Friday, 13 April 2018

The Story of the Titanic is Powerful Enough Without Convoluted Conspiracy Theories

Spend any amount of time on YouTube and you will soon discover a realm of paranoia and distrust - a world of conspiracy theories beamed onto the screens and into the minds of the young and credulous the world over. Some of these are hilariously daft, such as those surrounding the ‘Flat Earth’ concept. Others are fascinating yet overwhelmed by strange flourishes and out-of-this-world explanations, such as the Mandela Effect. Still more are fun exercises in lateral thought that tend to collapse under even the lightest scrutiny, though this doesn’t tend to affect their popularity. In this category I think you can confidently place the most famous conspiracy regarding the RMS Titanic.
Differences in deck A and B layout

This theory has it that the disaster was an insurance scam involving a switch between the slightly older yet almost identical RMS Olympic and the brand new Titanic. Some conspiracy advocates leave it at this - a strangely unexplained and seemingly pointless swap - but other, more sophisticated types tend to point to the Olympic’s collision with the HMS Hawke in 1911 and the idea that this fatally compromised the ship, leading to the White Star Line (owned by JP Morgan’s massive financial empire) deciding to cut their losses and gain insurance money back from a disaster that would lead to a pay-out (the Hawke collision didn’t, you see, as it was partly the fault of the Olympic’s crew). So far so logical, if you are happy to accept that a large maritime company that made its money from safely ferrying human beings across the Atlantic would risk losing its reputation and thousands of lives in such a manner. So, the story goes, the Olympic and Titanic were swapped, with the damaged Olympic being the one to hit an iceberg and sink in April 1912 and the spanking new Titanic to go on to lead an active life until being scrapped in 1935. It’s a tempting idea, isn’t it? Simple, effective and most importantly indicative of evil inhabiting the upper echelons of society.

But the slightest scrutiny destroys the theory. Any small amount of knowledge of the ships leaves the theory completely dismantled and untenable. For the theory to hold water, the two ships would need to have their accoutrements (name plates on both the ship and other paraphernalia) swapped without attracting much attention. They would also need to have any physical differences swapped too - and this is where things go wrong. For sisters, the Olympic and Titanic had significant structural differences, especially on decks A and B. The Olympic’s A deck was entirely open as a promenade deck, the whole way around the superstructure, whereas the Titanic’s A deck was enclosed for the forward half of the superstructure in order to squeeze in more super-posh suites with their own private promenade deck space. This was quite easily observed, even from a distance, and was the main difference between the two ships.
B deck was likewise significantly different, with the Olympic having uniform, evenly spaced windows (for the most part) and the Titanic having very muddled and chaotic window placement - this was a result of differing room layouts, again trying to squeeze further First-Class accommodation into the ship. Importantly, these two differences were not easy to swap. In fact rearranging the window on B deck would have taken months and would have been extremely obvious to anyone in Belfast watching the construction, and there simply wasn’t time to do such complex and expensive work.

The starboard screw of the Titanic wreck with '401' clearly embossed.

Furthermore, the wreck itself has given us lots of proof that the ship quietly rusting on the sea floor, two and a half miles down, is the Titanic. The ship’s hull number when it was being constructed by Harland and Wolff was assigned as 401; Olympic was 400. This number was stamped on lots of key elements of the ship, including the bells, ship’s wheel and screws (propellers). One photograph of one of the ship’s half-buried screws clearly shows the number ‘401’ inscribed into the bronze.

On top of this hard, physical evidence there are lots of other problems with the theory, including the one that is always problematic for any major conspiracy - secrecy. How such a desperately cynical and devastatingly catastrophic act as purposely causing a passenger liner with 2,200 souls aboard to sink in the middle of the Atlantic could manage to go unnoticed or without any whistle-blowing is frankly inconceivable. There is a great deal more I could add, and I am sure plenty of people will continue to disagree and will believe the conspiracy, but I feel that as we get to the 106th anniversary of the sinking at 2.20am on Sunday 15th April, it would be a good idea to remember that the poignancy and power of the story of a great ship brought low by grim happenstance is enough on its own, and any cheapening of that legend should be scrutinised fully to avoid tarnishing the memory of those lost for no reason.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Living with Autism - a series of Twitter Threads

Over the last week, in preparation for the often well-meaning but sadly pretty misguided National Autism Week, I have written a series of threads on actual autistic experience and how to relate.  I have gathered these together on this blog post for ease of reference.

Monday 19th March – Eye Contact

Don’t make an autistic person look you in the eye.  Don’t expect them to do so.  Hell, if you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t look you in the eye, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Eye contact and its associated discomfort varies for all autistic people so this is a little generalised, but to try to help neuro-typical folk understand the deal here’s my take on it.
Looking directly at someone’s eyes feels a little like a combination of staring at the sun and accidentally catching the eye of a drunken maniac in a bar – a combination of pain and fear.

It hurts because we don’t want to do it, so it’s an effort of will to force ourselves.  The reason we don’t want to is because we don’t like how it makes us feel.  Part of me wonders whether I should even have to explain beyond that.

You see, it’s just the way we are.  It doesn’t hurt anybody.  It doesn’t cause any actual problems.  But I feel we’re not yet at the point, societally, to leave it at that so I’ll press on…

So, for me the ‘fear’ element of eye contact stems from several things, all of which swirl in my mind like a Beecham’s Powder every time it comes up.  First is a simple fear – are they ok with aye contact?

As I don’t like it, I wonder if they don’t too, so this puts me off, so I look away.

Second, is eye contact socially acceptable at this point? This you can learn over time but it still comes up, especially in transactions with cashiers etc. Bleurgh.

Third is related to second – how long should the contact be maintained? Frankly, I haven’t a clue.  Would quite like some kind of guidebook.

So there’s a terrible fear of screwing it up – eye contact where it’s not ok; staring for too long; averting gaze too fast.  None of the rules come naturally and getting them wrong can be mortifying – it’s grim.

And ultimately, beneath all of this is a simple fact – for whatever reason autistic people don’t seem to need eye contact during a conversation – it’s not required.  But we feel we should, because everyone else does.

So we’re left with a problem. We autistic folk are busting a gut to ‘fit in’ with this and many other things, all because we feel we have to. The alternative is not appropriate. And why?
Well, if I may, it’s because neuro-typical types, possibly like you, dear reader, still go all weird when we don’t look you in the eye.

You go all weird.  Not us. We’re trying really hard. Are you trying?

Tuesday 20th March – Empathy and Emotion

It is a commonly held view that autistic people can’t empathise, sympathise or show emotion.  Sometimes it is hypothesised that we can’t even feel emotion (!) As enduring as these views are, I’m afraid they are about as accuate as Accuweather…

Suggesting that autistic folk cannot feel emotion as ‘successfully’ of sympathise as ‘helpfully’ is one of many insidious ways that autism ends up being regarded as a terrible condition, one that you’d avoid using vaccinations against actual deadly diseases to prevent.

This attitude, that autism is something dreadful that ruins an individual is an unfortunate one, and something I’ll probably tweet about another time.  But back to empathy: the truth is that autistic people can empathise, just not in quite the same way.

I will, as always, use myself as a case-study so be aware I cannot speak for all autistic folk.

First, autistic people can definitely, obviously feel emotion.  We are not robots, nor are we sociopaths.  We get sad and happy and silly and all the rest.  But there is, I think, a fair point to be made.

For me, emotions are powerful and sometimes dominant, and I wear my heart firmly on my sleeve. In fact I would say that I have tremendous difficulty hiding my emotions, as we are apparently meant to be able to do.  I simply can’t.  If I’m sad, you’ll be able to tell.

