The Ringing Grooves of Change

‘Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change.’

Alfred Tennyson (1835) 

I got some really good advice last Friday. People probably won’t make my Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) a big deal as long as I don’t either. I haven’t managed to tell any more of my family about my AS, as I haven’t had the opportunity. This made me feel disappointed, but I think that it’s for the best because I have learned from my local Autism advice service that telling people is best slipped into everyday conversation, and not to make an event of it. This is because the news is more likely to be well received as Asperger’s won’t be the whole point of the conversation; this takes away a lot of pressure from me too, which can only be good. So, at least I can use this strategy when I do eventually share my diagnosis, as I am determined to.

However, I refuse to let this week’s instalment be uneventful.  Today I had my subject induction for my master’s degree, where I would meet my peers on the course for the first time. I have to admit, and this is probably true for those without AS, the sheer amount of information; going to new places and meeting new people has made me feel a bit sick. Meeting strangers is so hard for me because I don’t know how to act as don’t pick up on any vibes they may send me. I can’t tell if they’re just being polite and don’t really want to talk to me, and I can be too formal because that is my default mode when meeting new people because it’s the only way I can be sure I don’t unwittingly offend anyone – although, it’s not 100% effective as it might make me seem unapproachable or cold.

Starting with the bad news first: the opportunities for socialising were very sparse at best. And lots of people already seemed to know each other and had formed groups, which made me feel a bit of an outcast. What gets me through it is to remind myself that there were several other people who were on their own too, so,  to paraphrase Tom Jones said: it’s not as unusual as I initially thought.

However, more positively, the few short conversations I did have with some new people went quite well. I didn’t waffle on about myself and my interests, and I didn’t make any obvious social mistakes (I hope!) and things can only get better from there, even as I hate big life changes.

I have that typical Asperger’s problem with change. I have set ways of doing things, including what order I eat food in, and when they are disrupted or changed it is a source of great stress until I can get used to a new paradigm. Also, there is one change that is most disquieting for me – that is doubt. Before I failed my teacher training course I never doubted myself academically and I always knew very well what I could and couldn’t do in everyday life too. I was told by many teaching professionals that I would make a fantastic teacher, and I thought wasn’t a single reason why I couldn’t do it – until I found out that I cannot successfully communicate a good lesson plan to a group of thirty teenagers. How do I know that I won‘t be wrong again? That I’m not as clever as I thought? All I’m clinging to at the moment is that the university read a few thousand words of my previous work before they decided to give me my spot on the course. I should probably trust their judgement.

Thinking of last week’s entry again: your first response to my not following through with my bold claim to tell someone in my extended family that I have AS is that I wimped out. However, it is because I didn’t do this which makes me feel very proud, even though I didn’t reach my goal this week. Ghandi once said that ‘glory lies in the attempt to reach one’s goal and not in reaching it’, which best describes how I feel. It was a shame I didn’t have an opportunity to share with someone that I have AS, but I am so pleased at how far I’ve come that I would be willing nonetheless.

This goes to show that not all change is bad. This time last year I was getting drunk on my own and slashing myself with a kitchen knife to cope with such intense feelings of failure and worthlessness. Eventually, so that my parents wouldn’t notice any scars, I used to staple my arm with an office stapler, how pathetic was that?! Now I’m finally getting on top of things, so I can’t let doubt creep in and poison my new start. My mum summed it all up for me tonight. She told me that when you ride a horse if you look at the ground, that’s where you’ll end up.

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Pitchforks (pt. I)

ImageEver since I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) I have kept it a secret from the majority of my family.  For a while I was a little ashamed to have AS as it did initially make me feel like a broken toy, and lesser than regular people.

When I was at school I was the typical social outcast. Whilst I did hang around with other misfits, it was often a lonely experience. I was afraid of girls, especially the pretty, popular girls, as they frequently taunted me and tried to humiliate me in front of their friends. I hated this more than being bullied by the other boys, because I could fight them if they refused to leave me alone. I now realise that what these girls were subjecting me to was social bullying, I could throw a punch in a fight but, because of my AS, I felt powerless to respond to their taunts. I think that if they knew that I had AS they wouldn’t have been as bad to me as I think that most of them wouldn’t bully someone with a disability. To them it was all about having their fun – I don’t think that they genuinely knew how it made me feel.

My reasoning behind my decision to keep my AS a secret was partially based on these experiences. I thought that if people thought I was lesser than them because I’m a bit weird, they would have a definite reason to think so if they knew that I have an abnormal brain. You might be thinking that my family wouldn’t bully me, and you’d be right, however I worry that they would treat me differently. There are quite few old-fashioned types in my family whom would think that having AS means that I’m mentally retarded and may start patronising me like a victim of some unfortunate accident. I’m reasonably sure that they would gossip about it, along the lines of “I always knew there was something not right about him”, or “I’m not surprised, he’s always been an oddball”.

