The Boy in the Coffee Shop

Last weekend I watched a boy, aged about six, standing on the chair in my local coffee shop (Costa, if you’re wondering): his parents just let him stand there, calling out, and clearly disturbing other customers. Some people stared with open disapproval and muttered to their companions. Others – in true British style – pretended nothing was happening. I couldn’t help throwing glances in a wanting-to-watch-but-knowing-that’s-not-polite kind of way. I couldn’t help it: I saw the anxious look on his face, and found myself relating to every flinch, shiver, and sound he made. It reminded me of a previous visit when, as an experiment, I took off my headphones, and exposed myself to all the input – my autistic world of the coffee shop – and wrote it all down as it happened. This is what I wrote:

There are people talking and laughing, cups chinking, a spoon stirring in sugar, the waitress clashing plates together as she clears a table, chairs scraping on the floor, someone’s dropped something with a clatter, the door opens and closes, the cold air comes in – in contrast to the heat in here. If I look up, there’s a glare from the spotlights that hurts my eyes, and a glare from the window too. I can taste my last mouthful of coffee, even though I’ve swallowed it: I can feel the smoothness of the milk, the sweetness of the chocolate sprinkles, the bitterness of coffee. There’s a man two tables away with a tuna panini. It reeks, even though he’s sitting two tables away, and even though I like tuna – like “rose-scented” air-freshener, the smell is too strong to be pleasant; it’s too much. Someone’s mobile goes off DIDIDUDA…DIDIDUDA…DIDIDUDADI. The barista bangs the coffee holder BANG BANG BANG, he grinds more coffee URRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR, he froths the milk WHHHOOOOOOOOSSSSSHHHHH. A child is whingeing on the other side of the room, GRIIIIZZMMMWHAA. Someone opens a bottle of coke, FIIIZZZZZZZZZ. There’s hubub. There’s music. The woman at the table next to me is gesticulating as she tells a story to her friends, and I can’t keep her arms out of my peripheral vision; it’s distracting me, which annoys me because I’m trying to concentrate on writing this. This is why I sit in the corner – the other two sides of me are occupied by wall; they don’t move, talk, smell, or nudge their bags into my space. (You never catch me sitting in the middle of a public space.)

And this is just the physical external stimuli. What about the other stuff? I am feeling sad and grumpy about an earlier argument, and feeling inadequate because of the the proto-meltdown I had as a result. I’m stressing about a complicated work project – not because I can’t do it (I can), but because I haven’t done it yet. My knuckle hurts where I skinned it climbing last night and I have a rope burn on my arm, which is sore (it drew blood). My neck is stiff. There’s caffeine buzzing in my head, but I’m also slightly faint from low blood-sugar (I forgot to eat). And I’m tired.

All of this drags my attention. All of it all at the same time – or at least in the space of a few minutes, which is the same thing to me. It’s overwhelming – I don’t have time to process each input in turn, and I feel like I’m drowning in it; but with headphones on (to cut out the sound part), a bit of sensory-processing space is freed to enjoy those aspects of Costa I like: the colour-scheme on the chairs, the comfy sofas, the warmth, the pictures (which are comfortingly the same everywhere – so I don’t have to process them anew each time I go into a different shop), and most of all, the coffee – medium latte, with chocolate sprinkles – which I adore.

So when you encounter a “weird” boy (or girl) in your local coffee shop – standing on the chair being “disruptive” – take a closer look: Does he seem anxious? How does he respond to sudden noises? Could he be autistic? Perhaps his parents are not ignoring him, but supporting him – letting him manage in his own way until he can settle to the environment, which he did, given time. So, please consider congratulating them on his behaviour (I did), because he’s coping fantastically well.

©Leigh Forbes

Do You Have Asperger’s?

Probably, yes. Just asking the question, “do I have Asperger’s?” is a strong indicator you’re on the autistic spectrum in our opinion. You’ve obviously done some reading or been talking to people about it already. You’ve probably identified some typical autistic traits in your own behaviour (or you wouldn’t be asking the question). You might have read blog posts and articles by diagnosed aspies, and found yourself saying, “I do that…” or “that’s exactly how I feel,” or “this explains everything.”

