To Be Left Alone: Living With Autism – 8

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand


I bought a campervan to live in in New Zealand and joined their caravan club because they sold a pass to the isolated campsites where I intended to hang out. This would be much more convenient than ensuring I always had some cash to leave in the payment box. They were only a few dollars a night but paying a one-off flat fee was so much easier. 

Since I had last been there four years previously, The Lord of the Rings had burst upon the world and now everyone wanted to come and visit Middle-earth and had somehow found out about these campsites, which had almost always been deserted before. Two of the campsites had even been filming locations and were now insanely crowded. 

I found that I was increasingly under scrutiny for my unusual behaviour. I had done everything touristy that there was to do in New Zealand on my previous visits and now was simply waiting somewhere warm for winter in the UK to be over.

I would arrive at a campsite, assemble my hammock and sit and read for days and days on end and this caused considerable alarm among holidaymakers.

On one occasion I had been in one place for a few weeks and a large family was holidaying very near but just out of sight. It was a rare cold day and I was sitting in my van reading instead of out in my hammock as I normally would be.

These people must have noticed me and decided to come and walk through my camping spot (which was a secluded cul-de-sac in bushes). They were trying to look into my van but I had tinted the windows and they eventually left after saying: “Ugh! [shuddering] Weird!”

Many people eventually came up to me and made polite enquiries, having apparently been keeping an eye on me for some time; and as time went on, I became more and more uncomfortable and paranoid, if paranoid is the right word when they really are all talking about you. I looked for more and more remote places to camp and put myself in some quite dangerous situations. 

I had not been brave enough to announce my self-diagnosis to anyone that I knew but when these people in campsites came to tell me that they were worried about me because I was behaving strangely, I would sometimes tell them that I was autistic and they would say something like: “No you’re not, my grandson is autistic and he is nothing like you” or “No you’re not, you seem completely normal”, belying their original reason for coming to question me.

Lack of acceptance of my self-diagnosis reinforced my decision not to tell anyone who knew me as I knew that they would just say the same things. 

I went to New Zealand for the winters three times but this stress on the campsites coupled with stress while travelling to and through the airports became too much and I decided that I would stop. The reason for a lot of the stress travelling through airports was that I was spending my time on these campsites reading books, and would watch a film in the evening. Unfortunately this was just before the era of eReaders and downloadable films, so I had a bag of books and a load of DVDs in wallets to play in a portable DVD player. I had also stuck a card in my passport stating that I was autistic in an attempt to gain some leniency for any unusual behaviour.

These three things, I now learn, are red flags for airport security as terrorists carry around propaganda books and DVDs and apparently stick verses from the Quran in their passports. I was regularly pulled over at security and subjected to humiliating and degrading searches and just couldn’t understand why I was always being singled out. 

To be continued next week…

Emma Wishart

Emma was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 45 when everything suddenly started to make sense, or at least the reasons why nothing made sense started to become clearer. She now lives in Pembrokeshire, working hard to raise awareness, understanding and acceptance of autism. She lived a traumatic and tumultuous life for 30 years before moving to Wales for a bit of peace and quiet and ended up spending 12 years living in a tent in the middle of a forest. 

Please note that since posting this series from Emma Wishart she has been published in an anthology from Editor and writer Mair Elliot, From Hurt To Hope- Stories of Mental Health, Mental Illness and Being Autistic. @Jessica Kingsley Publisher 2021

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