When I was 13, I changed school. Well, I changed school many times in my childhood, but what was significant about the change at age 13 was the English teacher. The English teacher at my new school was not like any teacher I’d had before.
Everyone said she was their favourite teacher, but I wasn’t so sure. She would spend a large portion of the lessons chatting to us. Chatting about the sorts of things that the girls in the class wanted to talk about – it was a girls’ school, so this included chats about periods and boyfriends and make-up. I didn’t like this much because it seemed to have no structure, and didn’t seem to have anything to do with English. In retrospect, I see how she added the curriculum in subtly, and tried to make it as relevant and interesting as possible, but at the time, I had no idea of what we were supposed to be learning in these classes.
Then she set us a project to do. We each had to put together a project entitled ‘Me’ – it could include pieces of writing, and photos, and anything that gave information about us. No deadline was given. It was just something we were to work on throughout the term.
I wasn’t happy with this. Firstly, I came to school to be taught information, not to give private information about myself to a teacher who didn’t know me. ‘Me’ was none of her business. And secondly, I had no idea what she wanted. This project was incredibly vague. ‘Me’ is such a huge topic – there were all kinds of aspects about myself, and I had no idea where to start or what she wanted. So I simply didn’t do it.
Each week, in the English lessons, the teacher would ask how people were getting along, and they’d show her what they’d done. She would set aside time in the English lessons for us to get on with our projects – but she was always so vague and didn’t say we definitely had to spend the time doing it, so I simply didn’t. She would come along and ask me how I was coming along with my project, and I would tell her that I hadn’t started it yet because I was busy. She was understanding at first (after all, I’d just started a new school, so had lots of catching up to do) and then got a little impatient. But she never actually told me directly that I had to do it, or gave a deadline or anything. So I simply didn’t do it.
Then, in the middle of the term, when everyone was still doing their ‘Me’ projects, she gave us another piece of work. Two simultaneous pieces of work was very confusing to me! But the new assignment was a bit clearer. We had to write a short story, entitled ‘The Mask’. And we were given a deadline. The teacher gave us lots of different examples of the kinds of social masks people could wear – it could be a literal mask or a figurative mask, she told us. She was very much one for giving us as much freedom as possible, but this confused me. I needed to know exactly what I had to do. After she’d spent the lesson talking about this assignment, she asked if we had any questions.
I put up my hand. ‘I don’t understand what we have to write about.’
Her smile faded and she said ‘I don’t know what to say. I’ve just been spending the whole lesson telling you.’
‘Is it that the story is about a person who is pretending to be something she is not?’ I asked. She hadn’t actually said this – all she’d done was give examples of masks – and so I needed the assignment question clarified, in these specific words.
‘Yes, it can be,’ she said, looking relieved. ‘See, you do understand it.’
I focused my energy on this assignment. We didn’t have exercise books for English, so I wrote the story on A4 paper. This was in the days before computers were the norm, so I handwrote it, in my best fountain pen, with a calligraphy nib. I created covers for the story, made out of coloured paper, with the words ‘THE MASK’ cut out and stuck on.
I still have this story, all these years later. It reads pretty much as an Enid Blyton story. Although the plot was my own, it used the techniques, ideas and style of Enid Blyton, who was my favourite author in my childhood. I hadn’t deliberately based the story on her writing – it just happened, because she was the author I read a lot of. This also meant that my grammar and spelling was perfect, because I observed grammar and spelling from what I read, and learnt the patterns. My story was old-fashioned, and out-of-place next to the other girls’ stories of unfaithful boyfriends and teens with self-esteem problems. It was about a girl in a boarding school who stole pretty things because she had no money, and pretended to agree with everyone because she wanted them all to like her. There was a strong moral at the end, just like in Enid Blyton books.
Although old-fashioned and out-of-place, with a rather archaic style, it was a very good story for a 13-year-old to have written. I got an A. The teacher’s comments were ‘Marvellous: a story that ideally illustrates the title; extremely well written with a wide vocabulary; and beautifully presented. What more could a teacher want?!’
Now, as I write about this, I realise there are all kinds of things I could use from this story to illustrate aspects of Aspergers. I could talk about how people on the autistic spectrum are more comfortable with structure, or how we need assignments and expectations to be explained in a direct and specific way. I could talk about how role changes (such as when a teacher acts more as a chum than a teacher to the class) can be disorientating and unpleasant. But I was actually intending to use this story to illustrate something completely different – that is, the problems with organisation that people on the spectrum often have.
Later on in that term at school, there was a parents’ evening. My mother went to it, and she told me afterwards about her conversation with the English teacher. Apparently the English teacher had told my mother that she was finding it hard to figure me out. When I hadn’t handed in any work for the project, she had assumed I must be lazy. And then I’d handed in a story which totally astonished her. She raved to my mother about how good the story was, and also how much work I’d clearly put into it to make it nicely presented.
I have found, over the years, that this is a common reaction people have to me. When I don’t know what to do and thus don’t do anything or appear confused, people think I’m lazy or stupid – and then when I know what to do and do it, they are amazed at how good it is and how much work I’ve put into it. Then they don’t know what to do with their previous assumption about me being lazy and stupid, because the new evidence contradicts this. People see me as two extremes, and find it very hard to figure me out.
So I decided it might be helpful to explain it, from my perspective. I am not lazy. I am not stupid. However, my brain has a lot of difficulty making overall sense of something unless it explained clearly and specifically, and furthermore, if it is a huge task, requiring many different things, it’s as if my brain freezes.
