ARCHIVED – The Many Guises of a Female With Autism


ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology.

I have had manydisguise skill try harder personas in my life, fundamentally I have always been the same, but what I choose to show is often selective and carefully thought through. That isn’t to say that any of these ‘personas’ are contrived fakes, I am not a sociopath I am an autistic female who has learnt that the only way to get through life is to hold part of yourself back and try to disguise the rest. I can go through many in a day, from a highly organised business woman wearing a metaphorical power suit, handling my multiple clients with the efficiency and seriousness commonly undertaken by people such as the Foreign Secretary (I am unsure who that is exactly but I am sure we are quite similar and our work equally as important), to an extremely cool music person akin to one of those gangster rappers, cruising in my hood with my car stereo turned up blaring out Eminem to the elderly passerby’s on a Tuesday afternoon. Neither very successfully I’d like to add, but just enough to give me the confidence to not really care. Every human on the planet does it automatically, but it is amazing how many you can get through just to keep you on top on things when you have to manually manage them.

As stressful and as highly energy and time consuming a strategy this may be just to cope with everyday life, it is thought that many autistic females are slipping through the net by employing such masks of disguise. It is often the case that autistic females are identified with other mental health difficulties before they are even noticed by specialists as possibly being on the spectrum, most likely because they have got so good at Funny-photo-polar-bear-penguin-nose-disguisehiding their impairments. Doctors, parents, therapists and teachers see very isolated problems in girls, they see a bit of social anxiety and ‘shyness’, or perhaps mood instability, but never the full picture. The classic clues such as lack of eye contact and obsessive and odd interests have been covered up and given more socially acceptable disguises, such as obsessive interests in pop stars or books. Both of which are fairly common interests for most people and would not draw attention; however, it is the intensity of such interests which become abnormally heightened in autistic females. At this juncture I shall attempt to give you another example from my own bank of embarrassing autistic behaviours. When I was 13-14 years old I developed a keen interest of the pop star Pink, much like all my peers at that time. However, instead of just being content to listen to album and catch up on her antics in Heat magazine, I obsessively listened to her Misunderstood CD for days on end, learnt all the lyrics, learnt how to mimic her voice on the songs, clad myself out in some cargo trousers, white ‘wife beater’ vest and silver dog tags so we even had the same look (in retrospect we didn’t but the intention was there), and followed her every move online (in a non stalkerish kind of way). This obsession eventually died down and now I just get obsessed over new albums and repeatedly listening to the same tracks over and over again, much to my partner’s, family’s and ex-housemate’s annoyance. The point being that my interest could clearly be classed as ‘unhealthy’ yet it wasn’t obvious to anyone on the outside, not in the same way as it would have been if I had an obsessive interest in the different patterns of moth wings or an obscenely large collection of train timetables.

So what does the research say? To date there has been very little on this specific topic, although it has been widely discussed and theorised on.  Tony Atwood (2007) described how such a coping strategy may be a female specific reaction to being different, and in order to achieve superficial social success women imitate people deemed as socially competent. In their report on the missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis of women on the spectrum, Gould and Ashton-Smith (2011) found girls were typically more socially aware with a greater desire to interact socially, and could follow social actions using delayed imitation of other children.

The reason that such research is importanfunny-cat-on-a-wire-in-disguise-445x299t is because if females are simply learning to mimic better than autistic males, and are better able to disguise their impairments, then many females struggling with the condition may be missing the chance of a diagnosis and appropriate help and support. As I recently wrote about in my blog post The Misdiagnosis of Women on the Autism Spectrum: A Shared Story, the stress caused from constantly trying to hide your difficulties can be overwhelming and lead to other health problems including mental health difficulties. What is clear in the research is that females and males with the condition share the same core triad of impairments; researchers at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge conducted a behavioural comparison of male and female adults with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Conditions, and discovered that the severity of childhood core symptoms did not differ between the sexes, and neither did they differ in self-reported empathy, systemising, anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive traits. However, females with the condition seem to have more self-reported autistic traits and their parents report more social problems (Hutman, Bolte and Pouztka, 2007). What this suggests is that females may be more aware of their differences, and may have higher expectations placed on them to be more ‘typical’ by their parents, and perhaps society as a whole, compared to their male counterparts. Typically females are expected to be polite, friendly and socially competent, placing more emphasis on fitting into society than males, whose individuality is typically more accepted and often celebrated. If you look at famous men and women who display autistic traits, our perceptions of them are often completely different. Such men are viewed as geniuses and leaders, whereas the women are viewed as unfriendly loners with mental health problems. Before I start a feminist rally this is a huge generalisation meant for dramatic effect and cannot be applied to everyone. However, there will always be differences in the way the sexes are viewed and treated in society, differences which mean that women with autism spectrum disorders may feel pressured into trying to fit in, and as such learn to mimic those around them.

ARCHIVED – The Misdiagnosis of Women on the Autism Spectrum: A Shared Story


ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology.

 

In a survey conducted by the National Autistic Society only 1/5 of autistic women were diagnosed by the time they were 11. Over half of boys had already received their diagnosis. What’s going wrong when it comes to detecting girls on the spectrum, and why is there such a male bias when it comes to assessment? This is the story of hundreds of women with the disorder, taken from their personal accounts, books and blogs.

anxious-kids-dealing-with-an-insecure-teen_ArticleImagine you are a 6 year old girl, you have no desire to play with the other children but you are often forced into ‘play dates’. You like boys toys, climbing trees, building Lego. They like pretty dolls, styling hair and playing mum. Every birthday party you are forced into an itchy horrendously over the top patterned dressed with matching tights, you wear it for 15 mins to appease everyone then you burst into tears and it is taken off you. You quickly learn that it is going to be a bit of an endurance test ‘being a girl’. Even as a six year old you have become very self conscious, studiously trying to learn how to behave and what to say; you don’t understand it but it seems to work. Over the years you’ve become a very anxious child, too scared to say or do the wrong thing, scared of bringing unwanted attention onto yourself. The teachers say you are selectively mute, and try to force words out of you.

Not talking has become counterproductive, it is not ‘normal’ behavior and seems to be causing a bit of a scene. Reluctantly you utter that first word, and suddenly they all come flooding out like verbal diarrhoea, you think it is all pointless chit chat but people seem to respond and you are blending in more. However, all that nervousness has to go somewhere, you might seem more sociable with more friends but it’s still meaningless to you. By the age of 10 you are experiencing full blown panic attacks and suffering from multiple phobias. The doctors call this an anxiety disorder, they tell you  to expose yourself to your fears and overcome them. The medical way of telling you to ‘man up’. So that’s exactly what you do, you teach yourself to overcome them one by one so they are invisible to the outside world. You don’t give up until you have contained every ounce of anxiety inside a locked safe deep within your cerebellum.

