On being approached by an autism fundraiser

The other day, I was in the city centre, and ahead of me I saw a young woman who was literally leaping out at people with outstretched arm to shake their hand, and saying with forced cheeriness: ‘Hi! How are you today?’ Of course people were leaping out of her way, so she looked rather like a frog leaping about from one person to another and being rejected each time.

Seeing that she leapt at every single person passing her, I realised my turn was approaching, and was about to leap out of her way myself. However, then I saw that her t-shirt said ‘National Autistic Society’. So I felt some affinity for her, or at least for the cause she was representing. So I changed my mind and took her outstretched hand and shook it when she leapt at me with her forceful ‘Hi! How are you?’

‘I’m okay thanks,’ I said. ‘How are you?’

There was a pause, as she looked rather taken aback that someone had actually taken her hand and replied to her greeting. Then she said, ‘Hello. Er… have you heard of the National Autistic Society? You probably haven’t, because most people haven’t, but-‘

Her voice had taken on the tone of a person reciting a long chunk of information that they have to convey, so I interrupted, ‘Yes, I’ve heard of it. I have Asperger Syndrome.’

She paused, looking rather taken aback, and then, in amazed tones, she replied, ‘Oh wow! That’s so amaaaaazing! Because you, like, actually approached me and shook my hand!’

In retrospect, I am amused that she interpreted my not leaping out of the way as she leapt towards me as my ‘approaching her’, but at the time I didn’t even think of this – I was too busy trying to work out what was amazing about my shaking her hand. Plenty of autistic people shake people’s hands – it’s a formal social convention that is quite a bit easier to understand than all the more informal nuances of small talk. So I just replied, ‘Yes.’

‘Did you have support to learn how to do that?’

‘Um, no – I taught myself.’ I wondered what sort of hand-shaking support course she imagined I’d been on!

‘That’s amaaazing. Do you get support?’

‘I’ve taught myself strategies over the years.’

She then returned to her memorised speech. She started telling me about the tragedy of all the autistic children that people aren’t aware of, and how some of them go through school without even making a friend. She made her voice hushed and her eyes look all big and tragic when she said this.

‘Because we all know how important friends are when we’re in school, don’t we,’ she said, looking at me imploringly. ‘I mean, if you think back to your school days, you know friends are essential – we wouldn’t get through school without friends, would we? We all need the support of our friends to get through school.’

I looked at her a bit blankly. I couldn’t exactly nod, as I’d got through school with no friends, so she wasn’t saying anything I could relate to.

‘Did you have lots of friends when you were at school?’ she asked me, in a sort of confiding voice, as if we were best friends.

I didn’t want to be a killjoy, but hey, she’d asked directly, and I don’t do lying. ‘No, I didn’t have friends,’ I said.

She didn’t seem to know what to say to that. There was a pause, and then she embarked on another part of her memorised speech – this time about all the autistic people who were depressed and suicidal, and how autism makes people commit suicide. Again, I looked rather blankly. At this point I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a warning to me – that suicide was to be my eventual doom! – or whether she’d once again forgotten that I was on the autistic spectrum too, and was trying to get me to feel bad about all those poor autistic people out there!

I think she eventually realised that her speech wasn’t having a lot of impact on me, so she then said that her main point was that she wanted people to give money to help autistic people, and that I could just give a small amount each month.

I told her that I’m a student and so not in a position to give any money, but that I do my bit for autism awareness in other ways, like writing a blog! She thanked me for my time, and we went our separate ways.

I must confess, I found it rather amusing! I wondered exactly what sort of training these fundraisers are given, and whether the possibiliy that someone they approach may actually be on the autistic spectrum is ever addressed!

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Echolalia and hyperlexia as stages of language development

Children with Asperger Syndrome are said to have abnormal language development. ‘Echolalia’ and ‘hyperlexia’ are two ‘symptoms’ that are often mentioned. ‘Echolalia’ means repeating what another person is saying, with no evidence of comprehension, and ‘hyperlexia’ means reading exceptionally well and fluently for one’s age, but with poor comprehension.

Well, although I remember learning to read quite clearly (and I did indeed have a reading age which was way above my chronological age) it’s hard to remember learning language as a whole. I don’t remember learning to understand and speak spoken language, although I remember specific incidents of learning specific words and phrases. My mind has developed now – as an adult I understand what I read and hear, so long as I focus.

So I’ve decided to put myself into the situation of learning language from scratch all over again, by starting to teach myself Italian. Of course it’s different – I already know English (and bits of other languages) so I’m not learning the concept of language from scratch. I understand Italian in the context of what I know of English. And I’m learning Italian in England, where I’m surrounded by English speaking people, so of course it’s artificial. But I’m teaching myself by exposing myself to the spoken and written language, through podcasts and Italian literature, and seeing how much I absorb. I’ve read the pronunciation rules, which are very straightforward compared with English. And I do a few Italian lessons online, or from CDs, but the vocabulary I have so far is very basic.

And here is what I find. When listening to Italian podlasts, I find myself repeating various phrases. I have no idea what they mean – which is quite normal at this point, I think, because I doubt anyone would start understanding a language just by listening. But I automatically repeat the words, because I like the feel of them on my tongue, and the sound I make. I actually have no desire, at this point, to understand. I just like the sound and the feel. I also listen to Italian songs and memorise them, with no comprehension. I just like to sing them. With the Italian novels, I read them aloud. I have got the hang of Italian pronunciation, on the whole, and I love to read Italian out loud and to increase my fluency. Again, I have no idea what any of it means, other than the occasional word, but that is absolutely fine. At this point it would be too confusing to also be grappling with comprehension, because my brain can only focus on one thing at a time.

