My injury-prone toddler

My two-year-old absolutely kills me at the moment. The other day, the nursery asked if she has hearing problems that might affect her balance. No, I said – it’s just that she’s a boisterous, fearless child and her confidence far exceeds her ability at the moment.

To be honest, I’m terrified they’re going to contact Child Services because every time I take her in – every time – I have to fill in an injury form to explain why she has a black eye, a split lip, a grazed head, a bloodied nose. If I wasn’t her dad, I’d be suspicious.

I mean, the last week has seen her injure herself every day. On Sunday she threw herself down in a tantrum, misjudged the range and face-planted into the floor, grazing her chin in the process. On Monday she ran outside in her ballet clothes to see her grandmother, tripped over on the pavement, and skinned both her knees and both her palms. On Tuesday at her Grandpa’s, she fell into the corner of the coffee table and gave herself a black eye.

Wednesday she was spinning round and round in the lounge, fell over on her toys and scratched her chest. Thursday she was doing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ with another girl at parents-and-toddlers, yanked the girl too hard, and took a headbutt to the nose that split her nostril. Yesterday, she ran off naked and returned to the room with a big scratch down her thigh (she said it was done by a monster, but we have no idea how she got it). And today, falling off the dining chair, falling flat on her face in the kitchen, and bashing her head on the side of the stairgate didn’t cause any injuries, but she does have a swollen ear from tripping headfirst into her toybox.

And this week was by no means exceptional.

Every thud, every bang, every cry, I go running, terrified she’s broken a bone or worse, and it’s turning me into a nervous wreck. This afternoon, for example – I left her in her playroom a moment to put a hammer back in the utility room when I heard her suddenly scream as though the roof had collapsed on her legs. Dropping the hammer, my heart in my mouth, I raced back to the playroom, dreading what I might find – and she wasn’t there.

In a panic, I screamed for my wife, searched the hall, the kitchen, shouted for my toddler, to no avail. I felt sick with worry.

She was in the lounge. In the ten seconds after I’d left her, she’d found a new toy her mum had bought her, and the blood-curdling scream had been one of joy and excitement, not pain and desperation. She’d then hurried into the lounge to show her mother, just as I rushed back into the playroom.

It scared the life out of me. So I did that usual manly thing of converting fear into anger by telling her off and ordering her never to scream like that again, because ohmygosh, I thought my heart would beat clear through my ribs and out of my chest.

When we first started taking her to nursery, they said that for a toddler to injure herself was normal and they’d be more concerned if she never had any injuries as it’d mean she was being overprotected. I’m pretty sure those words are coming back to bite us all in the ass. I just don’t know how to stop her hurting herself.

There again, with a dyspraxic mother and father who has fallen down more mountainsides than he can remember, perhaps it’s a family trait.

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Out the mouths of babes

There’s this idea out there that children, because they aren’t tainted by the vices and peculiarities of society, are possessed of a special kind of wisdom that we lose as we age. They haven’t yet learned to lie, so their utterances are factual, and honest, and tap into a purer, more innocent state of being. If you want to hear truth, so the logic goes, ask a child – they’ll tell it to you straight, without sugar-coating or prevarication. People have even written books about how we can learn to live a fuller, happier life simply by listening to the instinctive wisdom of our children and incorporating it into our daily lives.

What a load of bollocks.

I’m not saying that kids don’t have their moments, but I’m really not sure we should be taking life advice from people who think it’s okay to scratch their arseholes in front of mixed company.

While it’s true that children can be very honest and address subjects normally taboo in polite society, that doesn’t mean they’re right – and they’re normally pretty far from it. It’s not because they’re stupid, but because they just don’t have the experience. Like tonight, when my two-year-old delighted in telling me that ‘Mummy’s got really big nipples’ – given she’s only ever seen three other pairs (mine, hers, and her baby sister’s), she has nothing to compare them to. Honesty is therefore not a measure of truth or reality – it’s just a two-year-old’s very unqualified opinion about something she knows nothing about. (For the record, my extensive knowledge of slightly more than three sets of nipples suggests they’re pretty-much average-sized, not ‘really big’ at all).

Likewise, innocence doesn’t show us a purer way to live – it just shows us ignorance. Like when my daughter tries to play hide-and-seek in the car, pulls her T-shirt up over her face, and cries, ‘Where am I, daddy? You can’t see me! Me hiding.’ Or when after clearing the dinner plate because I tell her eating it will make her grow up big and strong, she stands on tiptoes, reaches to the sky, and says, ‘Me bigger now?’ Or when she tells me that she’s not old enough to be a boy yet, but will be one day – although, to be fair, given the current predilection for transgenderism, she may well be right on that one.

