Bullying: An Undiagnosed Aspie at School

My little (neurotypical) daughter is now three, and by January we have to select her schools. I had thought that this would be easy – have a look at them, decide which is best, and apply – but what I hadn’t counted on was how much my own experiences of school would colour my thinking, or how this process would stir up all the unpleasant emotional and psychological shit that has lain buried inside me for twenty years.

There are two schools in particular that we’re looking at, one small and with more of a personal focus, the other big and more academic. Both of them fill me with dread.

At the big, academic school there’ll be plenty of kids for my daughter to make friends with, but the environment is less supportive. In the small school, she’ll be better looked after, but if the other kids turn on her and she’s the one who’s the outsider then there’ll be nowhere to hide.

In all honesty, I don’t care about the academic standing of either – I care about my daughter’s happiness and emotional wellbeing, and the damage that can be caused by making the wrong decision.

As you’ve probably inferred by now, I hated school. I found the other children silly and immature. I couldn’t relate to them or their games. I preferred hanging around with the teachers and the dinner ladies. Sometimes I took teddy bears to school and played with them instead because they were easier to understand. That’s when I wasn’t collecting insects or classifying all the trees, or crying all the time at the slightest provocation.

When I was seven we moved house and I changed schools. I decided that I didn’t want to be known as a crybaby, so every time I got upset I forced the feelings inwards. I hated sitting with the other kids in lessons, preferring a seat by myself while all the rest were chatting and playing. At breaktimes I’d join in with the games, but mostly I’d keep up a stream of narration, pretending I was a commentator observing the people around me. Always separate, even when I was part of the whole.

I always preferred my own company. If it was a wet break I  could stay in and draw a picture or read a book – infinitely better than mixing with others. People made fun of me for my interests and good behaviour and excellence at schoolwork, laughed at my complete lack of sporting prowess. I had spiky hair, goofy tooth, and massive plastic glasses. Whenever somebody called me names or wouldn’t let me play with them or tried to force me into being naughty, I inwardly wept.

Being told off by the teachers – normally for things that other people had done and blamed on me – was an indignity I dwelt on for days. That was when I wasn’t correcting their spelling, pointing out mistakes in the maths textbooks, or telling them every intimate detail of my life.

Every morning I’d tell my mum I had a funny feeling in my tummy, and every morning she’d say, ‘Just go and see how you feel. If it gets worse they can always ring me to come and pick you up.’ But of course, they never did.

I always knew that I was different. I was constantly moody, constantly confused and just wanted to be left alone. But none of that really bothered me until I was ten, when I started to want friends but realised I was unable to have them.

My brother always seemed to have it easier. He just drifted through school without any struggles. He could make friends with anybody, and normally did. He was always out on his bike, off to the cinema, heading to parties. Sometimes my parents made him take me along, something he hated only slightly more than I did – I had my pride.

I often asked when I would have friends like my brother did. ‘When you get to secondary school,’ my mum used to say. ‘You’ll make plenty of friends there.’

My father was less optimistic. He constantly stressed how I needed to learn how to get on with people or else I wouldn’t cope with life. I think they were terrified that I was different and desperate for me to be normal. They started sending me to Christian boys’ camps in the summer, hoping I would build my character and somehow learn to socialise. They were abject lessons in just how incapable I was of functioning in a group of my peers. I came home from them bruised and scarred and even more aware of my utter ineptitude.

It was when I started secondary school at age 12, an institution of 1500 kids that taught you your only value was in your grades, that everything went to hell. Lessons were bad but survivable – people would steal my pencil case, snap my rulers, stab me with compass needles and squirt ink on my shirt, but there was never a shortage of people wanting to sit by me so they could copy. It was the breaktimes that broke me down.

I hung around with people I’d been to middle school with – people who hadn’t actually liked me for the past few years and now, to impress their new friends, showed off their disdain at every opportunity. I was the guy to push, the guy to throw things at, the guy to trip up in the mud; I was the guy to call names, to run away and hide from, to spread rumours about and laugh at. I wasn’t handsome or cool or popular – I was what they called a ‘gorm’, short for ‘gormless’ – a nerdy, geeky swot, teacher’s pet, loser. Sometimes they’d take turns spitting on me – thick, snotty loogies on my bag, on my back, even in my face.

If ever I stood up for myself, which was rare, I’d make threats I had no possibility of following through with. They’d simply threaten to beat the crap out of me, so I did nothing, and let my pride, my dignity and my self-esteem sink into the earth beneath my feet, where I wished I could curl up and die. Looking back, I’d have preferred them to beat me – those wounds heal. The wounds they gave me can last a lifetime.

Those twenty minutes a day killed me.

Luckily, we lived opposite the back gate of the school so I was able to go home for lunch. That was my lifeline. Without it, I don’t know how I’d have survived. I sat by myself, ate some lunch, recharged my batteries to face the afternoon. And, most importantly, I didn’t have to mix with anybody else.

I put up with this crap for a year. One whole year. Until, one week before the school year ended, I started hanging around with a boy that I will call Judas.

I don’t know how it came about that we hung out together. We sat next to one another in most of our classes, and I thought he was pretty darned awesome. He was intelligent, like me, but he was also sporty, which made him well-liked. For whatever reason, we hung out together at morning break, and then the next day. The following day, I even stayed at school for lunch, and the next, before we broke up for the summer holidays. For four days I had a friend.

My God, I was happy. If this was what it meant to have a friend, then I now knew everything I’d been missing out on, and everything that everyone else seemed to have. In the rain-drenched misery among the bullies at boys’ camp, I looked forward to the new term, not with horror and apprehension, but with a sense of anticipation, because now I had a friend!

The first day back at school, Monday morning, second period – art. I sat next to Judas like the cat that got the cream. I was so excited to catch up, so excited for the future. It felt so good to be normal.

