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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