by Naoise Dolan
Published April 2020
The day that I received my autism diagnosis, my housemates and I watched Douglas, Hannah Gadsby’s new Netflix special, projected wonkily on the blank wall of our front room, and by accident rather than design. We’d watched a movie already, the kind of brainless farce that felt manageable in the early days of the pandemic, but we weren’t quite ready yet to call it a night – and Netflix’s algorithm suggested Gadsby’s show as something we might like to turn to next. Douglas opens with Gadsby explaining to her audience exactly how her ‘show is going to unfold’, which, she claims, is a means of ‘setting expectations’ so that anyone hoping for another Nanette won’t be upset by this ‘difficult second album’ (which, she concedes, is actually her tenth). About halfway through this spiel, Gadsby says:
…what I’ll do then is change gears dramatically in the show, and I will do that by telling you that I have autism. And I’m going to tell you in such a way that it’s going to sound like a big reveal. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise… because everything in the show up until that point works as a big sequence of red flags that I have autism.
The moment she said that word, autism, both of my housemates instinctively, immediately whipped their heads around to look at me, nervous smiles stretched across their faces. And so I laughed, to put them both at ease, certainly, but also because I genuinely wasn’t rattled. The timing was uncanny, true, but I was fine: I’d spent that day with my girlfriend, whose own autism diagnosis some months before had been one of the reasons I’d finally sought an assessment of my own, and while I had shed a few tears thinking about how different things could have been if I’d known earlier, most of what I felt that day was relief, alongside a strange excitement. So much of what I’d learned about autism during the assessment process made sense: of who I am and how I operate in the world, of my experiences and illnesses, of why the treatments for them never worked. I’ve always felt different, I’d kept thinking, and it turns out that I just am.
At the end of her show, Gadbsy says that the day she was finally diagnosed with autism – she was also in her mid-thirties, which, I’d learnt, is the average age of diagnosis for autistic women – was ‘a very good day’, because ‘it felt like I’d been handed the keys to the city of me’.
My housemates had relaxed by this point, no longer worried or alarmed for me but also thoroughly drawn in by Gadsby’s awkward charm. But it was this moment, much less blunt and much less forceful, that was the one that hit me hard. My day, that day had been a very good day. I still didn’t know exactly which keys I had been handed, only that something had unlocked, and for the first time in a long time I felt hopeful.
The day after I received my autism diagnosis, an old housemate sent me a photo of the cover of Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times. I’m reading this, she texted, and it keeps making me think of you. Then, a few minutes later, the author is autistic, btw. Dolan, I read later, credits her atypical brain with some of what serves her best as a writer: her interest in the small details of human interactions (which that don’t come naturally or intuitively to autistic people and which we often try to codify in order to socialise more smoothly) and in the structures and vagaries of language, her attempts to understand why people do the things they do. I bought the book. Of course I did: the psychologist working through my assessment the month before had raised an eyebrow and scribbled down a note when I talked about how often fiction helps me to understand the world.
Exciting Times is described, on its own cover blurbs, as sharp, droll, icy, fierce and brutal – words which, I can’t help but think, are often used to describe autistic women, for the way in which our observations – always acute, always ‘detail-oriented’ (as that psychologist put it) – aren’t always the most socially nuanced or tactful things to think or say. It follows Ava, a 22-year-old woman from Dublin, who has spent the money she had saved as her ‘Abortion Fund’ to travel to Hong Kong to live and work. (Until an historic referendum in 2018, abortion was illegal across Ireland, forcing women who required the procedure to leave the country, usually for the UK. The housemate who had recommended me Dolan’s book is Irish, and had ordered at the time a campaign shirt, plain black with repeal – shorthand for ‘repeal the Eighth Amendment’ – printed in bold white text across it chest; she wears it still.) When we’re introduced to Ava, she is living in a cockroach-filled flat with two women who she almost never sees (in no small part because she avoids them), and working in a TEFL centre, teaching the children of wealthy Hong Kongers the British English that she doesn’t, as an Irishwoman, actually speak.
