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. But 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 mini 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. I’m tired. I’m hungry.

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. Without headphones on (to cut out the sound part), 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, 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 in every 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.

Climbing

Although I did a bit of bouldering as a student, I didn’t take up climbing again until 2010, and I wish I’d come back to it sooner – it has turned out to be so good for me and my inner aspie in so many ways:

Coordination
I can sew (apparently unusual for an aspie), and I can parallel park in the tiniest space, but I’m incapable of negotiating a doorway without sustaining injury; I have bruises on every limb, and no idea where they came from. When I climb, I’m forever scuffing my knuckles and elbows on the wall – which, by its nature, is abrasive – and it’s rare for me to get home without having drawn blood; but the desire to improve my balance and technical skill is the perfect motivator for accurate movement, and I find it incredibly rewarding to climb well.

Obsessiveness
There are few situations where being obsessive is a useful and socially acceptable asset, but belaying (basically: holding the other end of the rope) is one of them. Safe belaying requires you to do the same things, the same way, over and over again (from taking in the rope, to locking the carabina). Ultimately, your climbing partner’s life depends on you getting these details right. Knowing that my autistic traits are, for once, working to everyone’s advantage is rewarding too.

Concentration
There’s a lot of noise in my world: about 40% of it comes from outside, and can be drowned out with iPod + earphones; the remaining 60% comprises mostly random (sometimes obsessive) and frenetic thinking – inside my head, all the time – and is almost impossible to still (even when I’m asleep). At the club where I climb there is usually music to cover external noise, and the internal noise can be tamed by the need to pay close attention to what I am doing: it might sound trivial, but you need to know not just where all your hands and feet are at any given moment (sometimes to within millimeters), but where they need to be in two seconds’ time, and five seconds’ time… and so on – otherwise you’re off! I find it impossible to think about anything else when I’m climbing, and so the noise stops; regardless of how hard my muscles have to work, I can rest.

Exercise
Hauling your body off the ground can take a lot of energy and, when you’re hanging by your fingers, a lot of strength too; so climbing provides a good workout for both the cardiovascular system, and almost every muscle in your body! And, unlike some other sports, it’s not boring.

Socialisation
I can be around people without needing to be sociable. Apart from sorting out practicalities with my belaying mate, I don’t have to interact with others if I don’t want to; I can just do my own thing (climb the wall), and no one else has to care. (Yeah, it hurts when everyone – except me – is invited back somewhere at the end, but I’m used to that.)

Team Work
I did a 24h climbathon last weekend (a great excuse to drink lots of coffee), and between us we scaled 43,320m (that’s 150,000′ or 27 vertical miles) – the equivalent of seven of the world’s biggest mountains (the highest from each continent) stacked on top of one another. For once, not being a team player did not get in the way of contributing to a team effort. I liked that.

Anyone Can Climb
My youngest (who could climb out of her cot before she could walk) started wall climbing at the age of three, and is still loving it two years later. There are easy climbs and hard climbs. There are clubs and courses, and one-off tasters. Find your nearest UK climbing wall here!

Finally, it All Added Up

 
I didn’t do well at school, and I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. It wasn’t until after my diagnosis (at the age of forty), whilst reading the list of suggested professions in Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, that I finally realised what I could have been. I wished someone had suggested [I’ll tell you in a minute] when I was thirteen…

But back in 1983, I was taking a revolutionary careers-assessment test… on a computer! The idea was that this computer… thingy… (controlled by a specially trained operator) would assess your answers to pre-designed questions, chunter away for several days, then spit out what it thought would be your best career choice. I remember struggling with the questions – it was a load of nonsense as far as I could tell – and I could only mutter at the end that “I don’t want to work with people”, and “I quite like animals”. The answer? – I waited days for this – that I should be a animal-testing lab technician. I can tell you, it took me a long time to forgive computers for that.

So, after spectactularly failing to be a Customer Service Advisor for the Nationwide Anglia Building Society (how’s that for inappropriate?! Lasted 13mo – my only ever ‘proper’ job), an electrical-components assembler (16mo), a gardener (1yr), a groom (2yrs), a car mechanic (2yrs) – some of these concurrently – I knew what I didn’t want to be. I should have looked more closely at what I did with my spare time.

I had forgiven computers when I discovered The Spreadsheet. How could I not, when suddenly I could generate colourful, accurate, gorgeous tables and graphs of everything and anything, in an instant: from the progress of my diet, through kakuro tables, and on to tracking the kids’ temperatures during illnesses. It should have been obvious all along, but it took until I saw that one word in the back of Tony Atwood’s book… Statistician.

