Rounders – the perspective of a 7-year-old with Asperger Syndrome

When I first started this blog, I asked:

Do I take you for a ride inside my mind, with all the odd twists and turns it takes? How uncomfortable would that be? Would it alienate readers who are not on the autistic spectrum? Or do I try to translate myself into language that is easy for people who are not on the spectrum to identify with?

I’ve tended to do a bit of both. I think that now, as an adult, with so much awareness, I’ve learnt to automatically translate myself into NT language.

But today I’ve written something pretty much in Asperger language – it’s a childhood memory, of which I was reminded today, and it occurred to me that it might be useful to write here, to show the Asperger perspective in a situation where people simply don’t ‘get it’ (and where I quite genuinely didn’t ‘get it’ either). Hope it’s not too alienating…

I am seven years old and at school. Mostly school means sitting at a desk and copying things from the whiteboard, which I can’t see very well, so sometimes I write things down wrong. I am slow at writing, so the words get rubbed off before I’ve written them all down, so then I get confused and lost, and I draw pictures instead. Our teacher is a man with a bald head, and when people say ‘That’s not fair’, he says ‘Life’s not fair’. He once hit a boy on the head with a Bible, which means he is a bad man, but he is never bad to me. I don’t think he knows who I am. He never notices that I’m confused and not writing what’s on the board. He only likes to talk to the boys – the clever boys who are good at maths, and have finished all the maths questions from the board, so he thinks of harder maths things to teach them, and they boast about who finishes first.

There is another teacher, who is a woman, an angry ugly woman with a hard face who looks like a bulldog. She likes to make fun of me. She makes us go outside, and it is often cold and always confusing, because I never know what we will have to do, even when she tells us. Often she chooses two people to choose everyone else, in turn. No one wants to choose me but eventually they have to because they run out of people. I don’t want to be chosen. I don’t like this game. It makes no sense. Everyone wants to be on the batter team, but I like to be on the fielder team, because then you get to just stand there and do nothing. Well, you are supposed to do something with the ball sometimes, but I don’t know what.

Being a batter makes me scared because someone throws a ball at me and I have to hit it with a heavy long piece of wood called a bat, but although I move the wood towards the ball, the ball just goes past it. This is called a miss, and people get annoyed with me for missing and they think I’m stupid. I’m supposed to hit the ball, but I can’t. I try, but it doesn’t happen. I can’t see where the ball is going, because it goes too fast, and I don’t have time to make the bat go to the exact place where the ball is going at just the right time. Other people can do it, but I don’t know how.

When I’ve missed the ball three times, I have to run. This is confusing. There are people standing by bits of wood sticking out of the ground, and I have to run to them and hit the wood with my bat. There are rules about running to different bits of wood and then stopping. If you keep running when you’re supposed to have stopped, that’s bad. If you miss the ball, you just run to the first one, which is easy, but the next person after me might hit the ball with the bat and might run to lots of wooden posts, and then I have to run too, but I don’t know when to stop. If I do it wrong, people shout at me. If the person behind me runs fast, I have to run fast, and I am not a fast runner, and I get scared because it’s like I’m being chased and people shout at me to run faster.

So I like being a fielder. Well, I don’t like it, but it’s better than being a batter. I don’t stand by a piece of wood in the ground. I stand far away in the field (that’s why it’s called a fielder). They make me stand far away, because then I don’t have to do anything, and then I can’t get it wrong and make them lose points. They all want to win, and they get upset if they don’t win. If I do things wrong, they won’t win. It doesn’t make any difference, though, who wins, because then we all go back and get changed and have to go back into the classroom and sit at our desks again and write things from the board. It is the same if you won or if you lost.

Sometimes, if you are a fielder, even if you are far away, you might have to do something with a ball. The angry bulldog teacher tells us that just because we are fielders, that doesn’t mean we always do nothing. The ball might come to us. This is confusing and I always hope that I will not have to do anything.

One day, I am a fielder, and the ball lands near me. I don’t care about the ball, and I don’t know what to do with it, but everyone else cares and everyone else knows what to do with it, so I let them get it. But they run around looking and they can’t find it. I don’t know why they can’t find it – I know exactly where it is, hidden there in the grass but you can see it in between the blades of grass. Why aren’t they finding it? They run around and look and shout. Sometimes they think they find it but they don’t. They say it’s lost. Then someone says to me, ‘Did you see it?’