Unfortunately now to cope with ‘normal’ life and other people you have developed a few odd repetitive behaviours. Clucking noises in the back of your throat, hand twitches and a desperate need to turn switches on and off. Your friends start to ask you why you’re being so weird. The school bullies start to mimic you, laugh at you. Before you know it you have obsessive compulsive disorder, these behaviours need to be reduced. So just like the anxiety you tackle it head on, one useless behaviour at a time, for Christ’s sake why can’t you just be normal!? Look at that girl over there, she’s attractive and friendly, and everyone seems to love her, if only you could just be a bit more like her…you watch her more and more intently, every conversation you have with her is scrutinised until every thought you have is of her, and then before long as though you are her. You have successfully cloned another human being and you have the friends to prove it!

Only it doesn’t stop there, there’s so many people you want to be more like. So much pressure to keep it up. You begin to wish you looked like them too, so you stop eating and start exercising. At first you are complimented on your great shape but before long the admiring looks turn to disapproving. You are referred to mental health services, the doctors say you have Anorexia Nervosa. Or maybe you start to self-harm. You are in secondary school now, the social pressure has gone up a notch. Suddenly everyone’s trying to impress the opposite sex and get the most drunk at parties. You just want to go home straight after school and do the same thing you do everyday; watch your TV programmes, read your books, organise your shelves and do you homework. Everyone’s having ‘so much fun’, and you can’t possibly be having fun. But you are, but now you feel bad for having fun by yourself. You make feeble attempts to hang out with your peers but usually collapse in exhaustion after an hour or two, requiring several days by yourself to recuperate. They find each others jokes so funny, you use to be the funny one but now you just don’t understand them, you miss the point, they say you take them too literally.

You’re so tired your mood Mental-Health-Hotlineis up and down. Occasionally you feel full of energy and take on life at an alarming pace. You can be sociable, witty and productive. Then a few weeks later you are in the pits of despair. You have tried buckets full of pills, but you’ve been oversensitive to them all. The hormonal pill makes you moody and depressed, the anti depressants make you psychotic and twitchy. After assessing all your notes you finally get label led as manic depressive or perhaps as having a personality disorder. It never quite fits but no one has ever considered you might have autism. You are a girl, you have friends, you make good eye contact, you aren’t sat rocking with your collection of trains. Maybe by the time you are in your 20s someone will piece it together for you, or maybe you’ll go through life never knowing, carrying the burden of multiple psychiatric diagnoses along with you.

Many females who go on to get diagnosed with autism  have been referred from other psychiatric conditions. Many have co-morbid conditions, most commonly OCD, eating disorders, personality disorders, selective mutism, anxiety and depression. It is thought that up to 42% of these may have been misdiagnosed (Gould, 2011). Fortunately researchers are beginning to address the gender divide in diagnosis. Last year the ‘autism in pink’ two year international programme was launched, looking at the misdiagnosis, social exclusion and stress among females on the Autistic spectrum. Hopefully this will change the way autism is perceived, erasing the male stereotypical image which biased research has created. What is vital to remember is that cognitively men and women with the disorder do not differ, they are impaired in the same core areas. However, it is how the different sexes cope with these impairments which creates the false belief that they experience the disorder differently. Many believe it is due to females being required to be socially adept in society, or having a drive to understand others. Maybe one day we will know.

My bible and the best book you will read if you’re a girl on the spectrum: “Aspergirls” By Rudy Simone

ARCHIVED – Why Aspergers is not a Scapegoat for the Connecticut Tragedy


ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology.

 

“A troubled 20-year-old loner with a history of autistic behaviour is the monster behind a horrific shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that left 26 people, including 20 children dead on Friday” were the words the Daily Mail used to report the Connecticut tragedy last week. This made me angry for two reasons, the first being that it uses an incredibly upsetting tragedy to cause hype and speculation, and secondly, in doing so it has insensitively caused irrefutable damage to a whole population of people with autism and their friends and family. You do not have a history of ‘autistic behaviour’, you either have it for life or you don’t. It is not like having a history of violent behaviour; I don’t wake up one day and display lots of ‘autistic behaviour’ then wake up the next and am perfectly fine again.  It is a whole person, it is their way of thinking, and it is not a mental illness and should not be used to describe bad behaviour. Semantics aside, the Daily Mail is not the only culprit pointing the finger at Asperger’s being a possible reason behind Adam Lanza’s motives.

Adam Lanza may have Asperger’s, but this does not automatically mean that because he then went on to become a mass murderer, his autism was to blame, anymore than the colour of his skin or his ingrown toenail was; the two are not mutually inclusive. There have been many similar tragedies carried out by people not on the autistic spectrum and many people on the autistic spectrum who cannot stand violence, in fact most; as a population we can be rule abiding to the point of annoyance. In fact in a very interesting study into the criminal behaviour of those with autism by Hippler et al, a group of subjects with Autism had a conviction rate of 1.30% for crimes committed, which was very similar to the general male population’s conviction rate of 1.25.

So why does autism often become implicated in such cases? I believe the main reason is that many of these people have traits which appear similar to autistic traits. For instance like those with autism, psychopaths experience a lack of empathy and are typically ‘loners’, so when you are faced with a killer who has acted unbelievably cruelly, it seems like this must be to blame. However, what is often missed is the difference between the two disorders when it comes to such impairments. A psychopath has no capacity to feel any kind of empathy or anything towards any other human being, where as someone with Aspergers has certain empathy impairments but is capable of feeling for others on the whole, their impairment just means that they perceive empathy differently to others. Emily Willingham has described this point much better than I could even attempt to in her blog post “Autism, empathy and violence: One of these doesn’t belong here”.

obama-newtown_2431646bMy final question: So if this is the case, then why does the media report it? As I wrote in a blog post a few months ago, Autism Vs The Media, it is because it gives a very satisfying reason to some very shocking behaviour; it avoids blaming society or calling for any serious changes to be made, and instead focuses in on the individual in a way politicians and society can ignore and trust in the capable hands of our scientists and doctors. People avoid using the word psychopath, mainly because we do not understand enough about it. Unlike autism, which is very popular at the moment, it is a mental illness, but one that we have no way of treating or managing currently, it’s a scary prospect to think we live in a society with these people. That is not to say that Adam Lanza was a psychopath, or that due to his Aspergers he did not struggle with mental health difficulties, but they were not the cause and to link them is purely speculative. Comorbid mental health difficulties occurring in someone with autism is extremely common, but they do not create cold blooded killers and criminals. For that the American government should look much closer to home, particularly at their gun laws and their mental health resources, as Guardian writer Philip Oltermann suggested today in his article “After the Newtown shooting, is it time to talk about mental health and crime”.