One thing about the autistic spectrum is that the brain doesn’t automatically prioritise the important things, and filter out the less important, which typically-developing brains do all the time to prevent overload. So, for instance, when I saw I had to do a project about ‘me’, I saw in my mind every aspect of myself, every moment of my life, and I knew it was impossible to cover all this, and so I got overwhelmed by it and switched off my mind from it.
Also, the autistic brain can have difficulty with sequencing (this is an aspect of dyspraxia, which commonly co-occurs with Aspergers). Sequencing involves both prioritising and being simultaneously aware of all the actions in the sequence while giving priority to one at any one time. This creates a sort of mental overload. It requires a good working memory – that is, the ability to keep several things in your mind at one time as you work with them – and people on the autistic spectrum often have difficulty with working memory.
Big tasks and projects always involve prioritising and sequencing. The advice people always give is ‘break it down into smaller chunks’, which makes sense in theory, but in reality involves deciding which chunks to break it down into – again, another prioritisation thing. Another aspect is that in deciding upon chunks, you often don’t know until you start on something what exactly it will require, and how much time will be needed. For me, this is a very overwhelming factor – it is about going into the unknown, and maybe getting lost there.
I’m now going to give the very different example of tidying my house. Actually, it was this example of tidying my house that first prompted me to write this entry. Some people on the autistic spectrum have a spotlessly tidy house, and diligently keep it this way. I would love a spotlessly tidy house, but I get frequently overwhelmed by ‘stuff’ in my house. I call it ‘stuff’ because most of the time I’m barely aware of it as it accumulates and creates mess. I will be doing something – and whatever I’m doing requires me to take things out. And I like to lay everything out so that I can see it – otherwise I forget it exists! I leave it out because I think I may continue doing it – and then forget about it and bring something else out. Before long, there is stuff everywhere – overwhelming stuff, and I don’t know where to start and I have forgotten where most things were kept, and perhaps where they were kept wasn’t a good place anyway and I need to find a better place, and there are some things which maybe I should throw away, but that’s a big decision, and I don’t know if I can make the correct decision.
I have tried telling myself I will tidy one room, or one corner of a room, or one drawer, but whenever I do this, I seem to get stuck on certain objects, not knowing what to do with them or whether I need to keep them, not really wanting them but afraid to throw them out in case I need them, not having the prioritisation powers to know if something is important or not. So I frequently find myself sitting on my floor surrounded by stuff, feeling helpless and overwhelmed.
People generally think I’m lazy with regard to my house. I’ve been told that if I really wanted to tidy it, I would. I’ve been told that it’s easy and that there’s no reason why I can’t keep it tidy other than bone idleness. I find these assumptions frustrating. I know I’m not lazy. I know I will work on something for hours and hours, forgetting to eat, forgetting to sleep, paying attention to every little detail, if I know what I’d doing. But the messiness of my house somehow communicates to people that I’m lazy, in the same way as my not doing the ‘Me’ project communicated to my English teacher that I was lazy. These assumptions used to make me angry, but now I’ve pretty much accepted them as inevitable. People assume other people are like themselves. Even if you explain how your mind works to someone, if they haven’t experienced it personally, they never really get it. I think a particular difficulty with this house tidying thing is that many people have difficulty keeping their house tidy, so their reaction to my difficulties is ‘Me too!’ – with an added assumption that what works for them will work for me.
I have put a lot of time and effort into trying to find strategies to help me organise my life and tidy my house. It’s an ongoing struggle and causes a lot of frustration and unhappiness, because I’m atually very highly motivated in many ways, and so it makes no sense to me that I can want something so much, be able to intricately plan ways to achieve it, know that I have the intelligence and diligence to achieve it, but somehow be unable to make myself do it. In fact, I can sort of understand why people say I can’t really want it, even though this is not the case, because there doesn’t seem to be a logical explanation.
But there is one strategy that does work for me, when I employ it (actually making myself put it into action is another struggle!). And that is what I call the ‘ten things’ strategy. Rather than saying I will tidy a certain part of my house, I tell myself I will pick up ten things – these may be things to throw away or recycle or put away, but the point is that I pick them up and do with them what needs doing. Because the ‘ten things’ are unspecified, I can avoid things that I am unsure about. There is also no need to prioritise or sequence - I can pick up whatever I want in whatever order I want. The only thing I have to focus on is the number ten. So I am collecting ten things – and it’s fun to work towards a number. Once I’ve done the ten things, the aim is to do ten lots of ten things – so 100 things. Again, there is a number to aim towards, and the things can be as small and varied as I like – a scrap of paper on the floor to put in the bin, a cup in the draining rack to put away, a bottle to put in my recycle box.
In some ways it seems like cheating when I avoid the more confusing things that I don’t know what to do with – but I find that the more small things I deal with, the less cluttered and overwhelming my house becomes, and then the easier it is to focus on bigger things. It occurs to me that this ‘ten things’ method could be applied to all sorts of things, and could be used with children on the autistic spectrum who are overwhelmed when told to tidy their bedroom, for instance. It can also be used by people who are not on the autistic spectrum, if it is helpful.
Anyway, I used this method today, which is what prompted this entry. I picked up ten lots of ten things downstairs and ten lots of ten things upstairs, and then fifty more things – so 250 things altogether. My house is still a mess, but not so much of a mess as it was. If I could use this method every day for a week, it will be interesting to see how tidy my house becomes.