Getting Down to Detail

In his book, “Language: the Cultural Tool” Daniel Everett writes,

We can understand information [as] … all the things there are to talk about. It is perhaps infinite. But culture and circumstance will severely restrict what might be said in a particular exchange between two people … human cultures narrow the things there are to talk about and keep the flow of information manageable.

Is this what we autistic people don’t see, or don’t need? This restriction on conversation topics? It’s what costs us friendships (albeit with the wrong kinds of people – those who never really liked us in the first place), and stops us making social connections; because we talk “too much”, and/or about the “wrong” things. We obviously don’t have this cultural “information filter”. But is that really such a bad thing?

I have my own interests, those “hobbies” psychologists so patronisingly like to call “special interests”, but I’m generally interested in a much wider range of topics than other people, and can be interested in almost anything… but only as long as it contains detail. For example, I’m quite happy talking about the weather, but if the conversation doesn’t quickly move on from nice-for-the-time-of-year-isn’t-it to dew points and adiabatic lapse-rates (or whatever), I’ll get bored. Skirting about on the surface of a topic is so dull! I could listen all day to a meteorologist, or a rare-breeds sheep farmer, or an art historian – anyone passionate about their subject, and willing to talk about it – to discuss the detail… to provide that “restricted information”. But find someone like this at a party – the chap who “only talks about honey badgers” – and he’s called THE BORE? Not fair! I’d go to more parties if only they were full of people willing to talk dirty detail with me.

I love other people’s passion in their subjects; but although asking newly-met people what they do for a living is a socially acceptable question (resulting in a socially acceptable response), asking them what their job actually entails, on a day-to-day basis, elicits raised eyebrows and awkward foot-shifting. Why is that? People are said to be at their happiest when talking about themselves, but asking them about what they actually do is considered too personal – that is, unless you’ve known them for a while (a “while” being hours, days, or weeks – and somehow you’re supposed to know which). Ask someone about the details of their job, and they blush and bluster, and say, “it’s all a bit boring really.” But it rarely is.

In some ways, autistic people are much more socially adept: we don’t spend our lives as slaves to social etiquette, trawling through the standard (acceptable) “levels” of conversation, before being allowed to get down to detail – the place where people make connections and build real friendships.

©Leigh Forbes

Dear Teachers…

Some years ago, I entrusted my only son, my firstborn and my friend, to another woman. Let’s call her Mrs D. She was the first teacher I had encountered as a parent, and I had no idea what to expect. I knew teachers deserved respect, and I determined I would not be a “problem parent” like my mother. I would let Mrs D get on with her job without interfering.

It was a small school – part of what attracted me to it, only three class teachers, plus classroom assistants, and a headmistress: all women, most in their late forties or fifties. Motherly, I thought, if not grandmotherly. How nice for the small boy; he never knew a grandmother. I needn’t worry about a thing.

He loved his first two weeks, appearing beside my bed dressed in his uniform at 7am every morning. He bounded out of class at the end of each day, full of what he’d been doing and the fun he’d been having. After a couple of weeks, the novelty began to wear off, but I’d prepared for that, and chivvied him along, asking him every day what was the best thing that happened. By Christmas, he was answering “lunchtime”. Then he started talking about being “bored”, and being “told off” at lot. Next I heard he’d been kept in at break time for “not completing his work”. He’s five, I thought, not fifteen. I spoke to Mrs D, but she said he had to finish his work. I shrugged it off. What did I know about class discipline? But more and more things began to niggle me: he started calling himself “useless”, and saying his work was “rubbish”. Then, at the end of his second term, he came out with “I hate school”. This was enough to break my heart, and I began to worry. Perhaps I should go into school and say something. But I didn’t want to cause a scene. I didn’t want my child to suffer because he had a “problem parent”. Hell, I knew how that felt.

So, distressed, I watched from the sidelines as Mrs D spent three years destroying my son’s confidence. She taught him phonics, maths, and phrases like “what’s the point?” I, the child of my own aspie mother (who never gave a second thought to marching into school and making my life hell by proxy), was torn. I didn’t know what to do.

Mrs M, whose class he moved into next, was a good teacher. A nice woman too. I liked her. The small boy liked her. But still there was something missing; he would come home saying he kept getting told off, but didn’t know why. I spoke to the SENCO about autism – her reply? “I’ve seen a lot of children with autism, and I can assure you, your son’s not one of them”. I had no answer. I’d only been recently diagnosed myself, and I didn’t want to cause a fuss. So nothing changed. Meanwhile, I watched while Mrs D began to destroy the small girl’s confidence too, and with my even smaller girl due to start the following autumn, I knew I had to do something.

