid-19 – the unknown bogeyman – to something we’re fairly comfortable with, like flu, is a way of dispelling some of that fear, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The situation is serious, yes, but uncontrolled fear leads to the kind of irrational, unhelpful behaviour we’ve been seeing with panic-buying and stockpiling, which places massive strains on supply chains and has the potential to be very damaging. In a crisis, the last thing you want is panic. Making sane, rational decisions is always better than rushed knee-jerk reactions.

Nor do I think it’s a problem stressing that 98% of those infected will recover, with most of the remaining 2% being elderly and/or those with underlying medical issues. There was an article in the Guardian yesterday about the people in that 2% ‘at risk’ group feeling thrown to the wolves to make the other 98% feel better (along with lots of the usual Tory-bashing), but while you must be feeling vulnerable in that 2%, the solution isn’t to fill the remainder with dread. This doesn’t mean that those who die from this pandemic are unimportant and that we shouldn’t do everything we can to keep them safe, simply that we shouldn’t panic by overestimating the lethality of this virus.

Putting Covid-19 into context shows that it’s much worse than the flu, which has a mortality rate of 0.1% and a mortality rate in the over-65s of only 0.83%. However, it’s far less lethal than recent health scares like bird flu (60%), Ebola (50%), MERS (35%), and SARS (10%). It’s also nowhere near as contagious as measles or chicken pox.

Looking at the big picture, the government’s worst case scenario – something that is unlikely to happen – is that 80% of the UK gets it, resulting in 500,000 deaths. While this seems terrifying, again we must put it into perspective. In the UK, there are around 600,000 deaths each year from all causes, which is around 1% of the population. Therefore, more than half-a-million people die around us each year and we barely even notice it. Many of the people in the government’s 500,000 would have died anyway and been included in the 600,000, so if we speculate that around 1 million people will die in the UK this year, the worst case scenario will increase our annual death rate by half a percentage point – from 1% to 1.5%. This is worth remembering.

It’s also worth remembering that all of these figures are speculative. Covid-19 has the potential to kill millions, but so far it hasn’t, and only time will tell how it pans out. As my mother always says, worry is a waste of energy – if the thing you fear doesn’t happen, there was never any point worrying about it, and if it does, your worry didn’t stop it.

You know what does kill millions of people around the world each year? Heart disease. It kills 18 million people a year, but very few of us heed the warnings and change our diets and exercise. Cancer kills 10 million, many of them preventable. 9 million die of hunger. 1.5 million die of tuberculosis. 1.1 million of dysentery.

Judging Covid-19 on what it has actually done, instead of what it might do, is a better way of keeping a level head. I understand those people who scream that Covid-19 could kill millions, because they’re right. I also understand those who say that coronavirus has only killed around 4500 people, and even if you do catch it, you’ve got a 98% chance of recovery, because they’re right too.

3. Switch off

As someone whose autism causes him to obsess over every little detail of an issue until it dominates every aspect of his life, I’m well aware that there comes a point where, for the sake of your sanity, you just have to stop. It’s understandable that people want to keep abreast of the situation, because you want to keep an eye on the danger and avoid it if you can, but we’re in a uniquely difficult age where our technology gives us 24-hour access to information. What starts as a desire to keep you and your family safe can quickly turn into an addiction.

Watching the news a couple of times a day is fine, but tracking the spread of Covid-19 in real time and checking your phone for updates every few minutes isn’t healthy. It gives you the illusion of safety while simultaneously heightening your anxiety – a wound can’t heal when you’re constantly picking at it. Following Covid-19 doesn’t make you any safer, but it does make you far more uptight about it. So learn what you need to learn, hear what you need to hear, and then switch off, or else you risk letting your fear of coronavirus take over your life.

Of course, distracting yourself from that feeling of impending doom is not always easy. Instead of telling yourself not to think about it, which only makes you think about it more, simply acknowledge it whenever it pops into your head and gently shift your focus onto something else. I find doing something that requires concentration, focus and hand-eye coordination – a jigsaw puzzle, a model, a paint-by-numbers – is a far better means of taking your mind off your fears than TV, movies or a book.

And once your mind is off it, go do something else. Count the leaves on a tree. Dance in the shower. Focus on the here and now and the things you have control over, instead of things that might happen tomorrow. Know that this will pass.

4. Learn to accept the things we cannot change

I think the biggest thing I’ve realised from watching this emerging crisis is just how resistant people are to accepting things. They might close the schools, they might cancel my holiday, it’s not fair, rage, fume. When you come up against a brick wall blocking your path, repeatedly bashing your head against it is nothing more than a futile gesture. Sure, it’s annoying to find our way blocked. The solution isn’t to cry, it’s to go back and find another path.

You also have to accept that we’re all mortal and will therefore one day die. I’ve seen tons of people in their 70s and 80s in denial, panicking that they’re going to die. Why? If you’ve not accepted your mortality by that age, when you’re already past the life expectancy of an adult human, you’d better start working on it. I’m 40 and I’m comfortable with the fact that this bundle of cells, animated by that mysterious force called life, will one day become nothing more than meat. If I die of coronavirus, or heart disease, or in a car accident, it’ll be sad for my wife and kids, my family and friends, but it’ll be normal, and natural, and it was simply my time. There’s no point feeling bitter over the years I didn’t get to have, because I was never entitled to them, and I never had them anyway.

Accepting that no amount of huffing and puffing will change the nature of the universe is a vital skill if you want to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs.

5. Keep a sense of humour, even if (especially if) it’s dark

The best way of dispelling fear in a crisis is finding the humour in your situation. I remember someone posting that you should look around at all your friends and know that two of them will die. Wow, I thought – with a mortality rate of 2%, she’s vastly overestimating my popularity!

I’m also bemused by people’s fear of self-isolating. To me, that’s a normal day.

I find social media an endless source of amusement. It’s fascinating how easily Covid-19 slips into political rhetoric. To the right wing, the crisis is the result of immigrants bringing in the virus; to the left, it’s because the Tories have cut health services. Various right-wing websites are claiming that Covid-19 is a biological weapon that escaped from a Chinese lab; various left-wing websites are claiming it’s an American biological weapon designed to crash the Chinese economy. You’ve got to see something amusing about that.