However, I think it is more difficult for autistic people to identify the emotion they’re feeling – to pick it out of the chaos of our minds and hold it up to the light.  I’m always mightily impressed by neuro-typical folk who can identify exactly how they feel.  Crazy skills.

Similarly, we may not know what to do with the emotion.  I think this links to our lack of inherent social understanding – in what ways is it ok to show people you’re sad or furious? It’s hard to say, so we may come across a little…unusually.
But just because we express our happiness by shouting or anger by shaking doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t real, and certainly doesn’t mean the cause of the emotion is irrelevant.  That’s important.

As for empathy – we can identify whether you’re sad or angry or happy.  Of course we can, and I think this is true of many autistic people. I’m a slave to the general ambience of a room, hugely affected by the prevailing mood, so empathy isn’t a problem.

But I’m not sure I can pinpoint why you may be feeling the way you do.  I know I’m dreadful at this.  I’m chuffed you’re happy, but unless it’s painfully obvious, I won’t have a clue why.  So I might have to ask you.  Same if you’re sad.

I may also struggle to join you fully in your emotions, even if I recognise them.  For example, you may be sad but it could take me a while (or absolutely ages) to realise you need a hug.  Instead I’ll just sit there, feeling sad for you but not having a clue what to say.

So it may not be immediately obvious that an autistic person is empathetic or emotional, but that should not lead to a belief that these are things we can’t do.  But, and here’s the kicker…

It’s the case that empathy may not be forthcoming. We may be too stressed or tired, or we may genuinely struggle with it or showing it.  This does not mean we’re somehow broken.  Just different.

Wednesday 21st March – Sensory Overload

Sensory overload is an aspect of autism that is hard to explain, and by no means standard for all autistic people.  I have it, to an extent, so I’ll be leading with that, but some people have it to a far greater or lesser extent.  Buckle up, it’s thread time again.

Firstly, all five main senses can be overstimulated for autistic people, possibly all at the same time.  I’ll go through each of them in a moment.  As for ‘overload’, this is a discomfort that can be extreme in response to sensory stimulation.

So visual overload is being overwhelmed by the visual detail and colours and shapes around you.  In a busy space, like a city centre, the sheer quantity of things jostling for visual attention can be painful to experience, leading to panic, anxiety, migraine or meltdown.

The details of every word, letter, image or colour of a scene can be too much, as it seems the brain struggles to blur out the unimportant details.  It’s a bit like a computer game that can’t mipmap (a process that dulls graphical details at a distance.)

The brain is simultaneously interested and focused on all the details at once, which frankly is a little too much to bear. Imagine what a super-busy classroom with ever changing complex displays must be like…

Audio overload is similar – no noise is filtered out. When stressed I find it impossible to ignore sounds, no matter how inconsequential. If they build up, layer on layer, it can become distracting, horrible, painful, terrifying. Chattering classrooms are a grim example.

I think it’s fair to say audio overload can knobble just about anyone who is autistic, no matter how well they can camouflage or mask it.  I have a hunch that fairgrounds, clubs and such aren’t popular places…

Olfactory overload is something I suffer from.  In fact, I have found I spend at least half the time with my nose closed at the back (if you see what I mean – where it meets my throat) just to avoid potential smells that could throw me.

Strong perfumes, air fresheners, bad smells, petrol, whatever – they can distract to an enormous degree and even cause misery if for whatever reason the smell is disliked.  I don’t know whether smells are stronger for autistic people, but they’re definitely more distracting.

Gustatory overload (taste) is not something I experience, which is great as it means I can eat with impunity, but I know it can cause some autistic people to have very limited repertoires of food, often mistaken for fussiness or faddiness, because some tastes are dreadful.

Tactile overload can be very common, and is usually to do with temperature and clothing.  It is very common indeed for an autistic person to have significant problems with heat, with only a narrow range of temperatures felt as okay.
I can’t stand temperatures over 22⁰C, for example.  Makes holidays a bit risky.

The texture of some textiles can be off-putting and again cause severe reactions, especially in younger children.  Denim, rough cotton, linen and wool can be anathema, causing extreme discomfort and distraction.  This can lead to extremely small wardrobes of trusted clothes.

But these clothes will be loved for their softness and lack of general offensiveness, so be patientand gentle when they need throwing out after long service!

These overloads will come and go, be consistent or erratic, and cause different amounts of consternation.  But they are very real and can be very disturbing and miserable.  Schools could help a lot with this.

From reducing the amount of visual ‘noise’ on the walls (laminated posters!!!) to allowing autistic students to wear more comfortable clothing, adjustments can be made where necessary, and should be made when necessary.

Thursday 22nd March – Interests and Obsessions

One thing that is often given a negative spin in descriptions of autism is the special interests or obsessions that autistic people usually have, with them being seen as more a curse than a blessing.

Special interests (henceforth simply interests) are frequently seen as a distraction, something alien and odd that is a curiosity at best, or a pathology at worst.  Indeed, the strength of an autistic person’s interests can vary hugely, but there is much that is positive.

These interests are usually defined as being unusually intense, based on ‘unusual’ topics or displayed in unusual ways.  And yes, there are autistic people who collect drawing pins or car registrations.

What isn’t appreciated is just how integral these interests are to an autistic person, and how fundamentally they keep us grounded, happy and calm.

They act as a life line, a refuge, a safe space or sanctuary where we can retreat when things get too much, or when we are exhausted or stressed.  Indulging in our interests gives us time to breathe.

And they’re really cool! I love my interests, and I never tire of them, which is great considering how much I rely on them to keep me feeling OK.

It is true that autistic people tend to be able to maintain focus and fascination in their interests more than what would be deemed ‘normal’.  It can seem tireless, with an autistic person devouring every morsel of information about a topic.
We can very quickly become experts in our interests, because we never get bored of exploring them.  I know more about the Titanic, volcanoes, the First World War, Pokemon, Lego and Harry Potter than I’m ready to admit, because they interest and calm me simultaneously.

If I’m bored, or stressed, or freaking out I can retreat back into my head and think about these things, and this helps so much.  I may construct a mental image of the Titanic or something, all to keep me on the level.

I don’t think this is a bad thing.

We also really want to share our interests with you. So, so much. Oh, and how infrequently you’re interested! This makes sense, as us autistic folk’s interest levels are a bit intense! But still, God we’d love to talk with you more about them.

Autistic children sadly tend to learn early on that no one shares their level of enthusiasm for, say, Sonic the Hedgehog. And so it’s internalised, kept to ourselves.  I’m not sure this does harm, but I do wonder if our social miscues would improve if it weren’t the case.

So if you deal with autistic children, please listen to them when they talk about their interests. It will make their day.  Ask them questions.  Care.

And remember that there is no harm to these deep obsessions and interests, and it’s a pretty safe bet that some of the world’s greatest achievements stem from an autistic person’s indefatigable interest in a topic.

You think Darwin’s minute obsession with the details of his theory was a fluke? That Newton’s intense curiosity in physics was ordinary? I reckon some of them were autistic, don’t you?

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Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The New Wave of Grammar Schools

Traditional grammar schools selected their intake on passing a test, the Eleven-Plus.  This academic filter would ensure that they only educated the brightest children in any given cohort, and the rest would go to the local Secondary Modern school, the academic students creamed off.  Returning to this state of affairs seemed plausible only a short while ago, when Theresa May began pushing for new State Grammar schools, but this policy seems to have been dropped after the dismal polling of the 2017 General Election.