The Autism Research Institute released this statement after the tragedy:

“December 15, 2012

The staff at the Autism Research Institute is deeply saddened by the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut December 14th. In the hours following the attack, some in the media reported the shooter may have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. 

This morning, the leadership of ARI’s Autistic Global Initiative project issued the following statement:

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the community of Newtown, Connecticut today in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy. Some public comments have drawn potentially inaccurate and stigmatizing conclusions about a link between the diagnosis and a propensity for violence and lack of empathy.

The autism community has long labored toward building understanding, awareness, and trust within communities throughout the United States and the world. As adults with autism living productive, peaceful lives, we urge the media and professionals who participate in speculative interviews about the motives of the accused shooter to refrain from misleading comments about autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities. The eyes of the world are on this wrenching tragedy – with 1 in 88 now diagnosed, misinformation could easily trigger increased prejudice and misunderstanding.  Let us all come together and mourn for the families and exercise the utmost care in discussions of how and why it  occurred.”

Valerie Paradiz, Ph.D.”

ARCHIVED – Therapy for Autism


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ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology.

For the past 7 years I have been overly indulged in therapy, so much so that at one point it felt like a full time job. When people ask me where I am going at the same time every week,  I no longer whisper that I’m just off to another hospital appointment; I would have apparently rather people think I had an awful disease or was going to pick up my methadone for my drug addiction than that once or twice a week I went and sat in a room with a nice cup of tea (that’s a lie, I don’t drink tea, but in theory if I did I would be), and talk for an hour about ‘stuff’. During these 7 years I have learnt one very important thing: therapy is only good if it’s the right kind of therapy. This seems like stating the obvious but for someone with Autism or Aspergers, it is vitally important. People with autism or Asperger syndrome are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems (65%) such as anxiety and depression, especially in late adolescence and early adult life (Tantam & Prestwood, 1999). Before being diagnosed with Aspergers I had a series of hilariously bad and just downright damaging therapists/counsellors. All of which completely missed my Aspergers, and between them created a whole list of mental and personality problems before dumping me in the ‘cannot be cured, won’t be cured’ pile.

My first taste of therapy came at the tender age of 16, and came in the shape of a small wiry middle-aged cognitive behavioural therapist who was allergic to radiators, and insisted I join the local Buddhist Centre;
“I just don’t understand why this is necessary. You’ve been like this your whole life and you’ve never needed to have therapy before!” my mum exclaimed, her voice had risen to a pitch only detectable to dogs and very young children.
“Well maybe if I had been taken before I wouldn’t need it so much now! Besides, the doctor thinks I really need help and these people can give me extra support.” I threw back at her.
“Support for what?!”
“I don’t know, but apparently I need it and they can give it so I’m going, and you are coming with me in case they try to lock me up!” One week later we were both sat in a young people’s mental health clinic. My mum sat defiantly on the edge of her brightly coloured worn chair, coat still firmly done up. Before even meeting me my therapist had already blamed all my problems on my mother and warned her to stay away from the therapy room (given my mum’s current defensiveness I could sort of see where that assumption had come from). Half an hour later I legged it out of that room and into the waiting area. I found my mum perched even further off her chair, car keys in hand.
“She’s allergic to radiators, we need to leave fast”. I attempted to whisper at her to avoid grabbing the attention of the other patients and receptionist. Without having to tell my mum twice she quickly followed behind me and out of the bright purple coloured doors.
“I don’t think I really need to see a therapist after all.” I told mum in the car.
“No, one sessions probably enough.” She replied as we scooted out of the car park and headed back home.

My second experience of CStress_and_anxiety_funnyognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) came in a much friendlier package, and a woman I got on with incredibly well. However, looks can be deceiving and because my Aspergers was unknown, this therapist turned out to be more destructive than beneficial. CBT is basically used to address negative thought patterns, and uses practical techniques to conquer your fears, it’s pretty simple stuff and often effective, providing you’re able to identify your thoughts and verbalise them in the first place. She would often shout at me exasperated “but WHY does that make you feel anxious!?” over and over as I gradually become more and more mute, until finally after 8 sessions relenting and declaring me ‘stuck’, with an ‘avoidant personally disorder’, which is basically Psychologies way of telling you that you are screwed, and can’t be helped. The problem was that we were both looking at ‘common causes’ of anxiety, but actually mine weren’t that specific. One day going to the supermarket wouldn’t even flicker an ounce of anxiety, the next it would cripple me. This was because it wasn’t the supermarket which made me anxious, it was other uncontrollable factors; the lighting, weather, temperature, smells, how much sleep I’d had, who I’d bumped into, what else I had done that day, if I had a list, how busy it was, was my mind on other things…the list is endless.

For someone who has difficulty recognising and talking about their feelings, and who approaches the task with the rigor of a scientist trying to find the genetic code for the bubonic plague, counselling and talking type therapies have always been somewhat of a challenge. My mouth caves in and answers with a generic “yes everything fine thanks, can’t complain!” even when I’ve had a car crash of a week and have retired to my bed for the foreare_you_normal_final_copyseeable future. You see, as part of growing up and trying to adapt to living in the ‘normal’ world of polite conversation, I have learnt to avoid all possible faux pas’ with a strict list of polite replies and automatic panic attacks if the conversation delves into anything more personal. Queue an introduction to my third counsellor, a hardened, rough, middle-aged northern man who looked and sounded like he had come straight from the mines. In fact, he was an ex-train mechanic who after suffering from several panic attacks had turned his hand to counselling university students. With our shared avoidance of displaying emotions, in any other situation I feel we would have got along swimmingly, however I had turned to him after the failure and abandonment of my last therapist, was suffering from severe anxiety, and could not make head nor tail of what was happening in my head. On one occasion he sat me down and told me to close my eyes, then proceeded in his strong, gravelly, northern accent to create a relaxing scene of me on a beach, where the waves are “lappin’ at ya feet”.  He then proceeded to have a massive smokers coughing fit and aborted our imaginary holiday, and I thanked God for small mercies and for sending the North of England a particularly virulent strain of the common cold that winter. We ended our sessions when I finally realised the only advice he had given me in several months was to count cars if I’m outside and having a panic attack, and listen to a Paul McKenna CD when I’m inside having a panic attack, covering every possible eventuality, brilliant had either of those techniques worked.

