I would have been about 3 years old when I started at a local kindergaarten. It was great fun, but only if I was left alone to persue my enjoyment of the toy farmyard (especially the horses); growing various seedlings and reading my books or playing with the various jewellery that I wore (I couldn't go out of the house without wearing some of my hoard of "sparkly things" because they made me feel safe). However, being a "Little Professor", I thought the nursery rhymes and other activities were ridiculous (well, let's face it, some of them are pretty tragic!). I also thought many of the children boring - just because they weren't "into" the same stuff as me!
That's when I first encountered "conditioning". If I had to play or share my play with other children (and that was normally because I was told to), it was much more fun playing with the boys, but this seemed to engender disapproval in the adults who kept trying to encourage - sometimes make - me play with the girls and do "girly, gentle" things such as play with dolls (scary things) instead! The only thing I had in common with the girls was my penchant for jewellery (as mentioned in the previous chapter). However, since my idea of wearing jewellery was kind of BA Baraccus-of the "A-Team"-style: totally over the top; it is hardly surprising that the girls were keen to play with some of it, perhaps figuring I had enough to go around! Of course being far too possessive of my things, this logic fell flat with me and rather many tantrums would ensue!
So when I could, I hung out with the boys: they didn't care for my jewellery, they didn't try to make me join in with them or put any pressure on me in any way and they didn't do the "round-the-houses" interactions that the girls increasingly tended to (it starts young, that one!). They just "did" or "said" stuff so I knew exactly where I stood in my interactions with them. However, just as the girls were being conditioned, so were the boys - into an increasing belief that they were somehow better than the girls - and me therefore.
The whole concept of dominance seemed illogical to me so I would attempt to distance myself from the various squabbles that broke out. However, just as conscientious objectors tended to be vilified during the World Wars, my similar pacifistic stance became increasingly unnacceptable to a group of children who were attempting to build a social heirarchy. I had decided a long while back that if someone had to be dominant, then logically it should be me. So when I was finally confronted in order for the group to try and place me somewhere in their pecking-order (which happened increasingly as we got older), I would fight like hell, be it with girl or boy. Luckily for me I tended to win because I always seemed to be stronger, and more obsessively passionate when confronted, than the others; but I'd only go as far as I needed just to get people to leave me alone: my primary objective.
That I was bigger than the others can be another sign of Asperger's - such children may be unusually physically well-developed and be particularly strong but are often ignorant of their own strength which can cause problems. The classic tale "Of Mice & Men" illustrates in a poignant way the problems this can cause. If you haven't seen the movie, it is worth a look.
My next taste of education (from about four to ten years) was at a Private secondary school. Lucky to have a natural aptitude for most things, I spent that time winning various awards for scholastic and artistic achievement to a degree that my mother found embarassing. I won the equivalent of the Victor Laudorum two years running; the first time in the school's history that it had been given to the same person twice. I am not sure how I achieved such academic success because I was actually rather lazy; I did little work unless the subject interested me (and then, it tended to be a facet of a certain subject, rather than the whole subject!) and spent most of the time looking out of the window daydreaming! My reports always said the classic "could do better if she applied herself more thoroughly", so how I got these awards I have no idea! At least my teachers must have had some idea!
I also showed promise as a swimmer. My swimsuit became covered in awards and badges and I even got an award for swimming 2 miles when only 9 years of age (it nearly killed me, but I was so determined to do it - it's that Aspie perseveration combined with unusual strength thing again!). Swimming and horse-riding were great - I was very clumsy at "land-based" things; always falling over. I was also awful in teams and hated the silly team games (which I now realise are actually very important - for NTs anyway!). Swimming was wonderful for me - I felt safer in the pool than on the land, plus swimming didn't involve having to get on with other people (you just have to avoid bumping into them) - I was obviously never chosen for relay races though!
The other subject in which I showed particular promise was art, which I loved and that also got me good marks in my academic work because I'd always illustrate my textbooks with drawings. Even when I was below 10 years (the upper age in that school being 12) my illustrations were selected out of the whole school for use on programmes for school plays and other materials. Again, it was a complete surprise to me when this happened because I didn't think I was that good! Also, I had studied people and their facial expressions from an early age. I now realise that I had developed that technique for coping with my Asperger's, for if I could learn how to interact with people their way, then I could avoid "hassle" and retain peace and quiet! In fact this did help, but not always... Anyway, my people studies lead to my also developing an affinity for acting. It fascinated me to play someone else's life. I was taken under the wing of my drama teacher and with her support obtained various speech and drama awards and I later got the lead part in a school play. However, one of the most terrifying moments of my life was forgetting my lines and I still sometimes dream about it now! I just couldn't deal with my lines when faced with all those people on the night - so I wasn't cast in a large role again! That experience I obtained from acting (and from continuing to study it throughout the rest of my life) has proved extremely useful in surviving in the World, as I will explain later.