When the bell went for morning break, I almost burst with excitement. He turned to me and said, ‘See you after break,’ and walked out of the room.

I thought it was a joke. I followed him at a distance, and when he stepped outside I jumped out at him.

‘Ha ha, surprised you!’

He glared at me. ‘I said I’d see you after break.’

‘Yeah, funny,’ I said, still thinking it was some kind of joke I just didn’t understand.

He stopped walking. ‘No, I’m serious, Gillan,’ he said. ‘Just piss off. I’ve got some new friends now.’

And he walked on.

I followed him again, unsure just what was happening. He walked up to a group of lads – football lads. He’d made new friends over the holidays and they didn’t include me.

I don’t think I have ever felt so alone.

Near where they stood were my old ‘friends’. I wouldn’t go back to them, no way. I was desperate, but not that desperate.

I saw a kid I’d known at middle school – Lucifer, we’ll call him – with a group of kids I didn’t know, and decided I’d try to hang with him, just for today, just so I wouldn’t have to be alone. In truth, he was a bully and had been the scourge of the middle school, but he’d always gone easy on me, possibly because there was no fun in beating on the developmentally disabled kid, albeit undiagnosed, and possibly because the one time he’d tried to put me in a headlock, I’d panicked and in a flurry of punches knocked him on his ass.

Anyway, Lucifer and his friends were all eating slices of pizza from the cafeteria. I was caught in the midst of despair, and not having a clue about how to approach people, I simply walked straight up to him and said, ‘Lucifer, can I have some of your pizza?’

He reacted as though I’d asked to sleep with his sister. I’ve never seen a face show such disdain. With an evil, mocking sneer, he hissed, ‘You fucking skank,’ and with a wall of expletives he ripped a chunk off his pizza and threw it in my face. His friends laughed, and some smiling, some sneering, ripped pieces off their pizzas and threw them at me too, shouting and swearing and laughing.

Everybody turned to look – my old friends, Judas and his new friends – everyone.

I did what I’d sworn not to – I cried. But I hid it well. Holding my head up high, I turned and strolled away from the mockery, bits of tomato sauce on my cheeks, pretending I wasn’t humiliated and utterly heartbroken. I headed for the nearest toilets and cried my eyes out. (Years after this, whenever this group saw me they’d throw things at me and call me a skank. Once when I was 17 they came upon me in the street, shoulder-barged me into the road and threw cigarette lighters at me).

After break, I went back to art and Judas sat down next to me as though nothing had happened. ‘Why can’t I hang around with you at break?’ I asked.

‘You wouldn’t fit in,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t like you.’

And that was that.

The rest of the week, I hid in the toilets, hid in the bushes – I didn’t want people to see that I was entirely on my own. One day I even tried to join the group regardless of Judas’s warnings. They couldn’t physically push me out, could they? It turned out that they could. After being frogmarched across the playground, I decided not to repeat that indignity.

It was with a heavy heart, leaden legs, that the following week I walked up to my old ‘friends’ at breaktime. ‘Oh, you’re back,’ they said. And things resumed as though I’d never been away. Because being bullied was better than hiding in the toilets.

About ten months later, the school decided to build a new block and new playground. Because of all the builders on site, it was thought prudent, for health and safety reasons, to shrink lunchtime from one hour to just 25-minutes. As a result, they revoked all the lunch passes. My 20-minutes of hell each day was going to be 45.

Unable to cope with being bullied 3 hours and 45 minutes each week, I spied on the other friendship groups, found one I thought I might be able to join – a mixed group, some of whom were in my classes – and after a week trying to build up the courage, I approached one of the members and asked if I could hang out with him and his friends at breaktime.

‘Sure, whatever, I don’t care,’ he said, and I was in.

Things didn’t go exactly to plan. I was so desperate to fit in, so terrified of being rejected, that I lost the ability to speak. It was weeks before I managed to say a single word. I stood at a slight remove from them, waiting my chance. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, this little voice in my head screamed, ‘DON’T SAY THAT THEY’LL THINK YOU’RE WEIRD!’ and I clamped my lips together. Sometimes I managed to think up something decent, but by the time I worked up the courage to voice it, the conversation had moved on and it was already too late. So I stood, in silence, like the number one buzzkill, so afraid they wouldn’t like me that I guaranteed they wouldn’t – the dictionary definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Within the first week I realised it wasn’t going to work. While not as bad as my old ‘friends’, my new ‘friends’ didn’t exactly make me feel welcome. One told me to my face, repeatedly, that she hated me because I was so weird and she wanted me to go away. One used to stuff her rubbish in my shirt pocket as though I was a dustbin. They loved telling me I wasn’t actually part of ‘their group’. I was the butt of every joke. I smiled, as though I was in on it, when in fact I knew they were mercilessly mocking me.

I knew from the start that it wasn’t going to work. I hung around with them for a year and a half. Breaktime and lunch. Forty-five minutes a day. Because I had no one else.

You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know what that kind of thing does to a person. My self-esteem, self-identity, my confidence – my very value as a human being – they all went away. It got to the point where I was too afraid to put up my hand in class, even though I knew the answer, because people would look at me and I couldn’t bear their judgement. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t become a statistic, if you catch my meaning.

And throughout this time, Judas still sat next to me in every class we had together, and listened sympathetically as I told him of my loneliness, and made all the right sounds and facial expressions when I told him I was being bullied, and watched as I shrank into a shell of my former self, and he did nothing. Except, that is, on the days when I couldn’t face them and so wandered about alone – he’d always be sure to tell me he’d seen me wandering around on my own, and that if he’d noticed I was being a loner then other people would too, and perhaps I’d better go back and hang out with the bullies again. Because, evidently, it’s better to be bullied than have no ‘friends’.

