Tales Of The Unexpected Spectrum: Part One
This shouldn’t make any difference to anyone who already knows me. For better or worse, I’m the same Tim I always have been. But for me, it makes the kind of difference that I’ve been searching for all my life — to finally know, that I am actually… autistic.
It’s good to know the reasons why we excel at some things and fail at others. Especially when you’ve gone through your entire life not knowing there were, in fact, reasons for the way you behaved. Like many undiagnosed autistic people, I’ve done a mighty job of fitting in with social groups and working environments. I thought I had to try harder because I was lesser. Now, after diagnosis, I realise I wasn’t lesser. I was just different.
In over 25 years of working with musicians, neither they nor I knew that I suffered from auditory overload, both in rehearsals and on stage. I was just grateful to be in a room with talented individuals who were playing the music I’d written. I would never have dreamed of jeopardising that. Even if it meant pretending I was okay. But the transition from the sound in my head to the real thing isn’t an easy transition. It made things hard in my communications with many musicians over the years.
Getting a late diagnosis is like someone lifting a veil from all the signposts. Signposts which I can now follow, and if anyone else around me wants to, they can follow too. The diagnosis was empowering for me and that’s why I wanted to write about it. For adults who suspect they might be on the spectrum, getting a diagnosis can bring revelation and relief you never knew you needed.
‘Masking’ is what autistic people do to fit in. My masking has been like everything else I have ever enrolled in: an expert compulsive obsessive labour of love that can always be recognised for it’s perfect execution. The fakery works for everyone apart from me, and as any self-aware aspie will tell you, the mental and emotional exhaustion and burnout from fitting in is (when no one else is looking) like living with an illness that has no cure.
Autism is not an illness. It’s a condition that affects how we interact in a different way to the world around us, which is different to neurotypical people. It’s also unique to every individual on the spectrum. My autism brings daily revelations, both good and bad. But mostly good, and sometimes mind-blowingly wonderful. Recently, letting someone know I was autistic when I met them, improved communications, and I didn’t feel incapable. I’m fortunate that I do not need supervision, as some people on the spectrum do. Although being able to manage alone brings it’s own deceptions. When you are undiagnosed, you’re under the false impression that you function like everyone else. And I now know that historically, that brought great difficulties into my life.
My eccentric or unorthodox behaviour has either been lovingly accepted or vehemently rejected, prompting many to identify me by saying ‘oh he’s an artist’ or ‘oh he’s an arsehole’. It turns out I am neither. But I am autistic.
I make things out of music, film and imagery in order to balance the content of my imagination and avoid having daily meltdowns. My music has not been, as I and others thought, an artistic pursuit. It’s been my way of calming my brain. A brain that has never been able to cope with the way everyone and everything else operates in the world.
Self-healing with music is something I was taught by Buddhist monks exactly 20 years ago when I lived in their monastery in Thailand. That process kick-started my solo career. But something profound about that experience never sat comfortably with the career that followed.
Without knowing what I was looking for, I have searched very hard to find something in my life since I got back from Thailand. I searched in the songs, the audience, the albums, the gigs, the schedule, the industry and the system I was living in. But still felt empty.
Until I realised that the self-regulatory activity I’ve been practicing with music since I was a child is not an artistic practice at all. It’s an autistic one. I have no artistic pursuit. My pursuit of balance and inner harmony sometimes looks like art though. And those pursuits manifested as a new album every year for the last two decades. And my career wasn’t a career. It was always, and still is, a wildly unsupervised, undiagnosed condition.
I want to thank my GP, the ASD clinic at The South London and Maudsley hospital who diagnosed me in 2022, the Asperger London Area group for guiding me towards this better understanding of myself (and others on the spectrum). Also thanks to the Waterbear College of Music in Brighton for their exemplary approach to neurodiversity and the vital work of The National Autistic Society to drive the conversation on neurodiversity into a healthier, more inclusive society.
But especially thanks to my partner Kate Alderton for supporting me with such patience, tenderness, wisdom and understanding on a deep journey of self-discovery, that has, without a shadow of a doubt given me something I never had until I was diagnosed: a reason to love myself.
My mother always said “Well he’s different isn’t he?”. It’s nice to know I now know how to find the others, in this tiny percentage of our very beautiful and very big, neurodiverse planet. My past looks very different to me now. All the pieces fit. And I feel more optimistic about the future than I have ever dared to feel before. Here’s to the future, but with the full knowledge that my achievements, AND my shortcomings, are two sides of the same coin. The mask is off!
Thank you to everyone who has always accepted me for who I am. I’m starting to know what it feels like to accept me too. And if you ever caught me flapping my hands, now you know why!
Tim Arnold is a singer songwriter and has written, recorded and released 25 albums. He also mentors at the WaterBear College of Music in Brighton.