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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Autism: euphoria in a hostile world

A review of Pete Wharmby’s What I Want to Talk About.

Hyperfixations are a massive part of what it is to be autistic. While autism is often a cause for pity or, worse, contempt, this aspect of it is generally—for autistic people ourselves—a cause for joy. It might not have been the best use of a few years of my teen years to devote myself so utterly to every intricacy of the computer Role Playing Game Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, but my memories of that devotion, of exploring everything from its stories to how to game every aspect of its playing mechanics, at one point discovering a way to get infinite experience points that earned itself into a small gaming publication, remain a rich source of delight today.

A useful way for me to judge whether I have benefited or not from a non fiction book is to assess how much of it I have chosen to save in my review document, which I use during the course of all of my reading. At the end of Pete Wharmby’s greatly enjoyable What I Want to Talk About I had amassed an impressive 3,288 words of extracts, which I then slimmed to a still impressive 2,248. This is material I can envision returning to. It is a book about hyperfixations, and autism more generally. It is a joy.

Wharmby’s book takes up his own standpoint and using the conceit of his own various hyperfixations (“an interest in a topic, idea, thing or things that shares two key traits’: intrusive thinking and inexhaustibility), it is an ode to this whole way of thinking. Perhaps it is apt, then, that my way of judging the book is based on one of my very own hyperfixations, my record of all of my reading, which is now longer than any version of the Bible.

Topics I highlighted in my reading were vast. In terms only what related directly to autism this included the autistic sense, even from early years, of being different; borrowing from others’ personalities to form a mask of ‘normalcy’; autistic stimming (repeated movements used to calm down), burnout (instances of complete fatigue), dyspraxia (a frequently co-morbid coordination disorder) and hyper-empathy (a tendency to absorb ambient emotions, without consciously recognising them in people, i.e. alexithymia); empathy for inanimate objects; addictive behaviours; and the inadequacy of the ‘male brain’ theory of autism.

Other more general topics I highlighted encompassed difficulties disclosing autism to others; feeling like an imposture; the necessity of routines to everyday survival; using earphone music to mitigate social anxiety in crowds; the importance of predictability in social situations; the joys of Warhammer and Thunderbirds; viewing life through the lens of gaming; viewing life through the lens of a make-believe world; the lack of care for autistic adults; an extreme aversion to dishonesty (albeit with an ability to lie ourselves ) and so on and so on.

Suffice to say, there was a great deal with which I could relate. While I certainly do not share all of Wharmby’s hyperfixations (that would be eerie!), as my list indicates there is nonetheless considerable overlap. A refrain of the book, one with which I powerfully concur, is that the social world we occupy is not particularly designed for neurodivergent people. So where spaces do exist for us, and I agree with Wharmby that such hobbies as Warhammer provide one, it is unsurprising to find that we cluster.

So generally my experience of reading What I Want to Talk About was one of feeling oddly heard. Autism can be a lonely experience and there is tremendous value in encountering and exchanging shared anchorings and ways of being. Nonetheless, not all of the book made for such easy reading. Indeed, some of the most relatable material, contained towards the end, was also the most painful. This concerned the experiences of autistic aging.

Wharmby takes on the myth of autism as a strictly childhood condition, and discusses how many autistic adults “feel absolutely abandoned by society at large, as once we grew older, we vanished into nothingness.” He cites a deficit of research, including on particular topics such as how autism might interact with menopause, the viability of non-specialist residential care, etc. But this lack of an evidential basis as to what it means to grow older as an autistic person is made more chilling by the admittedly limited anecdotal suggestions as to what such research could expose.

“I am much quicker to reach a meltdown state than I used to be. In my twenties, meltdowns were relatively rare—perhaps a handful a year; now, in my late thirties, I have several a month, and sometimes more. If this progresses as I expect it to, then perhaps I can expect to have to deal with very regular meltdowns, perhaps two or more a week. I’m not sure I have the capacity to deal with how exhausting that would be.”

In short, while most neurotypical people expect aging to be an opportunity “to relax more, be more confident in themselves and care less about how others view them,” for autistic people in the type of societies we have arranged around us, Wharmby rightly worries that most of us are going to be “finding it to be the opposite.” We are aging into the unknown, with most indications of what lurks in the shadows being quite frightening.

This is all crucially related to executive function, and the difficulties autistic people (in common with those with ADHD) often have with how the brain manages and organizes the competing demands of “motivation, planning, prioritizing, scheduling and completing.” In a passage that is chillingly relatable, Wharmby details the consequences of this problem worsening over time, exacerbated by age:

“I have never been organized, as any of my teachers, employers or colleagues would tell you (grumpily and with an air of extreme irritation), but these last few years, since turning 35 or so, I am finding myself more and more incapable of keeping everything together and proper. After all, adulthood is simply an exponential increase to the complexity of life, and I feel that I am not equal to it. The number of different pieces of administration I have to keep tabs on seems to grow year by year, with deadlines, reminders, appointments all jostling around in a chaotic cloud in my head. I try my best to wrestle it under control – I use electronic and physical calendars and planners and the like, but the problem is that none of these things work if you don’t remember to check them[…]”

There is a radical kernel to Wharmby’s often quite light hearted book, which these darker moments touch on directly. The challenge that neurodiverse people represent to the ways in which society is currently organised is not something that can be solved by tinkering. That is, any society that could properly encompass our ways of being, would need redesigning from the bottom up. (This is as true for other neurodivergent people, not to mention those struggling with sometimes overlapping and often far more stigmatized mental health conditions such as Borderline or Schizoid Personality Disorders.)

That is because capitalist production and its attendant social reproduction requires a certain level of standardization of social relations (and of human beings themselves) in which diverse ways of existing, forms of psychology and consciousness, or rare problems of human flourishing (of which capitalist alienation produces more and more), cannot be permitted. We can only be included as deficient, and the interactions between the problems of aging and the problem of being neurodivergent under a neurotypical capitalism is indicative of the difficulty. (I recommend reading Robert Chapman on the subject.)

Wharmby’s What I Want to Talk About is not itself an anti-capitalist polemic. Nor is it, as it might seem, a biography. It is a book about hyperfixations and autism more generally. And despite the more difficult aspects of it, as mentioned this is also a hopeful and celebratory text. The dominant impression it gives is not of despair or pessimism, but the simple joy that autistic people find in our monomanias (for me these would include, as well as Baldur’s Gate II, utopian fiction, phenomenology, ethical philosophy, novels of ideas, theology, Marxism, the practice of editing).

Autistic euphoria is precious, and while Wharmby offers considerably more, his volume is worth reading (by people who are and are not autistic) just for providing that.


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