It wouldn’t have been an obvious choice at the age of thirteen; I hated maths at school, thanks to the singularly uninspired droning of a woman whose name I have mercifully forgotten: drone drone sine theta over drone divided by drone drone all to the power of drone drone drone. Enough to make you rip your ears off. The following year we had some bloke who wrote so quickly it was all I could do to catch the notes – as they came back under the bottom of the roller blackboard – before he wiped them off again. And wrote down some more. Never had time to actually listen.

So, with my youngest now at school, I started a part-time OU-degree last month (BSc in Maths & Stats), and am pleased to report that – having watched my kids in a sweet shop a few days ago – I am as happy as that. Perhaps it has become my new obsession, to spread out the workbooks, sharpen my pencil, and dive into linear recurrence sequences, but it’s been a long time since I felt this content. Now I have the pleasure of my own (silent) study, with the Venetian blind swivelled to ‘closed’. I have coffee (latte, with chocolate sprinkles, no sugar), and a supply of almond slices. The room is devoid of vicious boys trashing my stuff, and bitchy girls (stage) whispering behind my back. Speedy-writing man died many years ago, Mrs Drone* isn’t here, and no one will give me detention for forgetting my homework (again). All is calm, and I am finally loving my education.


*I remembered her name, and Googled it, finding this comment about her: “…she got me threw my O Level.” Says it all, really.

Why a Good Friend is Like a Good Cup of Coffee

 
Having been brought up on a diet of instant coffee and bullies, I disliked both coffee and people. There was never any point giving either of them a second chance; why bother when you know you’re going to hate the experience? Besides, before I could ever try (or retry) anything new, I had to understand how it worked… in meticulous detail, and neither coffee nor people seemed worth the effort.

So I wish I could remember what peculiar circumstance took me out of my comfort zone and into Costa for the first time. The discovery that there existed something other than Nescafé transformed me from a tea-shop-bourgeois to a coffee-bar-chick. It was a happy occasion, and just reward for my bravery. (Oddly though, and despite my now-renowned love of the stuff, it took until today’s barista treated me to an impromptu latte-making lesson, that I realised I’ve never needed to understand the process to enjoy the coffee.)

People have taken me a little longer.

I had long-since got as far as realising that I don’t really hate people, per se. It was my inability to make sense of how they work that rattled me. I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of a blueprint or data-table to reveal the hidden workings of human interaction; there is nothing tangible for me to dismantle, inspect and put back together. If only people were more like coffee machines, I could understand them better, and perhaps be more trusting.

My aspie diagnosis was my Costa moment: it has enabled me to realise that the people I love are not just those who profess to understand me, but those whom I don’t feel the need to understand – people I can let be without having to know every detail of their every motive. It’s like not just letting someone else drive, but being able to shut your eyes while they do it: unnerving to begin with, but so much more relaxing once you get used to it… a bit like your first taste of good coffee after a lifetime of granules.

Uniforms

 
I went to a Macmillan coffee morning on Friday, which was bizarre enough in itself, but the thing that stood out most, in that country house, with its stone-flagged kitchen floor and fine stairwell, was….er… me.

Having just returned from a week in the hills, I was still favouring my Scotland kit: walking boots, a (bright green) waterproof jacket and a pair of cleanish jeans. Everyone else was wearing designer clothes, perfect hair/nails and names like Felicity. I have a lot else in common with these women, but I didn’t cut the mustard in my semi mountain garb; they didn’t recognise me as a middle class, middle-aged, country-dwelling mother, but rather as some tramp who had wondered in off the Downs. Despite knowing half of them by name, no one spoke to me. The coffee was good though.

Conversely, if I’d turned up to Corrour Bothy last weekend with anything other than a pair of Zamberlains (or similar), hair awry and broken nails, they’d have thought I’d taken a wrong turning at the carpark (the souvenir shops are ten miles the other way).

I confess I felt a little at odds while searching for a friend amongst last month’s Thunder in the Glen gathering (Harley Davidsons R Us). Despite being a biker myself (Moto Guzzi), and being in a pub I know well and love, I didn’t fit; I was wearing the wrong uniform. But I didn’t mind. Besides, bikers are much nicer than the snobby-mothers brigade.

I feel all right in my ten-quid jeans and a pair of boots. I’ve tried and failed to smarten myself up over the years, invariably reverting to my own uniform, that one that says “ME” and the one in which I feel most comfortable. I reckon if people don’t like that, I probably didn’t want to talk to them anyway!