Perhaps the weirdest thing is how quickly people’s professed virtues flip to the opposite extreme. After Brexit, I lost count of the number of Tweets I read hoping that elderly Leavers would hurry up and die; then, in the run-up to the election, those same people were saying how we had to vote Labour or else millions of old people would be at risk. After the result showed most old people voted Tory, I again lost count of the number of Tweets saying they looked forward to the elderly dying in their millions as the Tories ran the NHS into the ground as it would serve them right; and now, those same people are saying, Save the Elderly! Save the Elderly! I mean, come on guys, pick a side and stick to it: do you want elderly Brexit-voting Tories to die, or don’t you?

One of the best jokes I saw online was: If there was a vaccine for coronavirus, most of you wouldn’t take it anyway. Now shut up and wash your hands.

We have some difficult times ahead of us, people. But keep calm and carry on.

Good luck on staying sane.

World Book Day 2020: Top Ten Non-Fiction

In honour of World Book Day, and having already listed my Top Ten Novels, here are ten of my favourite non-fiction books (with the exception of my own, of course!). These are ten books spanning various genres that stood out from the crowd, providing entertainment, fascination, insight, knowledge and joy.

1. Chariots of the Gods, by Erich Von Daniken (1968)

Filled with wondrous insights about the ancient aliens that created us…oh no, wait. Only joking!

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (2005)

Writing a scientific history of the world that explains not only what we know but how we know it, and the oftentimes bizarre people who made it possible, and putting it all into one book that is readable for the layperson, seems like an impossible task, but Bryson manages to pull it off with aplomb. From geology to seismology, biology to paleontology, particle physics to relativity, he takes some incredibly complex fields of science and somehow makes them understandable, entertaining and endlessly fascinating. Part science primer, part history and part biography, this book is a must read for anybody curious about the world around them.

2. Heavier Than Heaven: The Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles R. Cross (2001)

I’m not normally a fan of celebrity biographies, and having already read several on Kurt Cobain, the tragic frontman of Nirvana who committed suicide in 1994, I didn’t expect this book to be anything more than a casual read. I was happy to be proved wrong. Expertly drawing together details from hundreds of interviews, Cross recreates Cobain so vividly, I felt I could reach out and touch him. Indeed, for someone who died before I even knew who he was, this book brought Cobain back to life, almost as though the narrative was unfolding in real time as we drew on towards the inevitable conclusion. Raw, heartfelt and honest, I’d recommend this to anyone, even if you’re not a fan of Cobain’s music, for the way it manages to penetrate the public persona and reach the real individual beneath.

3. A Voyage for Madmen, by Peter Nichols (2011)

The definitive account of one of the strangest and most gripping stories of man at sea, this is the kind of twist-filled, rip-roaring adventure you’d describe as unbelievable if it wasn’t true. In 1968, nine solo yachtsmen set out to become the first to sail alone and non-stop around the world. And what a strange bunch they were – a philosopher, a failed inventor, a soldier who didn’t know how to sail, in boats that hadn’t been designed for the rigours of the open seas. Of the nine, four pulled out after being battered by the ocean; one after vomiting blood from a peptic ulcer; one sank; one didn’t want to stop sailing so abandoned the race to become one with the ocean; one went mad, wrote a 25,000 word treatise about the human condition, and then killed himself; and only one made it. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe this perfect storm of eccentricities, and this book more than does them justice.

4. The Case For Mars, by Robert Zubrin (1996)

A fascinating proposal for colonizing the Red Planet using existing technology and scientific know-how, this is both a sales pitch and a step-by-step manual to creating a sustainable habitat on Mars. With infectious enthusiasm, Zubrin convincingly shows how to achieve each stage physically, technologically, scientifically, politically and financially. Indeed, from reading this book it becomes clear that we don’t need to wait a hundred years or even fifty – we could start right now. If that doesn’t excite the little child inside you that dreams of walking on alien worlds, then nothing will.

5. Travels With Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck (1962)

Travels With Charley is an absolute gem of a travelogue that has informed so much of how I see the world. While it’s ostensibly about Steinbeck’s trip around the US in a pickup truck when he was sixty, accompanied only by his pet dog Charley, it’s as much about an old man coming to terms with his mortality, revisiting the places he once knew and that are now lost in time. Along the way, we learn what it is to take a journey, why we should refuse to surrender the fire in our bellies, how we can never go home again, and why men should have beards. Atmospheric, lyrical, meditative and philosophical, in trying to pin down what makes Americans so American, Steinbeck reveals far more about what it is to be human.

6. The Stories of English, by David Crystal (2004)

Essentially a history of the English Language, this book is far more readable and entertaining than it has any right to be. Do you know why the land of the Angles and Saxons came to be called England and not Saxonland? That the sea used to be called a seal bath, swan road or whale way, and ships were keels, wave floaters or wave horses? That the Vikings are the reason Keswick and Chiswick are no longer pronounced the same? That as a result of Norman noblemen exploiting Anglo-Saxon peasants, all the names of domesticated animals are English (calves, cows, sheep, pigs) but all the meats are French (veal, beef, mutton, pork)? Whether you’re looking to understand the language or simply want interesting facts to fire at your friends in the pub, The Stories of English is the easiest and most enjoyable way of doing it.

7. Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, by Richard Rhodes (2002)

Despite its slightly misleading title, this harrowing piece of historical study is one of the most important and revealing accounts of the Holocaust I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot. While everyone knows about the death camps, very few know about what came before them, when four ‘special task forces’ of a thousand men each followed the army into Poland and Russia, rounded up Jews, and shot more than one million of them into makeshift graves. Following the organisation, training, development and ideologies of these groups, Rhodes shows how the death camps weren’t created to make the killing more efficient – they were created to make it easier on the executioners, who were suffering depression, alcoholism and suicide as a result of murdering people all day long. A nasty but worthwhile read, Masters of Death shines a light on a gruesome part of history that should never be forgotten.

8. The Dinosaur Hunters, by Deborah Cadbury (2000)

Popular history at its best, The Dinosaur Hunters is a fascinating story of heroes and villains, gifted amateurs exploited by amoral academics, and the battles that raged as the first dinosaur bones were pulled from the earth. It’s the tale of Mary Anning, a poor Dorset spinster who made some of the greatest discoveries of all time but was shut out of the scientific community because she was a woman; of Gideon Mantell, a country doctor who lost his money and his wife trying to prove that the giant bones he collected belonged to prehistoric lizards; and of the obnoxious anatomist Sir Richard Owen, who destroyed Mantell’s reputation before taking credit for many of his discoveries and stealing the honour of naming the dinosaurs. A real page-turner that shows in stark terms how difficult it can sometimes be to separate the vested interests of the scientists from the science itself.