Several counsellors, one’s advice to imagesstart Belly Dancing and another’s to write angry letters, later, and I came to the long overdue conclusion that I was talking-therapy-impaired. I had all but given up hope of ever being able to sort out my ‘head issues’ when I was given the opportunity to start Art Therapy. I could now draw my emotions. Yes, emotions didn’t have to be spoken, they could be drawn, created, symbolised, she’d know what I meant without me having to say anything! Pretty early on in my sessions my art therapist spotted that I had a lot of Autistic traits, she had never seen someone so generally anxious and I wasn’t responding like a standard patient with anxiety and depression would, my thinking was very different and it took me a long time to form a relationship with her which could even start to have some therapeutic benefits. Short term therapy is just no good for someone with Aspergers, our heads take a little longer to process the information and recover from it, and even a slight wrong turn can take us back to square one. Now my therapy is adapted to suit me, art is one of my special interests to start with, I can send emails when I’ve found it too difficult to verbally say what I am thinking, I can have time out when it’s getting too much, talk about every thought I’ve had that week that I haven’t understood and get a new perspective, or just sit in silence for an hour whilst planning my to-do list and what to have for tea! What I am trying to get at in this long self-indulgent memoir of my therapy experiences (yes I know, you’re thanking God you’re not my therapist) is that there is a right type of therapy for people with Aspergers, and that is therapy which acknowledges the individuals’ differences and can adapt to them, as Howlin (1997) says, “it is crucial that the physician involved is fully informed about the individuals usual style of communication, both verbal and non-verbal”. Hare and Paine (1997) list ways in which the therapy can be adapted for use with people with Asperger syndrome:

  • Having a clear structure
  • Adapting the length of sessions
  • The therapy must be non-interpretative
  • The therapy must not be anxiety provoking as any arousal of emotion during therapy may be very counterproductive
  • Group therapy should not be used
  • It is also important that the therapist has a working knowledge and understanding of Aspergers syndrome in a counselling setting, i.e. the difficulty people have dealing things emotionally, finding it best to deal with things intellectually
  • The therapist and client can work towards explicit operational goals, the focus being on concrete and specific symptoms 

The final important factor to consider when providing therapy and treatments to those on the spectrum is that they are not labelled as having mental illnesses they do not possess. Common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression can often present themselves in atypical ways. For example, Tantam and Prestwood (1999) describe how for ‘someone with Autism the depression might show itself through an individuals’ particular preoccupations and obsessions and care must be taken to ensure that the depression is not diagnosed as schizophrenia or some other psychotic disorder or just put down to autism’. It is crucially important to acknowledge that therapy is not a treatment for Autism or even for the characteristics of Autism; it is useful for the mental health issues that arise as a result of having the disorder and for adapting to life with it. It is now as much a necessity for maintaining my overall wellbeing as spending the beginning of the week watching the washing machine go round.

More info:

http://autism.about.com/od/autismtherapy101/a/psychautism.htm

http://www.autism.org.uk/working-with/health/mental-health-and-asperger-syndrome.aspx

http://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-aspergers-autism.html

ARCHIVED Schooling for Autism Part III: University and Beyond!


ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology.

The five most important things I learnt at university, in no particular order, were: that ‘then’ and ‘than’ are actually two separate words and should be used in two different contexts, not just out of preference; that it is never a good idea to start watching Green Mile at one o’clock in the morning, especially not when you are yet to start writing the essay due in at 9am the following morning (I passed out handing said essay in, and it wasn’t even through alcohol abuse); that things may feel big at the time but it is just a very small clip of your entire life; that people won’t care what you are like or judge you, so long as you wash up after yourself, occasionally take the bin bags out, and contribute to toilet paper buying once in a while; and finally, that no matter how weird you may think you are, you’re never far away from someone much, much weirder than yourself, a bit like that statistic which states that you are never more than 18 meters away from a rat, you are never more than 18 meters away from someone dressed as a Smurf doing their Laundry at 3am (just one of many examples).

University can be an Aspie’s worst nightmare, or a safe haven away from the real world. For me It was one of the hardest experiences and yet one of the best I have ever had. As the cliché goes, if I had the chance to go back knowing what I do now, I’d go back and get it right. By ‘right’ I don’t mean study more and procrastinate less, that would be impossible. I mean that I would be less scared of the world. I would have joined all the societies I was interested in and not cared about how rubbish I may have been talking to new people, I would have gone out with my friends more and not worried about not wanting to drink or feeling like I didn’t fit in, and most importantly I would have allowed myself to do the things that made me happy and felt stronger saying no to the things which made me really unhappy.

Classes

I thought I should start with this one as in theory it should be the most important aspect of university life, however it is not; it makes up only a tiny part of the whole experience. I struggled going to my lectures and tutorials, it became a bit of a joke amongst my housemates as I would collect my Early Warning Reports on my wall. The main issues I had were that the lecture halls were packed full of people, the tutorials were full of people I didn’t know making awkward conversation (clearly not awkward for anyone else but me). Where would I sit? Did I know people well enough to chat to them? How do I introduce myself? Once I’ve introduced myself how do I keep up the conversation? What if I’m made to talk to the whole class or do a presentation? What if people notice I’m behaving oddly? Can they see me jittering all the time? Why aren’t the chairs organised more uniformly? Can I get near the door so I can escape quickly? Is all this fear showing on my face!? On top of all that stress I had to process what the lecturer was trying to teach us. I started off having to teach myself from textbooks parts I had not understood when verbally taught, then soon realised I wasn’t actually getting anything from turning up at all, other than a lot of stress and tiredness. By fourth year I overcome a lot of those fears and managed to attend about 150% more of my lectures and seminars, so long as they weren’t before 10am. Everything just takes a bit of time, and luckily at university you have plenty to develop, especially if you have to retake a year. Much like my college teachers, my university lecturers paid no attention to me so long as my grades were OK. I wish they had given me more support, and I could list a hundred ways they could have helped now, but at the time I wasn’t aware I was autistic, I was just determined to prove everyone wrong.