Ava, that is, is alienated from her surroundings, and in some sense this is to be expected of any young person living overseas for the first time, especially in a city as populous and complex as Hong Kong. But there’s an extra layer to this, I think, evident in that awkwardness and discomfort with which Ava lives beside her housemates. She is, she says, unable to brush her teeth while anyone is in the bathroom, and lies in bed running her tongue ‘over the night’s accumulated plaque’ instead; she often ‘goes without eating rather than face talking’ to her housemates in the kitchen, because she ‘just never kn[ows] what to say to them.’ I’ve done this – not so much with housemates, whom I’ve long considered to be a kind of family, although I do remember being mystified, in my first shared house, by the unwritten rules of these interactions and relationships, how alert I was to listening out for these, how quickly I hid my discomfort and confusion whenever I butted up against them. I think instead of the small number of writing residencies I’ve had that have involved sharing space, how I could never approach the communal kitchen unless it was empty, or would stay out, walking the city or the bushland or the perimeter of the farm, in order to avoid the house or flat when it was at its fullest.
Ava is keenly aware of her difference, and this is, in many ways, exacerbated when she meets Julian, a young English banker, in a bar – the book opens with what is, essentially, their first date, at a restaurant where Ava is ‘mindful he’d be paying’, and where Julian mentions, in quick succession, that he is Oxford-educated and that it’s ‘incredible’ that Ava has never been to London, because it’s ‘such a short flight from Dublin.’ (‘He’d never been to Ireland,’ Ava states, ‘but it would have been redundant to tell him it was also a short flight that way.’) Julian – and later, his friends, who share his background and all have names like Ralph, Sebastian and Victoria – complicate Ava’s experience as an expat: she may be a white woman in Hong Kong, but she’s also from a place that has felt the force of colonial subjugation, and she is working in a job that is exploitative – an ongoing argument with her supervisors about taking toilet breaks between her hour-long classes recurs across the novel – and which is geared toward equipping the children of people far wealthier than her for jobs like Julian’s, in multinational corporations, and most likely abroad.
Ava and Julian eventually embark on an unconventional and deeply ambivalent relationship – although it takes them some time to get there, which Julian explains by saying ‘I didn’t want to impose’, much to Ava’s chagrin (‘The answer I’d been hoping for,’ Ava thinks, ‘was that I made him nervous’). In the meantime, their early interactions mostly involve lunches like this first one – where they sit in ‘high-ceilinged rooms’ and Ava lets Julian regale her with facts about the market. She does this in part because she enjoys ‘collecting’ facts (‘you never knew when you’d need facts so it was best to collect as many as you could’) and in part because Julian’s habit of ‘thinking aloud’ (read: mansplaining) reassures Ava – she doesn’t have to worry about whether or not Julian likes her or is enjoying her company like she always does, she says, in ‘normal friendships’. When they converse more mutually, their exchanges are full of puns and word play, which is a deliberate and studied kind of wit on Julian’s part, evidence of his class background and education, but driven more by an interest in words and their true and intended meanings – those things that often don’t align – on Ava’s. ‘He was good at engineering ambiguities,’ Ava states. ‘I was bad at avoiding them.’
These – both Ava’s fascinating with language and the ways in which it is used, and her difficulty dealing with ambiguity or even just letting it lie – are common autistic traits, and they characterise most of Ava’s relationships across the novel, are responsible for so much of the detached, droll humour that critics have read into Dolan’s book. Part of what draws Julian to Ava is that she is what he calls a ‘scathing’ woman – she is forever picking apart the nuances of his sentences, wondering, for example, what ‘contradictory things’ the adverb ‘yet’ is doing in his question ‘Have you dated in Hong Kong yet?’, or whether the modifier ‘quite’ in the phrase ‘you look quite nice’ magnifies or diminishes the compliment. Eventually, Julian refers to this trait of Ava’s as ‘donnish,’ and while he does intend this approvingly, it’s a word that unavoidably reminds me of Hans Asperger’s description of the young boys he first diagnosed with the kind of ‘autistic psychopathy’ (his term) that for a time bore his name – Asperger’s Syndrome. He called them ‘tiny professors’ for the way in which they turned their hyper-focus and unique thinking style to singular and sometimes esoteric subjects (what is now called, in psychology, a ‘special interest’, a term I love for how fitting it feels to the research rabbit holes I’m forever falling into for weeks at a time). Julian also repeatedly tells Ava that she ‘says the weirdest fucking things’ or is ‘a freak,’ both of which he also means affectionately, but are nonetheless reactions to her difference. (Julian isn’t alone in this assessment – Ava’s weirdness is referred to explicitly by at least three other characters, including a colleague who constantly misreads her sarcastic humour as serious self-deprecation, and Ava’s own mother, twice.)
But Ava’s care with language isn’t just because it interests her – although its nuances and grammar are clearly things she enjoys thinking about and through, and that are of special importance to her work as a TEFL teacher. It’s also integral to the way in which she exists in the world, hyper-alert to the vicissitudes of social interactions because her understanding of them isn’t intuitive, but intellectual. She watches peoples’ faces as well as their words, gauges existing dynamics in order to slot herself in as neatly as she can. In many ways, this is what initiates, and then sustains her relationship with Julian: their teasing, detached, über-ironic dynamic is one that Ava falls into easily, and sustains well – even though she often has the sense that she is performing or acting out her role, especially in light of the very real social differences between them. On the night that she and Julian finally hook up, Ava first speaks of her attraction by saying (’quite stupidly’, she admits), ‘I like talking to you,’ because ‘[i]t makes me feel solid, like someone can confirm I’m real.’
What’s happening here, I think, is two-fold: Ava’s acting, her role-playing, her constant, minute adjustments of her self and her words to fit to the social situations in which she finds herself are a manifestation of the kind of ‘camouflaging’ that autistic women learn to do so completely, and from such an early age, that it’s often almost unconscious (it’s one of the reasons why our diagnoses tend to come so late); and this role-playing is a habit that comes, as it so often does, with a loss of solidity in her sense of self, because the performing, the keeping-in-check, has become automatic such that it’s impossible to remember how else to be, precisely what one’s instincts actually look and sound and feel like. This is, of course, a dangerous place from which to be entering into a relationship, where boundaries of selfhood and sharedness are in constant negotiation; all the more so when the other party is someone as forceful and confident a personality as Julian – and it’s clear that Ava never really knows how to navigate this space.
For his part, Julian refuses, for the full eighteen-month period that Exciting Times covers, ever to call Ava his girlfriend, or to say that they are dating – even after Ava essentially moves in with him, out of convenience more than any kind of affection or commitment. The mismatch between Julian’s words and his actions – the ambiguity – frustrates Ava, and she is forever trying to push Julian into admitting to the reality of their relationship. But Julian can’t do this, not out of any deliberate cruelty or manipulation, but because of the emotional coolness and detachment that has been bred into him, as befits a English man of his class background, and as much Ava despairs of this, as much as it drives her mad, it’s also something that some part of her is drawn to – Julian’s detachment feels safer to Ava than any real connection would.
The identification I felt with Ava, though, is at its strongest at the point in the novel where she meets Edith, a friend of one of Julian’s friends. Hong Kong-born, internationally-educated, and elegant and funny, Edith initially invites Ava to the theatre – because she has a spare ticket that would otherwise go to waste – and then the pair begin to visit cafés and shopping centres together. Ava is fascinated, almost besotted, by her new friend, finds herself mulling over her name (saying it feels like ‘unwrapping something’), her turns of phrase, her social media accounts (there are some wonderfully detailed descriptions of Insta-stalking here). She starts imagining herself as seen through Edith’s eyes – when she dresses, or when she buys things – including ‘a candle worth four hours’ pay’ that she thinks Edith would consider in ‘good taste’. This is partly because she can’t quite understand exactly why Edith is spending time with her (‘let alone why she liked me’), but also because she can’t get Edith off her mind. There’s something almost obsessive in this, the all-or-nothing kind of approach that’s not unusual in autistic women; and Ava is aware of this, though not concerned. ‘When I met someone I liked,’ she says, ‘I wanted all of them, and fast.’
Ava is delighted by the development of her friendship with Edith, even though this too is characterised by ambiguity (human relationships, after all, have a frustrating tendency towards this). Early on, she states ‘I felt I was making progress, though I wasn’t sure what towards,’ and finds herself wishing that she could watch Edith interact with her other women friends, in order to see whether their relationship is different or the same. And she’s keenly alert for the small, cautious shifts that start to happen here – where Edith starts talking about ‘periods… exfoliation and core-tightening exercises’ (and Ava can’t tell if these are ‘normal things for friends to discuss’ or Edith’s deliberate drawing of attention to her body), or compliments Ava on her freckles (‘parts of me she’d already seen’) while the pair are sharing a change-room in Zara. Edith also mentions her ex, whose name is the perfectly androgynous Sam.
