Being Wrong with Authority

“Logic, my dear Zoe, merely allows one to be wrong with authority.”†

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One of the first things I had to tackle after I found out that I have Asperger’s Syndrome was to understand how I think about everything. It was like having to step out of my mind and observe it from the outside, looking in, like being in a brain zoo.

To my surprise I was made aware by the specialist who diagnosed me that my brain is highly logical. This was quite a shock because I write poetry; I’ve got a degree in English Lit and I’m generally quite creative. He explained that because someone with Asperger’s Syndrome such as me can find the world a very baffling place we use logic to apply a sense of order to an otherwise unordered existence. He also told me that because my condition is moderate/severe, but I have an above average intelligence it is likely that I have to scrape by without anyone realising that I’m autistic. I logically work out some social situations and devise plans on how to conduct myself through them, and the ones that I couldn’t work out, e.g. loud parties and making friends, distressed me so much that I developed an aversion to them that bordered on social phobia.

To give an example of this I will the use a now slightly dated British expression that still gets used in my family, which is to get the needle. If someone gets annoyed we say that they’ve got the needle about something. I’ll tell you how I know what that means – it’s a fifty-fifty split between context and logic. To start with I was able to work it out because when I saw that someone got annoyed and someone said that he/she had got the needle I linked the two together. However, what really helped me to understand the metaphor is how, without realising it at the time, I used logic to form a hypothesis. Firstly, apart from amongst sewing enthusiasts, people in general find needles upsetting, as I found out when was inoculated at school and I saw the reactions of my classmates. Also needles are sharp, quite dangerous and made from cold hard metal, all of which are negative things that can be logically grouped with the negative feelings of annoyance or distress. So in short, to have the needle is to feel bad.

Inevitably my logical way of thinking extended to how I thought about and understood others, which, to be honest, is where it’s most likely to come unstuck. I have always found the behaviour and motives of other people difficult to decipher. This is one of the three ‘Triads of Impairment’ that are at the heart of Asperger’s Syndrome, which any reliable assessment for the condition will be looking for. They are the difficulties of:

  • Social & Emotional
  • Language & Communication
  • Social Imagination

This means that I find it extremely difficult to predict the behaviour of others, especially when they act irrationally. The best I can do is to use a memory of a social situation that may have been similar and use what I learned from that to make informed decisions on how best to act.

The best example of how this affects me is when I bump into people who try to persuade you to buy something or donate money to charity. The primary problem is that it is an interaction that I haven’t had time to prepare for. My mum tells me that I should say I’m not interested and keep walking but to me each time is different as the person may say different things in a different way depending on their personality and what it is they’re selling/collecting money for. Usually I struggle to say anything to them as they rattle off their prepared argument as to why I should care about the polar ice caps or my credit rating. My standard approach is to listen to what they have to say and then say that I’ll visit their website. I suffer because, due to my Asperger’s Syndrome, I don’t handle being put on the spot very well because I can’t think of what I should say quickly enough.

Although, having an impaired social imagination also has an upside. Being really logical helps to keep you from panicking in emergency situations and because it makes it difficult to emphasise with others it makes me hate telling lies because it relies on understanding what another person would or would not find believable. So there you have it ladies – there’s some boyfriend material in that somewhere, I’m sure.

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†Quotation and photo from Doctor Who story The Wheel in Space by David Whitaker (1968)

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On what should have happened in ’92 (pt. V)

I don’t like dancing. I state this as an empirical fact. Like the sky being blue because of the way light diffuses through our predominantly nitrogen based atmosphere; like pi being a number that isn’t exactly three or iambic pentameter is a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. I don’t like dancing.

At my cousin’s eighteenth fancy dress birthday party my undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome reared its ugly head once more. It was dark, noisy and there were lots of people there that I didn’t know. It was like a headache in a broom cupboard. I was sat waiting for to be over when a rather enthusiastic young Irish lady, who was a friend of my uncle’s, asked if I would like to dance with her. I refused politely, but, thinking that she was doing her best to cheer me up, she persisted and I kept declining her offer. But it didn’t end there as she tried to get me to dance twice more. Eventually, because it was a social situation I had no experience with I panicked and told her to “go away and leave me alone. I don’t want to dance with you, or anyone else, so please stop asking me!” As you would expect, this didn’t go down very well with my fellow party goers and my parents were very embarrassed and said they wouldn’t bring me to family parties any more if I did it again. If I got diagnosed when I was three, instead of twenty three years old they would have known I had Asperger’s Syndrome and understood what had happened.

It was my parents who scrimped the money together for a private diagnosis with one of the country’s leading experts in adult Asperger’s Syndrome. My mother and I had to fill in a pre-appointment questionnaire that mostly addressed my behaviour as a young child. The specialist very quickly confirmed that I had moderate/severe Asperger’s Syndrome, saying that he was surprised that it was noticed by my school teachers or my doctor. It turned out that my strange attitude towards food, such as being very picky and having a structured way of eating my food (in order of what will go cold the quickest) was a very telling sign.