Housemates

My housemates were the ones who kept me sane(ish) throughout the four years. I have never been more nervous than walking into my first house full of 16 people, how was I ever expected to make friends with them all!? I hibernated in my room for the first week of my Fresher’s year, until gradually I had to eat and people started knocking on my door. Living in halls with other students is such a surreal situation, which you will never be exposed to again. Because of this making friends is incredibly easy, they are already made for you, and fortunately I also liked a few of the ones I had been imprisoned with. Through them I made other friends and managed to build my confidence up slowly. It is never easy living with people you don’t know very well, but it is only once you live with people you realise that you are not much different to any of them. I was honest with my uni friends from the started and they accepted me exactly as I am, so uni soon became one of the very few places I could comfortably be myself. We’d spend all day watching films and chatting in the kitchen, and then they’d all go out drinking and clubbing in the evening, whilst I had some down time. It was never a problem and I was never deemed weird or isolated because I did things a bit differently. In fact during my most anxious phases when I would be too scared to leave the house at all, a couple of them would go and get my shopping or any work I needed, and think nothing of it so long as I cooked for them afterwards. Living in houses was much easier than halls. I thought I would enjoy the safety of living on campus, but it actually turned out to be too stifling and pressured. Living in houses I became more and more independent, and by third year going out didn’t seem so scary anymore.

Extra-curricular

I joined the folk club, the Neighbours society, Badminton Soc, Psychology Soc, Photography Soc, Quiet society and the LGBT soc. I went to none of them. I briefly attended a few Christian discussion groups, but had decided it was best I leave after I decided to spend the whole night playing devil’s advocate and had far too much enjoyment contradicting every Christian point which was made; when I get into a debate then God help you. My second society adventure was to Women’s Society with my housemates, where we sat watching a documentary on the menstrual cycle next to a girl drinking cider and eating a kebab, clearly she was having a good night out. I probably could have seen myself getting more involved with this one but felt my feminist spirit was lacking somewhat. Badminton Society lasted a little bit longer. Full of arrogance I jumped into the club fully expecting to astonish everyone with my Olympic standard racquet skills, three shuttle cocks in the breast and two in the head later I quietly slipped out and decided that racquet sports were best kept for rainy holidays.  I was much happier pursuing my hobbies by myself, as my own boss. Through my best friend who was involved in acting, I started doing a few photo shoots for plays on at the Drama Barn. Without a doubt this was the one thing I most enjoyed doing at uni, and gave me the most confidence. People liked my work, and through my work I met other people. I’ve always said I could do anything or meet anyone if I had a camera in my hand, for some reason the lens adds a barrier to the external world which prevents me from overloading, maybe because I’m more in control of it, I can freeze the world through a camera lens and slow it down.

Relationships

I don’t care what anyone says, the statistic that most people find their long-term partner whilst at university is a myth. It is a breeding ground of horny and experimental twenty year olds, unlikely to take a relationship any more seriously than their first year fire and safety talk (not very). This can have its advantages and disadvantages for the autistic mind. On the one hand it doesn’t matter how inept you are, no one seems to care and you are more than likely to find someone who will accept all your quirks. On the other hand students can be quite uninhibited, whilst most of us with Asperger’s tend to be quite inhibited, the pressure to do the ‘normal’ things ‘normal’ students do can be a little overwhelming at times, particularly when it comes to alcohol, drugs, and relationships. For me I always felt like I was a little bit behind on all my peers. Socially I have always developed more slowly, and having missed 2 ½ years of schooling I was behind them on all the normal social milestones, like having your first boyfriend/girlfriend.  I think what is most important to remember when you are feeling pressured to fit in more but don’t feel comfortable doing so, is that it is only yourself who can make you feel pressured. Lots of autistic people find relationships hard, and as abnormal as you may feel about your sexuality, you are in fact perfectly normal.

Another issue, which concerns more of the female population, is that of personal safety. Particularly for autistic women, we may be intellectually above our peers but we are naive at the best of times, often black and white, and incredibly trusting, which can and does occasionally lead us into danger. For me it was in my fourth year when I had moved back into halls with a group of new students I had not met before. Much like my first year in halls I made friends straight away; however one of these saw my naivety and vulnerability and used it to his advantage. People who know me may be surprised to hear me mention this publically, however I feel it’s important to mention for two reasons: firstly, because women in general should not have to hide and be made to feel ashamed of such assaults, and secondly because I feel it is a very important issue which needs to be addressed for the personal safety of females on the spectrum, and I was luckier than most. What hurt me most at the time of this incident was that I could not comprehend how someone can be a friend one minute and then hurt you the next; my black and white thinking could not accept what had taken place.

Meltdowns and Breakdowns

My final topic turns to the much more uplifting realms of meltdowns and breakdowns, of which I had many. My first meltdown started just an hour after arriving on my new campus. I had spent all summer collecting my new equipment and organising it, but it only hit me I was moving home an hour after arriving whilst sat in the pub with all my new friends. After that episode at least twice a term I would seriously contemplate leaving. It is fair to say I don’t transition well, and once settled need to be left alone. University does not allow for this. I was fortunate enough to be given extensions on missed work and have my timetable made easier to manage after my first breakdown at the start of my second year. First year had taken so much out of me I had used up all my resources and was forced to take the year off. I patched myself up as best as I could in that year and with the persuasion of my mother and the new set of Cath Kidston crockery she had bought me, managed to get back and just about finished the following two years. Needless to say I was exhausted by the time I graduated. What I hadn’t quite mastered whilst at uni, which would have been helpful, was the work/social/relaxation balance. I am only just managing to grasp that now.

I would say that University changed my life, and for me it was the perfect environment to practice life in before I would be forced to enter the real world, in a similar way to how I imagine prison would. Although these blog posts on my experience of the education system seem quite negative in parts, I wanted the take home message to be that although something seems hard at the time, you learn a lot from it and you will work out how to cope with it. My experience does not represent how all people with Autism and Asperger’s will cope with school, college and university, but I hope the lessons I learnt can be of some use. If you be yourself and honest at all times and don’t worry about others judging you, then you can get through anything.

ARCHIVED Schooling for Autism Part II – The College Years


ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology.

It soon became apparent that for every year of study I’d inevitably have a breakdown and require eight months off. A bit like a Tesco Value battery, I’d have one big burst of energy, and then suddenly crash just when the energy was needed most. My problem has always been that I am a perfectionist; it takes me a while to complete things in my methodical manner. This was OK in year seven, when I had multiple projects on the go but my mum could take half the load, producing some wonderful pieces for textiles and some fantastic essays on the Church of England and Pompeii. Through this method I also became adept at lying and acting under pressure, often because I hadn’t bothered going over my mother’s attempts, so when I was quizzed by my teachers on how I’d managed to produce such a high standard of work, I quickly learnt how to act insulted at the accusation being implied. Now don’t take the moral high ground, every parent has done it and I bet there isn’t one single child who hasn’t welcomed it, my mother was just slightly more competitive than yours and much better at getting Warden’s Commendations. Unfortunately for me my mum decided she’d rather live in the pub and hang out with her friends after completing her O Levels than continuing with her education, so when it came to college and university, her once greatly advantageous knowledge became obsolete; I had to go it alone.

