A queerly autistic rumination on the confusing world of public grief

This isn’t what I was going to write about today.

I had a plan. Or a semblance of a plan. But the world has an awful tendency of getting in the way. 

So this is a waffle. A pouring of words straight from the heart, a conversation with myself in real time; I hope that it will not upset anybody, and I hope that I will have come to a better understanding of my own mind by the final syllable. I will be talking about terrorist attacks and other such atrocities, so please be aware if this may be triggering for you. 

Whenever a turbulent, tragic and tumultuous event happens that dominates the mainstream press, I feel myself feeling more and more detached from the rest of the world. Like I’m an alien in human disguise who temporarily forgets to keep their shields up. And everyone is staring at me, because ‘hang on a second, humans are not supposed to be green’ – but I don’t know how to stop being green.

I’m not going to go into detail about what happened in Manchester this week. A quick go on the Google will bring you up to date, although I urge you not to get too drawn in as I have done – there’s some incredibly harrowing stuff out there, stuff that I don’t necessarily feel should be published by the mainstream news, and that is a wormhole I don’t want anyone dragged into.

I have friends who live in the Manchester area. They are safe. Their friends and family are also safe. I had a brief moment of panic when I heard it was Manchester that had been hit, but they are all okay (as best they can be on an emotional level). Other people were not so lucky.

I’m not going to talk about that at length. I’m not going to talk about the politics of it all, the bigotry I’ve seen, the humanity and diversity of Manchester coming together (please do look that one up – Manchester is diverse and wonderful and amazing and will not be turned on their own neighbours, and they have displayed every single ounce of soul and goodness that I already knew they had). I don’t feel it’s my place. I’ve made calls on my social media for people not to be divided, for people to stand up and call out the bigots using it to push their own agenda, but a lot of this has been by sharing posts from amazing people who are lot more knowledgeable than me.

What I want to talk about is the sense of alienation I always feel with the majority of the population when something like this happens.

I don’t mean in terms of the togetherness I have mentioned above – I very much feel a part of that – but I mean in terms of the ways that I see people reacting away from the main event, the directions and angles of the grief, and the struggle I have in connecting with it.

One of the main accusations that is levelled at us, the Great Autistic Hive Mind (please note that this phrase is dripping with sarcasm) is that we do not feel emotion or have empathy. I would like to say from the very beginning that I categorically dispute this, as I know that I do not conform into this terribly broad assumption. I am not a representation of every autistic person out there (neither is any autistic person a representation of anyone but themselves), so I am sure there are many autistic people with these traits (there being nothing inherently wrong with them), but again and again I have seen these stereotypes dashed by the autistic company I keep.

For me, emotion is like another sensory sensitivity. As I struggle to filters out sounds, light and smells, so I also struggle to filter out emotion. I am flooded with different and often conflicting emotions on an almost minute-by-minute basis, and often the strength of those feelings is enough to bowl me over backwards. However, the sources of those feelings are not necessarily always ‘logical’ – for example, I was so distraught when my favourite fictional died that I almost had to have a day off school, but barely shed a tear when my grandfather died.

Some people therefore interpret this as ‘heartless’. Anyone who has ever known me well will find that statement hilarious. If I feel it, I feel it more intensely than anyone could ever imagine. If I feel it, I will rage and kick and scream the building down. The problem is that what makes me feel doesn’t always necessarily make sense to large swathes of neurotypical people (and, I would guess, some neuroatypical people as well).

I can’t control what makes me feel any more than I can control my impulse to breathe.

So, when the awful events in Manchester happened, I was affected. How could I not be? I love Manchester – I go there regularly with my lovely Northern friends, I adore the diversity, the feeling, the friendliness, and the complete lack of raised eyebrows or batted eyelids when I waltz around in whatever strange and often non-matching get up that took my fancy that morning. I think queerness, diversity, socialism, progressivity, nerdiness and alternative fabulosity when I think Manchester. My heart ached to see Manchester, and the people (including my friends), reeling from the shock and pain.

However, I could not wrap my thought-processes around why this attack was so much more devastating than other atrocities I had seen in the previous weeks and months. I couldn’t understand people lamenting at what the world was coming to, when, as far as I could tell, the world had been pretty awful since the beginning of ever. Was I wrong? Was this so much worse? Why were people in so much more pain? Why were these deaths more important? Why did everyone act like human beings haven’t been finding new ways to slaughter each other’s children for thousands of years? Acknowledging the above did not make what had happened in Manchester any more or less atrocious, so why was it an issue?

