“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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“But, technically, he is correct.”

Being a lover of literature I should probably quote Shakespeare’s Polonius when giving an example of pedantry. However, this doesn’t help considering the stereotype of those with Asperger Syndrome being serious and pedantic. Then I remembered this: one of my favourite videos, because it shows pedantic thinking in a funny and entertaining way.

Some people may think of those with AS as enjoying correcting people on seemingly small and technical details. Although, speaking from the other side, this way of thinking often feels like a curse! It is usually involuntary and I can’t count the times when I’ve had to restrain myself because someone had said a double negative or written ‘there’, instead of ‘their’, or ‘they’re’ on Facebook. I am getting a lot better at realizing when I am about to let rip with a correction so I walk away, or change the subject quickly.

It must be to do with how my brain is wired. It is said that being a perfectionist is a common Asperger trait. I appreciate grey areas of discussion in topics such as the arts or politics – but where there seems to be an obvious right/wrong outcome to a decision I find getting things ‘right’ to be of prime importance. This doesn’t mean that I think that people who get things wrong are stupid, because getting things wrong is one of the best ways of learning new things. What used to make me really makes me seethe was people who don’t try to improve, and don’t care about making things right. For example, my way of thinking is: a job applicant that doesn’t care about using apostrophes or homophones correctly will always look less intelligent than one who does care and gets it right. Even if, in reality, they are the cleverer person they leave themselves open to prejudice, and therefore difficulties.

Nevertheless, even though I still don’t understand the happy-to-be-wrong people out there, I do understand that if they want to stay that way it’s okay. And I also have to remember that people may not see my suggestions in the way I intend them. To me it’s helpful guidance to make sure that they can improve themselves, (something which I am constantly trying to do myself) but to them it’s seen as a disparaging put-down. This leads me to a phrase I have often told myself since I was diagnosed: I can’t change how others react to what I do, but I CAN change what I do.

P.S. If you’re wondering – the Arsenal bit was a running joke on the Morcambe and Wise Show. It started off as a sketch where Eric, whilst in a quiz, would receive unsubtle hints from Ernie and the Arsenal question stuck.

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

“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.

“I am he, and he is me”

Having Asperger’s Syndrome(AS) is a bit like having a part of yourself you can’t control, which always turns up at the moment when you’re trying be cool and in control of things. Seeing as some previously lost episodes of Doctor Who have been found in recently in Nigeria I thought a Time Lord flavour would be appropriate.

In the programme’s 10th anniversary story The Three Doctors the then current incarnation of The Doctor, Jon Pertwee (1973) is being faced with a dangerous enemy who seeks to dominate the universe: Omega. Just when he is trying his best to seem in charge, and come up with a game plan to save everyone an alternate version of himself literally pops in to say hello. In the story the current Doctor is, at least to begin with, quite embarrassed about the part of himself he would rather keep quiet and not get in the way. This is how it can feel to have AS a lot of the time. You can be in a social situation that you’ve rehearsed or practiced time and again, but then something unexpected happens. A new person arrives, or a change of location or maybe the other person you’re with decides to talk about personal social things like relationships, or inviting you to a party.

However, you shouldn’t feel guilty or stupid, but to bluff your way through it as best you can and remember what happened so that you can learn what to do next time. The most important thing for me to remember is that Asperger’s is a part of me, just as much as my skin colour or fingerprints. It makes me who I am: different, not defective.

On what should have happened in ’92 (pt. V)

I don’t like dancing. I state this as an empirical fact. Like the sky being blue because of the way light diffuses through our predominantly nitrogen based atmosphere; like pi being a number that isn’t exactly three or iambic pentameter is a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. I don’t like dancing.

At my cousin’s eighteenth fancy dress birthday party my undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome reared its ugly head once more. It was dark, noisy and there were lots of people there that I didn’t know. It was like a headache in a broom cupboard. I was sat waiting for to be over when a rather enthusiastic young Irish lady, who was a friend of my uncle’s, asked if I would like to dance with her. I refused politely, but, thinking that she was doing her best to cheer me up, she persisted and I kept declining her offer. But it didn’t end there as she tried to get me to dance twice more. Eventually, because it was a social situation I had no experience with I panicked and told her to “go away and leave me alone. I don’t want to dance with you, or anyone else, so please stop asking me!” As you would expect, this didn’t go down very well with my fellow party goers and my parents were very embarrassed and said they wouldn’t bring me to family parties any more if I did it again. If I got diagnosed when I was three, instead of twenty three years old they would have known I had Asperger’s Syndrome and understood what had happened.

It was my parents who scrimped the money together for a private diagnosis with one of the country’s leading experts in adult Asperger’s Syndrome. My mother and I had to fill in a pre-appointment questionnaire that mostly addressed my behaviour as a young child. The specialist very quickly confirmed that I had moderate/severe Asperger’s Syndrome, saying that he was surprised that it was noticed by my school teachers or my doctor. It turned out that my strange attitude towards food, such as being very picky and having a structured way of eating my food (in order of what will go cold the quickest) was a very telling sign.

Another way that he knew I had Asperger’s Syndrome was that I found open questions, such as, ‘are you boring?’ impossible to answer with a straight yes or no. He said it was because the condition often makes your brain very pedantic, which meant that I must seek more information from the person asking the question or to give a convoluted answer as a way of applying my own scaffolding to the question in order to answer it.

So there I was. Suddenly the whole world made sense at last. I felt both sad because I was told I have an incurable brain condition, but at the same time I was so relieved that the problems that I have had weren’t all my fault. It was like the ending to The Truman Show when Truman finally realises who he is and what the world really is for the first time. I was ready to walk through the door and move forward knowing, like my dad always says, that “There’s a good time coming”.

P.S Here’s the rest of the vid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZMZYrdXtP0