To mark National Autism Awareness Month,and to mark Autism Awareness Day (April 2), actress and writer Laura Guthrie gives us an insight into Asperger’s.
My mother frequently tells the story of my first encounter with a tall, broad and intimidating-looking schoolteacher, who nevertheless possessed a kind heart and good sense of humour.
“Hello Laura,” she boomed cheerfully. “Time to put your book on the shelf now.”
The shelf in question was within arms reach.
“No,” I told her.
Er… well… that was unexpected! Still, she’d been warned that this child would “test the boundaries”. This must be what they meant.
The teacher was a little firmer: “Laura, put your book on the shelf.”
“No,” I repeated.
Right. Tough love. “Laura, PUT YOUR BOOK ON THE SHELF.”
To put her in her place, I stood up, began a slow and painstaking traverse round the edge of the room, over bookcases and under tables, to the shelf in question, and plopped the book down. Then back round the room again, this time in the other direction, finally alighting once more in my seat. She was never quite sure whether she won that one or not.
I learned I was an ‘Aspie’ (a affectionate nickname for people with Asperger’s, which is on the Autism Spectrum) when I was 14. I knew I was different, but I didn’t know why. Other people seemed to be allowed their own viewpoints and ways of doing things without receiving constant criticism. Why should I be different? Therefore, the discovery of my ‘syndrome’ came as a massive blow. Apparently it meant I had difficulty with social interaction and understanding non-verbal communication like facial expressions. But for me, it seemed to indicate a behind-the-scenes consensus that my core principles were problems requiring probing, treating and curing.
In reality, this discovery helped me pick up things that come as second nature to others. Learning non-verbal communication and so-called ‘proper’ behaviour was like studying Spanish (and I don’t speak Spanish). A world where the recurring message is how to behave ‘appropriately’ is quite scary when you don’t understand what’s appropriate. This has made me very observant because I constantly watch people and try to temper myself to their standards – lest they have to cope with my true, full-on me-ness! I use people who seem ethically sound as a source to model myself on and, by doing so, stay connected to the world. Did you know that? It makes me sound like some sort of crazy stalker but – I’m watching your every move. All. Of. The. Time.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes do things my own way. For example, when I first moved to a new city for university, I’d only been shown how to get from my apartment to campus. When it came to walking in the other direction, I had no idea where to go. To me, the most logical way to solve this problem was to walk the whole route backwards – after all, I’d recognise the same landmarks in reverse! This is a great insight into my brain. It might work a little differently to yours but it has a fantastic sense of humour when it comes to problem solving.
Now that I’m 25 and have been learning, copying and interacting for almost 12 years, communicating with others is a lot easier. So-called ‘normal’ interactions are written down in a big metaphorical file in my head, with index cards marking past situations. Most interactions feel intuitive, and non-verbal interpretation happens in an instant, because the information has been committed to memory and built up over a long time. If I ever experience a translation difficulty, I can go back and locate relevant past experiences to draw from. If there are none, I muddle my way through the situation and file it afterwards for future reference. In other words, if someone asks me to put a book on a shelf these days, I’m unlikely to slalom my way to the bookcase.
Actually, the diagnosis and its consequences have had lots of positive effects. Literature I’ve read, contacts I’ve made and guidance I’ve received have all profoundly influenced my self-awareness and reflection. It’s encouraged me to give people a clearer insight into my own perspective through writing, acting and blogging, which, fortunately, have become my career. Yes, I still have the odd communication hiccup here and there, but I like to think that being an ‘Aspie’ is part of my character.
One thing which still conflicts me is how to respond when people tell me that I “seem very high functioning”. What?! Do they mean “congratulations on overcoming your social awkwardness,” or do they mean “congratulations on not appearing too autistic”? Who do I bat for? To which ‘side’ do I owe allegiance?
But, over time, I’ve learned that if the speaker is attentive and interested, then it’s intended as a compliment. You only have to look at Moss in The IT Crowd, or at Sheldon in Big Bang Theory, to see the treasured, integral irreplaceability of our quirks, however much eye-rolling they cause. So usually I smile (genuinely, given the complimentary intention), and say: “Oh…thanks!,” and then use them as the subject of my next blog post.
Being Aspie is a feature from the April Day Edition of Emirates Woman, which is available to buy now in all leading supermarkets and book stores
Main image: Andrew Sutherland