Even so, you can’t trust a child’s judgement because the way they think is just too weird and unpolished. Over dinner this evening, my daughter leaned over towards me and said, ‘Me hope you fart,’ and then went straight back to eating. And she will not stop stripping all her dolls from her Sylvanian Families playsets because, ‘Me like them naked.’ And a few days ago she said, ‘Me not like you paint my nose. Me not like bogies.’ I’m not entirely sure what ‘wisdom’ I’m supposed to glean from these little pearls.

She can be snarky too. My wife was busy today so I took the little one to swimming lessons. Since I’ve not done it in a while, I said to her, ‘You’ll have to tell me what to do.’

From the back of the car, this sarcastic little voice replied, ‘You get in the water…and then you swim.’

Gee, thanks.

She can also be rather creepy at times. The other day she came up to me and, out of the blue, said, ‘Daddy, please may me have a knife?’

‘What on earth do you want a knife for?’

‘Nothing. Me have one?’

She’s two, for God’s sake!

Just as bad was when we were out driving. She suddenly said, ‘Daddy, me wearing pants or a nappy?’

‘Pants.’

‘Oh. Okay.’

And then an ominous silence.

‘Do you need the toilet?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she replied. That was one uncomfortable car journey, I can tell you!

But then, I guess there was one positive thing she did this week. For the umpteenth time while bathing my daughter, my wife asked for help putting the baby to bed, so I snapped, ‘For crying out loud, just give her her dummy like I’ve said fifteen times already.’

My daughter looked up at me, subdued, and whispered, ‘You mean to mummy.’

‘No, I wasn’t being mean, I was…okay, maybe I was being a little mean.’

‘You say sorry to mummy.’

And she wouldn’t let it rest until I had apologised. And she was right.

So maybe we can learn some things from our children. As a general rule, however, I think I’ll be happier not taking guidance on how to live my life from someone who, this evening while sitting on the toilet, was sobbing because, ‘Me not like poo coming out of my bottom!’

Not exactly worthy of the Dalai Lama, is it?

Lies, cunning and manipulation, toddler-style

I was having a bath late last night, the whole house closed up and asleep, when I heard little footsteps padding across the carpet in my toddler’s room. I sat up and stared at her bedroom door, watched as the handle slowly lowered, careful to avoid the squeak, until it was fully down. There was a moment’s pause, and then the door started to move, inching open, achingly slow. A rod of darkness appeared, became a column, and wider still, right up until the moment my gruff daddy voice broke the spell with ‘What’s the matter, Izzie?’

Silence. Nothing moved.

The handle was still down, so she was just on the other side of the door in the dark, frozen in silence. I waited, and neither of us breathed. I wondered what she was thinking – you could practically hear the cogs whirring around inside her head.

And then slowly, achingly slow, the door started to close again. Little by little the column became the rod again, and less. I watched as it pressed quietly up against the jamb, the handle edging upwards past the squeak until it was once more horizontal, and she was gone without a word, if ever she was there in the first place. It was as though I’d been visited by a ghost in the night.

Or maybe, she was just pissed it was me in the bath and not her mummy.

Watching a two-and-a-half year old working out how the world works, and her place within it, is a fascinating experience. Whether it’s cause and effect, strategic planning, or human social relationships, she approaches them sometimes with an awareness bordering on prodigy status, and sometimes like a donkey trying to pin a tail on itself.

She has a good understanding of the hierarchy in our house. Nowadays, her mother is pretty-much a playmate who lets her stay up late at night, draw on her face, and get away with almost anything, while I’m the authority figure who puts her to bed, straps her into the car seat and makes her finish her cereal before she can have yoghurt – hence why when she heard it was me in the bath and not her mother, she crept back into bed instead of continuing out onto the landing.

So, since she recognises me as the highest authority, she goes to her mummy for a yes, and me only when that fails. Like the other day when she went up to her mother and said, ‘Me have choc-choc biscuit?’ and when my wife said no, she came and asked me.

‘No,’ my wife repeated, whereupon my daughter turned to her and said, ‘Shush, mummy, me talking to daddy. Daddy, me have some?’

But acknowledging I’m in charge doesn’t stop her trying it on, however. Like when I was bathing her the other night, and asked my wife to watch her a moment when I settled the baby. That done, I returned to the bathroom, my wife left, and I said to my daughter, ‘Right, let’s get you out and ready for bed.’

‘But mummy said ten minutes.’

‘Did she, now? Mummy!’ I shouted. ‘Did you tell her she could stay in the bath another ten minutes?’

‘No, I said she’d be getting out as soon as you got back.’

‘Righty-ho.’

It’s not exactly difficult to see through her, especially when she says, ‘But you said…’ and I know damn well that I didn’t.

Her new strategy is just as transparent. If I’m in the kitchen and she’s in the lounge and I tell her not to do something, she comes up to me and says, ‘Me close the door, you not see,’ pushes it closed, and goes right back to what she was doing, as though out of sight is out of mind. She doesn’t yet understand that if I can’t see something, it doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s there.

But that’s not to say she’s not a good strategist – on the contrary, she shows impressive forward planning. The other day, when I was in the baby’s room trying to get her to sleep, I saw my toddler’s door swing open and a pillow fly out over the stair gate onto the landing. The sounds of struggling within, and then a foot appeared over the top of the gate, a pair of hands, a little head.

‘What are you doing?’ I barked, striding onto the landing, and she froze halfway. She’d got her suitcase out of the cupboard, dragged it over to the door, propped it against the stair gate and climbed on top of it…but not before dropping down a pillow to soften her landing.

She said nothing, just slowly drew her foot back over, climbed down off the suitcase, dragged it inwards, and closed the door behind her. If she’d been a cartoon villain, she’d have clicked her fingers and said, ‘Foiled. And I’d have made it, too, if it hadn’t been for my pesky dad.’

She never came back to claim the pillow.

But she has one sure fire weapon in her arsenal that she uses on a daily basis – the need to do a wee. It’s amazing how often she needs a wee when she is sitting on the naughty step, wants to get down from the dinner table, or has just been told to tidy up her toys. I guess she knows that letting her sit there and wet herself, getting it all over the chairs and carpet, is something we won’t risk, because we can’t tell whether it’s genuine or a ruse. It’s the only tool she has to get her own way, and it works.

So imagine her surprise next time, when she discovers we won’t let her get her own way. We can’t let her think the threat of wetting yourself is a good strategy for life – you’re not going to get that promotion if you walk into your boss’s office and say, ‘Give me the job, or I’ll make a little puddle in this chair.’ And if she does wet herself? Well – there’s always soap and water for that.

Debating a two-year-old

Why have you emptied the cupboard onto the kitchen floor? No, don’t walk away. Come back. Don’t hide in that cupboard. Are you listening to me? Izzie? Come out of there. Come out or you’re on the naughty step.

‘Okay, daddy.’

Right. Good. Why are you sticking out your bottom lip? That’s better. Now, come here, I want to talk to you.

Leave the water bottle alone. I said leave it alone.

This broken.

It’s not broken.

This broken, daddy.

Don’t change the subject. Come here. The count of three. One, two…

Good. Stop sticking out your bottom lip. Now, why did you empty all the baking tins out of the cupboard when mummy told you not to?

‘Mffmffjmmmt.’

You have to open your mouth when you speak.

‘Mffmffjmmmt.’

No, you have to open your mouth. I know you’re capable of talking because you’ve been doing it all day. So tell me why you emptied the cupboard, and this time, open your mouth when you talk.

Muh huh bluh muh nuh juh bluh.’

That isn’t any better. Think about what you want to say and then say it. Why did you empty the cupboard when mummy told you not to?

‘Me sit in my chair.’

Fine, sit in your chair. Then tell me why there are baking tins all over the floor. No, look at me. Why are you sticking out your bottom lip again? That’s better. Now. Why did you disobey your mummy?

‘Mmf luff juh buh muh Daisy.’

Only one word of that was in English. What about Daisy?

My friend Daisy.’

I know she’s your friend. What’s that got to do with this?

‘Mmf luff juh buh tell me.’

Daisy told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

When did she tell you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yesterday.’

You haven’t seen Daisy for a week. Are you lying to me?

‘No.’

Lying is naughty.

‘Me lying.’

So Daisy didn’t tell you to empty it?

‘No.’

Then why did you empty it?

‘Mummy tell me.’

Your mummy told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

The person who told you not to empty the cupboard told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

Are you lying to me again?

‘Yes.’

So why did you empty the cupboard all over the floor? Suck in that bottom lip. Do you know why you emptied the cupboard?

‘No, me not know why.’

Well, at least you’re honest. When mummy tells you not to do something, don’t do it, okay?

‘Okay, daddy. Me go in my playroom now?’

No, let’s pick these all up off the floor and put them back in the cupboard, please.

‘Daddy do it.’

No, you made the mess so you can tidy it up.

‘Me want daddy do it.’

And me want holiday, but we don’t always get what we want.

‘Me not want holiday.’

Then you’re in luck. Now, please put all of these baking tins back in the cupboard.

‘Mummy do it.’

No, mummy’s not going to do it. Where’s this bottom lip thing come from?

‘Me need a toilet.’

Do you really need the toilet or are you trying to get out of clearing up?

‘Me need a wee-wee. Me not wear a nappy, me not wee-wee in my pants.’

Fine. Come on, let’s go sit on the potty.

‘You not look at my wee-wee.’

I won’t look at your wee-wee. Come on, take your trousers down, and your pants, there you go.

‘You not listen, daddy.’

I won’t listen. There. Are you doing anything?

‘No. Me not need a toilet.’

Goddamnit. Okay, stand up then. That’s it. Pull your pants up, and your trousers. There, all done.

‘Me play in my playroom now?’

No, you’re going to tidy up first.

‘Why?’

Because I said so. No, don’t sigh at me.

‘Me not want to tidy things, daddy.’

Why not?

‘Me naughty.’

Well, don’t be naughty.

Why?’

Because it’s not nice.

‘Me not want to tidy.’

Look, how about this – if you put the baking tins away, I’ll come in your playroom with you.

‘Okay.’

Thank God. Okay, that’s one. No, leave the water bottle alone.

‘This broken.’

It’s not broken, it’s meant to be like that. Now, put the baking tins away before I scream.

‘Daddy sad?’

No, daddy isn’t sad.

‘Daddy cry?’

No, daddy isn’t going to cry.

‘Daddy cry. Do it. Do it now.’

Wait, you want daddy to cry?

‘Yes. On my birthday and mummy’s birthday.’

Why would you want me to cry on your birthday?

‘You always do.’

What? You’ve completely lost me now.

‘Me play in my playroom with daddy?’

Put them away, and then I’ll play with you. I said don’t sigh at me.

‘Why?’

Because…oh for crying out loud, I’ll put one away and you put one away, how’s that? Okay?

‘Okay, daddy.’

Okay, good. Here, that’s one. Now it’s your turn. It’s your turn. Pick that one up. That one right there. Where I’m pointing. Where I’m pointing, look.

‘Me not see it.’

Okay, now you’re just mucking me about.

‘Me not see anything.’

Right, that’s it. Straight to bed with no supper. Come on, up to bed.

‘No, me not go to bed. Me not tired. Me busy.’

With what?

‘Me got to put things in the cupboard.’

I know. I know you do. I told you to do it. Ten minutes ago. Ten minutes. You’re driving me insane, child, insane. Do you understand?

‘Daddy want a cuddle?’

Aaaaaaaawaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!

Between a Baby and a Little Girl: The Joys of Ageing

As the father of a four-month-old and a two-year-old, I’m currently caught between two extremes. I have a child who needs carrying everywhere, feeding, dressing, changing, soothing, nurturing and supporting, and a child who is Miss Independent, insisting she walk everywhere, feed herself, dress herself, use the big toilet, and do whatever she wants, whenever she wants, without parental supervision. Unfortunately, I’m only talking about one child: my eldest daughter Izzie.

I’m constantly reminded of that Britney Spears song, ‘I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.’ For my daughter, it’s more like, ‘I’m not a baby, not yet a girl, because I don’t want to be either, except when I do.’ Which makes parenting her a bit of a nightmare at the moment.

One minute she’s refusing to wear a nappy because ‘me not a baby, daddy,’ bragging to her friends that ‘me wearing Peppa Pig pants!’ and using the toilet because she’s far too grown up for the potty; and the next, she’s screaming because she isn’t wearing a nappy, refuses to wear pants, and won’t go on anything because ‘me not a big girl!’

Four months ago she started to make representational art forms – a wooden brick airplane with wings and a tail – yet one day last week she assured me she didn’t know how to walk. She’s caught in that awful netherworld of identity between the easy, dependent life of an infant and the scarier, independent world of the little girl.

It’s obvious why – she sees her baby sister getting the attention and monopolizing our time and she wants the same for herself, but she also wants to play with her friends, do her own thing, and have some control over her life. Sure, it’d be nice to keep her a baby, but as she gets older it’s inevitable that she’ll have to leave that world behind.