I asked him repeatedly if I could hang out with him at breaktime. I begged – I told him I wouldn’t even have to say anything, I’d just stand there so I didn’t have to be alone. His answer was always the same. ‘You wouldn’t fit in.’ For a year and a half.

What hurt the most was that he was my best friend in the classroom. He was my lab partner, my vocab buddy. Every project we’d do together, every history assignment, every book report. Art, music, craft, IT. But other than those four days in our first year, outside of the classroom he wanted nothing to do with me.

I loved that guy for three-and-a-half years, right up to the moment I realised that I hated him far more than any of the bullies, and stopped sitting next to him in class. He never spoke to me again, even though we went to the same VI Form. I was amazed by how quickly and easily I was replaced, though it should have come as no surprise. I clearly meant nothing to him.

About the same time, I decided I couldn’t go on anymore as I  had. I spent the last six months of my time at that school hanging out with the band geeks who congregated on the benches at breaktime with their inhalers and head braces and vocal jazz stylings. I didn’t particularly like them, but it was all about survival by this point, and they weren’t really in a position to bully anyone. Luckily, by this time, the block was built and I could go home for lunch again, because all of them had orchestra, and music lessons and choir practice at lunch.

And so I survived, in body if not in mind. I left school, and I buried these experiences and haven’t spoken to anybody about them for twenty years now. I wonder if all the tattoos and piercings I got in my late teens, and all the challenges I undertook in my early twenties – rock climbing, bungee jumping, parachute jumping, scuba diving, tall ship sailing, backpacking – were a way of trying to work through all that anguish and self-hatred. To punish myself and see if I really mattered.

I thought I’d got over. Thought it was left in the past. Until I’ve had to start looking at schools for my little girl. And I realise I’m not over it at all.

I can think of my best friend telling a thirteen-year-old me to piss off because he’s found new friends, and it still hurts. I can think of reaching out to another for help in my lowest moment, only to have him literally throw it back in my face, and I still cringe at the way he looked at me. And worse, I can think of repeatedly begging a friend to save me from my bullies only to have him refuse because I ‘wouldn’t fit in’, but instead of the despair I felt at the time, now I feel only anger.

I never dealt with any of these feelings. I live my life looking forward, not back. What’s in the past no longer has the power to hurt you – or so I thought.

So perhaps you’ll understand why I don’t care about the league tables my mother-in-law sends me, and why I don’t care about the Ofsted reports, and why I don’t care if every one of the school’s pupils fails their SATs. The only thing I care about is if my daughter will be happy at school. Because if she’s not, all the league tables and Ofsted reports in the world couldn’t make me send her there.

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Aspie Daddy

Welcome to Aspie Daddy, the website of Gillan Drew, author of An Adult With An Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed. Here I blog about autism and parenting and whatever else takes my fancy.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at 28, and now nearing forty, I live with my autistic wife and two infant daughters on the border of Dorset and Hampshire.

If you get the chance, check out my fiction website The Struggling Writer where you can read some short stories and novel extracts and some of my rants about writing.

Thanks for dropping by.

Gillan

An open letter to the Mental Health Community

Dear doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and other Mental Health professionals,

As somebody who accessed Mental Health services for much of his teens and twenties – and, depending on the person that I saw, was variously diagnosed with clinical depression, major depression, cyclothymia, dysthymia, bipolar disorder and emotionally unstable (borderline) personality disorder, and prescribed all manner of antidepressants and mood stabilsers – may I begin by saying that I have nothing but respect for your profession. It is a very problematic and stressful area of medicine in which to specialise, and much of your work is more an art than a science. I am therefore fully cognizant of the pressures under which you work, and the difficulties that you face on a daily basis.

It is therefore with the best of intentions and sincere regret that I feel I must bring to your attention an area in which you could be regarded as failing in your duty of care. This is in the provision of services to adults with autism, particularly high-functioning members of the community, to whom your behaviour often amounts to nothing less than a flying kick to the balls – with both feet. Allow me to elucidate.

When I was working through my various (mis)diagnoses and battling the side-effects of my numerous sedating, mind-numbing and libido-crushing medications, I very helpfully had monthly reviews from a psychiatrist and weekly sessions from a counselling psychologist, such were my mental health difficulties. Indeed, they provided a measure of stability in an otherwise chaotic and trouble-filled life.

It was a little disheartening, then, when upon being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 28, I was immediately discharged by the Community Mental Health Team because ‘autism isn’t a mental illness’, and handed over to the Learning Disabilities Team, who said that ‘we have no services for high-functioning individuals’ and immediately discharged me also. This was ten years ago, and in all that time I have had no further input from the Mental Health Team or Learning Disabilities Team.

This makes me wonder, therefore, if you think that my clinical depression, major depression, cyclothymia, dysthymia, bipolar disorder, and emotionally unstable (borderline) personality disorder were merely symptoms of autism, rather than separate but co-existing mental health conditions, or if you thought that all of my problems with mood, identity, anxiety and depression would simply vanish alongside the diagnosis of autism? Surely, you did, else it would have been unethical to discharge somebody who had been receiving mental health treatment for over a decade without ensuring they were fully ‘cured’ and no longer needed mental health input.

To make it absolutely clear, I am wondering whether you think that having autism precludes the possibility of a person having mental health difficulties too? Because that seems, to a layman, a little like washing your hands of people who need help simply because you can pass the buck and attribute all their problems to autism.

Allow me a further, more recent example. My wife also has a diagnosis of autism and we have two children. Of late, her mental health has deteriorated quite badly, which has had a deleterious effect on our marriage and my ability to support both her and our children. In brief, her moods swing like a yo-yo, from hateful and aggressive and irrational to childish and giggly and equally irrational, and back again in the space of ten minutes; her OCDs mean she spends five hours an evening searching for things she has lost; she misremembers what has been said, or makes things up and believes them; struggles to differentiate fantasy from reality; at times seems out of control; is paranoid about people conspiring against her, then contacts others to conspire against me; continually empties her bank account buying pink plastic toys for our girls (eight dolls houses, seven push chairs, fifteen pairs of shoes); sabotages everything good that she has going for her; asks me to move out and take the children and then tells me she can’t live without me; is suffering the worst confidence, self-esteem and anxiety crises of her life; shuts down and retreats into her own world if she cannot handle things; and is worrying all her autism-specialist support workers, who have seen her behaviour first-hand and believe it to stem from some mental health disorder underlying the autism.