But can we see a different type of grammar school emerging instead – one that filters their intake by behaviour rather than by academic excellence?  This is a deeply contentious point and I accept it will be met with considerable disdain from certain swathes of the educational establishment, but I feel that this could well be becoming the standard in this new era of zero-tolerance schooling.

Over the last few days I’ve engaged in discussion with several proponents of this strict style, where any kind of misbehaviour, no matter how seemingly small, is treated very seriously.  I have found that there are general points I can agree with on principle, for example a need for everyone to get a good education, an intolerance for persistent misbehaviour without consequence and a strong SLT to support teachers in their work with children and poor behaviour.  These things all seem eminently sensible and positive concepts that I can happily get behind (and generally enjoy in my current school).  However, there is a flip side to this: everybody getting a good education morphs into something more akin to those that behave should get a good education; intolerance for persistent misbehaviour without consequence becomes the straw-man that there are schools that tolerate poor behaviour with no consequences whatsoever (when this is certainly not the case in the main); Strong SLTs supporting their staff seem to become an argument suggesting that anything other than zero-tolerance policy is inherently SLTs letting their staff down.  It is a world of distant binaries, of the blackest of blacks and the whitest of whites with not a shade between.  It is, in short, the result of several years of tribalistic behaviour that has caused teachers across the spectrum of opinion to hunker down, bed in and get ever more deeply entrenched in our viewpoints.

The fact is that many of the people I’ve spoken to recently seem to be of the opinion that if a strict behaviour policy causes students to up and leave, or get kicked out, or get home schooled then this is all the better – get rid of the difficult kids so the good ones can learn.  This ultra-utilitarian attitude seems to forget that these children don’t simply disappear – no, they have to be educated somewhere, and the imperative that they get an education for the good of society as a whole has not vanished either.  This passing the buck of tricky children is increasingly seen as totally acceptable even when its eventual outcome can only be a stratified system of ‘nice’ schools where behaviour is impeccable, and then other schools that become the collection point for all of the discarded or disenfranchised students.  A Grammar system based on behaviour, not academic excellence.

Of course, any attempt to challenge this or to ask ‘where do the other children go’ is met with derision and even sarcasm by many teachers who support these extra-strict policies, and are very rarely engaged with, the consensus being that we are simply enemies of promise, to use Gove’s memorable yet misguided phrase.  I’m afraid that this is not good enough, and to write off such a large segment of the profession as doom-mongers who (for some reason) are out to stymie the chances of young people is frankly insulting.  So we are left with an unsatisfactory situation, where it is becoming increasingly okay to vilify a portion of both the student body and the teaching profession without properly engaging with them.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Stepping Down from Middle Management

It is now three months since I informed my school that I wished to step down from being the Head of English, and just over two months since it actually happened and I went back to being a classroom teacher.  Now I have had time to reflect on and enjoy the change in my life I feel it would be useful to share the experience, just in case there is anyone out there considering a similar move but too afraid of the repercussions.

My reasons for stepping down are a mixture of personal and professional. As regular readers or followers will know, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome late last year after demanding an assessment from my GP.  This process is outlined in earlier blogposts here.  Though it was a sought-for diagnosis, it was still something of a shock and I admit it shook the foundations of my life as it had such ramifications for all of my experiences throughout life.  But it also made me take stock and be honest with myself about my role and chance of happiness – I came to the conclusion that being a middle-leader was a constant source of tremendous discomfort and anxiety in connection with my diagnosis that I had to consider removing from my life.  I was also exhausted by feeling my teaching – the core practice of our profession – was suffering as a result of the extra responsibility, and this weighted heavily on me.  I felt that I would either have to leave the profession entirely (a scary thought for a change-phobic creature of habit) or make a significant change that would get me back into the classroom: stepping down as HoD made perfect sense as a way of achieving these two aims.

There were fears, of course.  Financial considerations, pride, professional integrity, relationships with colleagues and so forth.  But here I am, three months down the line, regretting nothing and tremendously glad that I made the move.  So, how did it go?

Firstly – the financial implications.  I am not about to itemise my spending here, so I will leave you with this observation: you really do spend what you get. It seems that the stress and tension of trying to run a successful department was an expensive ordeal in itself: the nervous energy expended at work could not be expended at home, so simple things like cooking became nightmarish, with takeaways and easy-to-cook food, often from Waitrose on the way home becoming the order of the day.  Now I have the capacity to cook for my family from scratch – hearty food, bought cheaply, cooked well: it’s a much cheaper existence.  The need for treats to get through the week is diminished (I no longer feel a desperate hankering for a Dominos on a Friday night or an extra coffee at the weekend – these things add up.  Everyone’s spending habits are different, so I’m aware that my experience here is of limited use, but I can say with certainty that the financial impact of losing around nine-thousand pounds a year before tax are nowhere near as significant as I had expected. 

But what of the teaching load and worse, the marking?? Horrors.  I was truly concerned about this.  It had been five years since I had a typical 90% contact time timetable, so I was well out of practice, with full days of teaching an extreme rarity. All Christmas I brooded over the hell that awaited me in January, going back to five period days and extra sets of books to mark, but I needn’t have worried.  You see, as teaching and marking are now the only things I concern myself with, I can give them my full attention.  As such, I don’t dread or wish to avoid lessons as I may have done as a HoD, desparate to get on with the paperwork or whatever.  No – I can enjoy teaching again, immerse myself in it and take great joy in having renewed pride in my practice.  The marking is heavier, and I can’t sugar-coat that very much (I’m an English teacher after all), but again as the demands on my professional time are slighter, marking is now something to focus on and get sorted, rather than being another element of a huge stack of tasks and deadlines.  Still don’t enjoy it, mind.

I do not feel any dent in my pride at all.  This may be an aspect of my Asperger’s – I don’t know, but I do know that I have no feeling of shame or self-disappointment at all.  I gave it a good shot; I did it for four years and the department improved year on year – this is good, something to be proud of, so calling it a day is no admission of defeat: it is a declaration of intent, to put myself and my family first in the great to-do list of life.  There is a peculiarly masculine quality to the mantra that one must always strive for promotion, push for higher salaries and responsibilities, but it takes nothing else into consideration.  Where’s the room for caring for oneself?  Where’s the consideration of your children?  No, the rat-race endless ambition and drive for better and greater things is lost on me now I’m in my mid-thirties, with the ambition of my twenties something that I thought I ought to have, rather than something I naturally held.

It may not be for everyone, but I would hate to think anyone was out there flogging themselves to try and maintain a position that they didn’t actually need to.  If you’re thinking of stepping down from a responsibility, please get in touch via DM and I’m happy to chat and advise as well as I can.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

My thoughts on zero-tolerance behaviour policy

What a miserable phrase ‘zero-tolerance’ is.  Its very existence condemns the concept of tolerance as something weak, haphazard or undesirable, something that ironically is not to be tolerated.  In a legal setting the phrase conjures up the harsh narcotics laws in the USA in the last 30 years, or perhaps the ASBO in the UK.  Zero-tolerance policing was a popular trend in the late 1990s and 2000s in both the US and Northern Europe, designed to combat anti-social behaviour and ‘crack down’ on persistent crime.  The policy in the USA led to a great deal of criticism, which is nicely summed up in this New York Times article of 2017.

In a school setting the connotations are more immediate and more specific – currently any talk of zero-tolerance schools will lead directly to the most famous proponents and examples, some of which are almost perpetually under fire from segments of the education community, and defended by others, often robustly, occasionally aggressively.  I won’t name them here as there’s simply no need – I am more interested in the semantics of the term ‘zero-tolerance’ and its impact on the world of education than I am in trying to ‘shame’ schools.