Like most things in my life, I entered college in a state of delusion, more excited about the brand new stationary and bags I could buy, and the fewer more interesting topics I could study, than the reality of the situation. At college I was looking forward to finally being able to officially study Psychology and Photography, and indulge myself in reading and writing in English. My brain had not contemplated the hundreds of scary sixth formers that would also be in attendance, and who would ruin my special interests with their distraction and social competence. Having said that I was well liked at college and had several close friends alongside me already and made several new friends in my classes, when I actually turned up. However, the canteen there remains a source of my nightmares, with groups of people packed into it; I always felt so out of place when I walked in there, mainly because I wasn’t a knife yielding gangster rapping on my phone. I found my solace in the toilets during lessons when I became overwhelmed and breaks when I couldn’t find anyone, I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome so it wasn’t quite as strange as it sounds.

It is fair to say in classes I probably liked the company of my teachers more than the students. Especially in English I was seen as the class swot, well the only one to actually do the homework set. In Photography I switched to digital, and became a master of Photoshop. In Psychology I found my all time favourite special interest and would study above and beyond the syllabus. In Biology I memorised the course text front to back and could recite it on demand without actually having to understand what any of it meant; when it comes to A Levels that is pretty much the only skill you need to acquire. I found A Levels easier than GCSEs because my time wasn’t stretched between too many subjects, and the course objectives were so much clearer. You learnt how to pass the exams, and answer the questions exactly right, nothing more was required. It may seem surprising then that my attendance was well below 40% by the end of the two years.

I loved doing the homework and teaching myself but hated being in the classes. It was whilst at college that I first experienced mental health problems, a common by-product of autism. It seemed strange to me that whilst I was at home being home schooled away from my friends that I wasn’t suffering from any significant depression, yet whilst I was mixing with other people and living the life I’d prayed for over the previous two years, that I felt so low. In hindsight I realise that because of the Asperger’s and because I was transitioning and having to change my routine, this was inevitable. Being at college was draining and I could only manage a couple of days a week, if that. I couldn’t do a whole day of several classes, or participate in any classes which involved a lot of discussion and interaction. I remember during our first Psychology classes we had to do an experiment where half of us had to stand in the middle of the class and interact, whilst the other half had to watch one person and count the number of nervous movements we made, such as hair fiddling. This was absolutely my worst nightmare, I knew no one in the class and was being forced to interact with lots of people at once, not only this but I was being watched whilst doing it. At the end they added up all the behaviours and read them all out. The person watching me hadn’t counted many social movements, but had observed over 30 nose rubbings, a behaviour we weren’t even meant to be counting for! After that I became slightly fearful of the classes, in one our teacher started to put people into groups and the fear was just too much for me, so I ended up running out and having a panic attack in the toilet. My favourite was in my second year, when I was chosen to go up to the front of class and do an experiment to see how close I could comfortably stand in front of the teacher. We had a new teacher, who I didn’t particularly like; needless to say I had actually moved backwards and was almost hanging out of the window whilst she was on the other side of the room. However, thanks to a fantastically positive and encouraging teacher throughout my two years I was not put off Psychology by these bad experiences, I figured I would just have to develop better skills of dodging them!

By the beginning of my second year I was exhausted and suffered from similar problems to that I experienced at school when I had dropped out before my GCSEs. Physically I was too ill to go in most days or leave the house at all, let alone getting the two busses into town needed to reach college and back. Fortunately, my college were pretty oblivious to my absences as long as my grades continued to be A’s, as this was somewhat of a rarity at my particular college. The lesson to be taken away from my college years was not to try and hide my impairments and difficulties. I didn’t ever tell my teachers what I was struggling with, I hid behind my physical symptoms a lot and wouldn’t ask for the extra help I needed. I managed to get extra time in my exams and a separate room, without this small adjustment I don’t think I would have made it at all. My next stop was University, and I was determined to get it right this time, just think of all the new stationary and equipment I could buy for that!

Read Part 1:  “Schooling for Autism – how to survive it

ARCHIVED Schooling for Autism – How to survive it


ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology. 

I blog this piece in hindsight, as all through my schooling I wasn’t actually aware I was autistic, just that I couldn’t cope and was a little on the weird side. I often wonder if it would have been helpful to have known, if I would have received more support, or whether I wouldn’t have pushed myself as hard to make it through and go off to University as I did. With an increasing number of specialist autism schools opening around the UK, and more and more parents having to make the very hard decision of whether to send their autistic child to one of these schools or to a mainstream school, I have decided to write my personal story of trying to get through mainstream education, and the hurdles I experienced along the way…

I often gave the illusion of loving school, when in fact it was only buying and collecting all my new school stationary and equipment before the start of a new year that kept me going. My mum realised school was going to be a 12 year battle after I first started in reception class, where I cried for 3 weeks solid whenever she left me, and for at least 8 months I had selective mutism, refusing to talk to a soul there, even when my name was called out multiple times from the register. Fortunately for her, she clocked that my love of stationary and shopping would provide some rather useful positive conditioning, so every year we would embark on multiple trips to WHSmith for new sets of matching stationary and bags, which I would then spend the summer holidays organising as a way to prepare myself. It couldn’t have been a too bad a technique as it still works on me today. In order to encourage me to go to university we spent the summer stock piling all my new kitchen and bedroom kit, and then when I almost dropped out in my second year, it was the new Cath Kidston Crockery set which forced me back. I still get pangs of nostalgia when I see the back to school kits in shops, and know that one day I will give into temptation and buy the lot.

I often see school children now and think ‘how are you doing it!?” It wasn’t that I was no good at school or had no friends; I was always in the top to middle classes and had ample friends to choose to play with and see after school, at weekends, and during the holidays. It was just that it always felt like I was on a fast train I couldn’t get off, everything at school went too fast and this would take its toll both mentally and physically. In primary school I had a lot of unexplained illness absences, vague stomach complaints and general unwellness. I looked forward to those days where I could curl up on my Nanna’s sofa, eating the Milky Ways from her sweet tin whilst watching the TV with my Granddad, as he smoked his lungs away. Mentally, even as young as eight it took its toll as well. I remember several times I was so overcome by anxiety at school that it would result in panic attacks, once running around the school not being able to breathe because a bee had stung me (my best friend loves to remind me of this embarrassing story). I developed several phobias and OCD behaviours, mostly around contamination and illness; it felt like the only thing I could really control. All through my school career I seemed to relate a little too well to the adults, always befriending the teaching assistants and helpers. Despite this I was well liked at school and took part in an as much as I could, no matter how nervous it made me.

