It was five years into my life on Earth that I started to think I'd landed in the wrong place. I must have missed the stop.
I felt like a stranger within my own species: someone who understood the words but couldn't speak the language; who shared an appearance with fellow humans but none of the essential characteristics.
In our garden at home I would sit in a multicoloured tent tilted sideways—my spaceship—with an atlas laid out in front of me, wondering what it would take to blast off back to my home planet.
And when that didn't work, I turned to one of the few people who maybe did understand me.
'Mum, is there an instruction manual for humans?' She looked at me blankly.
'You know...a guidebook, something that explains why people behave the way they do?'
I can't be certain—picking up on facial expressions was not, is not and never has been my forte—but in that moment I think I saw my mother's heart break.
It didn't make sense. There were books on almost everything else in the universe, but none that could tell me how to 'be'; none that could prepare me for the world; none that could teach me to place a comforting arm around the shoulder of one in distress, to laugh when others laughed, to cry when others cried.
I knew I must have been put on this planet for a reason and, as the years passed and my awareness of my conditions developed and my interest in science grew, I realized it was this. I would write the manual that I had always needed—one that explained humans to others like me who didn't understand, and which would help those who thought they understood to see things differently. The outsider's guide to life. This book.
It didn't always seem obvious, or achievable. I'm someone who was reading Dr Seuss while revising for my A levels. Reading fiction actually makes me afraid. But what I lack in almost everything else, I make up for with the distinctiveness of how my brain works, and my overwhelming love for science.
Let me explain. The reason I never felt normal is because I'm not. I have ASD (autism spectrum disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder).
Together, these might combine to make life as a human impossible. It's often felt that way. Having autism can be like playing a computer game without the console, cooking a meal without pans or utensils, or playing music without the notes.
People with ASD have a harder time processing and understanding events on an everyday scale: often we have no filter in what we see or say, get easily overwhelmed, and can display idiosyncratic behaviours that mean our talents can be overlooked and ignored. I'm someone who will tap the table in front of me a lot, make weird squeaking noises, and twitch constantly, nervous tics assailing me at random. I'll say the wrong things at the wrong time, laugh at the sad bits of films and ask constant questions through the important parts. And I'm never far away from a total meltdown. To get an impression of how my mind works, think of the Wimbledon tennis final. The ball—my mental state—is being rallied back and forth, faster and faster. It's bouncing up and down, side to side, constantly in motion. Then, all of a sudden, there's a change. A player slips, makes an error or outwits their opponent. The ball spins out of control. A meltdown begins.
Living like this is frustrating, but also completely liberating. Being out of place also means you are in your own world—one where you are free to make the rules. What's more, over time I have come to realize that my curious cocktail of neurodiversity is also a blessing, one that has been my superpower in life—equipping me with the mental tools for fast, efficient and thorough analysis of problems. ASD means I see the world differently, and without preconceptions; while anxiety and ADHD allow me to process information at rapid speed, as I pogo between boredom and intense concentration, and mentally envisage every possible outcome of each situation I find myself in. My neurodiversity created so many questions about what it meant to be human, but it also gave me the power to answer them.