Now, to get my wife to acknowledge she has a problem has been tantamount to climbing Everest, but with much help and support from Children’s Services, who are equally concerned about her, and the Health Visitor, who similarly agrees, we managed to get her to attend to an appointment with her GP. She was accompanied by her Autism Support Manager, an expert who has known her for ten years and says that her behaviour is not normal and not consistent with autism. Her GP agreed that her behaviour was very troubling and, given the impact it is having on our marriage and her ability to look after the children, made an urgent referral to the Mental Health Team to have my wife assessed.

I have been castigated by my wife’s family for seeking help, for talking to people outside the family, for being honest. They told me I have betrayed my marriage, I am going to have my children taken away, everything is my fault and I should never speak to anybody about anything, but I have done this through a genuine desire to save my marriage, to get my wife help and make things better for her by giving her access to the wonderful abilities of Mental Health professionals such as yourselves. I was sure that you would be able to help.

You can therefore imagine my horror and disgust to receive a letter from the Mental Health Team saying that, after receiving the referral, they had ‘discussed’ my wife’s case and decided she doesn’t have any mental health problems and therefore doesn’t need to be assessed and has been discharged. Clearly, then, you think that OCD is simply a side-effect of autism; rapid mood swings are a side-effect of autism; irrationality and self-destructive behaviour are side-effects of autism; paranoia is a side-effect of autism; depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and low confidence are side-effects of autism; and everybody who knows her and suggests she is suffering mental health problems is simply wrong, because she has autism and that trumps all. Indeed, I imagine that if she was hearing voices, or believed she was the Queen of Sheba, you would attribute that to her autism also. I would therefore like to ask: exactly what does it take for Mental Health professionals to see somebody with autism?

In society, those of us on the autism spectrum suffer a great deal of prejudice from people who see us as a label, a walking, talking diagnosis ripped from the pages of the DSM, instead of unique individuals. It is appalling that we must experience this same stigma from the Mental Health Community, who really ought to know better. Just because we have autism doesn’t mean we don’t also have mental health difficulties, and certainly should not give you the right to decline to see us simply because we have a developmental disorder to which you can ascribe all our problems.

I know that money is tight in this age of austerity and it helps your budget to fob off people with autism to other, less appropriate departments, but you might like to ask yourselves whether discriminating against an entire section of society – many of whom are struggling with various mental health disorders and very real distress and anguish – is right, or helpful, or fair.

In summary, I have sought your help because my wife’s mental health has been deteriorating, but you have refused to see her because you have decided all her problems are concomitant with a diagnosis of autism, placing the onus on me to hold this family together without your specialist assistance. I can only hope that her mental health does not continue to decline to the point at which even you can’t ignore it.

Warm regards and best wishes,

Gillan Drew

[UPDATE: The value of persistence]

Takers and the Took: Asperger’s and Confrontation

Every day at the moment, I’m having between sixty and seventy arguments. Some are mild, a witty response to a provocative remark; some are longer, a tussle between players on opposite sides of the game; and some are long drawn-out, bloodthirsty affairs that leave souls destroyed and lives in ruins. Sixty to seventy, every single day.

But it’s not as bad as all that: they only take place in my head.

Like many people with Asperger’s, I have something of a phobia about confrontation, to the point of enduring any amount of abuse in order to avoid it. When it does happen, I avoid eye-contact and retreat into myself, and all the cogent, coherent arguments I could make evaporate. I have a visceral reaction – acid, like liquid copper, spreads from my gut, my chest tightens, my throat constricts, and the back of my neck starts to burn, because even though words can apparently never hurt me, I feel as though I’m being physically attacked. So I wait for it to end, mutter some platitudes that completely undermine my own position, and then slink away in a turmoil of guilt, shame and humiliation like a dog with his tail between his legs.

And afterwards, I dwell on it. For days. I relive the argument, word for word, re-experience the feelings, the fear and helplessness, think of what I could have said or should have said but didn’t because at the time all I wanted was to retreat. Like someone who has taken a beating, it takes me a long time to recover. It’s as though my psyche is bruised, and the world is now altered, everything out of place and dangerous until I manage to rebuild my walls and feel safe around people once again.

I worked in telesales for a time. Last thing on Friday afternoon, a stranger eviscerated me down the phone line. I didn’t sleep that night, couldn’t relax all the next day, had bad dreams on the Saturday, ran over the incident a million times all day Sunday, and on Monday handed in my notice and bought a plane ticket to New Zealand. Growing up, people said I was sensitive – too sensitive to survive in society. I think the truth is that I’m autistic, and my problems with social communication and social interaction, married to anxiety, insecurity and an obsessive nature, make conflict something I’m particularly incapable of dealing with.

So I tend to avoid confrontation, if I can. You might have heard the opposite to this – that people with Asperger’s are themselves argumentative, self-centred egoists who run rough-shod over the feelings of others – and this is also true, no matter how contradictory. So how does that work?

I can only answer for myself. When it comes to facts – or at least what I consider to be facts – my natural pedantry, honesty, commitment to accuracy and inability to let things go mean I often get into arguments over trivial matters. Like when over dinner one time my (ex) sister-in-law was talking about someone overly concerned with their appearance, and concluded with the statement, ‘People are so fickle.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ I asked.

‘You know,’ she said. ‘People are so shallow and superficial.’

‘Oh, I totally agree,’ I replied. ‘But that’s not what fickle means.’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘No, it’s not. Fickle means changeable, inconstant, not shallow.’

‘I’m an English teacher.’

‘And I have a dictionary. Shall we look it up?’

‘Well, whatever it means, most normal people would have known what I meant.’

‘Then most normal people are using the word fickle incorrectly too.’

Sure, it’s a little thing and in hindsight it comes across as kind of petty, but that’s the sort of argument I can’t resist having – those to do with facts, where I will back myself to the hilt because I know I’m right.

On the other hand, when it comes to disagreements about less concrete things – emotional things – that’s what I struggle to cope with. I approach life in a rational fashion and expect other people to respond in a rational way, but that’s not what tends to happen. Instead, people are complex and confusing and behave in ways that aren’t rational at all. I just don’t understand it. You try to discuss something in a calm and controlled manner and they flip out, fly off the handle, scream and shout, and in a split second I’ve backed down, lost the argument and dropped into survival mode. Otherwise, if I try to stand up for myself, I get eaten alive.

I link this to my autism, especially since I know many others who experience the same anxiety over arguments. Perhaps having poor Theory of Mind skills – the ability to understand another’s thoughts, feelings, and point of view – means we are incapable of successful conflict-resolution. Or perhaps my aversion to confrontation is something more particular to me.

As a child, I grew up in a household in which confrontation had very real consequences, then at 19 I moved in with my girlfriend’s family, where a violent brother and emotionally unstable mother meant that any confrontation led to holes being kicked in doors and phones smashed against the wall. At 21 I formed a band with a girl who ruled my life for the next three years because I was terrified of her spectacular outbursts and felt powerless to escape her anger, while at 28 I moved into a ‘supported living’ house, where my housemate would break milk bottles on the kitchen floor if I disagreed with him. Over the years, I’ve learnt that confrontation means danger; backing down is the best way of surviving.

But it isn’t, because it’s incredibly damaging to your self-esteem and your long-term happiness. Living like this makes it very easy to be taken advantage of – unless you isolate yourself as a hermit, which, to be honest, is a very attractive option sometimes. I get churned up inside just thinking about the potential for arguments. I walk on eggshells, terrified of upsetting people because of how they’ll react, and I know what that makes me.

There’s that common expression about the world being divided between ‘givers’ and ‘takers’. This assumes that givers and takers are in some form of symbiotic relationship that fulfils one another’s psychological needs. I think the truth is much darker than that.

To paraphrase the 1960 movie The Apartment, there are ‘takers’ and ‘the took’. The worst thing about being the took is that you know you’re being taken, but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Because takers don’t take what is freely given – they take whatever they want. It’s a form of abuse, one that people with Asperger’s are very susceptible to because of our difficulties handling confrontation.

So when I know I need to confront someone about something – when I’m being taken advantage of, for example – I obsessively plan out what I’m going to say. And then how they’ll respond. And what I’ll say next. And so on, and so forth.

Of course, in real life, people don’t respond how you want them to, so I try various permutations – if the person responds rationally, irrationally, emotionally, angrily, defensively, offensively, how I’ll react, how I’ll respond. I have the same argument sixty or seventy different ways, every single day, all in my head.

And then the moment comes, and all the preparation goes out of the window. You’re aggressive instead of assertive, you stumble over your words, the other person explodes and you cower, or worse they deny anything’s going on and it’s all in your mind, which confuses you, until at the end of the argument you’re in a worse position than when you started, and all the things you’d meant to say, and all the rights you were going to insist upon, lie unspoken in your heart.

And you realise that there’s really no reasoning with some people, so it’s best to leave those arguments where they belong – spinning around in your head all day, every day, because they’re the taker and you’re the took.

And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

An Aspie Family Christmas

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, and a wife with the same, I have just experienced an incredibly stressful holiday season that has left my nerves in shreds and my marriage hanging on a knife-edge. For the avoidance of future issues, and to help out my fellow Aspies and their families, I thought I’d share what happened to me and offer some friendly advice on how to make things run more smoothly.

1. Keep the disruption short

My wife asked if we could spend a few days over Christmas with her sister and family, a four-hour drive away from home. As a supportive husband and father, of course I said yes. Two or three days at somebody else’s house is about my limit.

It wasn’t until two weeks before Christmas that I discovered my wife had actually arranged six days with her sister. I protested and tried to change it, only to be told by the wider family that it had already been arranged and changing it would be inconvenient. For them. The neurotypical ones.

Not wanting to cause a fuss, I loaded the car with everything including the kitchen sink (a toy for my daughter), and we set off.

In short, it was two rather pleasant days, two rather annoying days, and two days in which I wanted to push people off the quayside and throw stones at them as they struggled to stay afloat.

People with autism need space to recharge our batteries. I’m not talking simply physical space – we need mental space, a way to escape the slowly building pressures and strains of being forced into relentless and unpredictable social situations. Such a thing is generally impossible in an unfamiliar environment filled with somebody else’s stuff and driven by rules and routines different from your own.

Without this release, as time goes on you become more tired, more stressed, more prickly, more antisocial, less able to cope. And then you look and act like an asshole as you start to isolate yourself, avoid eye-contact, mumble two-word responses to questions, and refuse to participate, all as a way of surviving. And are told this isn’t the way you’re supposed to be behaving over Christmas. By neurotypical people. Whom you already warned that you’d get like this if you had to spend six days with them, but who chose to ignore it anyway.

So to the families of Aspies – think carefully about the duration of the holiday arrangements, and when your loved one is showing signs of stress, leave them alone. You might think that trying to include them in activities will bring them out of their funk, but in reality it’ll likely make things worse as they’ll feel pressurised and even more trapped than they already do.