Nine years of battling this anxiety, however, takes its toll. I’d transitioned over to Secondary School and things started to become a little more complicated. There was more pressure to do well in classes and to start looking towards the future, the days were longer, the buildings busier, the social pressure was greater, my coping strategies were not adept enough to deal with the ever changing environment I was trapped in. Due to menstrual problems I gradually started to have more and more days off sick. I couldn’t even comprehend managing five days in a row as I was too exhausted. Vague stomach problems began to surface and I was overcome by a fear of going at all. I felt ill but sometimes I couldn’t pinpoint why, I just knew I was too ill for school. It wasn’t School Phobia as many of the professionals involved at the time wanted to believe, when I knew I was well enough there was no fear at all, it just took me days to charge up my batteries again for one day in the classroom. The doctors couldn’t pin point what was wrong and by some I was told to stop skiving and go to school, which obviously did not help my growing panic. Despite this it took the school a full year to notice my absences and finally help me. Many teachers did not have the time, but three in particular were an incredible help. One phoned me regularly to keep me updated with all the gossip from my form group, and two others regularly sent me work and messages of encouragement; I was so desperate to teach myself and not to miss out and get behind on the work.

Eventually I was referred onto the Secondary Support Services in my area, who were able to send tutors in to home school me. Although I am incredibly grateful of their help now, at the time I was more frustrated by how under qualified they were. There was nothing wrong with me intellectually and in some cases I knew more on the subject than my tutor. For instance my maths tutor had only received a C at GCSE maths a year previous, I was teaching myself the higher paper! I grew overly comfortable in my little routine at home. My mum and dad would go off to work, I would get up late and watch the day time TV whilst reading my books, I’d see a tutor and spend the afternoon doing all my homework, and any extra work I could whilst playing my music on full volume, eagerly waiting my mum to come home and for the evening soaps to start. Occasionally a friend would call or pop round but most of them I lost; kids are fickle at that age.  For at least 10 months I can’t have left the house at all apart from doctors and hospital appointments, which would overwhelm me with fear every time. I remember the day I walked the 100 meters up the road to post a letter as being a momentous occasion, and how shocked my parents had both been.

During this time, apart from doctors investigating my stomach complaint, I received no other help. Now it seems almost unbelievable that the school didn’t step in more or that I wasn’t referred to a counsellor or psychologist. My Asperger’s, which was so obvious during my early childhood, had been hidden under a tangled web of anxiety and bowel issues, and as long as my grades were good, that’s mostly all the school cared about. Something must have happened near the end of my GCSE year, I think possibly I received a diagnosis for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or I started taking a pill to reduce my anxiety, but I wanted to go out again and I had the energy to do it. I picked my exam results up at school, greeting my old friends and the teachers as though I’d never been away, perhaps just to show them that I had done it on my own and that I hadn’t needed them. I left school with five GCSE’s, none in science or foreign languages, but I had been accepted into college and was excited to start the next academic year, and for that summer it seemed like I was back on track.

The lessons to be taken away from my story of mainstream school are how much impact the tiniest bit of support can have on a student struggling with school life. Had I had things like a separate room to sit in if I’d become overwhelmed, a toilet pass, extra time on work and assignments, teachers who knew I was ill and knew how to help, fewer lessons to attend, a shorter day, and possibly a mentor, I have no doubt that I would have survived secondary school and come out with far more GCSEs. So do I think special schools for autism are a positive step? Hell yes. I had a long period of mourning these lost years and felt a lot of anger towards those who made my struggle so much worse; it wasn’t just school I missed but also the social life and milestones that came with it. I often think about who I would have been had I stayed in school. My main interests were in music and PE and I was a confident public speaker, but after dropping out my focus became writing, English and Art, then later Photography and Psychology. On positive days I feel it was fate that drove me to where I am now, but realistically I think it was just a lot of hard work and trying to prove people wrong, which I continue to still strive to accomplish!

 

Helpful site for everything you need to know to help your child cope with school:
http://www.autism.org.uk/working-with/education.aspx

ARCHIVED “Stimming, and I hope you like stimming too”: Declare your Stims!


ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology. 

Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour as it is more formally known, is as common in the world of autism as wedding dresses installed with fairy lights are on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Stimming is when someone repeats specific behaviours, such as flapping, rocking, spinning or repeating words and phrases. Whilst most people occupy their time with some form of Stimming, in its extreme form it is a key indicator of an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, as listed in the Diagnosis Statistics Manual (DSM IV). Surprisingly little is known about its function, but the most obvious theory is that in those who are hypersensitive, it may provide some form of control over overwhelming sensory input. For example, rocking whilst in a night club may help to control and block out some of the loud noise, smells and heat. Alternatively, in those at the opposite end of the scale who are hyposensitive, it may actually increase arousal.

Almost everyone has fiddled with their hair when nervous on a date, repeatedly stirred their drink with a straw whilst in a bar, tapped the desk whilst bored in class, or bitten their nails before a test. But what makes stimming different for an autistic person is the quantity of stims and the obsessive nature of them. I have always been known by my friends and family to have a lot of ‘quirks’, however, as one of my very blunt housemates once pointed out: “Hannah, you have to many quirks for them to be quirky”. On their own all my little stims seemed almost normal, but put together, the obsessiveness and quantity of them was somewhat odd. Stimming was the last autistic trait I accepted after my diagnosis, but a key one in overcoming my anxiety. I had spent a long time denying myself of my stims and instead being overwhelmed by situations and having recurrent panic attacks.  I have since checked with several of my best friends and partner with regards to my stims, and apparently they’ve been very obvious ever since I’ve known them. So no more hiding, it’s time to declare our stims!

Top 5 Stims

  1. Scratching Silky material

       2. Making odd sounds at the back of throat when it’s too quiet or I’ve not spoke for ages, which promptly make my partner jump in the middle of the night.

3. Repeating words, songs and phrases.
You may only find it funny the first time, but I will still find it funny after the 100th time. Yesterday’s record was a 10 minute rendition of the first two lines of “Karma Camelion” by Culture Club, whilst trying to cook dinner.

4.Watching the washing machine go round and round and round and round…

5. Muscle Twitching
Whilst mentally drawing out the edges of objects in a room and/or buildings. Ideal for long car journeys and boring meetings/lectures.  Also nose twitching/bum and leg twitching until both sides feel even, although this latter method is more noticeable than the former.

So now I’ve confessed mine, what are yours!?

ARCHIVED How to Drive with Autism


ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology. 