Tolerance, I feel, is a virtue that the privileged should seek to have in their dealings with the under-privileged, first and foremost.  It is a form of patience that those in positions of power should have with those who do not share that power, that majorities should have with minorities and that the wealthy should have with the less well-off.  It can work the other way, but primarily tolerance in my view is a balancer – a means of adjusting the scales to ensure those without privilege of any sort can still operate in a biased system.
In practice this means that a functioning society that seeks greater equality requires tolerance for difference, for unconformity, for any manifestation of ‘otherness’ at all.  Without tolerance, the imbalance will grow as the privileged benefit further and the under-privileged get more and more marginalised and maligned.  As you can probably tell, I disagree entirely with the idea that tolerance is a sort of ‘resigned’ dealing with unattractive or undesirable people or ideas with a shake of the head, begrudging them and the effort taken to work with them.  A tolerant person, I believe, is objectively better than an intolerant one, and I make no apology for thinking that.

So a zero-tolerance school is one that has eschewed the virtue of tolerance in order to attempt to improve progress and outcomes for all students, and in doing so has eschewed its commitment to providing a balance in its treatment of its students, whilst simultaneously claiming to be improving the balance – we have a potential paradox.  The issue lies in the difference between treatment of children and the outcomes of children.  Zero-tolerance policies and their effects (disruptive students removed from lessons or even schooling) are focused entirely on outcomes: getting the remaining children the best possible results.  Clearly this is not an evil motive; however, it neglects the more immediate issue of the treatment of children in the here and now, and this is where ethics and morality and indeed equality come into play.  This utilitarian focus purely on outcomes for the many ignores the needs of the few, but these few don’t disappear.  They don’t cease to exist, and these students dispatched by a zero-tolerance approach will grow up and will be members of society – members who have potentially lost their stake in society.

These students are often minorities in one way or another – potentially low-income, or have made little progress since primary school, or from a non-academic background, or have disinterested parents.  Removing tolerance for these people is removing their shot at any kind of equality, removing their chance of achieving some kind of normality.  It is having no patience for their individual difficulties, no patience with their behaviour as it impinges on the progress of others.  It is a short-sighted, limited policy that will inevitably cause later problems when these students grow into adulthood knowing that the system has no patience with them or the difficulties they have faced.  It would, I suppose, be great if all bad behaviour was simply selfishness, naughtiness with no root cause or societal basis – then perhaps we could simply wash our hands of these people as they have made the choice to behave in that manner; but unfortunately the world is not as tidy and easy as that.  Unfortunately the world is terribly complex, and the people within it even more so, and a zero-tolerance behaviour policy is one that immediately and abruptly removes any mitigating factors, brutally exposing a vulnerable minority to the same standards that far more resilient and well-adjusted individuals can meet with relative ease.

I am driven here most of all by my autism.  I hear too many reports of policies that demand, for example, eye contact and have a zero-tolerance attitude towards it.  Autistic people like myself find eye contact extremely difficult in a way that non-autistic people would struggle to understand, and this difficulty can in a child manifest in very difficult behaviour if handled poorly – we are a classic minority with specific requirements, and I would argue tolerance and patience with our particular needs is not much to ask for given the fact that we deserve as good a chance at life as anyone else.

I hope that the vogue for zero-tolerance behaviour policies has a short lifespan.  Education should be dedicated to balancing a precariously imbalanced system, not maintaining the biases that exist in society, and tolerance should not be a dirty word.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Parenting with Autism Part Two: Repetition, repetition, repetition...

I have a great deal of patience with my daughter.  It seems that I share a lot of characteristics with your average 3 year old (and I mean that in a very positive way).  Like her, I don’t get easily bored when doing something I enjoy, and I’m quite happy to do things repetitively again and again.  Watching the same episodes of Peppa Pig is fine by me – she loves it, and I enjoy the humour each time (whereas my partner is endlessly frustrated by the repetition).  It seems that I have an inexhaustible appetite for the expertise of Daddy Pig and the song of Grampy Rabbit.  Like her, I can immerse myself in what she is immersing herself in, in that total fashion that all toddlers have – books about trains, playing with the Lego, organising her books and toys.  Of course, this love of repetition, order and immersion are all characteristic of autism, but also of early childhood – I feel that my Asperger’s is somehow giving me the ability to bond even more with my young daughter, and I think this is wonderful.

Over the weekend we spent a happy few hours in the loft room with my Lego collection, which is embarrassingly vast.  I have taught her to respect Lego and the small pieces involved, so she is now very confident with it, and I with her treatment of it.  She doesn’t try to eat it or break the pieces, but is beginning to build simple structures.  She is totally over Duplo, viewing it as clumsy and unsophisticated.  We were sitting in companionly silence, snow slowly layering on the overhead skylights, both completely focused on what we were doing, but taking an occasional interest in the other’s ‘work’.  I was rebuilding something, and she was sorting out the heads and hats of the minifigures before putting them all on seats on a rudimentary 2-wheeled bus that she had constructed herself, to my quiet and overwhelming pride.  Every now and then she would ask for help with a particularly fiddly task, and occasionally I would ask her how her project was going, but for the most part we were in our own worlds and yet completely together, simultaneously.  I felt tremendously relaxed and calm.

Being a parent with Asperger’s can be extremely challenging, so I think it is important to highlight these positives.  Being autistic has allowed me an insight into her young mind that I suppose other parents may not get so clearly.  I understand the value of obsessing over details, studying differences, total immersion and repetitive tasks as they bring me comfort in the same way as they are helping her learn.  This does not mean that autistic people are children – far from it.  I think it is more that we never lose that youthful ability to focus on something completely and cut out the white noise and the nonsense that could distract us.  I hope this continues for a time, though I am mindful that as she gets older she will, presumably, begin to lose her appetite for these activities: I will make the most of this while it lasts.

Buy me a coffee! Buy me a coffee!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Holding Your Breath - Life with Autism

I would imagine that at some point in the past we have all spent time holding our breath.  It's a fun thing to compete in as a child - who will be able to hold it the longest? How far can we swim underwater? Ew, that dog poo in the jitty smells gross - let's run past it holding our noses.  And as such, I would also assume that we all know the feeling of release and calm that happens when we can finally breathe again: when our opposition has surrendered, blue in the face; when we reach the other end of the pool; when we reach the safety of the main road and the smell has subsided.  It's a wonderful, relaxing yet invigorating feeling - a feeling of pure respite and recovery.  It's exactly the feeling I get when I read about steam trains on Wikipedia.

Bear with me.  This morning, walking to work with a spring in my step (having stepped down from being Head of Department, I am finding the start of every day to be a pleasure) I was considering what exactly it was about my little obsessive interests that kept me going back for more.  Why was I so content with re-reading about the niceties of Whyte notation and Dr Beeching, or studying the map of Middle Earth for the thousandth time, or once again naming all 151 original Pokemon?  Obviously I find each of them fascinating and interesting in their own way, but I figured there must be something more visceral to it - more physical and immediately uplifting.  It hit me suddenly - opening Wikipedia and reading about LNER A4 locomotives or reading the map section of The Lord of the Rings is a bit like breathing again after holding my breath for a long, long time.  It is an immersion into a feeling of absolute relief.