Another way that he knew I had Asperger’s Syndrome was that I found open questions, such as, ‘are you boring?’ impossible to answer with a straight yes or no. He said it was because the condition often makes your brain very pedantic, which meant that I must seek more information from the person asking the question or to give a convoluted answer as a way of applying my own scaffolding to the question in order to answer it.

So there I was. Suddenly the whole world made sense at last. I felt both sad because I was told I have an incurable brain condition, but at the same time I was so relieved that the problems that I have had weren’t all my fault. It was like the ending to The Truman Show when Truman finally realises who he is and what the world really is for the first time. I was ready to walk through the door and move forward knowing, like my dad always says, that “There’s a good time coming”.

P.S Here’s the rest of the vid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZMZYrdXtP0

On what should have happened in ’92 (pt. IV)

Few people enjoy a party or night out more than teachers do; the truth is that being a teacher these days is tough indeed so any opportunity respite from the ever-constant pressures of work is grasped with both hands. Looking back I now see examples of my then undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome creating barriers for me in social situations.

In December 2011 I was an inexperienced trainee teacher and in the staff room the head of the P.E. Department asked me “what are you doing on Friday?” I replied that I was going to visit my nephew because it was his birthday. Suddenly the three or four of us that were in the staff room fell silent and one of the other teachers laughed at me and explained that I was being asking if I wanted to go out to a Christmas party with the P.E. staff . Before I could utter anything else I was told to “forget it” and the head of P.E. briskly walked off in a manner that suggested offence. This is a trait common to people with Asperger’s Syndrome – I was being too literal because I missed the unspoken social cues in the conversation. It made me feel like a complete idiot because the teacher thought that I had publicly snubbed his invitation. I didn’t know why I had made such a stupid mistake because I should have been diagnosed when I was three years old.

I t has never been unusual for me to upset people without meaning to and wondering why they were unhappy. I would often not even know I had upset them at all until situations got worse and it had to be pointed out to me. After failing my teacher training course I would finally get to grips with the reason why I always seemed so weird and different compared to other people of my age; how I never seemed to fit in with others and why purely social situations such as loud parties made me feel sick with anxiety.

After the course I couldn’t escape my feelings of inadequacy. I turned my anger on myself through self harm and alcohol abuse because I couldn’t handle the sheer intensity of the emotions I was feeling. I was put on anti depressant drugs and had fortnightly visits to the doctor, whom also prescribed counselling, which didn’t work very well to begin with, as I now realise that my atypical brain didn’t fit in with the process. After a while my mother, whose suggestions that I may have Asperger’s Syndrome I had scoffed at, had found out through the Internet that people with the condition were very often prone to depression and being obsessive about certain things. She had long told me that my obsession with Doctor Who wasn’t normal.

With this in mind I thought there wouldn’t be any harm in asking my doctor for an Asperger’s assessment. I soon found out that, because I was an adult, my doctor would have to apply for special funding in order for me to be accessed by the NHS. This could take up to two years, at which point I may be turned down. So a decision had to be made to spend a lot of money to get a private assessment, or to wait and gamble on the NHS…

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On what should have happened in ’92 (pt. III)

In the 2004-05 academic year I was suspended from school for the first time. Now, with some hindsight, I think that my then undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome was the root cause. I have always struggled with Maths ever since I started school. The common sociological cliché of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome is that they will be some kind of Rain Man figure, who is obsessed with Maths, Science and technology. Whilst I have a strong interest in the latter two Maths leaves me stumped – I wouldn’t be surprised if I have dyscalculia, which is like dyslexia, but it is a difficulty to do with numeracy, rather than literacy.

So in one particular Maths lesson my fifteen year old self was finding it hard to keep up with the mathematical jargon the teacher was telling me and the rest of the bottom set class. My mind started to drift as I couldn’t follow the gobbledygook – and then, my teacher suddenly pointed to a problem on the board and asks me “why is this the wrong answer?”. Finding myself baffled I used humour as a nervous response so I replied, “because it isn’t the right answer”. She was furious at what I said, and she told me that I had to stay behind and talk to her about my “bad attitude”. So I spent the rest of the lesson silently fuming about being unduly vilified.

After the lesson, when I should have been having lunch, she proceeded to read me the riot act to the point that I could take no more. I stormed out of the room shouting that she should “f*ck off!”. This resulted in me being suspended and put in an isolation room with other suspended students for three whole days. I now realise that if I could have read her body language and facial cues I would have realised that my Maths teacher was asking me a rhetorical question to remind me to pay attention in class. If was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 1992, when I was three, my teachers would be aware that I sometimes get things wrong, meaning I come across as facetious or aloof when I don’t mean to.

If I had also known about my having Asperger’s Syndrome when I applied for teacher training I would have got the extra help I needed to pass the course. After being told that I needed to improve substantially during my second school placement I spent nine hours at school, followed by seven hours in my university’s library planning and preparing so that I could email my plans to my mentor in advance. I would leave home at 6:30 in the morning and return after midnight almost every day. If I had known that the difficulties in my teaching I was struggling to fix were due to a brain condition that I was born with, which couldn’t be cured I would have given up there and then.