Today I took my first (of many to come) practical driving tests. I should have known it wasn’t going to go so well when the examiner asked me to make my way to the car, at which point I realised I didn’t have the keys or a clue where they were. My driving instructor looked on rather embarrassed whilst I legged it over to the car to take them out of the ignition. Upon putting the car into first gear and releasing the hand break, the car did nothing. I sat perplexed for several seconds before realising I hadn’t turned the ignition on. I was so busy trying to mentally prepare ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’, reverse bay parking at a 90 degree angle, and how to measure the 1.6mm tread depth of the tires, no one thought to remind me of the basics.

I consider myself to be a fairly good driver, and have been pretty average when it comes to learning to drive. However, there are some essential things I will never comprehend or be able to process. For instance, where my car is in relation to what I can see in my mirrors. I am perfectly capable of parking the car and reversing etc, but try and teach me a method of angles and lines using my mirrors and you might as well be trying to teach a donkey. Whatever you do, do not tell me to get into the right hand lane without advanced notice because I will take this extremely literally, even if that means getting into the farthest right lane where the traffic is coming in the opposite direction. Actually, it is probably best you avoid all verbal instructions at all unless I have at least half a mile to process them. Today I failed because I was so busy trying to do what the examiner told me exactly right, I had no time for all the basics such as following road traffic signs or to wait for oncoming traffic. Apparently there was one near collision; however, I must have been so deep in concentration because it completely bypassed me.

At this point you’d be forgiven for thinking it was probably best I failed and avoid using the roads for the time being, but honestly I am a good, safe, sensible and competent driver, I just cannot multi-task someone else’s instructions whilst doing it. Driving does not overwhelm me, in fact it calms me. Being autistic has not made me full of road rage and impatience, but has given me a lot of confidence; I did not even start learning to drive until I was in my twenties because I never thought it was something I would be able to manage.  The DVLA specifies that if you have an Autism Spectrum Condition then you should declare it when applying for a driving licence if it affects your driving, for example if you also have Dyspraxia or problems multi-tasking. Let’s be honest though, there must be at least a third of people on the road that have issues multi-tasking. The only way to find out if it’s going to be a problem is to give it a go! I was fortunate enough to have started driving before I found out I was autistic, so was not put off by having the condition. There are instructors who specialise is teaching people with learning difficulties, and it is also something you can bring up with your examiner to ensure you get a fair test. Also check out videos  below from the “Autistic Driving School” film, shown on BBC3 in 2010, which follows a group of characters with Autism at various stages along the journey to their driving test.

Helpful links:

http://www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/out-and-about/driving.aspx

http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Motoring/DriverLicensing/MedicalRulesForDrivers/MedicalA-Z/DG_185373

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s7xwx

ARCHIVED Autism Vs The Media: The war is on!


ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology. 

There was a time when I would have been drawn to any news article with the word Autism thrown into it, nowadays I avoid such articles like I do ones on Bird Flu and the imminent death of millions. Unfortunately for the autistic population the only people who seem to represent us now to the media and the masses are also psychopaths. This is a slight generalization but the only ones who seem to capture the public’s imagination are those who have either killed or are responsible for some other inhumane atrocity.  This is not giving us a good reputation. Why do we not hear about autistic sportsman  winning a medal for synchronized diving at the Olympics, or someone who isn’t an awkward novelty act dressed in a tinfoil suite on the Britain’s Got Talent stage? No, we get linked to murders, sexual assaults, awkward social daters (see the Undateables), fraudsters, UFOS and computer hackers; we are the media scapegoat, trying to ‘bleeeeet’ (or whatever noise a goat makes) from being engulfed by the public ignorance such coverage sparks.

Just to be clear, the fact that someone has committed murder does not necessarily have anything do to with them also being autistic, the two are not mutually inclusive. I repeat, I will not kill you because I am autistic, if I kill it will be because you’ve really, really annoyed me. The matter is not exactly helped by the fact that whenever someone is in a spot of bother bad enough to lead to their incarceration they are very quick to jump onto the autism bandwagon. Well please get off, you are bringing us down, you may jump back on once you have become an Olympic gymnast.

When my Dad first found out I had Asperger’s he had no idea what it meant, until one day he eagerly beckoned me into the lounge to show me what was on the news. “Is that what you’ve got?!” He asked a little bit too excitedly as a solemn and mute adolescent stood on the screen aided by his mother and lawyer, whilst being interviewed about his recent arrest for computer hacking. To this day my dad is still surprised every day I make it home with being arrested. In fact, were you to type ‘Autism’ into the Daily Mail website a whole host of crimes are listed. From “Mass killer Breivik may have have rare form of Asperger’s…” and “Boy, 12 stabbed baby brother to death” to “Teenage LulzSec hacker’ accused of attacking websites is banned from seeing his girlfriend alone”. One of the most famous cases in the UK at the moment is that of fellow ‘Aspergian’ Gary McKinnin who is facing extradition to the USA after hacking into the Pentagon. Top Asperger’s experts have claimed that there is a significant threat that he will kill himself if sent to jail in the USA, and that his motives ‘posed no harm to society and that his special interest in UFOs had been the cause’. Leading Autism expert Baron-Cohen states that he should be treated in the same way a child who commits a crime should. But where do we draw the line? Clearly being autistic can cause substantial difficulties, we can be naive at the best of times, but having a lack of morals is not a symptom, killing people is not a symptom. In fact in a very interesting study into the criminal behaviour of those with autism by Hippler and colleagues, a group of autistic subjects had a conviction rate of 1.30% for crimes committed, which was very similar to the general male populations’ conviction rate of 1.25.

So why is a person’s Autism so often linked to their psychopathic criminal behaviour in the media? The simple answer is that it gives a very satisfying reason for some shocking behaviour; it avoids blaming society and instead blames a biological impairment, which politicians can then ignore and leave for the scientists to examine. My favourite recent depiction of Autism in the media has been from the documentary entitled “The girl who became three boys” on Channel 4. The girl in question posed as three separate boys to her friends in order to sexually assault them. For many reasons this crime seems to contradict the classic autism triad of impairments, yet her criminal and deceptive behaviour was linked to her possibly being autistic. This little nugget was thrown in right at the end as if it would provide a satisfying conclusion to the gullible audience. The second question is why does the media feel the need to report crimes such as computer hacking just because the individual who committed the crime is autistic? Everyday computer systems are hacked into and the individuals responsible are not brandished over the newspaper with the tagline “Asperger’s to blame”. Maybe it’s just because we are better at it, or maybe we are just more adventurous with t; why hack into the local library’s files when you have the Pentagon at your finger tips!? Whatever the reason, I would just like one day to tell someone who doesn’t know much about Autism that I have Asperger’s, and for their prior knowledge of the condition from the media not to make them take a step back whilst looking for an exit.

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