As I once wrote in Dear Miss Landau, "have you ever met one of those people who always end up standing in the kitchen at parties? The geeky weirdo with a patched and scruffy beard, whose glasses date from 1973, who ... will fix you with an unnervingly intense stare, deliver a lecture about the homoerotic subtext in Top Gun and, before he vanishes into the night, mutter something about writing The Great Scottish Novel."
As you can imagine, minus the 1973-era glasses, I was that weirdo and I did actually spend about fifteen years locked up in my bedroom trying to write such a novel.
On the anniversary of the 7/7 bombing I was reminded of that focused, seemingly neurotic fact while attending the London launch of the autism charity Autistica's latest project: research into other mental health disorders also experienced by those diagnosed with autism. The figures are sobering, but not surprising:
•70% of Autists have at least one mental health condition
•40% of Autists meet the criteria for two mental health conditions
As an Asperger, I can certainly confirm that most of us have problems with anxiety and depression. I've been there myself during 27 hard years trying to stay in work. Remaining sane and safely in employment was a constant struggle (only 15% of people with autism hold down jobs) and I'm not surprised that, according to Professor Martin Knapp of the London School of Economics "autism remains one of the UK's most expensive medical conditions, costing over £32 billion each year." It's costly in human and financial terms, deeply serious and an intractable problem we are only now beginning to grapple with.
Not the kind of thing to comment on by joking about geeky weirdos.
And yet, on that evening, I heard a tale of a fellow Autist who at the age of 14 found he could no longer face the world and retreated to his bedroom. Now 27, he is still there, living a digital 'life' via the internet, raiding the family fridge and relating only to his desktop. A night owl 'working' into the wee small hours in his own Fortress of Solitude.
But the 'funny' thing is this:
I sort of did the same thing.
Granted, I did not become a recluse; but I did spend thousands of hours manacled to my desktop, focused to an unhealthy degree (you might think) on trying to write the Great Scottish Novel, working into the wee small hours, raiding the fridge and occasionally being spotted skulking round an all-night Glasgow café called Insomnia.
Nuts or what?
Well, maybe not.
I can only comment with authority on my own condition and there is no question that other individuals on the spectrum will need professional help, but to even start towards helping those with mental health problems and/or properly utilizing the extraordinary abilities many people with autism possess, researchers may well need to throw away the neuro-typical (NT) rulebook.
I was naturally and downright happily able to catalogue books in solitude for years on end - the average NT would probably have gone off his rocker in three days flat...
Nor was my troglodyte existence working on The Great Novel unnatural for me, although when it all came crashing to an inglorious halt ca. 2008 I genuinely felt like all my efforts had indeed been wasted. But then the strangest thing happened: seven years later I mentioned to my publisher that I had this old manuscript at the back of the computer which, rather topically, dealt with Scottish history, politics and the 1997 referendum. "It doesn't work," I stressed, "but maybe it's saleable."
I didn't expect to hear any more after I sent it to her, so you could have knocked me down with a feather when she said it was "too good to be forgotten" and with a bit of revising and tightening, could be published.
Fifteen years of working into the wee small hours in my own Fortress of Solitude had paid off!
So what more can I say: while the severity and scale of our mental health issues is not to be joked about, people with autism are capable of contributing productively in their own unique ways. The problem is how to integrate night owls like me who do not follow the neuro-typical 9 to 5 routines into society, how to alleviate the mental health issues we often suffer and then how to utilize the unique abilities Autists are endowed with in order to staunch or even partly reverse the £32 billion costs being paid out each annum?
How to differentiate between the night owl really working on a classic in the attic and the recluse merely playing Gin Rummy?
The society into which we may wish to integrate ourselves is itself also heading (as I think Steinbeck said) into a future we can't foresee, to which no current rulebook applies. According to science presenter James Burke, there's the intriguing possibility (probability?) that with nanofabrication (which as he explains, "assembles molecules into stuff") we might no longer need governments or factories.
Atypical night owls self-manacled to their desktops from the age of 14 to 27 may even be the prototypes of tomorrow's productive workers, a far cry from the 9 to 5 generation of the 7/7 era...
James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.