A Saturnalia Miracle

This is one of my favourite Christmas TV moments. According to the writers of The Big Bang Theory Sheldon doesn’t officially have autism, but he does show traits that are strongly associated with it. I myself find hugging people very awkward, so when I want to hug someone it is usually a very special occasion.

I first saw this before I was diagnosed with Asperger’s and I remember having a lot of understanding and sympathy for Sheldon. One of my friends on my teacher training course actually said they thought I was quite like him. That wasn’t the first warning sign to go unheeded!

Enjoy the holiday period and please spare a small thought for those with Autism and/or Asperger’s. The festive period can cause a lot of distress with a large increase in socializing and the disruption of daily routine. I know it’s hard to think about whilst – quite rightly – trying to enjoy yourself too.

I pray that you, and all those you love and care for have a happy and peaceful Christmas.

See you in the new Year!

– Shrugs, Not Hugs

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“I am Definitely a Mad Man with Too Many Box Sets”

One common characteristic of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is that it gives you a type of brain that loves to obsess over particular things. Lots of people are fans of things and many are obsessed with Star Trek, handbags, cars or particular celebrities. However, with AS sometimes an obsession can be quite unorthodox, or even dangerous.

A teenager with AS who is intensely interested in hair will often find a fulfilling and happy life as a barber or hairdresser. But what if their obsession is with fire to the point of becoming pyromania? Or an intense love of their Xbox (other video game consoles are available) means that they spend more time on Halo than they do with real people? This is where an obsession is defined, it completely occupies the mind. As for myself, I have several areas of interest into which I can very easily get obsessed. At the moment Chess has been on my mind a lot with the crowning of a new Undisputed World Champion in the young Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. Nevertheless my foremost obsession is Doctor Who.

Last Saturday I had a Doctor Who marathon to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. I started at midnight and I watched it for sixteen hours straight, a story for each of the eleven actors to have played The Doctor. Then I went to the cinema to see the anniversary special in 3D. My family thought that I was mentally ill to do it, and they couldn’t understand why I went to the cinema to see something that was being put on TV at the same time. I have in excess of sixty Doctor Who DVDs and I am looking to get a new DVD rack because mine is full. I wear T-shirts with Daleks and TARDISes on them; three sonic screwdrivers; I am a subscriber to Doctor Who Magazine (who still haven’t printed any of my letters yet!) and I knitted my own Tom Baker scarf. I won’t labour on Doctor Who too much as I could easily write a thousand words on how great I think it is, but that isn’t what I want to speak to you about.

The problem with AS obsessions is that they can often be unwittingly used to provide comfort that is lost in other parts of life. By throwing yourself into an intense hobby I think the person with AS is trying to fulfil an unmet social need; that they are becoming a part of a collective to feel a sense of belonging. This is because it’s far easier to be a part of a fandom or a specialist field of interest than it is to be part of a social collective. Try looking at it from my point of view – I can feel a part of The Doctor’s story and his adventures, and a part of the global community of fans. I do so because Doctor Who won’t ever say one thing and mean another; The Doctor is always there inside every shimmering DVD disc and will never let me down like real people do. It’s not like being part of a social group where I have to work out what to say, when to say it and having to work out the feelings and motives of others. All of this is hard work and is crushingly disappointing to get wrong, which can be quite often.

So, the important thing is to accentuate the positive. People with highly specialised interests can be quite interesting to talk to, which can sometimes provide an in-route in social situations. My family are not very passionate about much really. So I’m quite different with my many interests from poetry to astronomy, coin collecting and my gadgets. This I can be bad because it makes you feel lonely and a bit of black sheep. Although it’s good too because it forces me to go and meet new people if I want to share my interests with others, and if we share a common interest conversations are a hell of a lot easier for me to handle. The problem then is if the other person doesn’t have the same amount of stamina as I do in waxing lyrical about my favourite things.

The Poetry Paradox

ImageI find myself pondering the commonly held beliefs about autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) on quite a regular basis. One that puzzles me is the perception that people with autistic spectrum disorders are emotionally devoid, that they are emotionless robots. I see myself as quite an emotional person. I study the arts, poetry specifically, which arose in me great swathes of joy, sadness, intrigue and awe. But does this put me at odds with what someone with AS “should” be like? 

Thanks, in part, to my mother’s devotion to reading me bedtime stories I had a passion for books and could read before I started school. At the age of seven I stumbled across a book called Golden Apples: Poems for Children in my primary school library’s meagre poetry section. In it I read W.B Yeats’s short poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’. I cannot profess to have understood the poem totally at that age, but its language evoked a sense of idyllic wonder in me that remains to this day. I now study Yeats as a Masters student and his poetry can still move me to tears.

 

The Song of Wandering Aengus – William Butler Yeats

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/244302

 

What also flies in the face of AS stereotypes is that I understand metaphor, symbolism and other unsaid meanings of poetry, which, according to most professional opinions, I shouldn’t be able to understand. Although I do think that in understanding poetry my mind can end up at the same destination as others’, albeit via a different route, but as I’m not a psychologist that explanation will have to suffice.