You are no doubt asking the “do I have Asperger’s?” question because you need to convince someone that you’re autistic. In that case, self-diagnosis is not enough “proof” for many people or organsiations: government, health services, schools, and many other (but not all) official organisations are unable (or unwilling) to accept you as “autistic”, without a formal diagnosis. Friends and family might have a hard time (and give you a hard time) accepting your self-diagnosis; They don’t believe you are sufficiently qualified to make the judgement (whereas in my opinion, you are the best person to make that judgement); or, you might not accept your own judgement.

There is nothing wrong with wanting, or needing, a formal diagnosis, even if the only person you need to convince is yourself. There are many more articles on this site to help with understanding the process, and deciding if it’s the choice you want to make. I would also encourage you to join one or more online autism-group, talk to other autistic people, and read some more. You might decide you want a formal diagnosis in the end, or you might decide you’re happy with your own assessment. Both are okay.

Having said all this, some autistic people, or parents/carers of autistic people, will reject you if you’re not as “bad” as them/their child, or don’t have a formal diagnosis. So please know, at Life on the Spectrum, closely identifying with other autistic people is enough to count as autistic. You and your self-diagnosis are welcome here.

©Leigh Forbes

Related Content
» It’s Okay to Want a Diagnosis!”
» Think You Might Have Asperger’s?
» Asperger’s in Women
» Symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome (from an aspie perspective)
» The Triad of Impairments
» Diagnosis Stories
» Information about Online Tests
How do I get a diagnosis? (from the UK’s National Autistic Society)
The NHS Constistution (UK)


What’s Wrong with Labels?

People can’t help but label other people. Our fundamental labels of “friend” or “foe” are essential to basic survival, and the rest lead on from there. Subconsiously, we are asking ourselves “is this person going to hurt me?” or “is this person someone I want to become acquainted with?” or “is this person a potential partner?” In order to answer these questions, and calculate the potential threat-levels posed by other people (on all kinds of levels), we first work out how well they match with us: we look at their education, the way they speak, their ages, their clothes, their jobs, their interests, etc. And we label them in our minds. Ask anyone to describe the person sitting next to him, and he’ll say something like, “she’s thirty-something, brown hair, well dressed, middle manager…” or whatever. He can’t describe her (to himself or to other people) in any other way. He has to use labels.

The problem arises when people apply the wrong label. And I fall foul of this as much as anyone else: a mother at my children’s former school spoke in a particularly clipped manner, which I interpreted this as snobbery (the wrong label). I disliked her just for that reason. When someone told me she was foreign (the right label) – a fact that had been impossible to see through her impeccable English accent – my whole attitude towards her changed.

So, having said all that, some people worry that I allow myself to be defined by the “autistic label”. On the basis that I’ll never stop people sticking labels on me, I much prefer to be called “autistic” than all the other descriptives I’ve had stuck on me over the years.

So, there’s nothing wrong with labels, but there’s a awful lot wrong with the wrong labels.

Typical Autistic Characteristics How Society Choses to Label Them How Society Could Label Them
Uncoordinated cackhanded restricted proprioception
Keeping oneself to oneself unsociable private
Stimming retarded harmless
Doesn’t get the joke thick differently humoured
Laughs more loudly than others annoying gets your joke
Says the “wrong thing” rude mistaken
Identifies ways to improve critical useful
Doesn’t understand teasing oversensitive differently humoured
Prefers not to make eye contact guilty retiring
Likes routine and organisation awkward organised
Free thinking dissenting thinks outside the box
Keeps odd hours creepy polyphasic
Wears comfortable clothing scruffy self-caring
Interested in detail pernickety attentive
Uncertain of how to interact standoffish shy
Interested nosy interested
Trusting gullible trusting
Honest tactless trustworthy
Sticks to the rules dogmatic law-abiding
Keen to share ideas opinionated contributing
Happy to talk about interests boring sharing
Prone to anxiety weak has a lot going on
Likes to plan ahead fussy organised
Wary of others paranoid bullied
Hypersensitive to light/noise/etc. intolerant amazingly tolerant

Please help by not perpetuating negative terms, but by encouraging the positive terms instead.