For all those things I seemed to find easy, which tended to be things the others found difficult, there were certain things I found really difficult and it was frustrating that they were always things the others found easy! Two examples of this were physical coordination things like tying your shoelaces (I used to get teased a lot for that) and telling the time! Interestingly, both these things are cited on various Asperger's resources as things that Aspie children find hard! I so remember my anguish in having extra lessons in order to teach me the time, particularly the 24-hour clock. I just couldn't get it and it made me feel really stupid, especially when some of the other children thought it was funny to ask me the time! It is a BAD idea to tease a child that has Asperger Syndrome - they don't understand teasing and I took it very seriously and would get terribly upset (much to everyone's amusement)! The strangest thing was that in a fit of frustration, the teacher said words to the effect of you'll just have to accept it, the 12-hour or 24-hour clock are two conventions that humans have adopted in order to describe a point in time or its progression, it isn't actually real. She then mentioned about the Earth rotating the Sun at the same interval, and that this happens to be easily split into twenty-four hours, blah, blah. That changed it - then I understood!
The above nicely illustrates something that children and people with Asperger's Syndrome find difficult. I still have problems with what are termed "black-boxes" - things that you are just supposed to take as read and not look into and upon which are based the things that you are supposed to use, learn about or explore. In the context of my childhood problems with telling the time, I couldn't understand why 01:00 pm or 13:00 hrs was 01:00 pm or 13:00 hrs - so I simply couldn't make use of the concept. The black box: how the Earth rotates the Sun every 24 hours, etc., was something the teacher didn't think I needed to know because it wasn't on the curriculum for my age group (and wouldn't be for some years). So I was supposed to just "accept" that 01:00 pm is the name for a particular time of day. Psychologists say that Aspies tend to look at the finer detail and NTs tend to look at the bigger picture. It's like I can't see the bigger picture without first having knowledge of the mysteries of the black box. I can't even understand how someone can even look at the big picture without knowledge of those finer details. It just seems illogical to me and my mind doesn't work that way! This is a very useful trait for a scientist - and is an essential skill for my chosen profession as Head of R&D in a computer security firm - a job that others find hard precisely because they have neither the skill or the perseverance to wallow through the fine details in the way that someone with Asperger's Syndrom can. In fact, my belief is that that ability puts me into an even better position to see the "bigger picture" because I've seen and understood its components. The problem is, it takes much longer studying subjects in this manner, and teachers just want to get on with what is on the curriculum.
As an aside, the above is significant in relation to Asperger's Syndrome. Most curricula appear to teach from the top down: presenting the big picture first (i.e. how to tell the time), and then taking successively closer slices into the detail behind the big picture as the child progresses through its years of education (i.e. how the Earth rotates the Sun and, perhaps later, more advanced concepts like relativity, etc). This means the existing basis for education does not tend to suit children with Asperger's Syndrome who tend to need to be taught from the bottom up, not the top down. I am not saying that it would be best to start a kindergaarten child off by teaching them about space-time and relativity! What I am saying is that in teaching a concept to a child with Asperger's, educators need to communmicate with such children in terms of: What are they going to be taught (a basic snip of the big picture is okay here), What are the components of the subject and in what order will they be taught, and Why will it be useful for them to know that subject. The teacher can then proceed to teach the children relevant components of the subject, before combining this to help the child form the big picture.
One of Temple Grandin's books is entitled "I Think in Pictures, You Think in Words" (she has written a lot of fascinating books about her experiences as an Aspie). What she means is that NTs tend to think in language but people with Asperger's tend to think in images. How this relates to education is that teaching using streams of words: spoken, on the blackboard or in text-books; is not going to be as conducive to teaching a child with Asperger's as it is for teaching NT children. The example I used about showing children with Asperger's the components of the subject they are to be taught can be very well-illustrated for them by use of mindmaps - the central concept in the middle of the mindmap, and the concepts that make up that concept in branches off the side. In general, diagrams are far better than text for Asperger's children and to this day I get "word-blind" if confronted with too much text when I am trying to learn something and I absolutely can't learn by listening to someone speak words at me!
So what of my peer group at my second school - how did I get on with them? Well, as you may have gathered from my tales of kindergaarten, I was an over-confident, arrogant child who wanted everything her own way and always thought she was right and better than anyone else. I was disdainful of other's behaviours (they mostly just seemed illogical to me) and highly selective of whom I chose to hang out with. I only tended to have one friend at a time (that's all I could cope with) but even given my superior attitude, I did manage to have some friends. However, I was highly possessive of any friend I had and wouldn't let them play with anyone else nor let anyone else talk to them. I was particularly obsessed by one girl (whom I had began to want as a best friend at kindergaarten; her parents were friends of my parents) and wanted for her to spend all her time with me. I guess she liked that I liked her so much, because she'd hang out with me for a while, then get pissed off with my possessiveness and go off with someone else, then come back to being my best friend again. So it was a very insecure feeling. In-between that friend, I had a couple of others, but they'd tend to keep me at a bit of a distance (not surprisingly). So I spent an increasing number of break times alone as I became older, playing on my own in out-of-bound areas of the schoolground, sometimes playing with older children for whom I had enough respect not to dominate!