In one of my favourite films V for Vendetta (read the original graphic novel, it’s fantastic!) the main character, V, states that ‘Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth’. This means that, in his opinion, without words everything is meaningless, as our ability to describe or otherwise communicate them they have no meaning. This is how I feel about poetry. Words, ideas and feelings are, to paraphrase the movie ‘bulletproof’. However, this doesn’t solve our little contradiction. How can I feel this way if I am an unfeeling AS android? Simply put, it is a fallacy – but like most misunderstandings there is nevertheless a grain of truth at the heart of this misconception.

I think that it is true people with AS or full-blown autism have problems with feelings and emotion. However, it is not just a lack of these things that cause problems. It can be an abundance of rage at being hugged by a stranger, or too taking too much joy like being fascinated with toxins and poisons. What is probably the most common problem is that the feelings are there, but (myself included) the words don’t always come easily at the time. You may think that because I write in a (hopefully!) reasonably clear way with a voluminous vocabulary and a cogent turn of phrase it hard to see why I would find it hard to express my emotions. I intend to shatter any illusions of me you may have but I am much more expressive in writing because it can be rehearsed, and prepared in advance. I labour over everything I write, from academic essays to my Tweets or Facebook posts. So because I remove the spontaneity of my blog entries I can put my feeling across in a much clearly way than if we had just bumped into each other in the street.

It is important to remember that often, in terms of dealing with emotion, people with AS and autism can be quite immature. I think of it in this way: like a baby cannot handle solid food my brain needs feelings and external stimuli to be processed into a more manageable form, think of it like emotional mush.  For me poetry is the blender that takes intense emotion and processes it from being an ethereal and abstract thing to become more digestible through the words of the poet. This is also what encouraged me to write my own poetry, because reading poetry showed me a way to take confusing thoughts and emotions and map them out in an incredibly expressive way.

So in short, saying that everyone who has an autistic spectrum disorder is an emotionless automaton is like saying someone isn’t thinking because you don’t speak their language. They have a lot to say – but lack the means to communicate it.

 

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Knack to the Future

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No one can really tell the future. But regular people can intuitively know what will happen in certain situations a lot easier than someone with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) can. Even if knowing what to do when going somewhere for the first time or meeting new people cannot be worked out in advance, most people can react spontaneously in a heartbeat, whilst someone like me is still trying to work out what I should be saying.

Although, this is not an exercise in self-pity; AS is a difference, not a disease. If you got diagnosed with diabetes, you wouldn’t lament constantly over the loss of your doughnut privileges. It’s important to assess what’s important, make a plan, and get on with the rest of your life – low sugar alternatives are available, as there are adjustment to be made to suit AS.

When I talk to people without Asperger’s they seem to think that it’s absurd to think that regular people can tell the future because it comes as natural as swimming stroke does to a fish. One of the problems that those with AS have are a lack of social imagination, this is best explained like this – imagine you’re in an audition for a play at a theatre. It’s a solo audition, you know the names of the characters, but there are no lines to speak, and it is up to you to improvise lines on the spot.  You do not know your character’s back story or their motivation, but unlike improvised drama and comedy, there is a right answer that everyone judging you already knows and getting it wrong will make you seem at best a bit weird, and at worst an uncaring idiot.

It’s the Asperger’s that makes it a solo audition, because it inhibits your ability to infer how you should act and react, it isolates you socially. Therefore those without AS can read the body language and facial cues of the other players and decide if their character should act angry, sad, elated etc because they are plugged into a social web of sorts.

This often leads a large amount of stress and unhappiness when getting used to big changes in life for people like me. This has been the first week of classes for my new course at college, and I often find myself, most probably unnecessarily, being seriously worried about the future. Will I be good enough? Can I handle the work? Part of this will be down to the traumatic time I spent as a trainee teacher, and another is down to human nature, as I am likely to not be the only student on the course who feels this way. However, it is because of my AS, which keeps me from plugging into the shared social web, that impedes me from realising what my peers are thinking and feeling, unless I ask; I’ll have to wait for an appropriate opportunity.

Anticipating the behaviour of others and understanding their motivation in what they are doing also falls into the same problematic vein. This means that situations like teaching, policing, and other spontaneous jobs would be very difficult for me indeed. However, if, like me, you have a strong logical bent and well honed attention to detail it can be used to help understand people and situations where others understand instinctively. It just takes a lot of conscious brain power, which can get quite tiring if you’re doing it almost constantly like lots of people with AS are. In my experience a person’s hands, clothing and hair can tell you a lot about what kind of person they are.

Rough hands suggest a manual job or hobby. Those with short, well maintained fingernails can suggest a job where they make regular physical contact with others, such as nurses and physiotherapists. A t-shirt suggests that they value comfort and aesthetics in equal measure. I have found that women who are sensitive about their weight or body shape often wear black as the colour lessens the visibility of the outlines of their bodies and hides their profiles. A complex hairstyle can show that they pay attention to detail, as a scruffy hairstyle can indicate less of a concern for personal appearance, or a lack of time to prepare due to poor timekeeping, or an unforeseen change to their daily schedule.

As with the vast majority of logic there are flaws but I think there is still a case for it as long as it isn’t taken for bona fide scientific certainty. But it does provide a guideline and alert me towards how a person may be feeling and to react accordingly. That’s the closest I’ll come to telling the future, as I’m definitely no Sherlock!

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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.

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)