2. Keep the numbers small

I had been informed that there would be a total of eight people at Christmas, including myself, my wife and my two kids, perhaps because it was known that I’d become anxious or refuse to go if this number was any higher. So imagine my surprise when a further seven people turned up, to take up every spare room in the house and leave me to feed the baby on a hard wooden chair at the dining room table every night.

I’ve mentioned many times before that autism is an exhausting disorder. When I’m with other people I spend inordinate amounts of mental energy consciously processing those things that most neurotypical people take for granted, namely how to have a conversation, when it’s my turn to speak, what I should talk about, how I should phrase things, where I should look, how much eye-contact I should make, how to interpret what they’re saying, reading their body language, regulating my posture and my proximity, working out relationships, the appropriate register, making sure I’m not talking too loudly or too soft, dominating the conversation or saying something inappropriate. I do all this to ‘pass’ for normal in a process called masking, and it is incredibly stressful, overwhelming and draining, and causes massive anxiety.

That’s with just one other person. Put me in a house with fourteen other people and I’m on overload. I can’t mentally process so many inputs and interactions, and something has to give – normally my peace of mind and my ability to function. I tend to come across at these times as arrogant and antisocial as I struggle to regulate what I say or how I should say it. My coping mechanism is to withdraw from the social encounter, deal with people one-to-one, minimise the number of simultaneous interactions – something that’s impossible in a crowd.

So if you want your Aspie family member to have a good time during holidays, less really is more.

3. If you make a plan, stick to it

It is well known – so well known, in fact, that it’s hardly worth mentioning – that people with autism hate change. I have discussed this many times and pointed out that it’s slightly more nuanced than that. My wife, for example, cannot handle change that involves the cancellation of something already arranged. I am the opposite – cancelling things doesn’t really bother me, but adding things in with little or no warning makes me freak out. The looseness of Christmas exposed my wife and I to both of these types of change, leading to great emotional distress for both of us.

Our second day was a case in point. It had long been arranged that everyone would go for a walk at the beach in the morning and in the afternoon someone would kindly look after our kids so my wife and I could head off to a coastal village to have a look around and spend some adult time together.

We left the house at 11.45 and arrived at the beach for 12.30, which by my reckoning, as a stickler for accuracy, is not morning. A minor point, perhaps, but incredibly frustrating for a person with autism. An hour’s walk in the wind and rain at the beach and I was more than ready to go back to the house, head off to the pretty village, and spend some quality time with my wife.

Unfortunately, somebody suddenly announced, ‘We’ve decided we’re all going to the pub for a drink.’ And that was that.

My wife was okay with this, as an additional activity is fine for her. I, on the other hand, panicked. Telling me I have to go into a stressful social situation – a dark, noisy, crowded pub at Christmas with people I don’t know very well – with barely a couple of minutes to get my head around it caused me massive unnecessary anxiety. For other people, going into a pub is probably a pleasant experience – for me, it is a torture that must be endured, and I need to mentally prepare myself for that. Unable to do so, I found it horrendous.

Unfortunately, staying at the pub over an hour, walking back to the car, driving back to the house, meant it was nearly dark by the time we got there. Then the person who said they would look after our kids had to prepare the food for dinner, thus we were unable to go to the coastal village. While I found this annoying because I’d been looking forward to it, my wife found this change of plan – the cancellation of something already arranged for no good reason – very upsetting and difficult to process.

Most of the people I know with Asperger’s suffer problems with anxiety, and changing plans tends to send our anxieties skyrocketing. Indeed, it can ruin our whole day as dealing with the psychological and emotional fallout lasts for hours. So if you must add or remove something from the schedule, make sure it’s for a good reason and not simply because of a sudden whim. A little sensitivity goes a long way to sparing your Aspie relatives a great deal of unnecessary anguish.

4. Don’t expect others to conform to your emotional standards

I lost count of the number of times I was told to cheer up, be happy, enjoy myself, join in, stop being a bah humbug, as though my emotional reactions were somehow ‘wrong’ because they differed from those of the people around me. Not only, therefore, was I expected to behave in a neurotypical manner and suppress my natural tendency towards a quiet, ordered life, I was also denied the right to feel my own perfectly normal emotions.

I was even told that, as my kids made it ‘magical’, I should feel magical. I asked precisely when an adjective had become an emotion and if such a feeling could be described to me, and therein lies the rub – people with autism often struggle to understand or appreciate their emotions. I certainly approach them from an intellectual viewpoint, and I find the concept of happiness, as it relates to me, very confusing.

To me, happiness isn’t about feeling good, it’s about not feeling bad. If I am ‘enjoying myself’ it means I feel absolutely nothing – the everpresent irritation, the tightness between my shoulder blades, that electrical storm of focused energy that buzzes around inside my head as I process, process, process, are not there. It doesn’t mean I’m smiling or jumping up and down. If I’m reading in a corner I’m quite possibly quietly content.

But like most people with Asperger’s, I won’t lie, and perhaps that’s why I stand out. I found Christmas extremely difficult, and when people asked how I was feeling, I told the truth. While everyone else was supposedly having ‘such a good time’, I spotted tears when they thought nobody was looking, heard whispered arguments from behind closed doors, noticed when formerly talkative people fell strangely silent and when couples sat beside one another without a single word passing between them beyond mildly passive-aggressive statements. So maybe I’m not so different after all.

I played with my kids and made sure they were happy, and I’m not sure why everyone was so bothered that I should display outward signs of pleasure for their own gratification. It seems to me less about making sure I’m enjoying myself and more about feeling threatened that somebody isn’t buying into the same sentimental bullshit that they are.

So don’t heap added pressure on your Aspie relatives by expecting them to feel a certain way – we’re already expected to behave in ways that don’t come naturally. Allow us our own emotions and to react exactly how we react, and we’ll do the same with you.