And so it seems to me that actually ‘echolalia’ and ‘hyperlexia’ are the most logical, efficient ways for an autistic person to learn language. We only process things one at a time. We don’t multitask. And we start from the details and move up to the big picture. Meaning is the big picture. Any ‘between the lines’ meaning is even bigger picture. The actual shapes of the words themselves – the consonants, the vowels, the patterns – this is detail, and this is where we start. While neurotypical people start with the big picture and move towards the details, people on the autistic spectrum work the other way around.

Temple Grandin points out that driving a car is only multitasking when you are learning to drive. Once you’ve learnt, then it’s automatic, and you can focus on the road. And I think the same is true of language to some extent. With the English language, when I read, I don’t have to sound out each phoneme as I did as a very young child. I recognise words automatically. Listening can be harder, because of all the variance in how how people produce words in different contexts and with different accents, but when I focus, I can do it. I don’t have to analyse each phoneme to grasp the word, nor do I have to analyse each word to hear meaning. Most of it is automatic, and what my brain actively work on is the overall meaning, and any meaning in between the lines (as this is not automatic). But with Italian, nothing is automatic yet, and so I can only concentrate on one aspect at a time. I hope, as I continue to learn, that the details will become automatic, and I will eventually learn to grasp the big picture and understand what I read and hear.

So I don’t believe that hyperlexia and echolalia are, in themselves, negative things. They are stages in language development for many people with Asperger Syndrome, and essential stages, I believe. It’s possible to get stuck in a stage – and particularly for people on the autistic spectrum, for whom switching from one thing to another is very difficult – but that doesn’t mean that the stage itself is bad. In fact, I’d speculate that trying to hurry a child out of a stage, by making him focus on comprehension before he’s ready, could be harmful.

So I will continue learning Italian by listening, repeating and reading without comprehension, and I will observe what happens.

‘Fingers crossed’: on being both clever and stupid

Asperger Syndrome is having a masters degree in English and yet being quite oblivious to the fact that ‘fingers crossed’ does not mean that people are literally contorting their fingers for you.

Yes, it only occurred to me today, at the ripe age of nearly 37, that ‘fingers crossed’ might fall into the ‘just an expression’ category. In fact, this would probably never have occurred to me had I not seen someone make a joke in response to someone’s comment of ‘Everything crossed’, pretending to take it literally, with smiley faces to show they were joking. I have observed that when people jokily pretend to take an expression literally, then this means the expression isn’t actually a literal expression. And so it dawned on me – all these years of being reluctant to join in choruses of ‘fingers crossed’ because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my fingers crossed all day long, and I didn’t understand what good crossing my fingers would do anyway, were quite misguided. ‘Fingers crossed’ is simply a non-literal way of saying ‘Good luck’. And the logical extension to this, much to my relief, is that ‘everything crossed’ is not the boastful, bizarre and unrealistic deception I always thought it was (my poor imagination had such a hard time trying to work out what exactly this would entail!).

How on earth did I not ever realise this? It seems so utterly obvious now, but it simply never occurred to me before. I’d simply become accustomed to it as a phrase that bothered and confused me – one of the many things in the world that simply don’t make sense – and so I’d never thought to see whether it could be interpreted differently.

And yet I am able to recognise and dissect complex non-literal language in poetry and novels. The difference is that when studying English literature, we were taught to look for symbolism and non-literal language. Analysis of it is demonstrated time and time over in the published literary criticism. Nothing is left unsaid, or assumed to be understood – it’s all acknowledged and analysed. I absolutely loved studying English literature because of this. Never before had I entered a world of in-depth analysis and interpretation of things I encountered. Suddenly the world made more sense than it ever had before!

In general conversation, however, people don’t tend to dissect their words or much is left unsaid. So non-literal language can be harder to spot – particularly if it’s an expression I’ve known from an early age, and have just accepted as something that doesn’t make sense. Had I heard the expression ‘Fingers crossed’ for the first time today, the strangeness of it would have stood out more and I would have googled it and thus learnt straight away what it meant! In fact, I’ve just done so now, to see how easy it is to find the answer, and lo and behold, answers.com has the answer: ‘If you say that someone is keeping their fingers crossed, they mean that they are hoping for good luck.’ (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_does_fingers_crossed_mean)

I think I’ve mentioned before how, when I was a teenager, the other girls in my class would sometimes call me stupid. When I pointed out that this was illogical because they would often call me clever at other times, they agreed and said that I was very clever at schoolwork, but that I was also stupid. I asked how this was possible, and they said they didn’t know, and that it was weird. And at moments like this, when I realise how I’ve failed to understand something obvious, I understand what they mean.

Adults tend to be politer than teenagers, so people generally don’t tell me I’m stupid nowadays, but they sometimes indicate it in their tone of voice and facial expression (and contrary to stereotypes about autism, I do see and hear such things – I may not process them on the spot, but I observe them and analyse them afterwards). And other times they tell me I’m very intelligent. And sometimes they respond to something I say with a look of surprise that I’m not sure how to interpret – when I analyse it in context of what is said, this look seems to be saying that I am right/clever, but in a weird way that most people aren’t, and the person isn’t sure whether to admire me or to see me as an oddity!

Anyway, I am as I am, regardless of how people choose to interpret me! And hopefully this blog demystifies some of the ‘oddness’ of people on the autistic spectrum.