“I Will Change It!”

The stereotype of people with autistic spectrum disorders is that they don’t like change. Whilst this is true for some – including me – it often depends on which kind of change.

The green spaghetti man is from 1979 Doctor Who story City of Death. Scaroth is the last of his species the Jagaroth because unlucky chap accidentally blew himself up and the rest of his race. He only survived by being splintered through time, living multiple lives throughout human history.

The story is driven by Scaroth’s attempts to build a time machine to go back millions of years to change what he did so that his people survive. The twist is that the explosion that killed him started all life on earth, so the human race will perish if the Jagaroth don’t. This is the kind of moral dilemma that makes me love Doctor Who.

Watching it again recently I realized that sometime I feel like Scaroth, and not just in the having autism is like being from another planet way either. Ever since I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome about 14 months ago I have wanted to go back and change myself so that I didn’t have the condition. It may be true that my higher-than-average intelligence; my honesty and my diligent attention to detail are likely to stem from it, but I still felt like I did. I would have traded those traits to spend weekends with friends, to have a girlfriend and to be generally more outgoing. It seemed to me that being clever and thoughtful didn’t amount to much if I was never close enough to anyone to share those qualities with.

However, thanks to some incredible people who have supported me such as my local Autism Advice service, my mentor at uni and my job coach I have learned to be more proud of myself. They have shown me that some people long to have the kind of gifts that I’ve been given, It’s just that because I’ve lived a life that is quite distanced from others I haven’t realized that other people can’t remember that Charles Dickens died in 1870; that Queen Victoria loved curries or what a dactylic trimeter is. Most of all they have show me that there are people out there who find it interesting! I just thought that my family’s disinterest in these things represented the population at large.

But does this mean that I shouldn’t change myself? No it doesn’t. William Blake once wrote that ‘The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.’ I have always been a firm believer in keeping as open a mind as I can to different possibilities. Therefore if there are things about having Asperger Syndrome that I don’t like, I can’t change my having the condition, but I can change what I do about it. Like Scaroth I had one roll of the dice and won’t get another, but instead of lamenting the snakes (or chutes), I should rejoice at the ladders that will take me to the finish. For example, I have started a social discussion study group at my university. The focus in on our work, but I also had an ulterior motive in putting myself into some social interaction with my peers. All the time I am looking out for possible ways to interact and socialize with others, instead of think of reasons not to as I did before. The benefit we have now is that in the world of social media we can keep connected with others much more easily.

In the end Scaroth was brought back to earth (literally) by a punch from Duggan, the seemingly hapless detective. An incredibly complex plan that has taken many years and millions of Francs to formulate has been scuppered by a firm dose of reality. Whether that reality is that you can’t stand around soliloquising your evil plan and not expect to get punched, or that you can’t change having Asperger Syndrome they are quite similar. Both show that you need to be in touch with the real world, or the real world will get in touch with you when you least expect – and it’ll probably hurt.

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That Man From Gallifrey

“I hate good wizards in fairy tales; they always turn out to be him.”

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A common trait amongst people with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is that they have an obsession. Mine is a TV show that started fifty years ago as a kid’s show made on the cheap.

Originally devised by Canadian Sydney Newman, produced by the Jewish, and even more unusual at the time, female Verity Lambert and directed by gay Indian director Waris Hussain, Doctor Who was already a mold breaker from day one. I could blog for several years on it, so I’ll focus on the main character: The Doctor.

The Doctor is my favourite fictional character. I first watched the show during the 1993 thirtieth anniversary repeat run on BBC Two as a four-year-old. It made an impression on me straight away. He’s a centuries old time travelling alien from outer space with two hearts, but I found myself drawn to him. I sometimes wonder if my love for the Doctor as a character is a kind of Asperger’s wish fulfilment.

The Doctor in a nutshell:  

Firstly there is the quite clichéd view of the person with AS as an alien from another world, which has some truth, although I think that is not very helpful in promoting AS confidence and self worth.  I can also appreciate what it is like to look human but not feel a part of humanity.

What I feel may be at the crux of the thing is how The Doctor marries intellect with social skills. All of my life thus far I have had an above average intelligence, (my psychiatrist’s words, not mine) but my social skills are quite slim indeed. This was particularly hard when trying to fit in with kids my own age at school. It would make sense for The Doctor to be my hero. He has endless brains, but makes friends with people wherever he goes, whether they are human, alien or robot dog. He doesn’t have to compromise his smarts to be charismatic and sociable with people, even complete strangers! And on top of all this he saves the day and never considers anyone as being too unimportant to help. He changes bodies, instead of dying, which could reassure someone with AS that change isn’t as scary as it sometimes seems.

These are all just ponderings. I am always quick to stress that AS doesn’t define my life; that it’s just a part of it. Millions of people who don’t have AS love Doctor Who and The Doctor, so this is just a theory. What I am sure of is that The Doctor can be a role model to all kinds of people. Even though he is a scientist he always appreciates the hidden power of everyday people and that it is important to go out there and meet them.

“As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves” 

(The Doctor, The Edge of Destruction, 1964)

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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.

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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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)