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)

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. 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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