Dozens of refugees, mostly toddlers, just drowned in the Mediterranean. Dozens of children were just killed by a suicide bomber in Syria. Two explosions rocked Jakarta. But I did not see world capitals laying wreaths, projecting country colours onto monuments, or issuing statements of solidarity. Were the children and people killed in such-and-such an attack or tragedy not as innocent? What was I missing? Everywhere I looked, people were sharing posts with balloons on for Manchester, people were sending their prayers (another thing that baffled me, because what good are they, particularly when I knew many of these people were not actually religious in any way) and, it seemed to me, almost jostling to prove who could show the most grief and sorrow.

People were swelling with an outpouring of almost regimented grief that I felt cast to the side of; watching with a furrowed brow, scrunching up my face as I tried desperately to march in time, going red and tearful with frustration as I failed to keep step. There was a basic language barrier between me and the rest of humanity (so it seemed to be befuddled mind). And it couldn’t be broken because I fundamentally didn’t (and don’t) understand.

When I was learning to drive, many inglorious moons ago, I struggled desperately to understand how and when to change gear. No matter how hard I tried, or how many hours I spent practicing, I simply could not get my feet to press the correct pedals in the correct order. After some incredibly frustrating lessons, my instructor made a breakthrough – he explained exactly what happened when I press those pedals, showed me how doing it in that order made it work, and laid out to me why the things I needed to do served to help the car change gear.

From that moment on, I had no problems. I understood the how, what, and whys of changing gears. I knew why I had to do what I was being told to do. The barrier to my understanding had been broken.

This is not a driving lesson. And the events in Manchester are not a gear change.

But the point stands. Only this time, it cannot be explained to me in simple mechanics. So I have accepted that I may never understand. I have previously attempted to address this with people (following similar incidents across the world), as the way my brain was processing these events felt justified and normal. I soon learned to keep the majority of my questions and feelings inside, for fear of being judged as heartless, cruel, and alien. How dare I ask people why they were so much more upset about such-and-such a thing than this other equally (or even more) devastating thing? What kind of monster was I?

For others, the socially acceptable responses seemed so innate and ingrained and easy to draw upon – for me it was a challenge, as I responded no differently to how I responded to other such events across the world. If I had personally known someone caught up in it, my grief would be specific and personal – but I didn’t know anyone. So why would my response be different than it had been to all these other disasters? Yes, it was closer to home, but the devastation was no more or less real? It made no sense for me to do otherwise, and it still makes no sense.

I’ve come to accept that this is something that I will always be faced with when the situation (inevitably) arises.

And maybe that is a good thing.

Maybe my brain, and the brains of others like me, process it in different ways in order for there not to be an overriding consensus in reaction to devastating events. Maybe the world needs neurodiverse thought processes in order to explore every angle of the human experience, to investigate every viewpoint of a situation, to create a fully three-dimensional image of every act and event and emotion. As me and my friends (who often find themselves in a similar cycle of non-comprehension and confusion) discuss this in private chats and hushed whispers over hot chocolate, maybe we are disallowing a universal response and experience – and, in doing so, allowing for a different angle and perspective that is important to consider.

Maybe, instead of being lost and confused, we should be proud.

Maybe I am not a monster. Maybe I am not heartless.

What I am is my own mind.

What I am is the actions that come from this mind.

And what I am is the path I then choose to follow.

This post is dedicated to those lost in Manchester, in Syria, in the Mediterranean, in Jakarta, in Paris, in Brussels, in Turkey, in Norway, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and all of those caught up in other horrific events we have seen unfold over the years. I cry for each and every one of you. You all deserved so much better. You will never be forgotten.  


Author: QueerlyAutistic
Erin Ekins is a queer autistic writer, speaker and attempter of activism. She has an interest in all areas of autistic social justice, but has a particular passion for improving understanding and acceptance of the intersection of autism and queerness. She runs the blog queerlyautistic.com and is the author of the upcoming book 'Queerly Autistic: The Ultimate Guide for LGBTQIA+ Teens on the Spectrum'. By day, she works in campaigning and influencing at a disability related charity, but, by night, she is inhabits a busy space between angry internet person and overly-excited fangirl.

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