When Dr Camilla Pang was eight, she asked her mum if there was an instruction manual on how to be a human. She was sick of getting things 'wrong' and being told that her behaviour wasn’t 'normal'. She wanted, above everything, to feel like she fitted in.
Of course there isn’t an instruction manual on being human. Each one of us is different in weird and wonderful ways. However, despite our differences we are a species that likes to feel part of something, and for neuroatypical people like Millie, that sometimes felt impossible.
Millie, a postdoctoral scientist specialising in translational bioinformatics, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at age eight. She has subsequently also been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As a teen, she struggled to communicate with classmates, her incredibly literal brain interpreting signals differently from her peers.
Now 26, she’s at peace with the unique and beautiful way her brain works and so, after finishing her PhD in biochemistry, she decided to write the manual on how to be human that she'd wanted when she was a child. Millie loves science and so she's written it through that lens, in the hope that she can help other girls who haven't found their path yet.
"I always knew I was a little bit different [when I was young]," Millie told Refinery29. "But at that point I didn’t know why." Enter Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us About Life, Love and Relationships, an easy-to-read part-memoir, part-explanation of why humans are the way they are and what we can learn from it.
Millie, do you think getting diagnosed helped you understand yourself a little bit more?
Being honest, I don’t feel any different being diagnosed. It’s purely a label for other people so they know what to expect and [a label that helps] my family. [The diagnoses] helped me later in life because only then was I aware of my developments. When I was younger my mum was the main person that would help me make sense of the world. She wouldn’t be like, 'Oh you find this hard because you’re autistic' she would be like, 'You find this hard because the way you process things is this way and others process it like this'. I never felt 'othered', I just knew I thought differently and I’d have to find my own way through.
In your book you use science to explain human interaction. What’s one comparison that you found really helpful?
So, everyone has preconceptions, assumptions and expectations from their life which help them make decisions. When you have autism or neurodiversity it’s a lot harder to use social expectations to make decisions. Bayes' theorem (the mathematical theory that describes the probability of an event, based on prior knowledge of conditions that might be related to the event) is very valuable [to me] when I apply it to social situations. For example, if I just have an expectation of a person they're going to be hard [to read] but if I match observation and expectation of a person over time, anticipating their needs and behaviour gets a bit clearer.
You said that when you were 17 you started to feel human – what happened at that point?
I just became more aware of the friendships I’d made that hold me up. People that I could be myself with. I realised that everyone deals with life’s processes, people are vulnerable. When you see people start being human with you, you start to feel human and that’s the most amazing feeling. That’s the feeling I look forward to most, to this day.
What did it feel like when you realised that everyone is worried about fitting in and interacting with each other?
Everything felt a little less sharp and more forgiving and smoothed down because I knew that if I took a wrong step [everyone else] is probably going to take one at some point too. I think the [biggest] relief, like 'aw yeah I’m standing on top of the mountain with my arms open' was when I started researching cancer and tumour evolution because diagnosis aside, all humans are diverse, much like the different cells in cancer. They’re adaptable and very agile in their lives and evolution, much like cancer; it’s often nuanced. This is when I felt the relief that all the elements are actually inherently unpredictable and you can only have so much certainty in what you do and everyone’s in the same boat.
What have you learned from your studies that neurotypical people might not realise?
No one knows what they’re doing and that’s okay! Some people may look confident but those who truly know what they’re doing are often more busy doing it than talking about it! You need to be able to construct your own judgement about what works best for you. For example, it’s good to take things [everyone says] on board but you shouldn’t be scared of your constructive judgement. The one that makes you feel anxiety is actually the sense of passion we feel.
Why do you think it’s harder for women and girls to be diagnosed with autism and ADHD?
Girls are very good at ‘masking’, or imitating behaviour [meaning their symptoms may not be noticed]. Girls do this more because we’re brought up more to perform to social expectation whereas boys are encouraged to be more brave. Girls with ASD are used to imitating behaviours to camouflage and disguise ourselves in the hope of gathering empathy and not disturbing the expectations. I’ve had to suppress many anxiety attacks and squeeze my personality and make it seem like I have all my ducks in a row. A lot of features of autism are not in line with what it 'is' to be a woman. And girls get scared of that – like, does it mean I’m not human? No, it means you are human and you should just be you but social structures can be a torture at times and it’s made harder by the innate craving one has to belong. You want to belong, everyone does.
What advice do you have for any young women dealing with some of the tough situations you went through?
Make sure you define you own way of living and make your own solutions and if they feel weird, then great! You are on the right path. You have to stand up for how you’d like to live and question the questioning of it. Most importantly, stick to the promises you told yourself you'd do to establish the fidelity of your own voice because at the end of the day, that’s all you’re going to need. Don’t apologise for it!
Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us About Life, Love and Relationships by Dr Camilla Pang is published on 12th March by Viking.