Sunday 16 December 2018

Illustrator Aoife Dooley reveals how autism has given her a unique take on life that inspires Nikita cartoons

Dublin comedian and illustrator Aoife Dooley appears outgoing and fun-loving, but growing up, she felt lonely and misunderstood. Here, she tells how her recent autism diagnosis has helped her to make sense of her differences - and how the condition has given her a unique take on life that inspires her Nikita cartoons

Illustration by Aoife Dooley
Illustration by Aoife Dooley
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

'I knew I wasn't like everyone else. I just didn't know what it was." We all go through stages of feeling like we don't fit in, but for Dubliner Aoife Dooley, it was more than a short-lived phase; it was a life-long hang-up.

The illustrator and stand-up comedian couldn't understand why she needed so much alone time, why she couldn't connect with others or why she found it so difficult to cope in a traditional 9-5 work environment. She felt different, but she didn't know why.

To all outward appearances, Dooley is outgoing, upbeat and engaging. Some people will know her as the creator of Your One Nikita, a web series that gently parodies a certain ilk of working class Dublin women, and which led to two books, How To Be Massive and How To Deal With Poxes, a range of merchandise and an ever-growing social media following.

Others will know her as a stand-up comedian. The success of the Nikita series gave her the confidence to get up on stage at her first open mic in May of last year and the 28-year-old has since become a regular on the Irish comedy scene, with gigs at Body & Soul, Electric Picnic and the upcoming Vodafone Comedy Festival.

It's an impressive CV by anyone's reckoning, but Dooley was, as she puts it, "a master of disguise". She might have come across as confident and fun-loving but, deep down, she felt lonely and misunderstood. "I was always looking at things, trying to figure out what was wrong with me," she explains when we meet in Dublin's Radisson Blu Royal Hotel. "I knew I wasn't like everyone else. I just didn't know what it was."

Dooley was a misbehaved child and, at the age of nine, her mother brought her to a counselling service. The first therapist had a gentle manner and made her feel comfortable from day one. But then he returned to his home country and his replacement was "really intimidating".

"He told my mam that I was just looking for attention and she never brought me back." Dooley wasn't acting out, though, and as the years went on, the question remained: why did her inner world feel so confusing and chaotic? "I just didn't know what it was," she recalls. "I was looking it up for years, even to the extent that I was looking up schizophrenia."

Her self-diagnoses ran the gamut but, interestingly, she never even considered the possibility of autism until a friend, who was diagnosed in his 30s, suggested that she get assessed too.

"We were meant to meet up to do a project together," she recalls, "and he said: 'I don't think we're meant to go through a project together… I don't know why but I just feel that I have to tell you this - I think you're autistic and I think you need to go for an assessment.' I literally just turned around to him and said: 'F*** off, I'd know if I was autistic'," she laughs.

Like a lot of people, Dooley had misconceptions about autism. She thought autistic people were non-verbal savants who needed life-long care and support. "I didn't realise how big the spectrum was," she says, "and how many different types of people were on it."

At her friend's suggestion, Dooley did an online autism test and the tick-box traits ('When talking to someone, I have a hard time telling when it is my turn to talk or to listen'; 'It is very difficult for me to work and function in groups') immediately struck a chord.

"I thought: 'That's me!' I had no doubt in my mind. In fact, I would have been upset if they told me that I wasn't."

Further research revealed that autism is under-diagnosed in females. "Loads of women on the spectrum don't find out until they are my age, or much older, because they learn how to mask it," she explains. "You don't even realise that you're doing it yourself because you're doing it so much…"

At this point, Dooley knew she needed a professional assessment. She found a doctor who specialises in women with autistic spectrum conditions and, a few weeks later, she was diagnosed with high-functioning autism.

The feedback was fascinating. The assessor noticed that Dooley had trouble doing two things at once. When talking, she could gesticulate with her hands while looking away from a person but not while looking at them. "Then she said I do some weird thing with my eye. She said I sometimes look out the side of my eye - I'm looking at you but I'm using my peripheral vision to get stimulation from the colours around me."

The assessor also looked at Dooley's illustrations and her creative process. "I don't keep sketch books - I used to lie because I'm an illustrator and I was so ashamed I didn't keep one - but I didn't realise until after I was diagnosed that the reason I don't keep sketch books is because I do it in my head and then I draw it straight onto the screen."

Even her tongue-in-cheek diagrams, which are part and parcel of her comedy shtick, were analysed. "I was honing in on different details in people and things that I might not have understood - trying to figure them out for myself which is why I think so many people related to it.

"I pick out things that people might not have noticed. I didn't even cop that I was doing that and that's why I think my work stands out in that way. And then my comedy style as well: I can talk about things and not really be embarrassed by them."

Little by little, Dooley is making sense of the behavioural quirks that other people used to point out to her.

