I’m Different. Deal With It.

I’m Different. Deal With It.

 I sometimes get people telling me I’m weird. As if I don’t know. I’m happy to be different: it makes me individual, it makes me me. It’s 2 or 3 years now since I discovered that I have Aspergers Syndrome. I find it useful that the condition has a name: it allows me to explain to people why I’m different. Notice that I say different. I’m not broken, it’s just that my brain isn’t wired the same as the average person’s.

Several aspects of my behaviour mark me out as different: I tend to interpret things literally (to the perennial annoyance of my wife), I have great difficulty starting conversations or keeping them going, I can’t handle confrontations and either just stop interacting totally or blow up, I don’t tend to show emotion and so get labelled as “cold”, I usually dislike being touched…

I’ve learned that taking things literally can be used for humorous effect. I’ll answer either-or questions with “Yes” from time to time: it’s always my first reaction in any case but I’ve learned to interpret a lot of the things people say to get at their intended meaning and I reckon I’m reasonably good at it now. I can still get flummoxed by metaphor and simile especially when it’s unfamiliar. One thing that hinders me is the visual aspect of my interpretation: if somebody says that they’re “on fire” when they’re hot I’ll picture them literally in flames and then get momentarily confused when they evidently are not.

I tend to find literal interpretation is a benefit when doing cryptic crosswords to the extent that I sometimes take longer to work out why a clue is supposed to be cryptic than I do to solve it. The flip side of thinking literally is that it is reflected in the way I speak. I rarely generalise; it’s the same with analogy: the exceptions are too glaringly obvious to me and I feel obliged to explain the limits. I think this just confuses people so I try to avoid it.

I have numerous problems with conversations. One of the biggest is that if I’m not interested I won’t concentrate on what people are saying and just sit there looking blank. And then somebody will direct a comment or question towards me and I’ll either miss it or have to explain that I wasn’t listening and don’t know the context. On the other hand when I am interested and have something to say I don’t understand the rules for inserting my comment. Usually I will wait until I think somebody has finished their turn and start mine, only to have somebody else start talking at the same time, so I stop and miss the opportunity. I really believe that having some token that gets passed to each participant when it’s their turn would improve the “art” of conversation.

I try to stick to one-on-one conversations about subjects I know. Even here I’m not on safe ground. I find that people interrupt me or change the subject: this might be a sign of boredom or lack of interest but I can’t tell and they don’t explain. I am told (by my wife) that I am long-winded when I try to establish the background before getting to the point. The trouble is that I have to do it this way because if I don’t then I think that people might misinterpret what I’m saying because they could be missing some information. It confuses me when I hear people talking about a subject at a high level without mentioning the detail. How can they be sure that they have the same mental model of the subject under consideration?

I find it next to impossible to put feelings into words. As soon as somebody starts talking about emotion or asking me how I feel I get tense and nervous and start to clam up. Most people assume that I’m unemotional because I don’t express how I feel; the truth is that I can’t usually even describe it to myself. I know happy, nervous, afraid, frustrated, angry, sad. And “neutral”. My rest state. To be honest, I almost never stop to analyse how I feel: I just don’t think about it. If I’m busy doing something then emotion isn’t a factor. I can think back over it at some point later and I might think “Wow! That was great!” (or not) but at the time I’m not conscious of my emotional state.

Confrontations overload me. Well to be honest it’s anything that overstimulates one or more of my senses. It can be shouting or certain loud noises, it can be light that’s too bright, it can be a claustrophobic feeling from being in the midst of too many people or in too small an enclosed space. But not every time. There are times when I can handle it without any problem. I just don’t know in what situations I will have a problem. But confrontations in particular are impossible to handle. It’s the combination of proximity, emotional content and volume. I just shut down and can’t think about anything other than wanting to be somewhere else. So I can’t get into a heated argument: the other person will be ranting away and I’ll just stand there. Strangely this winds my wife up even more: I think she should know better after 10 years…

The touching business is a tricky one. Even I haven’t figured out the rules yet. There are times when I am hypersensitive to any contact and just instinctively flinch. There are certain parts of my body that I can’t stand to be touched at any time: mainly around my throat. Other times I’m OK with being touched. I can handle it better if it’s reasonable pressure and over an area of at least a few square inches. Light touching with fingertips is right out! That just irritates to the extent that I usually have to rub the area that was touched to relieve the sensation; otherwise it can tingle for several minutes afterwards and can make me shiver. Not pleasant.

My life is built around routines, mostly beneath the level of consciousness. I have trouble adjusting to any disruption to these routines: I get stressed, sometimes to the point of meltdown. One trigger for meltdown is where I am expecting a particular thing and I get something different. When I was growing up my mum and I went to a cafe and I asked for a meat and potato pie. My mum cut the pie into quarters! That was at odds with my expectation: I had pictured the pie whole, and I couldn’t handle it being cut. Instant meltdown. The symptoms of a meltdown vary but can range from a full-blown tantrum, shouting or screaming and hitting/throwing things in the worst instances, right down to an uncommunicative sulk, often lasting for hours. The trouble is that I can’t explain what’s going on at the time: I’m just reacting subconsciously. And if I try to explain later somebody who doesn’t understand my condition dismisses the cause as trivial and accuses me of overreacting hugely.