After facing up to the agonies of a change I didn’t have to make, I got the smaller girl on to the reception-class intake-list for another school, and her sister (desperate to stay together) won a place on that basis. Mrs M persuaded me to leave the small boy with her; he’d grown up with his classmates, she said. They all knew his little ways (not that he’s autistic or anything). He was “doing well”. I gave in. I always was a sucker for guilt-trip tactics.

The girls flourished at the new school, and within a term it became obvious my son needed to be there too. I reconsidered Mrs M’s remark about him having grown up with his classmates… but actually he’d been through toddler group and preschool with the kids at his sisters’ school – he would have friends to welcome him. It could be done. To minimise the disruption, I wanted to leave it until the end of the academic year, but a place became available after Easter, and I had to jump. Stressful? I can’t begin to tell you!

He had seven terms at that school, and although we had little dips and bumps along the way, the two teachers who taught him gave him the confidence to aspire, to be himself. And by validating his autism, accepting him, and managing his issues without needing to apportion blame, they gave me the confidence to stick up for him. He’s now approaching the end of his first term at secondary school (where the SENCO said his autism was so obvious she didn’t need him to have a diagnosis to be on the special-needs register), and is continuing to develop his self-reliance, his responsibility, his confidence.

So, to Miss P and Mr R, I want to thank you. Between you, you rescued my son from a pit of academic despair and managed to prepare him for secondary school in only two years. It brings tears to my eyes to think of the change you worked on him. The work you gave him was harder, the challenges greater, yet in those two years, he often came home from school enthusing about what “a great day” he’d had. You inspired him to learn – which is all a parent can ask. You also took on his autism with a fearless calm. His oddness was not a problem for you, and you spoke gently to me about any issues there were. You didn’t make me feel like I was making it all up; you helped me to help him. As a result of all this, he is not only coping at secondary school, he’s doing well. And I sincerely thank you for that.

©Leigh Forbes


About Being Bullied, by Anon

The author of this post is a reader of this blog, who has asked to remain anonymous.

Taking the bullying survey came as something of a shock to me. I know I was bullied at school, but I hadn’t realised the extent to which bullying has been part of my whole life.

As a child I was bullied both physically and psychologically by my parents. I am a child of the 70s so smacking was just part of life for pretty much every child I knew. I do clearly remember one occasion though in which the level of violence seemed extreme: I would have been 8 or 9, and my mother administered a slap to the top of my leg. As I was stood in the bath having my hair washed at the time, the combination of wet skin and hard slap left a clear hand shaped welt mark for quite some time. I think the level of violence shocked me more than anything because of my nakedness – I was utterly defenceless.

When I was very young, maybe 3, I was having the mother of all meltdowns, so my dad thought putting me in my nightdress, under a cold shower would snap me out of it. I presume the shock must have worked. Funnily enough I have a strong aversion to baths and showers, and have to force myself to have them, even now as an adult.

My uncle told me that he had to rescue me from the understairs cupboard which my mother had locked me in, on at least one occasion. I was very small then, and have no memory of it. I do though suffer from claustrophobia, but bizarrely, find comfort in times of distress from squeezing myself into small, dark corners.

I have been bullied by other family members over the years too. My maternal grandmother was a particularly unpleasant woman, she felt it perfectly acceptable to never get my name right and to make very nasty comments about my physical appearance and my character on a regular basis.

Two of my uncles thought it was hilarious to make me the butt of their jokes at family gatherings.

One of my cousins delighted in taking the mickey out of me in front of her friends and enjoyed excluding me from their clubs and games, even though this clearly distressed me.

School wasn’t ever a great place to be, I was teased because of my unusual name, as well as the physical features on my face that made me a prime target as soon as I was looked at.

We moved a lot, and each new school experience brought more of the same. I always made one or two good friends, usually other outsiders or the class underdog who I often felt it was my duty to befriend, support and protect.

At secondary school things became much worse. My parents had decided to send me to boarding school, and when this became common knowledge I was a snob, stuck up etc etc. Of course I deserved to be chased home from school with the threat of a good beating; to have my tormentors shout abuse from outside my home after school; to have to watch my back and close my ears to the abuse that was hurled at me day after day at school. My good friend at the time, who my mother thought was a bad influence as she lived on a council estate and had a father in prison, went out of her way every day to take me to school and back, affording me a degree of protection. The school never once tried to stop any of this.

I didn’t want to go to boarding school, and tried everything I could to get out of going. On the morning of my entrance exam I refused to get out of bed, so my father physically pulled me out of bed, ripping my thumb in the process. I still have the scar. Trying to deliberately fail the entrance exam didn’t work, and so I was packed off to be a termly boarder, despite only living 20 miles away, and having the offer of a lift home every weekend from another parent. No, my mother had been trying to pack me off since I was 7, so there was no way she was going to lose the opportunity to be rid of me for the longest period of time possible.

School was horrible. My accent was wrong, my looks, my personality, the same old same old, only this time with added class war. I was left alone in the dormitory at weekends as my room ‘mates’ were invited home with their weekly
boarder friends for fun and adventure, all of which they filled me in on in glorious, crowing, technicolour detail on their return.

Eventually, as so often happens, the bullied became the bully, although I wasn’t very good at it, and after being given my one and only telling off by the headmistress, I stopped, and didn’t become a repeat offender. Instead I grew a thick shell, and became known as a cold bitch instead.

My first boyfriend was a bully – sexually, physically and psychologically – I didn’t think I deserved any better. I had already been sexually abused at a party, which again I felt I deserved – I was so socially inept that I drank myself stupid, was too scared to ask where the toilet was and vomited where I sat. I was taken to the bathroom and cleaned up by the host, who then took me to her parents room to sleep it off. I remember coming round to find someone’s fingers inside me, then promptly passed out. At 13 a family friend had tried to have sex with me whilst his sister was in the room and our parents were downstairs, thankfully he was pretty easy to push off, physically, but that same person has, over the years, played mind games with me on a huge scale, and yet I still find myself desperate for his approval and affection.

Once school was over the world of work beckoned. I didn’t fair so well there either, my poor executive functioning got me into trouble on several occasions and a personality clash with a senior member of staff left me sidelined, belittled, mocked and berated on an all too regular basis.

I left home and moved in with my boyfriend at 17. His mum was lovely to me, and I couldn’t believe how different a family could be. Unfortunately the relationship developed problems, and we both started to veer dangerously close to violence out of frustration with our inability to communicate effectively. We managed to stay friends though, and he has been a positive influence in my life in many ways.

Work continued to be difficult for me – I cannot abide injustice, and have walked out of two jobs in protest at how poorly others were treated. Sadly I have never experienced that same kind of support in return. Eventually I grew up a little and realised that shit happens and sometimes you just have to put up with it. That attitude saw me stay in a job in which I was sexually abused on an almost daily basis, by my boss and some customers, for nearly 7 years. Yay me!

My mother continued to deal out psychological bullying, even once I became a mother and a wife. Eventually I had enough, and just short of my 30th birthday I stopped communication with her. As a result my father attempted to get my aunty and uncle, who were the only relatives who supported me, to stop talking to me so that I would be all alone and have to see sense! During that period I had several letters from relatives telling me what an awful person I was, how my parents had only ever done their best for me, and that I was an ungrateful brat who was clearly in the midst of some kind of mental breakdown. I don’t believe that to be true, but only because of the support of several people who have known me well for a long time, and have witnessed my mother’s behaviour towards me first hand, were it not for them I think I would believe it was all my fault.

I met someone who I thought was a good friend during this period, but unfortunately things didn’t work out so well. She thought it perfectly acceptable to ostracise me from the ‘community’ I belonged to – telling people I was a liar, a fraud and countless other stories, all of which were false. A few people stuck by me, but many told me privately that it was easier for them to side with her. One person who kept up a friendship with me on the quiet, was, when found out, also ostracised as a lesson, which affected her daughter’s friendships. She was very apologetic, but had to think of what was best for her child, so that friendship was, to all intent and purpose, ended because of a vindictive, insecure bully.

It hasn’t stopped there. But to be honest, it’s too depressing to go on. I have been intellectually bullied and derided for having strong morals and opinions. I have been sexually bullied just because I was an easy target. I have been psychologically and physically bullied by those who were supposed to love and protect me. Is it any wonder I prefer not to allow myself to get close to people? That I shut myself off the instant I find myself feeling that a pattern I have lived with for as long as I can remember is starting to be repeated?

My husband says that people probably don’t mean what I take them to mean, that it is more likely that I feel harsh intent because I have become so used to experiencing it and so can’t see anything else. I’m torn between thinking he has a point and wanting to scream that it is not just me being ‘overly sensitive’ again.

The biggest problem though is my internal bully. There is no escape from her, and as she loves to echo the insults, torments and failings that have plagued me my whole life, ultimately there is no escape from any of the people who found (and still find) me to be such a nuisance, so unworthy of kindness or thoughtful consideration.