‘Yes.’ I point to it. ‘It’s there.’ I am pleased to share my knowledge and do something useful in the game. They will be happy now, to know where it is, and that it isn’t lost.

People look at me and shout at me. They shout at me, angry, because I was standing there and I knew where it was and I didn’t tell them and I didn’t pick it up. They tell me this was wrong and bad. They ask why I was standing there. Because I am a fielder and fielders stand there. They ask why I didn’t tell them the ball was there. But I did tell them. They ask why didn’t I tell them before when I could see they were looking for it. Because they didn’t ask. I thought they would find it. They tell me I should have thrown the ball. That I should have picked it up and thrown it as hard as I could. I didn’t know that. Next time pick it up and throw it hard, they say. Well, some of them say that. Others mutter ‘Idiot!’

A few weeks later, I am a fielder again. The ball lands near me. This time I know what to do. I pick it up and throw it very hard. I don’t care about the ball, but I want to do the right thing, and I don’t want to be shouted at. I am pleased that I know what to do now.

People are shouting at me again. I don’t know why. I threw the ball. What were you doing, they ask. I was throwing the ball. I’m supposed to throw the ball. The ugly teacher says to me in her hard voice, making fun of me: ‘Where did you think were you throwing the ball to?’

‘I don’t know,’ I say. I was throwing it. How could I know where it was going to go?

Now people are telling me where I should have thrown it. It makes no sense to me. It’s about the pieces of wood in the ground. This piece of wood? I ask. Or that one? No, it will be different each time. It is about the person running.

This is too complicated. I don’t understand.

Next time the ball lands in the grass near me, I ignore it. I won’t help them this time. It’s a silly game.

 

It’s odd – obviously now as an adult it makes more sense to me, but I can clearly remember the confusion I felt. And even though I now understand intellectually, I still can’t understand emotionally the enthusiasm people feel about hitting a ball and running around, or why people get so emotional about winning or losing when there are no rewards.

Anyway, I also wanted to say I’m aware I haven’t updated this blog in a long time. I am very busy with college, and find multitasking hard, and so at the moment updates are infrequent. I hope to make them more frequent when I am less busy.

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How lack of expression can lead to assumptions of ignorance

Today I was reading a blog post written by a mother of a child on the autistic spectrum. She was saying for several years she thought her child didn’t ‘get’ Christmas, but recently her child said something that made her realise that she had ‘got’ it all along. The child had simply never before expressed the fact that she’d got it, so the mother didn’t realise that she actually had.

This made me think about my life, and how there have been quite a few times when I’ve said something, and people have looked surprised and expressed in some way (either through words or behaviour) that they now realised that I had a lot more understanding and insight than they’d thought.

I imagine it has happened a lot more than I realise, especially when I was a child and I had less awareness of how people were reacting to me. The first example I can think of is when I was 14. I didn’t understand physics lessons at school. We had a rather dithery physics teacher, who was nearing retirement, and who had difficulty explaining physics and difficulty controlling the class. I will call her Mrs Short, which is not her real name.

Mrs Short would spend ages doing experiments which we had to watch, and then nothing would happen, and she would tell us they hadn’t worked. I would be completely confused, because I had no idea what was going on or what I was supposed to be learning. I didn’t pretend to be interested in the class, because such pretending had not even occurred to me at that age.

Mrs Short found me stupid and rude. She’d found a piece of paper on which another pupil and I had been exchanging written notes, and I’d written that I found physics boring. Mrs Short, having found the note, interrupted what she was teaching us and announced to the class that I apparently found physics boring.

‘Is that right?’ she asked me, in a loud dramatic way. ‘Do you find physics boring?’

Totally oblivious to any implications of my answer, I answered truthfully, ‘Yes.’

The class was amused. Mrs Short was not. She said with a tight voice: ‘Well, I’m sooo sorry that the class isn’t interesting enough for you.’

Looking back, I imagine she’d been expecting me to be embarrassed and to deny it and apologise. However, at the time, I was unaware of any such expectations, and also unaware that I’d done anything wrong. I wasn’t embarrassed in the slightest, because I didn’t see any shame in being bored.

After this incident, Mrs Short went out of her way to try to humiliate me in physics lessons. She would mock me whenever I asked questions, whenever I did anything wrong, whenever I didn’t understand what I was doing (which was most of the time). I observed this, and tried to analyse it in order to understand it. I worked out that Mrs Short must hate all students who write notes to each other in her class – but then that didn’t quite make sense, because Mrs Short was being quite friendly to the other girl who had written notes to me. So maybe my note was worse in some way – maybe because my handwriting was messier or something. Or maybe she hated people who didn’t understand physics.