5. Turn off the gosh-darned music

As soon as the household arose, the radio went on. As it was rigged up throughout the house, the music would play in the kitchen, the dining room and the lounge, at quite a loud level, right up until bedtime. This was despite people coming and going, having conversations, playing games, making phone calls, watching videos on their handheld devices, and everything else that goes on in a house at Christmas.

My God, it was overwhelming. It was like a thousand tiny drills boring into your brain morning, noon and night. When you’ve heard Shane MacGowan slur his way through Fairytale of New York six times by lunch, you’re ready to agree with that line ‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.’

People with autism tend to have oddly-balanced sensory systems. Normally, we have very sensitive hearing and struggle to filter out one sound from another. Stick me in a house with fourteen other people over Christmas and I can hear three or four simultaneous conversations, making it very difficult to pay attention to my book and thus get the mental space that I need. Add music to the mix and my sensory system is utterly overwhelmed, especially when that music is loud.

So spare a thought for your autistic relatives over Christmas – a quiet space or some quiet time is certainly in keeping with the Christmas spirit of peace and goodwill to all men.

6. Don’t lecture from a position of ignorance

While walking towards the aforementioned (awful, awful) pub, I explained my reservations to a member of my wife’s family. ‘For me,’ I said, ‘going to a pub is the equivalent of sitting a really difficult exam. I discussed this last month with Luke Jackson, an autistic author, and we agreed that while for most neurotypical people going to the pub is relaxing, for those of us with autism it’s jolly hard work. You see, you go to work, get stressed, and then go to the pub to unwind. But while you’re unwinding, we’re becoming more and more wound up. Afterwards, you go home and go to bed because you’re relaxed. We go home more stressed than when we left, and then have to spend a few hours unwinding and de-stressing before we can be relaxed enough to go to bed, which is awfully tiring and has a knock-on effect for the following days. That’s what it is to have autism and why I’d rather we didn’t go to this pub.’

Quite clear, I thought, frank, easy to understand. So how did he respond (other than, ‘Cheer up, you miserable bugger.’)?

He said, ‘Oh, how ridiculous. No, I don’t believe that at all.’

‘Well, that’s the way it is.’

‘No, of course it’s not.’

And that’s the level of understanding I tend to get from my wife’s family. This is just one of multiple examples over the six days of me explaining to someone how my autism affects me, only to have them disagree with it. What? Why on earth would you belittle and undermine my understanding of my own condition and my own behaviour!?!

With all humility aside, I am an expert on Asperger’s Syndrome and how it affects me. I’m sought out to give speeches educating people about autism and I’ve written a well-received book about it, for Christ’s sake, one that’s sitting in the health section of every Waterstones in the UK. So why on earth would you dismiss what I say because you think you know best about a subject you have never studied, experienced or lived with?

Probably because there were some subsequent discussions about how ‘Asperger’s didn’t exist in my day,’ and how there are far too many people walking around using modern diagnoses as an excuse to cop out of life. Because that’s not condescending at all!

So if you want to keep cordial relations with your Aspie relatives, be sure to treat their expertise with the understanding and appreciation it deserves. Unless you’re a bigot, in which case we probably don’t want anything to do with you.

7. Bringing up the supposed links between MMR and autism isn’t going to win you any friends

 

I always find it strange that people dare bring this up. Without knowing very much about it, surely they know it’s a controversial conspiracy theory and therefore inappropriate to raise with people they don’t know from Adam. I don’t go up to somebody with cancer and say, ‘Hey, have you heard they have a cure for cancer, but they keep it hidden because they can make more money treating the disease than curing it?’ because that would be remarkably insensitive.

I have explained at length that MMR does not cause autism, and am armed with enough facts to shoot down any and all attempts to suggest otherwise. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people like my mother-in-law and various people in the house over Christmas telling me that my wife’s autism was caused by the MMR jab.

‘Andrew Wakefield was paid a hefty sum of money to find a link between MMR and autism so people could make compensation claims,’ I told them. ‘He was also marketing his own competing vaccine. This is what we call a conflict of interest and why his study has been completely discredited.’

‘He’s very popular in America.’

‘He had to go to America because he was struck off by the GMC for faking his research.’

‘Well, I still think he’s right.’

‘No, he’s not. The only study suggesting a link between MMR and autism had a sample size of twelve and was faked, whereas meta-analyses of studies featuring over 14.7 million kids – yes, 14.7 million – showed no statistically significant difference in rates of autism between those who’d had the vaccine and those who hadn’t.’

‘Well, I think that if you’re genetically predisposed towards autism, the shock of having three vaccines at once can trigger it.’

‘But where’s the evidence for that? If that was true, proportionately more people who’d had MMR would have autism than those who didn’t have the vaccine, and that’s not the case.’

‘She was different after she had the MMR. I know she was.’

And so I had to bite my tongue, or else I’d say something suitably cutting. Emotion trumps logic every time, and that’s damned annoying.

So don’t bring up this crap with your Aspie relatives during an already stressful time and then argue against facts with feelings. As I said, autism is my area of expertise, and trying to make out that you know more than me about it just makes you look ignorant.

8. And lastly, compromise is not a dirty word.

Nor are compassion, empathy or understanding. It seems odd that those of us with autism, who have clearly defined and specific needs, are the ones expected to fit in with everyone else. Yes, the ones who, because of their condition, have the least capacity to modify their behaviour to suit others are the ones who have to make the effort to adapt their behaviour to suit others. It doesn’t really strike one as fair, does it?

I’m not saying that the neurotypical side should make all the movement, but surely we could meet somewhere in the middle? It might make Christmas a little more enjoyable for all of us.

Speaking at an Autism Conference

As part of my role as a guest blogger for Autism Wessex, the charity that provides my support, I have written a blog about speaking at the Inservice Autisme in Belgium last month alongside internationally renowned opera singer Sophia Grech and bestselling author Luke Jackson (Freaks, Geeks and Asperger’s Syndrome).