I have considered explaining to my estranged family that I have Aspergers, in the hope of some understanding, but I can only see it being used as another stick to beat me with, so I remain silent, as always, and let people think the worst of me.

Related content:
» Bulling, Abuse, & Autism: a survey
» Asperger’s in Women
» Think you might have Asperger’s syndrome?”


Online Tests for Asperger’s syndrome

Having once been through the agonies of wondering if I were “aspie enough,” I’ve written a brief article about online tests, in particular the Rdos test. I’ve included a number of Rdos graphs to illustrate how varied results can be, even amongst formally diagnosed aspies. I’ve also included a neurotypical graph, to show just how different it looks on the same scale!

The page is here: Online Tests.

One Giant Leap

I was thirty years old, and had done a lot of walking in the past, but standing at the start of the Coire an t-Sneachda path, facing the true wildness of the Cairngorm mountains for the first time, my confidence deserted me. This was big. This was serious. And like a frightened rabbit, I Couldn’t Do It.

In the ranger station, the log sheet recorded routes of those who had braved the tops that day. Oh, how I admired those magical folk who could make such a giant leap onto the summits, while I bottled a low-level walk into the coire. The ranger laughed, saying, “go, you’ll be fine,” and I found myself trusting him, even though he knew nothing about me or my experience. Unlike my own, I felt his judgement worthy of respect, and it was as though he’d given me permission to go. So I went. To my surprise, I survived. Heady with success, I wanted to do it again… and again. And again.

Twelve years on, I hike into much remoter areas than Coire an t-Sneachda. Places where mobile signals are like hen’s teeth, and I won’t see another soul for the duration. I must be totally self-reliant, knowing both what I can do, and what I can’t do: what gradients I can and cannot tackle; what river level is safe to cross and what is not; what weather conditions will compromise my route. These limits continue to grow as I push myself onwards, one small step at a time.

It seems odd now to think of that frightened rabbit on her first day in the big hills; these days, I’ll stroll into Sneachda just to take the air. I’ve done it so many times now, in all weathers, and I don’t need permission from the ranger any more. But that first walk was my first small step, on which many subsequent small steps have been built. Now, that frightened rabbit has become one of the magical folk, having turned experience to self-confidence, and many small steps into one giant leap.


Coire an t-Sneachda, 16th May 2012

Hello, my name’s Leigh, and I’m an…

 
I’m an aspie. There, I said it.

It was on the 16th November 2010, at 1.05pm, when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
I cried.
It was a life-changing moment, but also a (albeit, harrowing) confirmation of a long-held suspicion, and not a surprise.

It has been a surprise for many others, though – those who don’t know me. “Well, it is a spectrum,” they say. “You obviously don’t have it very badly.”

They wouldn’t last five minutes inside my head.

From the age of three I’ve known I was different, and that I didn’t want to be. As I grew up, I studied body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and everything else that goes along with ‘being normal’. I convinced myself that if I just worked at it hard enough, I could be like everyone else. I got quite good, didn’t I?

The trouble is, the more skilled I became at pretending (which is all it could ever be), the more people expected me to behave ‘normally’. As I mastered increasingly subtle ways of interacting (you lot have no idea how complex a conversation is, and on how many levels), it became harder and harder for me to keep up. I became exhausted. Long term, chronically tired. Which is why I finally had to know.

Knowing is good, of course – it has to be – but, remembering that I’ve dedicated my whole life to being accepted into your world, having the door slammed and locked in my face is… well, it’s been a bit upsetting.

It took me two weeks to stop crying. I went through denial, bargaining, anger… I raged at everyone: the people at my school/university, for making my life hell – peers and staff alike (note to VJ: You bullied the autistic kid. How big d’you feel now?); my parents, for their attempts to correct me with ‘discipline'; and everyone else around me for having what I wanted. I’m through that now. You’re fine. (Please scratch anything I said/wrote to the contrary in recent weeks. Thanks.)

I’m calmer now, and can forgive myself for so many things: I’m not a failure; I’m not a crybaby; I’m not a fusspot; I’m not rude or uncaring, a stubborn little madam, or any one of a myriad of confidence-destroying labels. I’m an aspie.

Learning all about what makes an aspie is like a homecoming, and reading Tony Attwood’s Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, is like reading a Haynes manual for Being Me. I wish I’d read it thirty years ago. I wish my parents and teachers had read it… Anyway, I’ve decided. I’d rather be a happy aspie, than an miserable impostor.

So when I talk to much, don’t get your jokes, object to being teased, want the music turned down, wander off by myself, or whatever… please understand I’m not being awkward, I’m being me. I hope you’re okay with that.

I am.