Then one day, in a physics lesson, a girl from the other science group knocked on the door and asked if I could be excused and come to the nurse’s room, because my sister was there and asking for me. Mrs Short said yes, so off I went. This girl told me that my sister’s best friend had died, and my sister was upset, and she had wanted me to sit with her. So I went and sat with my sister for a while, and talked to her and said things to help her calm down and to comfort her. And then, when my sister was calmer and had stopped shaking, then I was sent back to the physics class. I went back into the classroom and sat down in my seat. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would want an explanation, but then everyone was asking if my sister was all right. So I explained to them what had happened, and that my sister was upset, but that I had spent some time with her and she was doing a bit better now.

And after that, Mrs Short stopped making fun of me, and was friendly to me. Not just in that lesson, but in all subsequent lessons. I observed this change in behaviour and tried to work it out logically. My first logical deduction was that Mrs Short liked people if their sister’s best friend died. But I observed too that she was extra nice to a girl in the class whose mother had died, so I expanded this interpretation and wondered if having some connection to death made Mrs Short like you more. Maybe she was quite a morbid person, I decided. (See how it is very hard to understand people when you are on the autistic spectrum and you have to analyse each behaviour like this to work out a pattern! As an adult you have more understanding from more experiences, but as a child, you have no wider context from which to understand such things.)

Then, on parents evening, I found out the reason for Mrs Short’s change in behaviour. My mother went to parents evening and reported back to me what the different teachers said. Mrs Short apparently told my mother that she’d originally thought I didn’t care about anyone or anything, and that there wasn’t much going on in my head, but then something had happened which surprised her and showed her that I was a responsible, caring person, and she was very impressed with me.

I was quite astonished by this. I didn’t understand why my behaviour was so surprising – of course I would go and sit with my sister when she was upset. And besides, my relationship with my sister had nothing to do with physics lessons. So I still had a lot of confusion with cause and effect here.

But in retrospect I realise that it was one of many occasions where people assume that I lack understanding or feeling, because I haven’t actually explicitly expressed to them this understanding or feeling. With Asperger Syndrome, body language and facial expression tend not to be very revealing of what is going on inside – I know for myself, I have to make a conscious effort to express appropriate reactions and feelings in my face and voice. And this is something that for many years I simply didn’t know I had to do.

So if my face and body are not expressing anything, and I’m not verbally telling people what I’m thinking and feeling (because it doesn’t occur to me that they want to know unless they ask a specific question) then people may assume that not much is going on inside my head. And if an autistic person never realises this, then the assumptions can last their whole life.

In fact, recently I’ve really been coming to understand more clearly the importance of expressing my awareness and understanding and feelings to people, because people feel more comfortable with you and can trust you if you have conveyed who you are and what you are thinking and feeling, and how you make decisions. I will probably write more about it in future blog posts, because there are many more examples.

I realise that this example here actually illustrates more Asperger issues than I’d originally realised. These are different from the main issue I was trying to illustrate, but I’ll list these too. I think this example also shows that people with Aspergers can have difficulty with:

  1. realising that people don’t always want you to tell the truth (it took me a long time to work this one out, because no one actually ever admits that they don’t want you to tell the truth)
  2. understanding why being bored could offend people (how I saw it was that being bored was simply an experience inside my head – the idea that anyone would take it personally was beyond me)
  3. trying to understand other people’s behaviour and motivations when they don’t explicitly tell you (if Mrs Short had taken me aside and explained exactly why she was upset with me – well, if she’d explained numbers 1 and 2 of this list – then things would have been much easier for both of us)

So there are a lot of potential confusions when you are on the autistic spectrum.

On the one hand, if I don’t let people know in some way what I am thinking and feeling, they will assume that I am not thinking or feeling, or that I am thinking and feeling something quite different, and potentially quite sinister.

On the other hand, if people don’t let me know what they are thinking and feeling (and in a far more explicit way than they may think necessary) then I get confused. I don’t assume, which is the difference. I try to work out logical patterns.

So in conclusion, I’m realising that there is actually a need for both sides to be more explicit. But since I am the ‘different’ one, I probably have to take the initiative, and as well as sharing my own thoughts and feelings, I also need to explain to others that they need to be more explicit and direct than usual in explaining their thought processes to me, and not to assume I will understand things that they haven’t said.