In episode five of season three of ‘Barry’, a fantastic dark comedy about a hitman who discovers the joy of acting while scoping out a target, Sally, Barry’s girlfriend, has her new streaming TV series cancelled 12 hours after its premiere because, “the algorithm felt it wasn’t hitting the right taste clusters.”
This, despite the fictitious TV series Joplin (the name of a city in southwest Missouri where Sally grew up, not the singer of the same name) bringing tears to the eyes of many at its launch, and despite it scoring 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (the same score Barry itself currently has on the influential review aggregator).
A similar series that has received poor reviews, but is popular because it’s hitting all the right “verticals”, replaces Joplin on the fictional streaming service BanShe, sending Sally into a self-destructive tailspin for the rest of the season.
Not only does this plotline perfectly capture the current state of television – a landscape dominated by streaming services and the mysterious metrics that decide what’s cancelled and what’s renewed – it sums up my feelings on life.
Sally’s despair and confusion over the algorithm’s power to destroy in an instant a personal work she has anguished over, mimic my own frustration, uncertainty, and loneliness in the world.
It’s as if, at birth, my instruction manual was missing all the most important pages. And I’ve had to spend the rest of my days making things up to fill in the blanks, rather than understanding intuitively, like many people do, the way everything works.
‘Frustration’, ‘uncertainty’, and ‘loneliness’ are three words I’ve seen written repeatedly within the Autistic community. Feeling like an outsider, while many non-Autistic people navigate the world with apparent ease, is clearly a common concern.
Of course anyone, Autistic or not, can experience social isolation. What makes it so tough for Autistic adults, however, is how difficult it can be to find useful resources, coping mechanisms, and even health professionals to help us, with most available resources aimed at children and their parents.
It’s why I feel so fortunate to have met my wife – someone who understands me and loves me and has stuck by me, even when things haven’t been at their best.
When I was younger I had a string of failed relationships, and with each passing year it felt increasingly like I was destined to remain partnerless.
I never understood the rules of engagement. Before the internet and social media, it was incredibly difficult, almost painful, for me to approach a woman, let alone carry on a coherent conversation. Every botched dalliance only drove me closer to the loneliness abyss.
At various times, mainly in my twenties, I spoke to friends, my GP, and even a couple of psychologists about the way I was feeling, only to be met with invalidating phrases like “We all feel that way”, “It can be tough at your age”, and “You seem to know yourself pretty well.”
The deep-seated, gut-stabbing realisation that I don’t belong, in any place, has always dogged me. It’s what comes from the pressure to modify your behaviour, and being told regularly the way you feel isn’t correct.
I’ve often described it like I’m living my life trapped behind glass; while everyone else appears to be going lightly about their business, I have never been able to truly connect.
Even in recent years, at work functions, a meeting or planning day, if I was early and sitting at a table on my own, I would watch with skin-burning shame as my colleagues passed me over and the other tables filled up.
Feeling like I have had to constantly change who I am, how I behave, think, and communicate, has been draining. It’s why I have always been more comfortable in one on one interactions, and even then only with people, I now realise, who were probably kindred spirits in terms of neurodivergence, or had struggled emotionally with some aspect of their life.
Subtext has been a constant struggle, as has trust – me trusting others, that is. 10 o’clock Tuesday means 10 o’clock Tuesday to me, but to most it seems, it does not.
I have said before on these pages that I bruise easily. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I burn – because a burn leaves a scar behind.
I have, and will continue to, go out into the world putting on a brave face. But, to protect myself from further distress and further bouts of Autistic burnout, it can’t be in the way it has in the past.
A major part of my recovery and ‘unmasking’ is learning to understand who ‘Autistic Glenn’ is, and where he and the version of myself who did what he could to try and fit in, and belong, and smile, begin and end.
That’s not to say I’m not at all who I have appeared to be these past twenty or thirty years. I do naturally smile a lot, I am authentically hopeful for the future, I do genuinely like to have fun.
But I’ve made an art form out of pressing on at all costs, with the proverbial English stiff upper lip (and I’m an Aussie!), because I didn’t know who I was and because that’s what the non-Autistic version of the world expects.
It’s time now for me to unlearn much of what the world has taught me, to hone my particular Autistic skills – and to trust that in doing so, I’ll be able to find a genuine, accepting home.
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