I used to exhibit autoecholalia: I would repeat out loud the last thing I said, over and over, completely oblivious to it unless somebody passed comment. I guess the comments started bothering me because although I still often repeat my last words I now do it silently and it rarely gets noticed. I also talk to myself when I’m focused on some task. Occasionally gets me a funny look in the office but I’m that deep in concentration I rarely notice. Besides, the software business tends to be used to eccentric behaviour.

I have a tendency to fidget. This is “stimming”: providing sensory stimulation to myself that I find calming. It’s subconscious; I’m not usually aware I’m doing it. It usually takes one of these forms: tapping or stroking myself, usually hands/arms or face, tensing and relaxing my jaw muscles, or some form of rocking motion.

Quite a list of symptoms. Reading this you may wonder that I can function among “normal” people at all. My usual strategy is to keep to myself as far as I can and try not to be noticed. Obviously some of my behavioural traits do draw attention but I have got into the habit of generally ignoring the reactions of people around me. I tend to stick to environments that I know well and feel comfortable in: this reduces sensory overload. I mix with people I know rather than going to new places. Where I can’t avoid interactions with people I don’t know I have developed the strategy of playing a role: I guess it’s another example of a routine or ritual, but I have my “software developer” role for talking to technical people, my “barman” role for when I’m behind the bar, and so on. I can even talk to strangers on the phone as long as I have a clear goal and a plan for how the interaction will progress.

So in conclusion I have got to the point now where I can get by from day to day and even cope with some of the spanners life throws into the works. Some things still throw me, and I doubt that I’ll ever get the hang of conversation. But I don’t mind. It’s not important to me. I’ve got my hobbies to keep me amused.

Growing up with Aspergers Part 2

Growing up with Aspergers Part 2

I went up to Cambridge in 1992. The introductory Freshers’ Week was very organised (by the 2nd and 3rd years) in terms of events but there was nobody who just told me what I would be doing. So I wasn’t told where or when my lectures were, or how to find out, and I couldn’t ask because that would mean speaking to somebody I didn’t know. Luckily I got to know some others on my course through one of the Freshers’ Week events and got hold of a timetable through one of them. However I was still feeling somewhat lost because I had no routine established.

I was surprised to find that the timetable left so much free time during the day: that was a big change from school where each day was filled. I could not get used to having so much time on my hands and so little structure to my days and this caused me to begin to lose interest. Now one of my traits is that I have to be interested in anything I am doing to be able to motivate myself. I started to miss lectures and supervisions (called tutorials outside of Cambridge) and just scraped through the first year exams.

The end of the first year also involved organising a place to live for the coming year (the college didn’t have enough accommodation for all the undergraduates for the whole duration of their courses). I had no idea where to start with this one and found it very stressful. It was just luck that I was asked to join 3 others in sharing a house.

The second year continued the downward trend of the first. I began to feel very depressed and at one stage was self-harming. I was drinking every day and generally taking very poor care of myself. My clothes were usually unwashed and I hadn’t shaved or had a haircut for over a year. I rarely ate in college, instead living off takeaways. It was no surprise to me when I failed the end of year exams. My parents couldn’t understand what had happened and I couldn’t explain any of it because that would involve talking about my feelings. I still find it very difficult to express how I feel: the words won’t come to mind.

One constant throughout all my education was the lack of any goal on my part. I have never viewed anything I have done as a means to an end; I have done it because it interested me at the time, or I felt that it was what I had to do to meet peoples’ expectations. I believe that university falls into the second category and that was why I ultimately failed. Looking back now I can understand that the university approach to learning just doesn’t work for me. I am capable of learning new things in a very short space of time: this is something I do regularly in my job, but I need to be interested. Time at university seemed to drag because of the amount of time spent doing things unrelated to the course and I got bored.

As if to demonstrate that intelligence is not the same as common sense (or maybe I was a glutton for punishment) I attempted to continue my degree at Nottingham University, entering the second year there in 1994. I did this because I felt that it was what I was expected to do and I hadn’t analysed the reasons for the failure at Cambridge. It was a disaster. All the problems I had faced before were present with the additional problem that I was in among a whole new set of people whom I did not know.

I was reluctant to return home to face my parents because I had failed again and felt that I had let them down. I stayed on in Nottingham for a couple of months after I had dropped out before I crawled home with my tail between my legs feeling utterly defeated.

I was at a loose end for some months. I signed on to the dole and tried to work out what direction to take. I volunteered for a local charity and did some computer work for them (mostly desktop publishing and databases). I took a correspondence course in programming and found the course work almost trivially easy. It was at that point that I had a flash of inspiration.

I had been programming as a hobby since I was aged 11. I started when my father bought our first computer, a BBC Model B+. While I had little interest in playing games on it there was something about programming that caught my attention and held it. I became proficient in BBC BASIC and progressed to the much more powerful Acorn Archimedes. It was on that machine that I first encountered C which I proceeded to teach myself in due course. All through my time at school and university I had continued to program: even through the times when I was depressed I could sit there programming and forget about the world for a while.