Ava doesn’t openly admit, even to herself, at first, that her own interest in Edith might be coloured by desire. Instead, she ruminates, while teaching, over the fact that English has a subjunctive tense – a thing she didn’t know because it ‘required phrasing that I would never use’. Thinking this through, Ava narrates, ‘apparently you didn’t say: “What if I was attracted to her.” You said: “What if I were.”’ It’s a beautiful moment of understatement, and shortly after this, Ava tries the formulation out again while examining her collarbones in a mirror: ‘This,’ she says, ‘I would fancy if I were Edith and if I, Edith, liked women.’ There’s something wonderfully abstracted about this – as there is about so much of Ava’s thinking. Even strong emotion, bodily desire, she tries to understand intellectually, to find rules and definition for, so difficult does she find it to confront head on.
Ava is also completely unable to understand whether Edith is flirting with her, and finds herself second-guessing many of their interactions, trying to decide whether or not they are coded and deliberate, or accidental and friendly (‘I felt it wouldn’t have killed her to be clearer about that,’ Ava thinks when trying to decide whether or not Edith had deliberately looked at her while in that Zara change room; ‘this too was ripe for parsing’ when Edith admits to not liking men very much). I have stories – oh, do I have stories – about times I have completely missed small (and not-so-small) flirtations that were, apparently, painfully obvious to anyone watching on, from a man bringing me soup when I had a cold (isn’t that sweet, I thought) to the woman who told me that she liked small women with pretty faces (isn’t that interesting, I, a small woman with a pretty face, thought), and my current girlfriend, who asked me in for a cup of tea and then, after I’d answered that I don’t drink tea, had to point out that the tea was not the point. And these are stories that I always thought were funny, that I would tell with a dramatic exasperation, often to people I was trying to flirt with as a way of saying: you have to be direct or I won’t get it. I told them to the psychologist who was completing my assessment – because she asked – and she nodded, twice, and said, that’s a very common sign. It took me several days to realise it, but something lifted in me when she said this, when she raised the possibility that what I’d always thought of as a particular denseness on my part, an inability to understand how to communicate desire – what I’d always assumed was repressed or anorectic in my mind – might simply be a different kind of wiring in my brain, and one for which I’m in no way responsible. When Ava and Edith finally kiss, it’s because Ava steels herself enough to say (‘cast[ing] for sincerity’ a phrase that’s telling for the conscious effort it implies) ‘I like girls’, and then, ‘I like you’. It’s the latter of these two sentences, I realise, that I’ve still never been able to say, not until it’s definite that the sentiment is returned.
All of this has been happening, though, while Julian is in London for a work trip, leaving Ava living alone in his apartment. Ava doesn’t tell Edith about her relationship with Julian, letting her assume that they are simply flatmates; nor does she tell Julian, in any of their long text exchanges, about Edith, aside from saying that she has made a new friend. This isn’t a deliberate deceit on Ava’s part, and she has no interest in hiding these people from each other (in fact, she often thinks about how well Edith and Julian would get on; and both Edith and Julian at various points mention that they don’t care about monogamy) – her evasion happens more because she doesn’t quite know how to broach the topic with either of them. The conversation would be a difficult one, one for which there is no road map, or set of codes and rules, so Ava is unable to think of a way in which to have it. When she considers telling Edith, for example, she worries about the fact that ‘then there would be consequences, whereas if I put it off then I would not have to deal with them yet’. I’ve done this. It’s no less cruel for being undeliberate; each time I have felt genuinely trapped.
When Edith does learn about Julian and Ava’s relationship, it is not the fact of it itself that angers her (‘I have many opinions about the nexus between and monogamy and patriarchy,’ she says, ‘…which are available on request should they interest you’), but Ava’s deception, and, more importantly, her inability to overtly demonstrate how important Edith is to her. Edith takes Ava to task for the way that she hides so much of herself (as she has learned to do, to hide her difference), and also her studied detachment. ‘Plenty of people are willing to offer you intimacy,’ Edith says, but ‘…you prefer feeling like no one will ever love you.’ It’s less a preference, I think, than a deep-seated belief, born of years of discomfort, confusion and rejection. But the effect is the same: Ava’s fear of vulnerability, of exposure, have caused her to keep Edith at arm’s length, and as the fight escalates, Ava, pre-empting what she fears will result, states bluntly, ‘I’m breaking up with you anyway.’ This isn’t what she wants to do, but an instinctive reaction to her fear, and it’s something that Ava regrets immediately. She spends large chunks of the next month and a half drafting (and deleting) text messages to Edith in a local Starbucks, messages which morph from being apologies and explanations of her bad behaviour to ‘something wiry and confessional,’ examinations of her personality and motivations.
Included in these, naturally, is a consideration of Ava’s detachment (‘i can’t believe you think i’m detached,’ she writes, ‘i have more feelings than literally the entire central nervous system’), in which she realises her position is a defensive one. ‘[P]eople hated me at school,’ Ava writes, and ‘at college i didn’t give them the opportunity,’ acting instead as if ‘all of me was a secret’ and worried that ‘if i let anyone in, they’d find out what was broken about me.’ There’s something heartbreaking to me about this, both for how true it feels for my barely-twenty-year-old self, that bewildered and bruised creature, how alone and afraid I felt in my first years at university, and how much of this I now recognise as a common experience for autistic women. We feel a lot, too much, and don’t quite know what to do about this. We accidentally rub people up the wrong way, and don’t always understand what we have done. And so we find ways to hide ourselves, adapt ourselves, keep ourselves safe. At Ava’s age, I was in the depths of my illness, shrinking away from world. And building instead a self that was inviolable, unable to be harmed.
For Ava, though, this text is as much about her sexuality as it is about her neurodivergence – she’s writing her about her discomfort in ‘liking girls’ in a country where Catholicism still influences its politics and laws – like that Eighth Amendment, only so recently repealed. Ava’s texts continue to think this through (‘when i learned what liking girls meant, it was an accusation’), and to also mull over her relationship with Julian (‘it’s more that we can’t talk to most people but we can to each other’) and with her family, to admit to her loneliness and fear. She doesn’t send any of these, but is always aware of – and always overtly thinking about – the fact that her typing may well be visible to Edith, as that indeterminate ellipsis that appears and disappears on a phone screen when someone is drafting and deleting. The texts aren’t quite diary entries, that is, not quite ‘journalling’ – because there’s definitely a frisson, a longing in them, a definite desire that maybe they might just be read by their intended recipient, even as Ava knows this is impossible. She is trying, I think, to figure out how to communicate, whilst feeling entirely unequipped to do so, and it’s notable that the impasse between Ava and Edith only ends when Ava sees Edith doing this same kind of almost-texting – those three little dots popping up and disappearing, again and again – and is able to steel herself enough to call her, and properly talk.
There’s a lovely scene at the very end of Exciting Times where Ava catches sight of Edith on an escalator in Hong Kong’s Central station – where the pair have planned to meet – and begins to run up the still-moving stairs to catch up to her. ‘It was somewhat ironic,’ Ava narrates, even here unable to escape her alert and analytical mind, ‘to sprint up an escalator that had been built to spare me that very exertion.’ I love the gesture that this line offers, the way in which it isn’t offering an easy answer, a solution – despite choosing to act differently, to try and open herself to intimacy and real, risky connection, Ava’s self and style of thinking are not things that are going to change. She remains prickly and droll, sharp and fierce and brutal – but also capable of vulnerability and love, of allowing herself to be seen by someone who just might accept her.
Because this is the thing, I keep thinking, about being handed the keys to the city of oneself – keys are not particularly versatile tools. They may very well open up a set of gates, but they cannot help to navigate whatever lies on the other side. There’s no street directory, or map of any kind. Perhaps this is true to some degree for everybody, but in the case of autism, its seems like such a map might even be impossible, because the systems of cartography that such a thing relies upon aren’t designed to cover this kind of terrain: my magnetic north simply points in a different direction. In choosing Edith, Ava is choosing a kind of relationship that isn’t common, isn’t codified, for which there are no narratives or rules (or maps, for that matter), even though that terrifies her – but choosing something different does not change who or how she is. And nor should it.