9. The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout (2006)

We tend to think of sociopaths as violent criminals, but did you know that 4% of people are reckoned to have no conscience? In this eye-opening and frankly terrifying book, Stout reveals how 1 in every 25 people walking around in society are only out for themselves, with no instinctive limits on how they treat others, having zero empathy and no remorse whatsoever. Ever made excuses for someone’s behaviour, like they must have forgotten or they must have been under a lot of pressure, because you simply can’t believe any normal human being could do such a thing? Chances are, you’re dealing with a sociopath. Filled with horrifying case studies of the destruction wrought by these people in relationships, families, the workplace and wider society, this book teaches us how to recognise the sociopaths in our lives and how to protect ourselves from them, and for that alone it’s essential reading.

10. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson (1724)

If you’ve ever read Treasure Island; played Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag; watched Johnny Depp do his best Keith Richards impression; or told the joke, ‘Why are pirates called pirates? Because they arrrrr’; then this is the book for you. It pretty much created everything we think we know about pirates, from peg legs and buried treasure to eye patches and the Jolly Roger. A collected ‘biography’ of famous pirates, all the big names are here: Blackbeard, William Kidd, Calico Jack Rackham, Bartholomew Roberts, Mary Read, Anne Bonney, Charles Vane, Edward Low, Israel Hands, Stede Bonnet, Sam Bellamy and a whole bunch you’ve probably never heard of. Given that its authorship is still in dispute and there’s no doubt that much of it is exaggerated, if not simply made up, calling this non-fiction is a bit of a stretch, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun nonetheless.

World Book Day 2020: Top Ten Novels

In honour of World Book Day, I thought I’d list ten of my favourite novels (with the exception of my own. Hint, hint, any publishers who are reading this!). These are ten books that got under my skin and left such a deep impression that I was still thinking about them months or even years later – no mean feat when I’ve read around 800 in the last twenty years. While they might not be considered ‘literature’, and are therefore unlikely to grace many Top Ten lists, they show writers at the top of their craft, able to stir, excite, move, challenge and satisfy. What more could you want in a book?

My Top Five (in no particular order):

1. The Death of Grass, by John Christopher (1956)

A horrifyingly real apocalyptic thriller with a uniquely ominous, slow-burn first act as the world edges towards catastrophe. Set in post-war Britain, the story is about a virus that starts in China (where else?) and spreads slowly westwards, killing all grasses – including rice, wheat, oats and barley. With an upcoming election, and in the mistaken belief that science can find a solution, the government opts not to take the necessary but unpopular measures to offset the crisis, so by the time the virus hits, it’s already too late – at least half the population is going to starve.

Escaping from the city shortly before martial law puts it on lockdown, an ordinary man and his family set out towards his brother’s farm – a safe-haven in an easily defensible valley where they’ve been growing potatoes. Following the adage that civilisation is only ever three meals from anarchy, the countryside rapidly descends into a lawless hell of robbery, rape and murder, forcing the travellers to unexpected acts of savagery to survive – but at what cost to their humanity?

What makes this book different from so many others is the sheer believability of both the premise and the characters, showcasing the best and worst of mankind. When I first read it a few years ago, it scared the hell out of me, and with the coronavirus dominating the headlines, it’s as resonant today as it ever was. A word of warning to the easily offended: it isn’t very PC. But then, for a book written in the fifties, why would it be?

2. Changeling, by Matt Wesolowski (2019)

A work of staggering impact that ought to be taught in schools to warn about the dangers of certain types of abuse, Changeling explores six different perspectives on the disappearance of a child in a haunted forest so creepy it has the genuine ability to make your skin crawl. What at first appears to be a modern supernatural chiller slowly reveals itself to be a psychological thriller that is as profound and unsettling as it is insightful and authentic.

And that is the genius of this novel – it deliberately turns everything you think you know on its head. Possibly more than any other novel I’ve read, it gets inside and shakes up your view of the world. The human monster at the heart of the story is far more convincing and everyday than Hannibal Lecter, which makes him/her all the more disturbing. This isn’t the horror of cannibals and serial killers, but of partners and parents, people who live with us and present a civilised front to the world while, out of sight, they destroy us one little bit at a time – tap, tap, tap.

I’m not sure why this book isn’t better known – perhaps because, like its antagonist, it wraps itself in a cloak that disguises what it really is. But this is what makes the book so affecting – by putting us, its readers, in the same position as the novel’s victims, we’re able to experience what this form of abuse is like, and what it feels like, and how truly awful it is. It’s an important book, something that could change how people think about power in relationships, and it deserves to be read more widely. I can’t recommend it enough.

3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

I read Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club and didn’t really care for it (the movie is one of my favourite guilty pleasures), so I wasn’t really expecting much. How wrong I was. Oh my gosh, I cried and I cried and I cried. Reading this was like opening up a wound and exposing all that came out to sunlight. I ploughed through it in a day, desperate to get to the end just so the pain would stop.

It’s pretty far from a perfect book – some of the side characters are one-dimensional and the subplots are poorly executed – but the central story, about the relationship between a girl and the sister she grew up with, is brave, and thought-provoking, and devastating, so moving that it makes up for everything else. I can’t say too much about the plot without giving away the twist, but it’s a mix of family drama, mystery, tragedy and coming-of-age story. If you’re sensitive, if you feel things deeply and can’t bear to see another creature suffer, keep the tissues handy because you’re going to need them.

4. HMS Ulysses, by Alistair MacLean (1955)

The only book I’ve read more than three times, this is the definitive account of the horrors of the Arctic Convoys during the Second World War. Following the cruiser of the title as it escorts an assortment of merchant ships towards Russia, battling German planes, surface raiders, U-boats and the elements, the novel is a thrilling, draining, harrowing tour de force of a war story. The characters are so real, they leap off the page; the descriptions of the polar conditions so vivid, you feel the spray turning to ice in the wind; and the tiny details that populate every paragraph, evidently taken from real life (MacLean served in the Royal Navy during World War II), blur the boundaries between fiction and lived experience.