It's rather like going about my daily business is having my breath held incessantly.  I teach, I talk to folk, I mark, I cook, I eat all whilst holding my breath - in a state of stress and nervousness.  So every time I get the opportunity to indulge one of my favourite, deeply repetitive hobbies or interests it is like taking a quick, life-giving breath: taking a long, desperately needed, deep breath and refilling my lungs, ready for the next stretch of work/social time/chores.  This is why my interests are repetitive - because they have to be, to be of any use.  No good trying to 'take a breath' with something new and untested (I often go weeks before actually trying a new video game, frightened that it won't offer the relaxation and relief I need), so stick to what you do know.  I think finally understanding this and making peace with it has done me some good, as I feel happier about 'giving in' and indulging in my obsessions, as they very clearly do me the world of good.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Parenting with Autism - Part One

It was becoming a father that set the ball rolling for my eventual diagnosis with Aspergers.  This transpired through a number of different channels.  One, which I will explore in Part Two, was the way that fatherhood effectively obliterated my safe and steady routine that I'd developed over my adult life, exposing me to painful levels of spontaneity and change.  Two, I had a new person in my life, and for the very first time ever I had met somebody that I felt utterly relaxed round.

I may sound extreme but it's very true.  Up until the birth of my daughter I don't remember a single person who I have felt entirely at ease with, entirely chilled out and happy.  Of course, for the first 32 years of my life I had no idea this as the case, as I had nothing to compare it too - having never experienced peace with a second person I didn't even know it existed as a concept; I assumed (I assume) that this was how everyone felt; that everyone was on edge even with their closest friends, that life was inherently stressful when other folk were around.  How wrong I was.

Spending time with Poppy, even when she was very small indeed, gave me an insight into what life was like for everyone else - I just didn't know it at that early stage.  All I knew was that for some reason I could be myself around her, and this never changed.  As she got older and more communicative, I could still be myself with her, and she didn't drain my energy like other people did.  Even now, as she approaches three and can be very dismissive of people, places and things, I still feel totally relaxed around her.  It's a combination of not having to mask or camouflage for her, but also not feeling the rapid-battery-drain of social interaction when I'm around her.  This was so novel that it made me take stock and reassess - clearly there was something different going on here.

I did my research and lo and behold, an affinity with one's own child that feels different to every other social relationship is a typical sign of autism.  And of course I'm aware that all people feel a special bond with their child - I'm talking about something different - a sense of acceptance and calm that isn't the same as deep, unconditional love (though I have that too).  This discovery was the final push I needed to getting diagnosed, and now I am very interested in identifying exactly why it is that an autistic person's offspring is so unique and untaxing.

A short one tonight - it's New Year's Eve - but I'll write Part Two within a few days.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Christmas and Autism - some advice

First of all, Christmas is a potential nightmare for autistic folk. The lights, noise, Slade, too many people squeezed into a front room, drunk people - it's a recipe for utter misery for some autistic people, children and adults.  
They will need, first and foremost, and escape route from any busy locations, especially places they've never been before. But it's not enough to have a way out ready - people have to not make a big thing about them disappearing for a while!  Nothing is worse than the rest of the group making a song and dance of the fact you need some air. Ideally you should be able to slip out unnoticed or at least unrewarded, so you can then slip back again.  It is also very helpful if people allow autistic friends and relatives to skip some segments of festivities. Offer it, especially to children who may be too scared to ask - 'if you need a break, you can pop upstairs and chill for a bit if you like'. Leave it up to them. 
As far as possible keep routines normal on Christmas day, or if you have established Christmas routines, don't deviate from them as an autistic person will rely on them to help them handle everything else the day brings.
Buying presents *may* have been extremely challenging for an autistic person as it's hard for us to imagine whether our idea of a cool pressie is your idea of a cool pressie! Just be grateful! 7/?
Christmas can bring a halt to an autistic child's engagement with their interests as other things will be expected of them. Trouble is, their presents may well be part of their obsession, like a new video game. Likelihood is that them finally having the thing they have wanted for months, coupled with not being able to play with it, will lead to meltdown (and bloody rightly so). So be mindful of this and structure the day so they have an opportunity to indulge in their favourite hobbies. But yes, it is Christmas so you may not be happy with your son, daughter, spouse wandering off to play Counterstrike all day, so set clear time limits and expectations. Surprise gifts may be a bad idea. Surprises generally are not always welcome for autistic people, so bear this in mind. just coping and trying to show gratitude for a clearly unwanted present is really hard work. 
Don't forget that autism continues into adulthood and never disappears. You may have a loved one who manages to camouflage their autism, but remember that this is *exhausting* for them, so give them a break from time to time and let them be themselves.  A few small tips: have single coloured, non-flashing/winking Xmas lights; too many decorations could be overwhelming so tone it down a bit (this may help anyone, to be fair); DON'T ARGUE, even if it's traditional! 
Listen to them. It may not interest you to hear about the minutiae of how the Imperial Guard field the best tanks, or how many species of elm there are, but this is important stuff to us and we just want to be able to share it. 
Autistic people will often have small coping strategies that are physical in nature, like twirling a pen, drumming with their hands, rubbing their feet together. The older we are the more subtle it will be. Do NOT comment on it as it'll make us feel silly. These movements are called 'stims' and they can keep us nicely grounded and calm. It's not that weird really - most people have go to tics and habits when nervous after all. Children may have quite obvious or 'odd' stims but give them a break!  Stims will be particularly useful over Christmas as it's so damnably stressful, so expect them and accept them. Same with comfort blankets and toys/trinkets. I usually have a lego minifigure in my pocket, for example. 
It is possible that the extra people, lights, food, noises, expectations and lack of ability to use coping strategies will lead to burnout, or a meltdown. This is where our stalwart efforts to stay cool are overcome by stimuli, like Orcs at Helms Deep.  Everyone experiences this differently but a meltdown can be, for the person living it: terrifying, panicking, totally exhausting, embarrassing, even dangerous (think hurting yourself). It's bloody horrible.  For other people around a meltdown, it can be scary, upsetting and a real downer on the mood generally. But remember, it is WORSE for the person having the meltdown, so be kind and minimise their sense of embarrassment. 

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Autism and Camouflage - how girls with ASD can keep it hidden from sight

This week I have been learning about the concept of 'camouflaging' as a technique used by autistic people to get by in the world of neurotypicals.  It has been a real eye-opener, not least because it's blatantly obvious that this is the very method I have used to get through my life to date.

Also known as 'compensation', camouflaging is the term for how autistic individuals manage to hide or disguise their autistic traits, allowing them to come across to the casual acquantaince as entirely neurotypical, often to the point that no-one would ever suspect that the individual is on the spectrum.  It is a real hot topic currently, and it seems that long-overdue research is finally being undertaken into its mechanics and its effect on autistic people who employ it.  At its most basic, camouflaging appears to rely on intense effort and stress on the part of the individual as they utilise their excellent memory of social cues to 'artificially' fit into social conversation and situations - essentially making their social life an endless act in order to prevent showing behaviours that they would be embarrassed or even ashamed of.  The range of skills involved is pretty daunting - the individual will have learned in minute detail how to react appropriately to the actions, speech and expressions of others, often using memorised details from their own life and even the media (films, TV shows) to help them 'say and do the right thing.'  As Meng-Chuan Lai notes in the introduction to the article 'Quantifying and exploring camouflaging in men and women with autism':

"One such coping strategy is that they may ‘camouflage’ difficulties during social situations by either hiding behaviour that might be viewed as socially unacceptable or artificially ‘performing’ social behaviour deemed to be more neurotypical – they Pretend to be Normal".