I realised that I could earn a living from my hobby. I had confidence in my abilities. All I needed was a foot on the ladder; that first step. That proved to be the hardest, most frustrating time of my life up to that point. I lost count of the number of interviews I attended only to be rejected because of my lack of experience or degree and poor interpersonal skills before I had a chance to show what I could do. I finally got an interview with a small firm based in Camberley, Surrey. At the interview they set me a written C programming test which I completed fairly quickly (they later told me that I had completed it faster than anybody else who had taken the same test) and accurately. I went home and waited, expecting to be turned down yet again. To my complete surprise I got a phone call the next day and was invited back for a second interview a week later. I got offered the job as an Analyst/Programmer and immediately accepted: I was off and running in my working life.

Growing up with Aspergers

Growing up with Aspergers

When I was growing up I was always identified as a shy but intelligent loner. I was never one to initiate interaction with others. I was happiest playing on my own with my Lego: I didn’t have any need for company. I did very well academically at primary school and passed the entrance exam to get into Manchester Grammar.

I can remember one of my first lessons there. I realised that I didn’t know the correct way to present my work in this new environment. I couldn’t ask anybody because I was afraid. I spent a little while just deciding whether to write in pencil as I had done at primary school or to use ink. I was so nervous about making the wrong choice that years later the memory of that anxiety is still vivid.

I suffered from a degree of bullying as a result of being socially awkward and physically somewhat out of shape: this took the form of intimidation, name-calling and teasing rather than anything physical. I guess that was just my good luck to be much bigger than the average kid my own age. I never had much of a circle of friends: mostly spent time walking round the corridors on my own at break time. I did enjoy the lessons however with a couple of notable exceptions. I never enjoyed Religious Studies and never got good marks because I approached it all from the position that religion is a tool used by those in positions of power to keep the “peasants” in line by stifling critical thought. I also loathed PE. I have never felt comfortable undressing or getting changed in front of others and that combined with my poor fitness made it all hard work.

It was around the age of 14 that things took a serious turn for the worse. I don’t know what all the factors were but one of the major ones was when I received a detention (my first ever) for not doing a homework assignment in English. Up to this point I had assumed that my teachers were supportive. I explained that I hadn’t heard any assignment being set and was told that that was no excuse and I should have asked somebody. I couldn’t explain that I wasn’t able to ask anybody because that would mean making the first move in a conversation. (In fact I never analysed it to that degree at that stage.) I felt that the situation was very unjust: I had been penalised for something that I had no knowledge of. From that point I began to lose interest in school, my grades suffered and my behaviour deteriorated to the point that I was receiving regular detentions.

Before long I began to dread going to school. I thought about opening the car door and jumping out but was worried about injuring myself. My dad did not react well to all this and would frequently shout which would make me very withdrawn. In the end I took to barricading myself in my bedroom and generally only coming out at night. This continued for a number of months and in the end social services became involved and I was dragged out to see a “child psychologist”. That was all “half full/half empty” bullsh*t and I felt she was simple-minded and patronising.

What broke the cycle in the end was moving to a different school: William Hulme’s Grammar where my younger brother was already enrolled. I entered the 3rd form close to the end of the academic year, being put into one of the lower sets on account of having missed so much schooling that year. The difference was remarkable. The teachers at that school were genuinely supportive and helped me to get established, identifying areas where I needed to catch up and others where I was actually ahead. When it came to the end of year exams I performed very well and was put into the top form for the 4th & 5th years (O-Level/GCSE – it was around the time of the transition from the former to the latter).

That was the end of my troubles at school: I aced my GCSEs and had teachers asking me to take their subjects at A-Level. I opted for the scientific subjects: physics, chemistry, maths and further maths without really having any idea where I was wanting to end up. When it came time to apply to university I opted for Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge because my chemistry teacher had gone there. I didn’t put any thought into alternatives and only put any on my UCCA application because I was told to do so. In due course I got good A-Level results and a place at Cambridge reading Natural Sciences. I’ll talk about my university experience next time.

Welcome

Welcome

Welcome to my little world.

Guess I’d better start with a bit about myself. I was born in Wythenshawe, Manchester in the early 70’s and adopted at the age of about 2 weeks. I was brought up in Billinge, near Wigan, where I lived until I moved away, first to university and then more permanently in the mid 90’s when I got a job at the other end of the country — down South — where I’ve been ever since. I’ve now spent about half my life living away from the North but still feel a strong attachment to it and my home county of Lancashire in particular. I found out just a few years ago that I have Aspergers Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, which means in simple terms that my brain is wired a bit differently from the norm.

I’ve started this blog to put down in writing for the first time what impact Aspergers has had on my life. It has both positive and negative aspects, like pretty much everything in life. Perhaps reading about my experiences will help others understand the condition a little better, and even understand me a little better.

At the very least I hope I don’t bore you.

Ben.