This is one of the few books where every character stands out, living on in the mind for years afterward; where events, seemingly small and insignificant, are so clearly depicted they linger like memories. While it might be fair to say that many of his later novels were somewhat derivative, MacLean’s debut is a storytelling masterclass that has been undeservedly overshadowed by Nicholas Monsarrat’s better-known The Cruel Sea.

5. Furnace, by Muriel Gray (1997)

For a few short years in the 1990s, Muriel Gray was the best thing about the horror genre, a worthy rival to Stephen King. Unfortunately, she only wrote three books, and Furnace, her second, was undoubtedly her best. An homage to MR James’s chilling 1911 short story Casting the Runes and its 1957 film adaptation Night of the Demon, the novel follows a long-distance truck driver as, while crossing rural Virginia, he stumbles into the wrong town at decidedly the wrong time. Cursed with a string of runes written on human skin, he learns he has three days to find out who gave it to him, and give it back without them knowing, or else a demon will manifest and devour him.

Gray takes this simple idea and imbues it with everything you could want from a page-turner. The growing sense of urgency and desperation is beautifully aligned with characters you really care about in a subculture – that of US truckers – that feels authentic and atmospheric. As an author, she had a real talent for pairing character and setting with a kind of creeping terror that didn’t rely on gore or schlocky cliches to scare. Definitely a book to read late at night when the shadows contain secrets.

And the rest of my Top Ten:

6. Deliverance, by James Dickey (1970): A survival horror masterpiece in which four city dwellers go on a weekend canoe trip in rural Georgia and run foul of the locals, Deliverance is a deceptively simple tale that’s still shocking in its uncompromising portrayal of violence and refusal to answer the ambiguous moral questions at its core.

7. The Relic, by Lincoln Child (1995): A Michael Crichton-style techno-thriller that has a pace and gnarliness all its own, this is a tense and exciting story about a mutant monster roaming the basements of the Chicago Museum. Any 450 page novel that can sustain a breathtaking climax over 150 pages without going off the boil is a masterful display of craftsmanship. Just don’t judge it by the atrocious film version.

8. Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield (1998): Depicting the last stand of the 300 Spartans against an army of 100,000 Persians at the pass of Thermopylae in 480BC, this novel is that rare thing: a war story that recreates the brutal realities of killing without any of the usual gloss, and an historical drama that lives in its own time without imposing modern sensibilities onto the narrative. Erudite, literate, vivid and, above all, exciting, it’s a definite must-read.

9. The Lost Fleet: Dauntless, by Jack Campbell (2006): Military science-fiction at its best, the first in a series of books about a fleet of warships cut off, surrounded and stranded in enemy space light-years from home. What makes this stand out from the rest is the realism of fleet tactics in three-dimensional space, taking into account the relativistic effects of time-dilation on manoeuvring. Simply top notch storytelling.

10. Sea of Ghosts, by Alan Campbell (2011): Insanely creative, bizarre, intriguing steampunk fantasy merging science, technology, and psychic powers with monsters, magic and parallel dimensions, this novel is an absolute weird gem. Set in a world where the seas are toxic and slowly rising, poisoning the land, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. My only qualms in recommending it is that while this is the first in a series, it was cancelled after two novels, leaving you on a cliffhanger that will likely never be resolved. That said, it’s worth reading just to spend time in Campbell’s unique world.

NB: Now that you’ve read this Top Ten, spare a thought for fiction’s lesser cousin. Non-fiction might not have boy wizards or fifty shades of rubbish, but it has a lot of good. Check out my Top Ten Non-Fiction Books.

More life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old self-taught guitar-player who never learned to read music, I’ve spent the past two months attempting to master the cello. Hard? Damn straight. But nothing worth doing is ever easy.

At first, I thought my age would count against me – Yo-Yo Ma started at 4, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist du jour, is only 20 – but I quickly realised that studying an instrument isn’t about simply learning the notes: it’s about utilising important life skills that have far wider applications than music (Life lessons from learning cello). I might not have the flexibility, patience or single-mindedness of a child, but I like to think my adult insight makes up for this deficit.

So here are more life lessons from learning cello.

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

The first few days, I mastered the C-Major scale across the four strings, and it sounded pretty good. Up, down, up, down, what could be simpler? I learned the notes and finger positions and figured I’d be a virtuoso in no time. If I know where the notes are already, I thought, I’ll be able to play proper music, without having to waste time on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

As they say, pride comes before a fall.

After six days, I looked up the sheet music for Schindler’s List – one of the pieces of music that inspired me to take up cello – and worked out where all the notes were (not being able to read music, after all). I figured it’s a slow piece, so there shouldn’t be much of an issue. After all, I was playing Nirvana a week after first picking up the guitar. How hard could it be?

Hard. It sounded like a leaky arsehole. Eurgh!

There’s playing notes and then there’s playing music, and the two things are worlds apart, especially when it comes to the cello. On the piano, you can make a perfect note every time with a single action – whether you’re five or fifty-five, press a key and you’ll get the same sound. On the cello, multiple things have to happen to make a note – the fingers of your left hand have to be in the exact position, not a millimetre out of place, and you have to be applying the right pressure; in your right hand, your bow has to be held properly, and it needs to be pressing on the strings correctly, with the correct force, moving smoothly and perfectly straight at the right speed. And for music, you need to adjust the force for expression, accelerate or decelerate. Without vibrato (where you rock the fingers of your left hand), everything sounds horribly thin and unappealing.

While you might be able to go up and down a scale and make it sound okay, and you can play the notes to Schindler’s List after six days, to make it sound good takes years. This realisation was a massive blow to my confidence, and I was of a mind to quit outright. But you have to be resilient if you want to achieve anything good – which brings me to my second life lesson.

2. Take it one step at a time.

A journey of a thousand miles starts beneath your own feet. All you have to do is take one step.

That’s all such a journey is – a succession of individual steps. Don’t think about all the months and years it’s going to take you. Don’t think of all the steps you’re going to have to take. The only thing you should think about, and the only thing over which you have control, is the very next step. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually you’ll get there.

That’s how we achieve any difficult, incremental goal whose attainment is way off in the future, and it’s a vitally important skill to have when learning an instrument – one step at a time. It helps you remain patient; encourages you to take it slow and master the basics; prevents you from racing on ahead and becoming disheartened; and limits much of the frustration and despair that you will inevitably feel.

And remember: you can’t take the second step until you’ve taken the first. So after those rapid first six days, I picked myself up and went back to the very beginning: the cello position; holding the bow; bowing an open string; moving from one string to an adjacent one; skipping over a string; first finger; third and fourth finger; and learning to read the notes on the bass clef. You need a solid foundation on which to build, and if you don’t get the basics right, it’s all just wasted effort.

So when the other day, after two months of nursery rhymes, I learned to play the cello part from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it sounded amazing, a just reward for my perseverance. Of course, it’s one of the easiest classical pieces to play, but who cares? I’m proud of myself. And that is so important in a world where you’re surrounded by people better than you.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

(Props to Jordan B. Peterson for this one). This, I think, is probably the most important lesson any of us can learn, whether it’s as a musician, a partner, a parent, or, really, anything. There will always be someone better than you. And I’m not just talking about listening to Stepjan Hauser and despairing that you’ll never be as good as him – I’m talking about all the crap that social media throws at us on a daily basis about our abilities, our relationships, our worth in regard to other people.

Part of the reason I raced ahead to Schindler’s List in six days was from watching videos on YouTube showing how far ordinary people had come in just one week with the instrument. I felt like I was in competition, and I compared everything I was doing with them. And it’s strange, when you start learning the cello, how many people suddenly appear out of the woodwork to say, ‘My cousin’s a professional cellist,’ or ‘My nephew’s just been accepted into music college,’ and I just felt so bloody inferior to them all, so darned useless.

But really, it’s not about competing with anybody else, because I’m not anybody else – I’m me. And each day I sit down to play my cello, I get a little bit better; it feels a mite more natural; and I’ve taken another step towards that distant goal.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Of course, taking it slowly, mastering the basics, and judging yourself only against yourself, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of the bigger picture. Yes, right now I’m playing Algy the Bear, but ultimately I want to be playing River Flows In You, and it’s not wrong to keep that distant dream in the back of your mind to give you both a goal to work towards and the motivation to get there. Just make sure it helps you, and doesn’t hinder you.

To help me on the way, I’ve started taking lessons. Originally I’d intended to teach myself, but after following five separate teachers on YouTube, all of whom were excellent, I found they were actually confusing me more than helping as they all said slightly different things. When you’ve learned five different bow holds, you start to second guess everything you do, so I decided I’d need one single tutor who could correct all the mistakes I’m making.

In terms of ultimate goals, she asked me how far I wanted to go with the cello, and I realised I hadn’t really given it much thought. I played her River Flows In You on my iPod and told her I wanted to play things like that. ‘So, professional then,’ she said, and it threw me through a loop. When I started to play the guitar, it was to play rock songs; I knew I probably wouldn’t ever be as good as Kirk Hammett from Metallica or Slash from Guns N’ Roses, but I’d definitely be able to master Nirvana, Oasis and Weezer (yes, this enables you to date when I started playing the guitar). But when I took up the cello, it was to play classical music – I mean, that’s what it’s designed for, right? You don’t take up cello because you want to play RnB. Doesn’t everyone reach the stage that they’re playing classical music? Does that mean they’re all professionals?

She’s teaching two other ‘mature’ students, one of whom has reached Grade 4 in eighteen months, the other Grade 8 in two years – whatever the hell that means. They want to play in orchestras. I only ever thought about playing in the spare room – I was learning the cello for its own sake, but I guess the essence of music is performance, so it’s something to consider, provided it doesn’t interfere with lessons 1-3 above.

5. Have fun!

And, all of the above notwithstanding, have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing, even if it’s just Baa Baa Black Sheep. After doing an hour of scales, I like to reward myself by working out a rock song and then making as much noise as I can. Pachelbel’s Canon in D is virtually identical to Green Day’s Basket Case, while U2’s With or Without You is pretty easy. Pantera’s Walk is less so. Lamb of God’s Redneck is a non-starter.

So these are five more life lessons from learning cello:

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

2. Take it one step at a time.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

5. Have fun!

My deepest regret

I don’t know what it is that makes us look back sometimes, hunting down the smallest, most insignificant and mostly forgotten corners of our lives to find new material with which to torture ourselves. Perhaps as you get older it becomes easier to look back instead of forwards, given there are more years under your belt than over it; and perhaps the valleys of negative events are etched more vividly and viscerally into our memories than the featureless plain of happier times.

For whatever reason, a particular regret has been playing on my mind of late. I tend to live my life without regret, since everything I’ve done, right and wrong, has contributed to who and where I am now – the mountain does not blame the wind that shapes it. True, some things I might wonder about – what if I’d gone to university at 18; what if I’d continued my nursing studies; what if I hadn’t met my wife? – but for the most part, I don’t worry too much about the past. After all, the only thing we can influence is the present, and we can always strive to be better in the future. I have no qualms admitting when I’ve done wrong, and am not too proud to refrain from asking forgiveness.

However, as an intensely moral person, there are a few things I’m sensitive about. I like to think that, while I’m not necessarily a nice, or kind, or even friendly person, I am at least a good person; that is, when the chips are down, I do what is right, not what is easy. In my life I’ve helped drunks back to their flats, carried old people’s groceries to their cars, taken injured wildlife to the vet and tended those I couldn’t save. I’ve broken up fights, stood up for the weak, given lifts to people in distress and taken the punishments I knew others couldn’t endure. It is when I have fallen short of these ideals that I find most difficult to forgive myself.

So what is my deepest regret?

Every summer from the age of 9 to 15, I was sent off to Christian camp. It was an organisation called Covenanters, and I hated it. While I had some very enjoyable experiences over the years – rock climbing, abseiling, surfing, cliff diving – I detested everything else. I have never been comfortable in a social environment, struggling to form friendships or fit in, and since it would be another 15 years before anyone realised I had autism, I had zero insight into or support for my difficulties. My coping mechanisms didn’t extend beyond locking myself in the toilet to cry and lying awake at night wondering what I could say to my parents to get them to pick me up. Alas, these were my prime ‘character building’ years, so I had to take my punishment like a man.

The first three years of camp weren’t actually that bad because I was less aware of how much of a social misfit I was, and because we stayed in posh boarding schools – it felt a little like Harry Potter many years before Harry Potter was a thing. Other than group showers and raiders from other dorms, the indignities were kept to a minimum.