Forced eye contact, moderation of voice volume, even jokes and types of laughter can be examples of this camouflaging, all of which can usually serve to allow the autistic individual to 'fly under the radar', as Lai puts it, never getting diagnosed as there is never any concern from their teachers, parents or doctors.  The turmoil is all on the inside and is invisible to others.

Several clear patterns are beginning to emerge from the studies that continue to be published.  Firstly, successful camoflaging seems to be more prevalent in female autistic people for reasons that are still unclear; the ability to hide one's autistic traits (especially social ones) seems to be more readily within the purview of females, and female children in particular seem to have far more success in establishing friendships, for example (though maintaining them is often far less successful).  It appears that girls are more adroit at performing the expected social cues, and presumably more able to identify them in the first place.  Boys, in contrast, are far less capable of this, meaning that their autistic traits and behaviour may be more visible and obvious.

This, I think, has significant ramifications in the school environment.  The overwhelming 'maleness' of autism and aspergers in schools is well noted, and I think SEN departments, teachers and other stakeholders would benefit from being aware of the fact that female students who are on the spectrum are very good at hiding the fact, and therefore more care and time should be taken when trying to identify a students extra needs.  From my reading, I would suggest that the following considerations be taken when working with female students who may be on the spectrum:

1. Do not dismiss the possibility of ASD if they seem to have a social life - closer examination may be needed to establish the nature of the social interaction and whether friendships are maintained or falling out is commonplace.

2. Do not dismiss the possibility of ASD if eye contact is maintained, conversation with known adults is easy and a sense of humour is apparent!  Firstly, a sense of humour is often finely developed in people with autism (I, for example, am hilarious); secondly, it tends to be that conversation and interaction with other children and adults known to the student will be fine, flowing naturally - the student knows the rules and cues for those people.  They will, however, struggle with strangers for whom they have no record or knowledge.

3. Consider the other traits of ASD more carefully.  Obsessive behaviours, limited and intense interests, dislike of physical contact are all quite noticeable if you know what to look for.

It goes without saying that male children can be adept at camouflaging their symptoms, right up to adulthood.  I was only diagnosed at 34 because I had felt for years something wasn't quite right; at school it was never even considered as far as I am aware.  With male camouflaging, autistic traits can be hidden by a desire to not appear unusual, to avoid bullying, or just to avoid stressful situations getting worse.  This compensation is draining - it seems that males with autism that has been well-hidden are far more likely to suffer with anxiety and depression, mostly (it seems) due to sheer constant effort such camouflaging requires.

Finally, this phenomenon seems to be one of the reasons for some autistic children showing less severe traits as they grow older - they simply learn to cover them up.  All of this brings us to the rather uncomfortable conclusion that people with autism, girls and boys, have to expend considerable energy and mental strength to appear normal, for fear of being bullied, ostracized or treated unfairly.  This leaves them drained, depressed and even at times suicidal.  Surely this is no way for society to handle such a potentially talented and bright segment of the population?

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Teaching students with ASD - some practical tips that might help. Part One

I am coming at this purely from an angle of experience - please bear that in mind.  However, I have always had considerable success in helping students with ASD make the most of their time in school, and now I find myself on the Spectrum I am more able to identify why this may be the case.  What follows are possible methods that have the potential to help.  Of course, every child (and adult) with ASD is quite different, so there will be a requirement for lashings of professional judgement too!

1. Empathy for the student

This is probably pretty much a given, but I feel all neuro-typical teachers could gain some insight into the mind-processes of those with ASD if they knew a little more about how it affects everyday interaction with the world.  The thing to bear in mind for all ASD students is that they are doing pretty well just by being in school.  I don't mean they should be congratulated for this - that would be patronising and wouldn't help the general attitude towards ASD one bit.  Rather that this should be taken into consideration when dealing with them.  Students with ASD are so much closer to breaking point that most other students; they are one or two straws closer to having their metaphorical back broken.  Everything that school comprises of (with the possible exception of the safe, repetitive routine) can be anathema to any student on the spectrum, from the shouting children, lack of safe, quiet spaces, loud and sudden bells to the hard-to-read teachers and hidden, unknown expectations of them.  As such, it is worth pausing to remember this.  Imagine taking in nearly every single sight, sound, smell, taste, touch around you, unable to block it out, all layering over one another over and over again creating a white noise that you can only escape from if allowed to do one of your coping strategies, which are probably not entirely suited to the classroom environment.  This video, from the National Autistic's Society, does a pretty good job of simulating this - can you blame the child for getting upset at the end? 

The child that you are trying to get the best out of is dealing with this all the time, and the younger they are, the less expert they will be at handling it.  Take a moment.  If the student is struggling to get started on a piece of work, or is extremely distracted, then it is possible they are close to melt-down or over-stimulation.  Give them a break, allow them to take a brief time out or indulge in some doodling or reading for a moment to ground them.  See if your SENCO knows what the student's strategies to calm themselves are and make sure you allow the student to utilise them.

2. Keep the environment routine and calm at all times.

A calm environment (that crazy red sun from a month or so back)
There is a benefit to this generally, let's face it.  Having strong routines and a calm but friendly and safe atmosphere in the classroom is a real boon for behaviour management with all students, but it will transform your room from a mad carnival/zoo arena into a pleasant place to be for a child on the spectrum.  Make sure lessons begin and end in the same way every day if you have an ASD student in the group.  Ideally let them know what they will be doing at the start of the lesson, if you have a good relationship with them.  Minimise surprises, especially surprise tests (are they ever a good idea for anyone??) and make sure that if a routine will change (a school trip, say), that the child is spoken to and made to feel aware AND considered by the teachers and other staff - often I feel just the fact that time has been taken to remember that a student may have difficulties is enough to help them through, as they feel more secure (I know I do).  I have found that even a quiet glance and a reassuring nod of the head can help a student cope with whatever new challenge is approaching - it shows them that you understand, and with ASD it helps so, so much if other people understand.  See my blog post here for some insight into the stresses that environment and people can bring.

3. Be clear in your instruction.

Make nothing ambiguous when setting work.  Again, all students will tend to benefit from this, but I cannot state enough how vital it is that a student with ASD knows what you expect of them.  Modelling is a great tool here, of course - showing the students work that is successful will work wonders with many students on the spectrum, and especially those with Asperger's, as it will remove a major source of debilitating procrastination - the fear of not doing the job correctly.

Even clarifying exactly how much should be written (an admittedly annoying task at times, but I ALWAYS let a student with ASD know what is needed) can boost the effort and motivation in class, as can any other clear expectation ("complete all four questions before you move on to the next task in 5 minutes", for example).  I think this is one of the greatest kindnesses you can show to a student on the spectrum, as it will make the task clearer and crystalised, a possible end goal rather than a vague and misty 'something'.  For English teachers, Slow Writing (thanks to David Didau) can be an excellent technique to employ, for the same reasons - it allows students to explore their creativity (and they may be startlingly creative) within safe and clear boundaries.

Behaviour Management will be the focus of the next post - this is a tricky one!

I hope this helps both teachers and students and please let me know if you think I've made an error - as I said, this is mostly from personal, long experience.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Three Scenes from an Awkward Mind

I know that face: that face means upset.  It's the angle of the head and the amount the eyes are closed, seen it many times before.  And usually it means upset with me because when she's upset with something else then the angle of the head is different and she doesn't do that thing with her mouth.  So I must have done something wrong, but I don't know what.  I went to get a mars bar after work - does she know about that somehow?  I should offer to get her something to see how she reacts, that'll tell me what I need to know.

