In many ways I was an easy child.
One of three brothers, I was bright, well behaved and happy in my own company. But I was unusually calm and observant; unmoved by drama or emergencies. Once, when I was five, I noticed our babysitter was nudging the rug on the floor closer and closer to our fire. I didn’t panic or mention it; I just calmly made the situation safe and moved the rug out of harm’s way.
A similar thing happened when I was 11. My brother was in a canoe out at sea and it capsized. He couldn’t right it because of the waves rolling in. Without a word, I calmly swam out and helped him out.
I have always been cool and rational in emergencies because there is a clear pattern of what to do. It is everyday social interactions that are a problem.
At a school reunion recently, an old classmate said: “You’re the weird kid who always had his nose in a book about magic,” which pretty much summed me up. I was quiet and polite and slotted in to many different groups of children in school. That makes it sound as though I had friends; I didn’t. I just happened to be present. There was no connection.
This became evident when mum organised a birthday party for me when I was five and no one turned up. It didn’t bother me, but mum was devastated.
Home life was often chaotic and overwhelming. I struggled with too much sensory input such as excessive noise or touch, so I used to go into the woods as a way of escaping the stimulation. I didn’t know it was ‘meditation’ at the time, I just knew that when I sat in the trees with my eyes closed and concentrated on listening to birds, I felt soothed and safe.
The skills I learned doing this – how to focus my attention and relax – helped me to manage anxious feelings.
I knew I was different from those around me and at secondary school, so I decided to learn hypnosis. I thought I might learn how to control people to get along with them better, but I quickly learnt that’s not what it was about. Hypnosis is about reading and understanding people’s non-verbal behaviour.
I learnt that looking into someone’s eyes and holding their gaze can induce hypnosis. This confused me; people were always saying “Look at me when I’m talking to you”. Did people then spend their whole time hypnotising each other? Clearly not.
I started to watch how people made eye contact and noticed that the listener would look at the eyes and mouth of the person talking until shortly before that person had finished a sentence (or after about five seconds if it was a long sentence). They would look away while thinking of what to say in response, then look back at the person while speaking their reply. So I started copying this.
I also learnt about hand gestures, and other non-verbal behaviours that people do, and how to mentally ‘ rehearse ’ social situations. People still say I’m a little ‘robot’ and call me ‘Dr Spock’ but I don’t mind. In general, it has made communicating with people easier.
I’ve worked full time nearly all my life, mostly in the care industry, but I have frequently faced ongoing workplace discrimination. I have been told there were complaints from staff about how I don’t say ‘good morning’, ‘hello’ or ‘good bye’ and how this is rude and if I don’t start doing it I will face disciplinary action that could result in me being sacked.
At one point, I got depressed because I felt powerless about it. It was this that led me to seek an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis; to get the occupational health support I needed at work. (I was made redundant before I could get the help but that’s another story.)
I always hated the idea of a label but actually the diagnosis has helped others understand and accept me better. Rather than thinking I am difficult or rude, people realise that when I sit on my own with headphones on reading a book in a corner I am actually keeping myself in my own calm little world with as little sensory stimulation as possible.
Now I try to share my experiences and knowledge, and I try to give parents of children diagnosed with Asperger’s hope about their child’s future possibilities. People with Asperger’s have many strengths, they just sometimes need help managing and understanding the challenges they face in daily life.