Unfortunately, in the final four years, camp became a literal camp. Home was a circular bell tent in a muddy field, the toilet was a plastic bucket behind canvas, and the showers were sprinklers over a wooden pallet. I no longer even had the minimal privacy of a bunk, and finding a toilet to cry in meant walking down to the local village on the occasional free afternoon.

Worse, puberty had kicked in, and with it a heightened sense of my own awkwardness and inability to get on with people. Desperate to fit in, everything I tried made me ever more of a social pariah. I just wanted to curl up in my sleeping bag and be left alone, but of course, that made me more of a target. Considering these were Christian camps, the boys who went to them were the furthest from Christian behaviour I ever met. I suppose I could have spoken to an adult, but back then I was conditioned to putting on a brave face as I died a little more inside with every day that passed.

The final three years, the camp was at Polzeath in Cornwall. It was truly awful when I was 13, but I had my brother in my tent, so no matter how bad it got, at least I had an ally. When I was 14, it was just about the worst two weeks of my life. My brother was now a Junior Officer, so I barely ever saw him. I was a piece of meat served up to the butcher’s block, and they tore strips off me.

There were six to eight kids to a tent, ranging in age from 12 to 15, and there’s a lot of difference between a 12-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, especially when the older ones get their kicks from bullying the younger. If it’s never happened to you, you can never know what it’s like to have people go through your bag and mess with your stuff; to hide your things or tread them in the mud; to pour water in your sleeping bag; to ostracise you, make fun of you, call you names, mock everything you do and everything you stand for over two entire weeks, what you wear, what you say, how you say it, what you do, how you walk, every insecurity, the drip, drip, drip of breaking you down until you’re a wreck. And God forbid you show any emotion, or they circle round like hyenas. Baby’s crying, aw, you miss your mummy?

I saw my first porno mag that summer, many, many times, because when they realised I didn’t like it, they kept forcing it on me. Look at the flaps on that one! they’d say as they shoved a photo of a vagina in my face. What’s the matter, are you gay?

Other than me, the youngest in the tent was their whipping boy, but he spent the whole time trying to be their friends while I spent the whole time keeping my head down and trying not to get noticed. They held him down once and shaved his head with face razors while he screamed, and still he went back for more. The couple of nights it got physically violent – after they told him his parents were dead and he was an orphan – I stepped in to protect him, taking the blows and the anger directed at him, which made my situation even worse. So of course, he joined them in mocking me, because he wanted to be in their tribe, and it was obvious I was never going to be.

Understandably, I didn’t want to go back to camp when I was 15. I mean, fuck that, right? But there was still character-building to be done, so back I went.

Things had changed, however. Between the end of that awful summer of 1994 and the start of the next, I had changed. I’d started listening to a band whose lead singer had just killed himself, and for the first time I found a voice for my frustrations, a channel for my angst. I’d started teaching myself to play the guitar, and I’d discovered hitherto untapped depths of resilience from all the bullshit I was enduring at school.

I made plans. This time, I swore I wasn’t going to let camp beat me. I bought clip-on shades for my glasses so I could hide behind them if I needed to; a bunch of band T-shirts so I could wear my identity like a suit of armour on my chest; a cross-pendant necklace to remind myself of strength in the face of suffering; and a bag chock full of cassettes and batteries so I could shut out the world and be alone with my music. I would bring my guitar to fill up the spare moments; sign up to every activity and volunteer for every shitty job going, just to stay active and stay safe.

As an officer, my brother had to help set up the camp, so we arrived a day earlier than the other campers and spent the day erecting the marquee and toilet tents. There were only two others like me, so the three of us were put in the same tent that night.

Sometimes the darkness never seems to end; the morning never comes; and you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so desolate. I remember sitting at breakfast on a rough wooden bench, surrounded by adults, and none of them spotted I was crying behind my shades as I ate my cornflakes, lost in utter devastation. The night with those boys had broken me. Despite my preparation, nothing was different; I was no different. I wouldn’t survive the next two weeks.

Behind the scenes, however, my parents has been pulling a few strings to make things a bit easier for me. They’d insisted I be appointed tent leader – the camper in charge of the group when the junior, senior and tent officers weren’t around – and that I be the oldest in my tent. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the group dynamics of a bunch of teenage boys can probably tell you that appointing a leader is an utterly futile gesture, but there you go. It was better than nothing.

I moved my things to my assigned tent, put in my headphones and waited for my bullies to arrive.

And then the strangest thing happened, so strange I can scarce believe it even now – as they arrived one by one, and as the day passed, and then the night, and then the next day, they didn’t pick on me. I was shocked. Stunned. I felt like I was walking along a tightrope, and any moment I’d fall off it and they’d start on me, but as we ended the first week, and entered the second, it still hadn’t happened. I was surviving!

Of course, they didn’t think I was cool – that’d be too much to ask – but they didn’t mess with me either, and I was free to listen to my music, play the guitar, and do all the activities I’d signed up for without anyone making fun of me. I was so used to being excoriated simply for existing, to be free of it was like feeling the sun on my face after a lifetime of winter. For the first time, I wasn’t sneaking off to the village to cry in the toilets. For the first time, I felt like I could make it to the end without sobbing down the phone to my parents.

But there was a reason, and this brings me to the thing that’s been on my mind lately, my deepest regret. The youngest kid in the tent was a 12-year-old called John who looked 10 and dressed like he was 8 – tailored shorts, checked short-sleeved shirts, elasticated bow ties and neatly combed hair, like his mum had picked out his outfit, as she clearly had. You can imagine how the kids in my tent treated him.

The reason they didn’t bully me that summer was because there was someone else to pick on. And, to my eternal shame, instead of sticking up for him, all I could think was: thank God it isn’t me. Oh thank God it isn’t me.

I don’t want to minimise it in any way, but their bullying of him wasn’t bad relative to some of the stuff I’d not only witnessed but endured. They made fun of his clothes, of how young he looked, and how posh he sounded. They got cross with him when he was rubbish at inter-tent sports, and criticised him for being him. They teased him relentlessly, but they didn’t physically attack him or mess with his things or tell him his parents were dead. But of course, having been bullied all my life, looking at it objectively, and trying to say who had it worse, is to do a disservice to the lived experience – to John, it was torture.