Another problem I had with my peers was that, as I have previously mentioned, I was obsessed with horses. At some stage in this school, I went through a phase where I insisted that my peers call me "horsey-Didi". I was able to recite the breeds, and diseases - even down to the names of the relevant disease-causing pathogen. I was also an excellent mimic and could make animal noises rather too easily and realistically. Well, let's face it: you are hardly going to be taken seriously in the school playground if you a) insist on being called a silly name, b) recite what, to the other kids, must sound weird gobbledigook, and, c) make animal noises (especially loud ones like "neighs")! Of course, many of the other girls were interested in horses too, but I was such a know-it-all that I'd stamp all over them (completely unintentionally) as my affinity for studying was such that I really did know far more than they did! However, know-it-alls do not win friends and influence them - they just piss them off!
One of my worst memories at that school was when my brother (who had also started there by that time) and some of his friends taunted me about my bed-wetting problems in front of everyone else in the playground. This was probably my most embarassing moment ever and my response was to try and kick the living shit out of whomever was involved - so of course yet again it was me that got into trouble. The other bad thing was being rapped on the knuckles by the headteacher because I hadn't answered a prefect! I just hand't heard her! Accidentally ignoring people happened a lot to me (and still does). I was in my own little world a lot and, when I was, I just didn't hear what was going on around me! Sometimes I'd nearly have a heart-attack when a frustrated teacher would come right up to my desk and lean down to bellow my name in my ear because I hadn't answered them! The result was that I was sent for a hearing test. Of course, they found nothing wrong with my hearing and actually found it to be better than normal! I never understood why it was wrong for people to be allowed mental space, but the others just didn't seem to need those moments of internal solitude as I did. That's yet another example of a sympton of Asperger's Syndrome: the being in your own little world.
Whilst I had problems with my peers, I did get on with nearly all of the teachers. All but one of them were excellent and seemed to take it upon themselves to encourage me. I always preferred the company of older people - one can learn so much from them and they are "way" less judgemental than one's peer group. However, there was one lady whom we were unlucky to have as a form teacher two years running. This lady seemed to seize every opportunity to victimise me and if I dared ask her the nature of her dislike (that I might learn from it) or question her in any way, she would respond by making me stand in the corner, dunce style, or outside the class door for everyone to gawp at. To my peers, however, the teacher would be sweetness and light. I was thus unable to use that age-old coping mechanism of slagging her off!
Perhaps that teacher had good intentions? Perhaps she merely intending to bring me down a peg or some (because I certainly needed it). But, I could never understand why she behaved in a way, as seemed to be the case with many adults, as though she believed that the only way to "talk" to children is via use of mind-games and humiliation. If she had just told me what I was doing wrong, then I could have understood. Anyway, if she had intended to bring me down a peg or two - it took me down several - for although I appeared arrogant, I was also an extremely sensitive child. One of the most humiliating events happened during rehearsals for a school play when I was about 8 years of age. That lady cast me in a school play as a black-and-white minstrel, along with two other girls one of which was my best friend at the time. This teacher must have known I would find such a role difficult due to my lack of coordination which she would have clearly observed (outside the swimming pool!). Every rehearsal was a nighmare - I just couldn't coordinate singing and dancing as well as playing the banjo! In retrospect it must have looked very funny and I would probably laugh if I could have seen myself! However, it isn't funny when you are laughed at and derided when you are a child, and this is what the teacher did to me which also seemed to give permission to the other girls to do it too, including my supposed best friend who stopped being so at that point! I kept saying that she should cast someone else, but she wouldn't hear of it and just made me practice and practice. However, a few reahearsals close to the play, she bought in another girl to replace me. This was done in a very humiliating way and I was left to wander off in tears accompanied by the jaunts of the other girls who had watched this "scandal" with almost voyeuristic amusement.
My mother even went to see the headmistress about that lady - Mrs Sellers - and she was most concerned. Perhaps that the teacher left the next term was the result? Who knows. I had the last laugh (which was always important to me) because we had been rehearsing a song for her leaving day, and on that day we all stood up and, forcing myself to make eye contact with the offending lady, I rather loudly inserted a few words of my own. This had a side-effect: it restored my popularity for a while, because in the nervousness of being made to stand up and sing, my words set the other girls off giggling and the event was talked about for a few days afterwards. No other teacher seemed to notice - I wouldn't have cared if they did at that point so hell-bent was I on my childish revenge - but she certainly did, and I felt great! Ironically she left to go to teach at a school for mentally handicapped children :-/
So, I remember those years with mixed feelings: there were lots of laughs, but also lots of insecurities and unhappiness as I seemed unable to form proper relationships with my peers. Some of the problem was that any friend I did make was just another of my "precious things" somehow - an object - something to take ownership of and guard. That "objectificiaton" is another Asperger's trait. Aspies tend to be more drawn to things than to people (as is the case with all the autistic spectrum) so when I did find a person, the only way I knew how to deal with them was to think of them as just another object. It's not surprising therefore that I had problems!
But the worse was yet to come... Click here to find out...