I’m sure that my worries are unfounded, but I find it hard to imagine how other people would react if I did tell them. I recently applied for a job in a corner shop that was less than sixteen hours a week and I was basically told by the manageress that they wouldn’t hire me because I had Asperger’s Syndrome. Luckily I didn’t feel too offended because if she was ignorant and prejudiced as her decision made her seem, I wouldn’t enjoy working for her anyway.

There’s a fine line to tread. Being treated differently is good when it means that those around you are trying to be inclusive, but I hope that they don’t take it too far. I always remember how Asperger’s Syndrome expert Tony Attwood puts it that with AS the brain is wired to be different, not defective, which is something that I will stress to anyone who takes too much pity on me.

I find it difficult to picture social situations, especially what will happen and what I should say. So because telling people I have AS is such a new experience for me I have no protocol or script that can guide me, which makes me feel a bit anxious and quite hesitant. Luckily, in my local town there is an NHS advice service for people with AS, whom I will be seeing tomorrow. It is so good to speak to someone who totally understands the problems that those with AS go through and I always come away with a better perspective on things afterwards.

In the next seven days I will aim to tell at least one person in my family that I have AS. Wish me luck…

 

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Social Safari

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Ever been travelling abroad and seen things that are normal to the locals, but just leaves you confused and asking why? For me at least, this is what it’s like to have Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). Common things like idle chit-chat about the weather, or those “how are things?” conversations can seem bewildering and pointless. It has been suggested to me to try observing the behaviour of others and learn how to emulate the same illogical and weird behaviour.

 For years I have been watching the behaviour of others and trying to figure out why they did certain things. Statistically those with AS tend to struggle with metaphors and common sayings, such as ‘draw your own conclusions’ as they are viewed only though logic. However, there is a way around these difficulties; some individuals, me included, can use intelligence and experience to work out such phrases. A good way of illustrating this difficulty is best found in Richard Watson Todd’s fascinating book: Much Ado About English, where he points out the illogical and confusing nature of the language. In it he asks he reader to imagine that they do not speak English as a first language and then think about this sentence: “chop down that tree and then chop it up.” I think that people with AS can feel similarly confused when interacting with others, but through watching and listening to others use these phrases has taught me how to infer a meaning through context.

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed when observing the social activity of others is what I call the female greeting cry. When women meet up with their friends (of either gender) they generally greet them with a high pitch that is noticeable higher than their usual speaking voice. The most plausible hypothesis I can think of for this behaviour is that the change in pitch is an effort to show enthusiasm and excitement to be in the other person’s company. This, therefore, establishes a subconscious empathetic link between the two parties, which is an aid to social bonding. I have also noticed my mum and sister use a higher tone of voice when making important phone calls, but use their regular voices for everyday phone calls. My mum also uses the same higher tone when serving customers when she is at work, so I think that it is used to ingratiate one’s self to strangers.

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I have been particularly interested in this firstly, because I have a fascination with the English language and how it is used by different people, but also because I find it difficult to alter the pitch and tone of my own voice to express feelings and emotions, to the point that people often think that I am either depressed or a robot. I Don’t mind this too much; Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is both and he’s a much loved fictional character. I am also observing how other people deal with street salespeople and chuggers (charity+muggers) so that I can get better at dealing with them because it’s such a spontaneous interaction.

The focus has also been on me involving myself in more varied social situations in order to learn new ways of understanding and interacting with people. I’ve played for the same cricket team for several years now, but after each game most of my teammates go to the pub for a drink afterwards. So I decided that I could be a valuable experience to go along with them after a game and see what they do there. I’ve never really been a stereotypically macho man. I like sports and Shakespearean sonnets; I like beer and I also like butterflies, so you could say that I like to mix it up a bit. However, I was at a loss as to what to talk about at the pub. The bulk of my teammates’ conversations were about their wives, girlfriends and children, of which I have very little experience indeed. At least on the positive side I managed to have a very good conversation with my captain’s wife about education as she teaches children with disabilities, and we both shared our secret outrage at the current prevalence of apostrophe abuse in UK society as a whole. (Don’t get me started on shop signs!)

My Asperger’s specialist recommended that I observe others so that I can create what he called a ‘social script’. This turns things around to suit my strengths of memory and attention to detail so that I can draw from a varied bank of experience to aid my fluency in social interaction. I fear that there is one major pitfall in this kind of social exercise. I’ve always had quite a reflective and introverted life; therefore there is an ever present danger of comparing myself to others in purely social terms. This will always end with a knock to my self-esteem because my brain is socially impaired. That is not my best skill, but I do have plenty of others, like Einstein said: ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’

There is also a positive side to it. The more people I observe the more I realise that people are so different, so stupid, kind, confident, unsure, afraid, funny etc. When I worry that I might inadvertently upset someone I should remember that there are people out there that are genuinely sardonic, cold and rude on purpose. Even if I make social mistakes and I come across as being arrogant I know in my heart that I’m not and that I can learn from my mistakes and put it into practice next time.