How do I know this? Because he told me. Because we took it in turns, in pairs, to wash up at mealtimes, and he was my partner, and as I stood with my hands in the bowl in that greasy hot water, and as he dried up the plastic camping plates, he’d tell me how much he was struggling, and how he was looking forward to his parents coming to pick him up, and how he just wished it was over now, and you know what I said to him? Do you know what I did?

I cringe when I think of it. Despite knowing how he felt, despite being the person best-placed to help him, I fobbed him off with the exact same platitudes I couldn’t bear myself. ‘You’ll get through it. You just have to toughen up. It’s not that bad. You’ll look back on this experience and laugh.’ And worst of all, I gave him advice on how not to make himself a target.

He turned to me for help, me, his tent leader, and what did I do to help? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Other than a couple of, ‘Come on, guys, knock it off’, when they were taking it a bit too far, I let the others pick on him because I was afraid that if I intervened they’d start to pick on me. How cowardly. I had the chance to do the right thing and I stood by and did nothing. And that cowardice haunts me to this day.

I keep trying to excuse myself. I wasn’t doing the bullying, I say; I was never mean to him myself. But that’s not good enough – by allowing it, by enabling the others to act as they did, I’m equally culpable.

I was young, I tell myself, only 15 – but I knew right from wrong, even at that time, and I chose to do the wrong thing; rather, I chose not to do the right thing, out of fear for myself. I wanted him to be bullied, not me – age is no excuse.

I was bullied myself, I say, I was psychologically damaged, so I’m not responsible for whatever actions I took to protect myself. But that doesn’t work either, since knowing so intimately the damage that bullying can cause, I should have prevented it happening to another.

And he could have gone to an adult for help, I argue. But then, so could I. That’s victim-blaming at it’s finest. And he came to me, who was close enough to an adult to have done something. It was more than I ever did.

None of my excuses work. After six years of being eaten alive at summer camp, in the seventh I threw fresh meat to the wolves and fled up a tree. That’s about as far from a ‘good’ person as you can get.

If I could go back there, I’d tell the others to back off, no matter the consequences. I would rather I had been bullied that year than John. I was already damaged; I could take it. Instead, I might have started a sequence of events that led to him being bullied year on year. I could have stopped someone feeling as bad as I did, and I didn’t.

I’ve carried that guilt with me all my life. I knew him for two weeks twenty-five years ago. I don’t know his name or even where he was from. I don’t know if he remembers me; if this was a single blip he quickly got over or a recurring theme, if it shaped him as a person or lies forgotten. In truth, none of that matters.

What’s important is that remember. And it still torments me.

But then perhaps, as with everything, this event, and my inability to forgive myself for it, has made me the person I am today. Perhaps it’s this failure to do good that has made me so determined to do good in my life, and I should accept that while I’m always going to feel sore about it, it ultimately led to good. I can’t change what happened. I can’t change what I did, or really what I didn’t do. I can only promise never to repeat that mistake. You regret the things you don’t do far more than the things you do.

And if anyone knows a John in his late thirties who went to Covenanter Camp at Polzeath in 1995, tell him I’m sorry I wasn’t there for him when he needed me. If it’s any comfort, it’s my deepest regret.

What do you say in response to THAT!?

What should you say when you’ve just sprayed blood into someone’s face?

As an autistic guy, I have a number of rehearsed responses to virtually every question and situation. I don’t think I’m alone in that – much of society have pre-programmed sets of words they drop into sentences to convey meaning without having to engage their brains and thus slow down the communication.

When we meet a casual acquaintance, for example, we don’t choose every word to create a sentence – we select a block of meaning, as from a drop-down menu, and send it to the mouth:

‘Hi, how’re you?’

The unthinking response is invariably, ‘Fine, thanks, how’re you?’

We do this all the time. It’s the reason idioms are so divorced from their literal meanings – catch you later, how’s tricks, I’ll take a rain check, a piece of cake, shitting bricks. Instead of thinking of each individual word, we select the meaning we want, and the particular register (formal, informal), and our brains arrange the chunks and make the sentences for us.

If we didn’t operate like this, it would take too long to say anything and too long to interpret what other people are saying. It’s as though society has consented to ignore the individual words and ascribe meaning to blocks of words – they’ve agreed that ‘once in a blue moon’ means ‘rarely’ and ‘over the moon’ means ‘pleased’, for example.

This can be a good thing for those of us on the spectrum, as it means we can fake empathy and not have to struggle to figure out what someone’s thinking or feeling. So long as we learn the rules – which can admittedly be difficult in itself – we can fit in.

For example, I’ve had to learn that when people ask, ‘How are you?’ it’s merely a means of facilitating conversation and not an earnest enquiry after your health, so you’re not meant to tell the truth (for a time, I answered with, ‘Entering the inner sanctum of the seventh circle of Hell, and you?’ just to see the reactions).

Where a context-specific response is required and I can’t tell whether a comment is serious or sarcastic (‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’) I normally reply with ‘Indeed’ or ‘Absolutely’ so that it fits both. Unless I’m tired and slip into Aspie mode, where I’ll take everything literally, overthink everything I say and consequently fail to communicate, I can normally mask my difficulties.

However, there are three situations I keep encountering that I’ve never figured out how to deal with.

There’s a lady at the school gate who keeps slipping into small talk that her eldest daughter died as a toddler. Every time she does it, it’s so matter-of-fact that it knocks me off track.

‘How was your Christmas?’

‘It was really good. We lost a child at Christmas, so we make the most of it every year. How was yours?’

‘Er, er, yeah, fine,’ but all I can think is, Should I be saying, ‘oh dear’, or ‘that’s terrible’, or ‘poor you’, or ‘what happened’?

Another difficulty is when old people look at you, groan wearily, and say, ‘Don’t get old.’ Since I live in a village full of elderly people, this happens more often than you’d think. How the hell are you meant to respond to that?

‘I won’t,’ or ‘I’m not planning to,’ sounds like you’re going to kill yourself. Saying, ‘It happens to us all,’ is a bit patronising because they’re old and in pain and I’m not, as is minimising their experience with, ‘It can’t be that bad’ or ‘It could be worse’. And giving some philosophical statement like, ‘Youth is wasted on the young,’ or ‘Any day there’s air in your lungs is a good day,’ is a little too in-depth when you’re standing in a queue at the local shop.

