Receiving a high-functioning Aspergers diagnosis as an adult has meant that I’ve begun to see certain experiences in my life in a new light.
When I was six years old something unusual happened. My teacher, the teacher I had in my first year of primary school, arrived unexpectedly at our house one day.
It was the beginning of the summer holidays. My younger sister and I were playing in the garden. I remember we had ice lollies. My mum used to make them using plastic moulds which she’d fill with orange squash. My mum was just as surprised as I was to see Mrs Waits standing at the garden gate.
I’ve come to apologise to Emily, she said.
Being six years old and, at that particular moment, interested only in my ice lolly and the game I was playing with my sister, I accepted her apology and moved on with life.
I do remember, though, knowing exactly what it was she was apologising for. I had been very upset that day at school and seeing my teacher brought it all back. I must also have mentioned the events of that day to my mum as she seemed to know what Mrs Waits was talking about.
It was the last week of term and Mrs Waits had given us a task to complete involving sequin stars. We each had a piece of black mounted card in the shape of a star. In the middle of each of our tables were plastic tubs full of sequin stars. We were to chose a type of sequin star and glue that star onto our own cardboard stars. There were four types of star to chose from: large gold, small gold, large silver or small silver.
We were supposed to chose just one type of sequin star.
I chose large gold.
When I began the task I discovered there were hardly any large gold stars in the tubs on my shared table. There seemed to be lots of the other types of star but no large gold ones.
I continued to search through the sequins looking for large gold stars whilst the rest of my table, and the rest of the class, got on with glueing.
Mrs Waits was angry with me. Why was I being so slow? Why was I refusing to carry out the task when everyone else was doing it so nicely?
As often happens to autistic people in stressful situations, I couldn’t form the words I needed to explain that I was desperately trying to complete the task.
Mrs Waits must have realised, later, after we’d all gone home, that there were no large gold stars in the box. She must have felt sufficiently bad (I was a very sensitive child) that she looked up my address and came to apologise.
People with Aspergers can be very literal. We stick to rules, In a crazy and confusing neurotypical world we use rules like life-rafts, clinging to them in order to have at least something to hold onto.
This is why I often feel extremely anxious, sometimes even physically sick, if I see someone on the underground standing on the wrong side of the escalator. This is why I need to know whether I’m queuing in the right place in the supermarket, why I have to always wait for the green man when crossing the road (not such a bad thing).
This is why I didn’t think to look for a different type of star. I had been given a task with a rule and it would have been wrong to break the rule even though I was struggling.
People with Aspergers also become anxious and stressed about things that neurotypical people may not always worry about; arriving for an appointment five minutes late, wearing the wrong article of clothing, not completing an assignment on time, even if it was optional, talking on public transport if we believe, from watching others, that the rule appears to be don’t.
Pretending to be normal is hard work. People with Aspergers have to make an extra effort to learn the rules that others seem to intuitively know. If we think we’ve gone wrong we can get really distressed about it. We think and respond to information in a way that is quite literal. We can’t help it. It’s just the way our brains work.
When talking to a person on the spectrum, try to be clear. Be specific about what is a rule and what is just a guideline.
Make sure there are plenty of gold stars in the box.