Eventually the inevitable happened and I failed the course. It was the first time that I had failed anything in my academic career. I even had to sit through the final farewell assembly at the university with all of my peers whom had all passed and were congratulating each other. I was probably one of the most intelligent people on the course with some of the best subject knowledge, but it wasn’t good enough.

That was it. I had no plan B, my future had crumbled like dust and, worst of all I couldn’t work out why. But as my life seemed over, eight months later I would find a revelation – and a new beginning of sorts…

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On what should have happened in ’92 (pt. II)

When I started primary school in 1995 everything was starting to change: the Internet, as we know it, began; DVDs were just being invented and Toy Story became the world’s first ever full-length computer animated feature film.

What was beginning to change for me, though little did I know it, was that I would be surrounded by strangers my own age for the first time. To begin with I wasn’t aware of how differently I gathered and processed information from the world around me. I couldn’t understand why most of my peers didn’t know how to read, or how they could not love looking at insects, or finding out how pens work. What amused me was how my classmates would emotionally blackmail each by threatening each other with the classic “let me have it, I’ll be your friend”. This never worked on me as I didn’t understand what a friend was, and therefore had no desire to have them and ‘fitting in’ was something I never knew about.

My first year at school was also the first time that I noticed I was quite different from the others in my class was when compiling data for making a survey in one of my Maths lessons the whole class was asked, “what is your favourite food?”. As the young teacher quizzed each of us the replies came mostly in the form of: pizza, fish ‘n’ chips; sausages, spaghetti, fish fingers etc. My answer was bread and butter. This puzzled my teacher, so she asked if I had meant sandwiches, which I denied and stated that my favourite food was just bread with just butter on it. I didn’t eat cooked food because the way it felt when I ate it made me feel sick. I think the teacher was worried that my parents might be mistreating me by not feeding me enough, which couldn’t further from the truth as they had struggled to get me to eat the kinds of food my classmates loved. I should have known why I was different; I should have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was three, but my doctor didn’t listen to my mother’s concerns about my abnormal behaviour, and none of my teachers thought that my idiosyncrasies were anything but a quirky personality.

When I became a trainee teacher I still didn’t realise how important spontaneous social behaviours were in forming relationships in a classroom. What surprised me the most was that this was, perhaps, even more important for a teacher building a relationship with his or her students. All of these revelations took place while I was still undiagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I found myself struggling to understand how a lot of the sixteen year olds had a reading age of six, (it was in a fairly deprived area) because I found it impossible to put myself in their shoes. At one point I was teaching a class of fifteen year olds and I thought I was getting on really well with them as they seemed to be happy and laughing, as well as working. It turned out, after being told by another teacher who was in the room with us that they were laughing at me and making jokes about me and I was none the wiser.

This paled into insignificance when I was hauled into a meeting with the school’s Assistant Head as there was serious concern about my inability to put my well designed lesson plans into action, and how I couldn’t build learning relationships with students. Special measures were put in place in an effort to quickly improve my teaching and to find that small something that was stopping me from developing my “soft skills” of managing my students’ learning requirements and to take better control of their disruptive behaviour.

It was then down to me to work hard every hour of every day to stave off the threat of failing the course and being denied the career goal I had strived towards for the last eight years…

 

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On what should have happened in ’92 (pt. I)

In 1992  I was three years old. I was, quite probably, one of the worst toddlers imaginable. I broke all of my toys trying to see inside them to find out how they worked. I broke most of my family’s stuff that wasn’t kept under lock and key. I even managed to break my baby cot and my parents had to keep repairing it with string. This only got worse as I got older.

At school I was awful, to the point where I was sent to all kinds of counsellors and behavioural psychologists. I was also sent to a dietitian to work out why most food made me feel nauseated when I tried to swallow it. My teacher at primary school invented a report card system to tackle my bad behaviour.

All the while my alienation from my peers grew, especially as I reached secondary school, where I received more counselling for my perceived “sadness”. I never had a girlfriend as I couldn’t interact very well with my peers because I always seemed so different, or weird, compared to other kids of my age. I worked towards getting the best qualifications I could so that I could become a teacher, as I always seemed to have academic talent, as I could read before I started school.

I managed to get into the university of my choice. I never did the freshers thing where new students get hammered and party all week, as the prospect of doing so made my stomach turn with anxiety. I received more counselling for social phobia/social anxiety, but alas, it never got to the bottom of why I found it very difficult to make friends. So I spent the bulk of my time nerding it up in the library for between six and eight hours at a time. I enjoyed the studying and it paid off: I got the second best degree class possible. I had no social life to detract from my work.

It was when I got accepted onto a highly competitive post-graduate teacher training course that set in motion a chain of events that would change how I perceive myself, and the rest of the world forever…

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