It describes what people on the spectrum can achieve if we don’t let our limitations define us, and what a positive experience it was.

If you’d like to check it out, please follow this link: Gillan Drew Wessex Blog.

Thanks for reading!

How my toddler made me cry

My two-year-old daughter made me cry the other night.

It came as a bit of a surprise, because I’m not really that emotional a person. Over the years I’ve built up a thick skin – it’s the only way to survive being a square peg in a world of round holes. My moods tend to vary between melancholy, discontentment and ennui, so I rarely reach the extremes of feeling that lead to tears, good or bad. Funerals? Nothing. Weddings? Nothing. The birth of my kids? Meh.

But then, there is a chink in my armour. Toy Story 3 made me weep in the cinema, My Girl just kills me, and who doesn’t cry at Marley & Me (besides cat lovers)? I can’t walk past a child’s gravestone without welling up, and last year I even cried at a book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, in a scene where a chimpanzee begs to be allowed to go home. All of which goes to show, give me the bittersweet juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow, and you can pierce right to the heart of me.

I first noticed this weakness about twenty years ago, at Land’s End in Cornwall. A little boy was running with his brand new toy sword from the gift shop when he tripped and fell and – SNAP! – the blade broke at the hilt. The look on that boy’s face – the dawning realisation of what had happened, the switch from innocent joy to infinite sorrow as life’s hard truths hit home, and then the tears of impotent despair at the discovery that some things once broken cannot be fixed – it broke my heart.

I mean, sure, it was just a plastic sword costing a couple of quid and his parents could have bought him another one in a heartbeat – hardly a life-or-death experience. But that boy’s face haunted me for weeks after, because in the innocent, uncontrolled emotional state of a child, unable to weigh up comparative value or process cause, effect and consequence, and living solely in the moment, it is life-or-death. Children and animals, their simplicity of thought and emotion, their purity – when they suffer, when they’re sad, when they’re in pain and when they die, it cuts through every barrier I put up to protect myself.

Unfortunately, my toddler is right at that point in her social and emotional development where innocence and sorrow come into contact several times a day.

The evening she made me cry, I picked her up from nursery as usual. It’s always nigh identical to that scene in The Railway Children – she sees me, stops stock still in awe, and then she shouts, ‘Daddy, it’s my daddy!’ and runs towards me, her face filled with elation, leaving me just enough time to drop to one knee before she slams into me and throws her arms around me. So excited to show me what she’s been doing, so proud to show me off to the ladies at nursery – ‘My daddy,’ she says, ‘This my daddy.’

She’s the last to be picked up, after dark, so for half an hour she gets to hang with the grown-ups. I know it makes her feel special. She gets such a look of well-being on her little face as she puts on her school bag like a big girl, waves to the ladies all cocky because she’s heading home to mummy and her little sister. This night was no different but for one thing.

She tripped as she stepped over the threshold, stumbled down the wheelchair ramp and face-planted into the mud.

I stood her up, her hands, coat and face black with dirt. The women from the nursery appeared in the doorway and in the light spilling out past them I saw my little girl’s face – the shock giving way to embarrassment and humiliation as she fought back the tears, struggling to keep control. I told her it’s okay and she’s very brave, but it was all too much and suddenly she was wailing and burying her face in my side so nobody could see her. Ultimate joy to ultimate misery in under ten seconds, her special, sacred moment destroyed. Broke my heart.

But that wasn’t what made me cry.

On the way home, to distract her from her misery, I asked her who had been there today. Turns out it was Tilly, Hugo, Sebastian, Rufus (yes, I know – we’re only a Tarquin away from winning Pretentious-name Bingo), and a new one for me – Jasper.

‘Who’s Jasper?’ I asked.

‘My best friend,’ she replied. Too cute!

Then I asked her what she’d been up to. ‘Me sing Twinkle, Twinkle with my friends.’ Oh my gosh, the sweetest thing ever. But it still didn’t make me cry. No, that came after dinner when I was bathing her.

She was sticking the foam letters to the side of the tub – ‘This mummy,’ she’d say, and ‘This Granny,’ and ‘This Poppa.’ Then she put three together, pointed at the middle one, and said, ‘This daddy.’

‘Who’s this, then?’ I asked, pointing at the figure beside me.

‘This daddy’s friend,’ she replied, and pointed to the other; ‘and this daddy’s friend.’ And then she put another one beside them and said, ‘And this daddy’s best friend.’

And that’s when I cried.

As a master at acting ‘normal’, I hid it well. This is particularly important because my toddler has become very sensitive to other people’s feelings. She’s always asking if mummy’s sad, or if daddy’s sad, and the other night she woke up sobbing because she’d had a dream in which mummy was very sad. So I wiped my eyes, endured that prickly feeling at the top of my nose, and got on with it.

But why did I cry? The juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow.

As somebody with autism, friendship is something I always desperately wanted but was never able to have. I struggle to understand or connect with other people. When someone wants to be my friend, I become paranoid and push them away. When I want someone to be my friend, I approach it so cautiously I miss the opportunity. I don’t know how to make, keep and manage friendships, and I only have the mental energy or focus to sustain one friend or partner at a time. As I’m married, this means I don’t have the social resources to have any friends – no close ones anyway. It’s the way I’m built. It’s one of those things.

But that doesn’t make it any less painful, and it doesn’t mean I’m not desperately lonely.

My daughter has already realised the importance of friendship. Watching her making friends is a wonderful relief, because she is not like me. A bittersweet relief, as one day she’ll learn that daddy doesn’t have any friends, and she won’t understand why, and she’ll be sad, because even though I won’t show it, she’ll know that I’m sad too. Because friendship is important regardless of who you are.

Where do innocence and sorrow factor into this? Her innocence; my sorrow.

That’s how my toddler made me cry.