Oh, didn't work.  She doesn't seem to want anything but wasn't snappy, but wasn't cheerful either.  Could she be upset with something that's happened that I don't know about?  But then why wouldn't she tell me?  I can't work it out and I don't think she'll tell the truth if I ask, as people don't do that especially when they're upset.  Her tone of voice I recognise though, so I'm pretty sure I've annoyed her in some way, but I still don't know why.


Don't say anything.  Please don't say anything.  I just want to get my drink and then go and sit down quietly.  Don't make eye contact, that will make him start talking, just keep looking at your phone and try to calm down, you're only getting a coffee from a new barista you've not met before.  Oh god, he's talking about the holidays, am I going anywhere nice?  Stock phrase - no, not this summer, you - and wait for the reply that I don't care about at all.  Why would I care about where this stranger is going on holiday?  Do that quick laugh of blended appreciation and understanding, always works.  Still don't look in the eyes.


An empty pair of seats.  Thank God. Train's a bit too busy, don't like the noise or the heat.  I'll sit by the window, put my bag next to me.  Please don't anyone sit down here.  Still people coming down aisle from both directions.  Are there any other empty seats?  Can see a few down there, one or two there unless they have short people in that I can't see.  Is putting my bag there rude?  Don't want to seem rude but don't want to have to sit next to someone all the way to Leicester.  Three people coming.  What chances do I have that I'll be left alone?  20%, maybe 30%? Maybe they'll be too awkward to ask to move the bag.  They've sat down elsewhere!  Rejoice! Relax!


What about when we get to Bedford?  Loads will get on there.  Shit, where will they all sit?  Wait for the platform....


Platform's bloody crowded.  Typical.  Bloody hell.  Here they all come.  That guys looking at the seat.  Oh god, he's going to sit down.  Scoot over as close to the window as I can, bag on knee, too awkward now to stand up and stow it overhead, so doomed to discomfort.  Got to keep legs away from his; can't let them touch, even a little.  Hope I don't come across as weird.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Teaching with Asperger's - a paradox to ponder (Part One)

Asperger's syndrome, being on the autistic spectrum, is a combination of three key areas of daily difficulty: social interaction, social communication and social imagination

See this handy diagram for how they operate and interact:

As you can see, there are whole worlds of problems here, all of which are concerned with dealing with other human beings.  Some are quite extreme, such as "inappropriate touching of other people", whereas most are fairly straightforward.  None of them, I think, would be associated with quality teaching.

The fact I am a relatively successful teacher who has managed to rise to middle management and still get good results was always in the way of me thinking I really had some kind of autistic condition.  No matter how miserable I was, trying to operate like everyone else, my successful career always stood out as a veto to the concept of my being ASD.  How could I teach the way I do with autism?  How would that even work?  It is something that I have given a lot of thought to, and I believe I now have some understanding of how it works.

As I have noted before in this blog, I have managed to develop, over the years, lots and lots of coping mechanisms and little tricks to help keep all of this at bay and hopefully invisible to the naked eye.  I believe this started very young, to the point where there was never any concern for my psychological well being as a child.  I was thought shy, a little awkward and something of a loner, but little more than that.  I had picked up at an early age how to avoid stressing myself out and how to act with people so they were comfortable and happy, and this skill got more sharply honed as I grew up.  As such my repetitive movements that help keep me relaxed (stims, as they are known in the Aspie community) are very subtle (clenching and unclenching toes, rubbing feet together, basically stuff you can do without anyone noticing) as I hated the thought of standing out or appearing to be 'weird' in any way.

Masks. From Skyrim, obviously.
By the time I was doing my PGCE and was in schools teaching for the first time, I had been managing my symptoms for nearly 20 years and as such was pretty good at it.  I was also very confident as I had been successful at university and was hugely buoyed by how natural teaching felt for me.  I think everyone who teaches can agree that there is an element of acting involved - whether this is a means of holding the class's interest or to hide true feelings (or hangovers), and this is exactly how it felt for me.  Teaching a class was going on stage.  Now bear with me - I'm not suggesting that I set out to be some kind of comedian-teacher (imagine how that would go down on Twitter!) - more that I found wearing a 'teacher mask' and being something of an exaggerated persona made teaching not only possible for me, but even successful.  Students tended to be happy with my passion for the subject and my slightly intense humour making imaginative links between topics and ideas.  I could teach precisely because I wasn't myself in the classroom, and all my discomforts and issues with social interaction were hidden behind my mask.  This works because teaching isn't a normal social interaction, just as being on stage isn't either.  The power balance and attention is not equal or eithin the usual bounds of social interactions.  As a teacher, you are telling a narrative, explaining a concept, talking at the world even (at times) - you are not engaging in small talk and reading facial expressions carefully, worrying about whether the other person likes you or thinks you're weird.  In short, teaching doesn't fire off the usual Asperger's traits that make social interaction so difficult

But it still takes its toll.  I still feel deeply anxious before and after every lesson I teach, and each lesson exhausts me, drains me of energy.  You can't wear a mask all the time, and every minute with it on requires still more minutes with it off, preferably alone, recharging. But I can do it, and that keeps me coming back for more.

Next time I'll consider how Asperger's actually helps with reading a classroom.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

A diagnosis of Asperger's. Part Six

On Wednesday morning I went to Devizes for my third and final assessment appointment, four weeks after I had started.  These assessment sessions were about two hours long each, with the psychiatrist working her way through an enormous questionnaire that seemed determined to access every last neuron of my memory and experience, split into several clear sections.  In the first appointment we had covered social communication; in the second, social imagination, friendships and work; in this one we had something of a light relief period, as it focused on things such a motor capabilities and sensory quirks.  Needless to say, these appointments left me feeling extremely drained and worse, in Devizes.

By the end of the session, after I had discussed how I can't help but read and decode every single car numberplate I see (it's true, and pointless, and tiring), and how I am hugely over-sensitive to repetitive sounds, the psychiatrist looked at me and informed me that there was little doubt at all that I was on the autistic spectrum, and that specifically I had Asperger's.  I had it in spades, in fact,  The feeling of relief was powerful, as I had invested a lot of time and energy into the process, and had begun the long and arduous task of re-evaluating my life with this potential diagnosis in hand.  Discovering that there was no further doubt, and that I'd be getting my report through the post in a week or so, was hugely comforting and still is, a day and a half later.  We spoke for a while about my most immediate concerns (I made the most of being assessed by an actual psychiatrist - apparently this is quite unusual) and then we parted company.  I have spent the last 36 hours since thinking about what the diagnosis means.

Ultimately it means a lot.  I don't think it will change who I am (though I fear I may 'relax' into it a little), as I have always had Asperger's, so there is no reason for change.  But it will (and to a point already has) change how I view myself and my interactions with the world.  How this pans out will be interesting to see, but I am determined to see things with a new optimism as I realise how far I have come with a brain that is not neuro-typical, and therefore how much further I could go.  I am hopeful that this diagnosis will bring peace of mind and comfort when I'm feeling low, and I am thankful for the opportunities and strengths it has brought me.

Where do I go from here?  That is the question, and I think I will continue to blog, as I'd like to go into more detail about living with Asperger's, in the hope it helps folk like me in future.  I am also going to immerse myself in the Aspie community and see what that brings.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

A diagnosis of Asperger's? Part Five

Talking to someone with Asperger's must be maddening at times, especially if they are having an off-day and their usual coping mechanisms are playing up.  You see, for high-functioning Aspies, it is often the case that their condition is pretty much invisible to the people around them as they have become so adept at reading situations and hiding their discomfort (all at a cost - it's exhausting as hell).  Occasionally, however, these long-developed mechanisms and techniques can suddenly fail.  Being ill with a bad cold, having a chronic headache, having to deal with just too much stimulus can all leave a person with Asperger's naked and vulnerable, and leave the people around them confused and upset.  But how do these strategies get learned in the first place?