Which her younger sister Rosie is doing right now. The first three months are sometimes called ‘The Fourth Trimester’ because you have a child that is little different from a baby in the womb, only you have to feed it and change it as it doubles in size and keeps you awake at night. But around three months she suddenly started to become interested in the world. She gurgles and snorts, smiles and laughs, and squawks like a cockatoo. Loudly. All blooming day.

And she’s become mobile. She rolls from her front to her back, from her back to her side, and, a couple of days ago, mastered reaching and grabbing hold of objects and steering them into her mouth – my necklace, my glasses, my beard. And that helpless little baby is now well on her way to a P60 and National Insurance payments.

It’s a confusing time. You want to tell them to slow it down, to accept who they are at this stage of their lives. You want to tell them to keep their fear of the dark because life is more exciting that way, and to hang onto their beliefs in a world bereft of magic. You want to tell them to stop wishing it all away.

But I remember being five years old in reception class at school, desperate to be older. I remember feeling powerless and small and longing to be autonomous and as big as the sky. I told the dinner lady, and she said that when I was older, I’d wish to be young again. I didn’t believe her. Who would want to be young? So I know my daughters won’t listen to a word I say, will only see the benefits of getting older and not what they’re leaving behind, even as we parents pine for the youth we lost.

But maybe they’re right after all. As a society, we glamorise youth and villify ageing – innocence and beauty and purity don’t have grey hair and wrinkles and saggy bottoms. We seem to spend our lives longing for some mythical time when we were happier and had it all in front of us. But why do we always define ageing by what we’ve lost instead of by what we’ve gained? Experience, stability, stature. A wealth of knowledge and the wisdom to wield it.

Instead of seeing ageing as decay, why don’t we see it through the eyes of our children, as a natural progression towards the people we want to be? Because each day we are becoming more, not less. Each day we are gaining, not losing. Ageing is not the enemy – it’s our perception of ageing, of what it means, that makes us suffer.

So whatever age you find yourself, embrace it. You are exactly the age you’re meant to be, and the features of that age are beautiful and yours to own – even hair loss and premature ejaculation. And that wonderful time long ago when we were happy to be young?

It never actually happened.

Fifty things you should NEVER say to a parent…

…unless you want your eyes scratched out, especially if you don’t have kids of your own (N.B. these have all been said to me in the last month or so).

  1. She’s quite chunky, isn’t she?
  2. I think she’s had enough milk.
  3. Maybe you should change the formula she’s on.
  4. Well I think the Health Visitor’s wrong.
  5. I don’t trust NHS guidelines at all.
  6. You know dummies are bad for them, don’t you?
  7. Is that how you put her top on?
  8. Let me show you how you’re meant to do it.
  9. This is the way she prefers it.
  10. You should cook all her meals from scratch.
  11. You were up twice in the night? Well that’s not so bad.
  12. If I had kids, I’d be fine with the nights.
  13. Lack of sleep doesn’t bother me.
  14. What’s his name? He is a boy, right? Oh. What’s her name?
  15. I used to have a dog called that.
  16. He was only playing.
  17. He didn’t bite her that hard.
  18. It was her own fault for getting too close to him.
  19. It’s taught her an important lesson.
  20. Let’s not make a fuss about it.
  21. Everyone else’s children are potty-trained by now.
  22. Don’t make it an issue.
  23. She really ought to be potty-trained by now.
  24. It must be nice to sit around at home all day.
  25. Isn’t it about time you got back out to work?
  26. Having kids is no excuse for an untidy house.
  27. Why don’t I take them off your hands for a couple of hours so you can do some housework?
  28. When I have kids, I’m going to set aside an hour every day to clean.
  29. Looks like somebody has some ironing to do.
  30. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
  31. Well, you chose to be a parent.
  32. And you’ll have to keep doing this for the rest of your life.
  33. We’ve all been there, you don’t have to go on about it.
  34. Parents these days have no idea how easy they have it.
  35. When I had my kids I had nobody to help me.
  36. All this modern ‘naughty step’ rubbish.
  37. Smacking never did anyone any harm.
  38. You’re making a rod for your own back.
  39. You shouldn’t cuddle her so much.
  40. Did you see that great programme on TV last night?
  41. You really need to read this book.
  42. You look more tired every time I see you.
  43. I don’t remember you having all that grey in your beard.
  44. Why have you put on so much weight?
  45. It doesn’t get any easier.
  46. If you think this is hard, wait until…
  47. Don’t worry, they’ll be starting school in four years.
  48. You should value this time of your life.
  49. It goes by so quickly.
  50. Remember to enjoy every moment!

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.