The Blog

Bleached Bones in the Mojave

Some people with autism can scarcely cope with change at all, I can take it. It doesn't get any easier, though, and recent research has begun to throw light on the fact that people with autism live with much higher levels of fear and anxiety than neuro-typicals.

My father told me a story once, of a sergeant in the British Army who'd won two Victoria Crosses in the First World War.

When the Second World War came and the order to move out was received, he went into a cellar and shot himself.

He feared he could never live up to his previous achievements, so he took his own life.

This is not a true story (Dad did tend to romance a bit), but although some people with autism can scarcely cope with change at all (one young man, more severely autistic than I am, goes to the US four times a year and every detail of his trip must remain the same or there'll be a problem...), I can take it.

It doesn't get any easier, though, and recent research has begun to throw light on the fact that people with autism live with much higher levels of fear and anxiety than neuro-typicals. I took part in one such research effort four years ago and the psychologist running it admitted that she'd looked for other research about our anxieties at the time and simply hadn't been able to find any.

So I can only say: trust me, it's true. Fear is a fact of life for Aspergers.

Mid-Atlantic, the plane hits turbulence for the third time and I'm past the metaphorical point of no return. I've made one successful trip right across America and, as detailed in Dear Miss Landau, learnt I might have been the first Asperger in history to carry out and record such a trek:

As the quiet frenzy of preparation continued, though, we began to realise that I might be a few weeks away from becoming the first Asperger in history to make and record a trip overland across the United States. The journalist Alistair Cooke took a similar trek in the 1940s. His manuscript, Alistair Cooke's American Journey, was then lost and rediscovered in 2005. In the foreword, the editor, Harold Evans (writing in 2005) stated that:

"Only a handful of Americans have seen the country like that, still less reflected on its diversities. There is nothing weird about the doctor he meets in St Louis who tells him 'I never was west of Louisville nor east of Charleston, West Virginia.' "

So relatively few people had done such a trip. Even fewer had kept a log, and as far as the NAS knew, no Asperger had ever done so. The record, written en route, would be sent back to the NAS in Glasgow and transferred to the NAS Events Facebook page, a bit like copy being filed from the frontline.

(Dear Miss Landau, p. 117)

That trip and the fear I endured led to the publication of Dear Miss Landau and the realization of all my dreams. I could perhaps have left it at that, but like an old fighter who thinks he's still got one good fight left in him, I didn't want to stop too soon, retire too young and spend the rest of my life boring everyone rigid with the same old stories the way Jody's grandfather did in the last chapter of John Steinbeck's The Red Pony.

Not only that, my creative process wanted me to write more, and the only way to do that was to get on the road with my muse...

So in case you think this is an over-dramatic pile of self-aggrandizing stuff, here's an account written on a Pukka Pad in a bucking plane over the Atlantic. This is how it feels to be an Asperger who doesn't know what's going to happen next:

"...But now I'm midway over the Atlantic. If not past the metaphorical point of no return, edging onto the perimeter. And the fear comes at me like a blunt-edged wave. Though I've done this before, faced this before, it is like a red cloud shaking my limbs, the primal fear of lack of shelter which never, never ever, goes away.

I joked at Gatwick this morning about another brother on the spectrum, so unable to cope with change every aspect of his journey to and through an airport had to be preserved as if in aspic - bus number, flight number, everything.

But now I know the fear he would feel. It lies in wait and bursts into my consciousness, but I can - just about - navigate my way through it.

I don't make a sound. I reassess the facts and options. I have currency, cashcard and credit. I know my route. I am already sharpening up and the rust is coming off, but I know how vulnerable I am and that the fear will always be lying in wait for me."

So what am I putting myself through this for? Well, I haven't got one good fight left in me, but maybe I've got one good book. My creative process is a well-behaved beast and it's hinted that Dear Miss Landau needs a companion volume, that every story wants its finish and every journey needs its end.

It even gave me a title: Cross At Needles. I've worked out this means I am to cross the border into California at the town of Needles much as the Joads did in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath. I'm hoping it doesn't also mean I'm fated to end up as a bunch of bleached bones in the Mojave.

I'm joking, but this is real and it's happening right now. I hope it inspires other people with autism and I hope I make it across.

But I don't know exactly how I'll get there, and I don't know what will happen next.

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.