Personal Stories, Autism, Diagnosis

Coming out at 60 - diagnosed as autistic in later life

‘You’re not!’

‘I am. Look. It says here’

And so, it starts. My coming out. And this is how it is going…

If you ask me, at the age of 60, what led me to seek a diagnosis for autism, I could answer a few different ways…

‘I am just trying to make sense of my life,’ I might say.

‘I need to know what accommodations I might reasonably require an employer to make when I next apply for a job?’

‘At 60?’ you quip.

‘Even at my age I am in no position to retire.’

Or I could say ‘I need to know who I am, so that as a writer I can speak with authority.’

But it is all of these.

I struggled at school. Except for woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing. I was a victim of chronic bullying. I didn’t fit-in with any peer group. At home I was stuck into my Lego, my Meccano and building Airfix models. I was a quiet kid.

I struggled finding a career; when I did find a career, I struggled fitting-in. And, when my first major career ended prematurely – a result of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of the former Soviet Union – I struggled with the transition.

By then, approaching the age of 40, and being one of the Royal Air Force’s most experienced software engineering officers, I had had some successes. For example, I was the first ever direct-entry technician airman to qualify for an Engineering Officer Cadetship and earned a place at Sheffield University to study computer and communications engineering.

On leaving the RAF, I failed to find the sort of job that matched my qualifications and experience. I had interviews with all the major consultancy firms at the time, but failed psychometric tests, or gave flippant answers to inane interview questions. The usual response:

‘Sorry, you have no commercial experience.’

They ignored my post-graduate diploma in accounting and finance. My profile simply didn’t fit.

To gain commercial experience I became an entrepreneur. There was no interview, no inane questions nor psychometric analysis. I simply set up. I employed people. I sold one business. I even managed to complete a PhD part-time in three years while running it and publishing a book on the Art of Management. But in 2008, now with business partners, I faced a board-room coup. I was forced out of the company I had founded; I clearly didn’t fit-in with my new business partners.

At this point, I wrote a novel. I didn’t quite know what else to do. I then wrote a short story which became a screenplay. It was during writing this screenplay – a psychological thriller – that I started researching Asperger’s. Asperger’s gave me the dimension of character I was looking for. Bizarrely, the story-line started to make sense of aspects of my own life. At the back of my mind, I began to suspect there were similarities between me and what I was reading about ASD.

I started a new business with one of my sons. Unfortunately, this business failed in 2017. I declared bankrupt and set out to find a job. But I don’t interview well, as I have said. I was told at one interview I was the most qualified and experienced candidate they had seen, but they were giving the position to someone who was a better fit with their team. Something had to change.

I spoke with my doctor and asked what his opinion would be if someone my age sought a diagnosis of ASD…

‘What value it would have?’ he asked.

Although I’d anticipated this response, at the time and put on the spot I had no reason to give him. I left knowing I would get no help on the NHS. But a seed had been sown.

As a part-time academic, I am researching story and its application to understanding entrepreneurship. I have some potentially ground-breaking ideas. I am particularly interested in auto-ethnography as a research methodology. It therefore matters to me to know from what point of view and with what authority I write. Self-assessment, which I have done, will not stand up to academic scrutiny.

On 7th December 2018 a BBC Radio York interview featured a local artist I happen to know; she told of her own recent diagnosis. I was surprised. I’d never suspected she was on the autistic spectrum. We met for coffee and, after a few minutes of conversation…

‘You are,’ she said. ‘I have a sixth sense about people with ASD. You should get an assessment.’

A slight issue. My parents are both deceased. I have few friends. My wife was dismissive of the idea I might be autistic; that is despite my apparent rudeness and notorious lack of conversational ability. Very few people know much about me at all. But my sister agreed to support my assessment with what information she could recall. I also had copies of my annual reports as an RAF officer.  

I travelled to the Tizard Centre at the University of Kent for my assessment early in February 2019. I had wasted no time once I set out on the path. I recall, writing (with a pen) in my (paper) notebook on the train journey down…

‘I wonder what it will be like…’

I had, of course, studied what I could find on the assessment process from the internet. This posed me a problem. What would be my strategy for the assessment? After 60 years of coping with who “I” had become, I figured that if “I” was on spectrum, then I had developed some pretty advanced coping mechanisms. If I masked, if I acted as who “I” had become, then what might be the outcome?

But who was “I” if “I” wasn’t who I was now? How could I reveal that person? If I was to act as I understood the autistic person to act, then surely this would not help either.

I figured the only strategy was to act instinctively and not to allow myself time to think about action or answer. If necessary, I would think aloud, narrating my response to anystimuli… This was to place trust in the belief that my assessor knew what they were doing and was perfectly capable of carrying out the assessment. This was easy. This is how I generally am on meeting someone new; I take them at face value. If someone tells me something, I believe it until I have cause not to.

Unfortunately, my inability to read many people adequately, I am sure, has led me into some unwise business decisions – such as a previous choice of business partners, perhaps. My strategy is a necessary risk. It leads to an assessment that feels strange, disorientating; to me it is a tapestry of seeming inconsequence. Towards the end of the assessment, as my assessor’s hand goes into a bag of small objects, I dread “my turn”. My face, apparently, gives me away…

‘I can tell you are not going to like this,’ my assessor says.

I didn’t like it.

I understood then, why, when I had arrived at the railway station earlier in the day, I had decided to walk the 1.5miles to the university and not take a bus. It wasn’t because the weather was good. It was. No, it was because I didn’t want to have to interact with strangers on a strange bus. Of course, I would have, if I had had to – if it had been raining. But it wasn’t.

Don’t ask me to describe what I felt, during that assessment. But what I think is that I now know I am no longer the “I” I had become – that I am closer, now, to the “I” I have always been, but didn’t know.

So, where does that leave me now? Now that I have had my assessment of ASD confirmed?

As Olivia Laing writes about Andy Warhol in her book Lonely City, I, too, “am alone in a crowd; hungry for company but ambivalent about contact”. In place of that ambivalence is a fascination for how the world works as a system – how it connects. My ability to think differently about this system – devoid of the noise of social bias – gives me insight I need to write about.

No one, yet, who currently knows me – my wife included – had any idea I might be on spectrum. But once I set the context, explain a little, and provide the “doctor’s confirmatory note”, a penny seems to drop. I am 60; 61 soon. For 50 or so of those years I was unaware who “I” was. For the last 10, I have had a growing suspicion. I now know. I am autistic. I think about a shit-load of stuff. But I think about it differently. And I am OK to do that. I look forward to the future.

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About David Atkinson

David is a serial entrepreneur, part-time academic and writer. He thinks and writes differently about things. Assessed in February ’19, he now intends to use his autistic voice across all three areas.