I know for a fact that a great many people I know would be sceptical or even dismissive of any suggestion that I have a condition as pervasive and seemingly-obvious as Asperger's.  All my life I have managed it too well.  Asperger's often has little impact on a toddler, and language can often be learned at the usual rate.  In children it can manifest itself in meltdowns (outbursts where things get too intense and the individual struggles to maintain control) or in poor behaviour in school but just as likely it can lead to nothing more unusual than a quiet child with a few close friends who simply doesn't tolerate anything unusual, noisy or chaotic - in short, people with Asperger's can go their whole childhood and teen years without a diagnosis, all the while finding ways and means to offset the constant anxiety, social difficulties and emotional exhaustion.  Twenty or thirty years of practicing and refining these skills (still much more conscious and 'forced' than a neuro-typical's social behaviour) can make an Aspie blend in, disappear, until something happens to strip them of their armory.

This is how I think it panned out for me.  I reckon that for my whole childhood I just 'got on with things' and simply avoided anything that I knew would make me anxious or uncomfortable.  I think I assumed everyone was the same, that anxiety was a constant state of mind for all of us and that therefore I should just live my life.  I spoke only to people I wanted to speak with, and these were mostly people who shared an interest.  I am told I was often thought of as rude or even ignorant as I would refuse to respond to questions or small talk, even at the age of eight or more.  I certainly only ever wanted to be left with my solitary hobbies - anything dragging me from them (school, trips out, holidays) I actively despised.  School became tolerable only because I was good at it and everyone seemed pretty happy to leave me alone (a miracle that I am thankful for).  In fact an abiding memory of my GCSE years was a particularly cruel set of caricatures that one of the form's more artistic members had drawn up of the whole class.  Some were truly vicious and even alarming, but mine was simply a man standing by a fireplace, pipe in mouth, neutral expression.  Thank goodness for that, I say.

So I learned to get by and always had a small coterie of friends (most of whom I have lost contact with - I am dreadful at maintaining any but the closest of relationships).  I have no idea how I was viewed, or whether anyone thought I was 'different' in any way, but certainly all was as well as could be expected.  It was the much, much later triple whammy of becoming a father, being made a middle leader and suffering from depression that tore my defenses from me and left me trying to figure out what the strange being within this lost cocoon was, and how it worked: suddenly I found myself struggling with conversation, always deeply confused by missed implications or body language.  Teaching, which had been paradoxically quite a successful career path for me, given that I was so accustomed to acting and being hyper-aware of my interactions, was suddenly impossible.  I had time off.  I gradually recovered and learned more about ASD, leading to my situation right now.

My armory is being repaired and renewed these days, and I am increasingly like my old self, most of the time.  But it has been quite an experience and not one that I would care to re-live.  Asperger's does not have to be a curse at all; all told I am probably glad that I have likely grown up with it as it has given me so much to be thankful for, but it can spiral quite badly and an awareness of this for both Aspies and their loved ones is of great importance.

Monday, 23 October 2017

A diagnosis of Asperger's? Part Four

If you've been reading my blogs and thinking 'goodness, this sounds just like me!' then it may well be that you fancy taking this a little further and discovering a little more about ASD and Asperger's in particular.  That was certainly my first step.  However, like OCD, ASD is notoriously easy to self-diagnose based on a few character quirks that are actually relatively common in the general population, so it is important that you tread carefully and don't make too many assumptions.

Minas Tirith in Minecraft.  Just because.
Generally speaking, a diagnosis is only ever going to be helpful if you are finding your ASD traits to be impacting on your life in a detrimental way, or if you have a real need to know the truth behind your inability to operate as everyone else seems to.  If you are happy and getting on with life merrily, then it may not be worth the time and effort of getting a formal diagnosis, despite having some tell-tale symptoms.  However, if you're having significant difficulties in your relationships or at work, say, then it could be a good idea to look into it a little deeper and see if you fit the criteria.

There are many pretty poor quality 'ASD tests' out there - so many that it seems pretty likely that self-diagnosis is very common and possible even (shudder) 'cool'.  This is certainly something that the Aspie community is very wary of, and on forums it would be very wise indeed to know your onions and to have really made sure you are not just a bit shy before wading into conversation.  I have several questionnaires that I can recommend, if only because they are respected by those that actually make the diagnoses; these questionnaires are lengthy and requ
ire real effort, but are likely to give you a clear indication of whether it is worth pursuing a diagnosis or not.

My favourite, and the one that has been used during my current diagnosis (even though I'd filled it in online before) is the 'Ritvo Autism-Asperger's Diagnostic Scale - Revised' or RAADS-R.  This questionnaire differentiates between you now and you pre-age 16, as it takes into account that people on the spectrum often manage to teach themselves ways to cope, meaning that significant symptoms as children vanish in adulthood (well, not vanish, but become hidden).  As such it is more thorough than other tests, and at 80 questions long it's pretty intense!  Answers are a choice between:

a) True now and when I was young
b) True only now
c) True only when I was younger than 16
d) Never true

Here are a few sample questions:

1. I am a sympathetic person

2. I often use words and phrases from movies and TV in conversation

10. I always notice how food feels in my mouth.  This is more important than taste for me.

22. I have to "act normal" to please other people and make them like me

29. Some ordinary textures that do not bother others feel very offensive when they touch my skin

40. I can see in my mind in exact detail things that I am interested in

As you can see, the questions take in every aspect of ASD, including the lesser known sensory experience.  This can include an intolerance of slight warmth, meaning that cool temperatures have to be constantly sought, or strange changes of intensity of sounds that are actually remaining at a constant volume.  Somebody with simple introversion tendencies would score pretty low on this questionnaire.  Once you've filled it in, it places your results against the body of results and against those scores that seem to indicate ASD.  Apparently a score of 140 or more is highly suggestive of ASD; I got a score of 187...

The Empathy Quotient test is another fairly standard one that can be completed online and that you may well be asked to complete as part of a formal diagnosis.  This focuses on human empathy, of course, so avoids those other symptoms that RAADS-R explores, but raises some intriguing questions including my favourite: "If someone asked me if I liked their haircut, I would reply truthfully, even if I didn't like it."  Obviously this is less useful for adult ASD as we will often have developed coping strategies from past experience, ie NEVER TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT SOMEONE'S APPEARANCE IF THEY ASK!!!!!  No doubt this rule will be over-applied, as it is impossible for someone on the spectrum to tell when a person is genuinely concerned and not fishing for compliments.  Hard times.  But, the EQ together with RAADS-R are a great starting place if you are wondering.

After that, a trip to the GP and a request for a referral should be undertaken if you are sure that you want to make that journey.  Obviously the GP will need plenty of reason to direct NHS funds your way, so ensure you know what you're talking about and can give a detailed explanation of why you feel a referral is required.  My GP was extremely understanding and referred me quickly after I explained it all, but then this was after a year or so of speaking with her about anxiety and depression so I suppose she already had a lot to go on - being over-prepared wouldn't be a bad idea.

Good websites and forums:

Reddit's Asperger's subreddit - make sure you know what you're talking about!
The National Autism Society - useful info
A blog - 'Life on the Spectrum' with fascinating insights