But the worst, the absolute worst, is when I spray people with blood.

I’ve mentioned before that I donate platelets. The way they do it is to put a blood-pressure cuff on your upper arm, inflate it, then stick a needle in your arm. Despite having normal blood pressure, for some reason I have a tendency to squirt. It’s like popping a balloon – the second the needle touches my arm, boom! Blood spattered all over their hands.

So I warn them every time. And every time they’re like, ‘Ah, I’m better than the other nurses, it won’t happen to me,’ and every time – pop – I get them.

There’s something incredibly intimate about blood, so it makes me feel embarrassed and kind of dirty when I spray it over some poor girl’s hand, or neck, or face. The girl yesterday got it all over her bare hand and up her arm, and was clearly horrified, and in those situations I have no idea what to say.

I muttered, ‘Sorry,’ but that seems on the one hand inadequate (I’ve just squirted my bodily fluids over her, after all) and on the other pointless (I can’t exactly control it, can I?). I once tried, ‘See? Told you so,’ but decided that’s rubbing salt in the wound. Likewise, ‘Gotcha!’ makes me seem like a sicko who enjoys the sight of his blood on someone’s cheek.

So I just sit there uncomfortably and squirm. Every time.

If anybody has some advice for how I can respond, I’m all ears!

Life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old casual guitar player who can’t read music, I’ve embarked on a journey to learn the cello – an instrument that doesn’t spoon-feed you anything the way a guitar or piano does, and that requires time, patience and practice to play a single note. I’ve had my cello three days now, so how am I doing?

It’s going really well, actually. When you get it right and the instrument rewards you, there’s an immense feeling of satisfaction because you know you’ve earned it. And unexpectedly, I’m discovering that a lot of what I’m learning on the cello has a wider application – that the lessons of how to play are also lessons on how to live – so I thought I’d share them here.

Day One: Confront your fears

I had a girlfriend once who played the violin, and she never tuned it. ‘These sorts of instruments are too hard to tune,’ she said. ‘You have to take them to a specialist to get it done properly.’

So before getting my cello, I built up a massive complex about tuning. Since it’s a rental and came with luthier setup, I figured I’d leave it exactly how it came and be done with it.

When I got it out of the bag, and after adjusting the height until it felt comfortable, I tentatively plucked the strings. To my ear, and having no frame of reference, it sounded fine.

Being a guitar player, and thus well-versed in left-hand fingering, I ignored the bow for the moment and decided to practice some scales by simply plucking the strings (pizzicato). Since cellos have no frets, I knew the first step was to put tape on the fingerboard to mark first position, so I watched various YouTube videos explaining how to do this. They were all clear on one thing: you had to make sure the cello was in tune. Checking it against some tones I found online, I realised my cello was about one whole step down and all four strings needed tuning.

Bugger. With swelling anxiety, I read that, if you want to be a cellist, you have to be able to tune your own instrument. I knew if I left it, it’d grow into such an issue I’d never get over it, so I bit the bullet and watched a bunch of videos on how to tune a cello. With a healthy amount of trepidation and the certainty that I was going to mess up the very thing I’d been waiting for all week, I turned the first peg.

Wow. With 30-40lbs of tension in each string, the instrument makes one hell of a frightening cracking noise when you adjust the peg. And that peg is held in place by friction only, so you have to push it into the hole as you turn it, or else the moment you let go, it spins the other way and undoes all your hard work.

But you know what I discovered? It’s surprisingly easy, and once you’ve done it, your cello sounds so much better. There is no reason whatsoever to be afraid of tuning.

I spent the rest of the day plucking up and down the C-Major scale across all four strings, feeling rather pleased with myself. I’d conquered my fears and found them baseless, and was already being rewarded by my instrument.

So the big lesson of the day: confront your fears. You might just find that there was nothing to fear all along.

Day Two: Act with confidence

Since I was already building up anxiety about the bow, I took the lesson of Day One and dove right in. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d already read that in the first couple of weeks it’ll sound awful, but I wasn’t prepared for just how awful it sounded. The A-string is close enough to the violin (see my feelings on violins) that you can experience the screechy, scratchy drowning cat sound without even trying, especially if you’re fingering with your left hand at the same time. The lower strings sound better, but far from perfect. Like I said, the cello doesn’t spoon-feed you anything – instead of simply pressing a key, you have to do several tricky things at the same time to get a decent note.

Since practice makes perfect, I spent most of the day practising, but it wasn’t very good. I was nervous, which meant I was very tentative with the bow and I was trying to play quietly so I didn’t inflict the wretchedness on the rest of the family (and the neighbours).

Just when I was ready to give up for the day, I thought I’d throw caution to the wind and give it a bit of welly and – boom! – the sound improved massively. It was like flicking a switch to turn night into day. I realised that if you play nervously, afraid of the sounds you’ll make, you make bad sounds, whereas if you play with confidence, even if you’re unpracticed, you make good sounds.

That’s a great lesson for life – if you go into something worried that you’re going to fail, you will, but if you trust yourself and do it with confidence, even if it’s something new, you can achieve far more than you ever thought you could. The best at climbing trees are those with no fear of falling, after all.

Day Three: find what works for you

After two days playing the cello, yesterday evening my left wrist and right hand ached. I’ve watched more than a dozen videos and read about twenty articles on that ever-important bow-hold, and they all seem to say something slightly different. No matter which one I use, it cramps up my hand after a couple of minutes, and various parts of my body start to punish me.

Stepping back a moment, I found I was way too stiff. By trying to do everything right, and contorting my body into uncomfortable positions to fit someone else’s idea of ‘the correct way’, I was not only making myself sore, I wasn’t making a very good sound. You don’t grip the bow tightly, locking your fingers into place – you need a light, relaxed touch. And you don’t sit rigidly in the ‘correct’ posture – you need to be loose and gentle. Not all bodies are built the same, just as no people are built the same, so find what feels natural and right for you, and relax into it. You need to let go of your tension and flow, not only because it stops you getting sore, but because it makes everything sound better.

I spent today practising the C-Major scale with the bow up and down the four strings, and I’m feeling nowhere near as stiff, and not only that, it’s sounding great.

So, from three days of practice, I have these rules for life:

  1. Confront your fears
  2. Act with confidence
  3. Find what works for you

Who knows what I’ll discover tomorrow?

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!

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).