Scientists, Squirrels and Social Exchange

St James’s Park is something of a happy revelation to someone who dislikes crowded streets. Londoner’s are reputedly aloof. If the personalities of the wildlife inhabiting this green space of ceremonial London are anything to go by, that reputation is unfounded. Unless those non-human animals are just naturally inclined to gravitate towards people who outright ignore them, like cats often do, in which case the estimation of capital city indifference might actually be very well founded.

Across The Mall, behind a grand, whitewashed facade, the delegates, mostly avoiding each others gazes, were quietly, hoveringly, anticipating the pastry platters. And more than a few of them were more than a little bit mystified as to why the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons had been invited to deliver the Welcome Address.

His connection to, and interest in, the world of autism is personal, it transpires. I couldn’t help but wonder if he and his wife had had to fight for their son’s Statement like everyone else. He didn’t hang around for questions – he had a bulletproof excuse not to in that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was delivering his Autumn Statement that day. Mr Bercow couldn’t have known exactly where Mr Osborne would make further cuts and raise taxes but, like the rest of us, he could make an educated guess and assume the worst for the ‘average’ citizen.

“Fight like alley cats!” he exhorted, “And God speed in the period which lies ahead.” Maybe it was the unexpected flurrying sea of jazz hands before him which brought out his tragicomic theatrical side. He clearly had no idea that clapping was out and waving was in.

Nature never draws a line without smudging it.

The late, great Lorna Wing was, by all accounts, especially fond of this expression and it, not “God speed”, set the tone for the remainder of the two-day Looking Forward, Looking back: The Janus View of Autism conference. The speaker programme read like a niche-neuro-scientific version of a Pyramid Stage line-up at Glastonbury. Kinda. And the geek in me was a tad overly excited to hear revised thinking and preliminary, unpublished data evaluation from an impressive ‘who’s who?’ of high profile, internationally acclaimed researchers all in the same room at the same time. I’m not sure why I should have found it weird to be one person removed from Jane Asher in the queue for the loo. But I did. I wondered what she thought of the pastries. I got a grip and bit my lip.

Not so when I spotted Adam Feinstein queuing for afternoon tea, however…

An ingenious, colour coded, interchangeable ‘interaction’ badging system was in place:

Red Green Yellow White Badges C

But it did not include the badge I ought to have been wearing:

Purple Badge C

It was after 3pm on day one and I had successfully managed to keep all my random thoughts to myself since 8.45am. My self-censorship was slipping along with my blood sugar and before I could stop myself I was garbling something about how wonderful his book was and how much I’d enjoyed his presentation for Autistic Intelligence earlier in the year. My words didn’t exactly string themselves together in perfect order but he understood that I was expressing genuine appreciation and accepted it graciously with a smile.

“You were jammy to get that gig, weren’t you?!”

NO!!! I didn’t just say that?! I did just say that. Bollocks. The gig I was referring to was him being funded by a third party to research and write A History of Autism: Conversations With the Pioneers. Which is brilliant, by the way.

According to The Royal Literary Fund, Harold Pinter described Adam’s biography on Pablo Neruda as ‘a masterpiece’. He translates I don’t even know how many languages and has journo’d the world over, interviewing the likes of Nelson Mandela, for years – as he ever so kindly reminded me. The ground didn’t swallow me up. It couldn’t wait to hear what I was going to say next. It’s heard me blunder my way into similar conversations before. It’s what happens when I’m unrehearsed.

It’s why I should just stick to writing my thoughts down, however uncomfortable they may read.

I even considered sending him a link to this post, by way of an apology (despite the fact he wouldn’t even remember what I said, much less ruminate, like me, over it) because  stupid ideas tend to multiply themselves like that – but it’s not the first time I’ve mentioned him on this blog and I don’t want to come over all stalkerish. I had a stalker once. I befriended him. It didn’t end well. The banana in the exhaust pipe incident was funny – is funny, in retrospect – and it was interesting being introduced to the comedienne’s brother, who was prone to letting off a shotgun indoors, in a five-steps-removed-from-Kevin-Bacon kinda way. The ceiling lights rarely fared well. The rest was even more messy.

It was round about the same time in the afternoon on day two when I started getting jittery and vocal:

“I could be that mother you’re talking about… If there is anyone here who still doesn’t think that PDA is really a ‘thing’ then I’d like to invite you to spend a week at my house; Boy wouldn’t let you through the door, of course, but that’s by the by… No, no, no, no, no, no, no!”

Oh God. Here we go. Somebody please stop me. Dr Tyler did. Mid rant. His seminar had timed out.

The light was timing out too. The Professor of Brain Maturation was about to take to the stage. I wondered how well he treated his mouse subjects and how valid his experimental data would be to the design of new human drugs. I wondered about the validity of those drugs to autists. I’ve reread the notes and I’m still unclear as to the motivation behind the research. As Kabie Brook had already pointed out,

Academics perceive themselves to be engaged with the broader autism community but this is not shared by other stakeholders, most notably autistic people and their families.

I felt sad for the mice. I wondered how many generations hadn’t felt, and how many more wouldn’t feel, an outdoor breeze on their whiskers. And for what? I felt sad that between the conference ending and catching the train home there wouldn’t be enough time, or enough light, to feed the squirrels the last of the monkey nuts.