She says her boyfriend of eight years, Karl, used to collect her after clocking off from his evening shift in work. "If he wasn't there at nine o'clock, I would freak out," she remembers. "I'd have a meltdown because my routine would be disrupted and we'd have huge arguments about it."

Keeping friends was another issue. "It's because I'm so intense and I talk about myself a lot. If I was having a conversation with you and you wanted to say something about yourself, I'd listen to it for a second, and I'd acknowledge it, but then I'd turn it around quickly to talk about myself again and my special interest. It's like when you hear people talk about trains or Harry Potter. My work is my special interest. I talk about it an awful lot - to the extent that it pisses people off.

"I actually had a really good friend but we fell out last year. I rang her up and she said: 'I don't want to be your friend anymore - you're too much hard work.'"

Dooley's seeming insensitivity also led to a fall-out with her younger sister who struggled to forgive her for the way she acted the night their mother took ill and died from a rare heart condition.

Aoife remembers "running around the house in circles" muttering, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God" as they waited for the ambulance to arrive. "As we were leaving the house, I said to her: 'I think mam's dead.' I was 22 and she was 15, and she said to me afterwards that I had no right to say that to her.

"After getting my diagnosis, I was talking to Karl about it," Dooley continues, "and he said: 'I think you said that to her because you didn't understand what was going on yourself. I think you were looking for her to help you because you were lost.'"

It sounds as though Karl, a drummer and web developer, is her emotional support. "Yeah," she agrees. "He's my rock. We're best friends - and to put up with me for that long not knowing what was going on… he's amazing."

Dooley was born in Coolock, Dublin, in 1991. Her mother, a flower arranger, was a single parent until she married Aoife's stepfather, an electrician, when her daughter was five. The family moved to Coolock and Aoife's half-sister was born two years later.

After the death of her mother in 2013, Aoife began to spend more time staying at her nana's house. She gets on well with her stepfather now but, at the time, they were at loggerheads. "My dad and my sister had such a good relationship," she says, "and I felt like I was pushed out."

Dooley wanted to experience her own dad-daughter bond so, in 2015, she started searching for her biological father and, after tracking him down, she travelled to Mansfield in the north of England to meet him for the first time.

It soon transpired that he was an alcoholic who "drank three bottles of wine a day", an eccentric who didn't seem to have a filter and, more than anything else, a softie who told her not to hold in her tears like his father had told him.

They stayed in touch by phone when Dooley returned home but their relationship broke down almost as quickly as it blossomed. "He said something that upset me and I was really hurt by it," she recalls, "and he didn't understand why I was so hurt." She wasn't on speaking terms with her biological father when he died last October. His sister called her to give her the news and the two women grew closer in the months afterwards.

Dooley began to learn about her late father from her aunt's perspective and, during one of these conversations, she found out that he was autistic too. "It makes all the sense in the world because we were so similar," she says. "A lot of autistic people self-medicate so he was using alcohol and I was smoking weed all the time for my anxiety. Little did I know that it was the thing that was actually causing most of my anxiety…"

Dooley has since given up smoking marijuana and, these days, she uses CBD (a legal, non-psychoactive cannabis compound) to calm down her racing mind. "It's great because I can hear everything, literally at the same time, and that can be kind of overwhelming when you're out."

In time she would like to work with an occupational therapist to get some coping strategies for the 'sensory overload' but, for now, she's just happy to know that there is a name for the intense feelings that overwhelm her everyday life.

This is why she struggled with hot weather, noisy places and unfamiliar foods. This is why "velvet, silk and nylon feel like hell" and why she buys the same items of clothing over and over again.

"I like comfortable clothing but some of it would make me look kind of butch. And a lot of people used to ask me if I was gay - even my mam and boyfriend.

"But then I looked up loads of women on the spectrum and they all look like me - their hair is short and they're wearing comfortable clothes. My next show is going to be called, 'I'm Not Gay, I'm Just Autistic'," she laughs.

The comedian says she has spent the past few months researching the traits of autism but the more she learns, the more she realises that not all autism is created equal. Sure, there are common traits but every autistic person has their own unique strengths and differences.

"There's no set manual, so you figure things out as you go," she says. "Or as the saying goes: 'If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.' I think a lot of creative people are on the spectrum," she adds, "and I think a lot of people don't even realise they're on the spectrum. I can spot it a mile away now. And I've noticed it in a few people I know but I can't really say it because it's not really my place unless they ask me."

So does she think everyone who suspects that they have traits of autism should get a diagnosis?

"I think if it hasn't affected your life drastically, you don't need to get a diagnosis," she says. "But for me, it was necessary to understand who I was. I'm learning things about myself as I go and coming to terms with things that I was sort of ashamed of. I know who I am now," she says with a smile, "and it's such a relief."

The Vodafone Comedy Festival runs at Dublin's Iveagh Gardens from July 26-29, book at vodafonecomedy.com

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