 

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Duelling with Demons

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For most of my life thus far I have found  myself surrounded by my own thoughts, hopefully the more coherent of which will pop up on this weekly blog. However, after being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at a later stage in life negative thoughts and feelings are serious pitfalls for me as I get used to having the condition.

From a psychological perspective this is no surprise, as there is a documented link between Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and Depression. But after a long struggle to get past my depression I will have to be regularly keeping what Churchill called his ‘black dog’ from my door. In my experience, it is easy to believe the depressive thoughts because, leading quite an isolated and introverted life, I don’t have the thoughts of others to measure against. For example, before I knew I had Asperger’s I thought that when I when to public places everyone would be looking at me and judging  everything I do and say, even down to how and where I stand or sit in a shop or café. I didn’t realise that they didn’t have the same attention to detail that I have. Also, because of the condition, I find it difficult empathise and understand the thoughts of others. The way I picture it in my mind is that it’s a bit like trying to use electricity when on holiday abroad: my brain needs an adaptor in order to plug itself in and understand what others are thinking and why. Once I learn how to fit this adaptor I’m not all that different from everyone else.

Another thing that I, but not necessarily everyone with Asperger’s, suffer with is a consistently heightened sense of mindfulness. The way that I explain it to people is that I have a Wikipedia brain, not because I know everything, but because everything I think of has a link to something else like the Wikipedia website does.

So, for example, when I see a mango on a market stall it makes me think of the video game Crash Bandicoot because it has Wumpa fruit, which look like mangoes. This makes me think of my old original Playstation I had as a kid, which then makes me think of the shop my mum bought it from, which makes me think of the shopping centre that shop was in, which makes me do a detailed analysis of how the shopping centre has changed in the approximately fifteen years since, and this will lead to something else and so on. I hope it reads as tedious as it feels, then you will start to understand what it’s like.

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Don’t get me wrong – it’s good to let your mind wonder when you’re in a waiting room and you’ve forgotten to bring a book. (I bring my own reading material when I go to the waiting room at the doctors’ surgery. Firstly because their magazines are rubbish, and also because they’re probably covered with germs because they’re read by sick people) But it does drive you mad when it happens when you’re trying to sit an exam or go to sleep – when it happens it feels like a gremlin is at the controls of my brain.

Sadly it’s because of my Wikipedia brain that I’m often in danger of getting depressed, because I come across things that remind me of sad times like a DVD I bought whilst I was in teacher training, which makes me go over in my mind everything that happened [see: On what should have happened in ’92 (pt. III)] which makes me think of the self harm and alcoholism I fell prey to. This often makes me start to feel the de-energising lethargy that I had when I was at my lowest. Also, the beginning and end of the school year is tough for me as it is usually quite prominently covered by the news and other media.

However I have developed a strong weapon that I can use against these kinds of thoughts. The first of which is my own DIY version of colour therapy. I have always been cheered up by bright colours, especially green, which is my favourite. I surround myself with bright colours which seem to give me good feelings, which can involve going for a walk in bright and open spaces, or handling brightly coloured object such as marbles or looking at my collection of butterfly photos. The second is to surround myself with my favourite things such as Doctor Who; video games; comic books; my telescope and other geeky stuff. Luckily, thanks to my Asperger’s, I have no problem concentrating on things that interest me and this has quite a good calming effect on me. I’m learning now to surround myself with people who are close to me too – it’s a work-in-progress as I don’t naturally connect with others, so it’s not the first thing that I instinctively think of.  But I’m sure I can learn how with some time and practice.

With all this in mind I think it’s important when having negative thoughts to practice spotting the signs that tell you that you’re starting to feel depressed. One of mine is when I start making assumptions about what others think of me – even though those without Asperger’s can instinctively read between the lines and understand others, which I cannot do easily, they’re not mind readers. So I tell myself “you don’t really know that’s true!” when I feel inferior because of my condition, or when I feel like I’ve made a social faux pas that makes everyone think that I’m crazy. I have to remember that, like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, “I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested”.

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† Interesting Fact: The figure of a large dog has been associated with depression or woe in general for centuries. This comes from one of my favourite interests – astronomy. The constellation Canis Major, Latin for Great Dog, appears near the horizon in the depths of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, when people are vulnerable to the depressive condition Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) because of the lack of Vitamin D from sunlight because of the dark and cold conditions. People used to call this time ‘dog days’, which is now a phrase that can mean a period of sadness or lethargy. When Spring comes Canis Major goes away, which gave rise to the saying ‘dog days are over’ and a popular song by Florence + the Machine, covered by the insufferably cheesy cast of Glee, a TV show which makes me feel depressed and/or lethargic. In the Southern hemisphere the dog days are in the height of summer, where the sultry conditions have a similar draining effect on people.