Let me choose more than the colour of my cloth
All children look to adults for recognition, guidance and approval. Depending on circumstances and personality, some children need more feedback and guidance than others. Some seem content to toddle off along life's pathway with barely a backward glance, either so confident in their own skin they don't need the approval, or so eager to meet life head on, they don't realise they were meant to wait for instructions.
When it comes to the starting points, aspie children are no different from others. Their behaviour may be different; their reactions to life might be off kilter from an early age, it may be obvious quite soon that they aren't the same as the other diddy-mouses at playgroup. Or the differences become more obvious once school rears its ugly head and your charming little aspie has to suddenly function as part of a team (a what?!), behave the same way as everyone else (why?) and not do that thing with the toilet anymore.
As aspergers children age, they realise, be it quickly or slowly, that they are not coping with life as expected. They know life can be difficult sometimes and that they need to learn, so they look to their parents for the answers. In school, they learn to look to their teachers for the same sort of guidance. They learn that the aspie approach does not often work in public settings like school. They become used to being told off or taken to one side, having things explained to them. Then they become used to the disappointed faces as they let down their teachers and their parents by not remembering the way things were meant to be done or by not caring, in the extreme joy of an uncontrolled moment.
Aspies often lag behind, emotionally at least. As they grow, they are much more likely than other children to want to revert to an earlier developmental stage. They do not want to grow up quickly and meet the world, like other children. The childhood stage, which they already found difficult, becomes a rosy memory of a time when the stresses were a lot fewer and parental guidance more firmly imposed.
As they age, becoming teenagers, it is clearer day by day that people now expect the aspie to behave like a young adult, to do things the right way. They're old enough to know better, they probably have more of a grip on the world and how it works, meaning there is less excuse to get it wrong. It all comes down to expectations.
In my case, as I've said before, I was something of a high achiever. Give me an exam and, unless it was maths, I could sail through it, remembering what I had learnt, able to bring it out at the right moment. I knew I was clever and I knew how to behave by the time I was a teenager. I had soaked up, like a sponge, all the positive comments made during my school years. Amanda is quiet, she's clever, she does her work and her homework, isn't she mature? I was these things, but I was also not coping at all with the social side of school.
I can honestly say, if I had thought there was a way out of my school years, I would have taken it. Every day was a trial. And I mean, every single day. The good days at school, they were only okay. There was always difficulty of some kind, even if I managed to get through without being bullied. And the bad days..you know what? I'll leave the bad days for another blog post, I'm not able to go there right now.
Throughout this, no matter what my difficulties and stresses, the positive side of me, the one which gained the most attention from adults, was that I was quiet, trustworthy, academic and hardworking. I wanted to live up to those ideals, they made me feel good about myself.
There always comes a point, though, when the aspie side hits up against the expectations and sparks fly.
When I was 17, I started my sixth form years, intending to take A levels and then be the first one in my family to get a degree. I expected sixth form to be different from school. There was an element of protection in it, we were apart from the main school which had been my living nightmare for so long.
To my horror and intense disappointment, I discovered this was mostly just propaganda. We were treated a little more like adults, but only a little. It was still part of the school in as much as I had to bear being amongst large groups of people every day. The work wasn't interesting and different and everyone else seemed to go with it so much more easily than I did. They seemed to see it as I should be seeing it.
I fell into a deep depression and took to wandering between lessons. I needed to come home at lunchtime to recover from being at school in the morning. Eventually, it became obvious to everyone that I wasn't coping but no one considered not being at school as an option.
Here, I want to name one of the important people who helped me break free and, in the end, is part of the reason I am who I came to be.
I had a talk with Mr Byers, one of our teachers. He had never really fit the mould of sensible teacher. It would be safe to say he was a little eccentric and very much a people person. He was the one who took me to one side and explained there were choices in life, that school wasn't everything, that I had the power to make decisions for myself and my own best interests.
Yes, an authentic light bulb moment! I could choose for myself, without taking account of other people's expectations or needs. I could take the first step on making myself happy again.
I left school shortly afterwards.
I will shortcut the intense disappointment felt by my family and other teachers. I'll pass through the emotional turmoil I endured as a result of this decision. Weirdly, after years of always wanting to please and be the type of person I thought I should be, I was completely firm when it came to my decision to leave school. Mr Byers had given me permission (even though it wasn't needed) to be myself and choose only for me.
I'll move to the second important person in this chapter of my life: my godmother, Linda. A Canadian ex-pat who has lived her life as eccentrically and with at least as many difficulties as I have. A loving, warm, sometimes irresponsible, always lovable person who could draw other people to her like the proverbial moth and flame.
In desperation, needing to have a break from all the disappointment and negativity around me, I asked if I could stay with Linda for a while. And so there I was, at the age of 17, with my diaries and exercise books, off on a bus to Newcastle. I stayed with Linda and her husband for a week. I listened to music, wandered around the shops, was fed at regular intervals and given attention when I wanted it. Otherwise, Linda did an amazing thing: she left me alone.
That week, readers, I healed. I gained enough strength to go home again and start on the next phase of my life. I discovered the essential truth of being alone when I needed it most. From that day, I knew that taking myself away completely, be it physically, emotionally or just mentally, that was the way to save myself and enable a stronger, healthier return to life.
From then on, I walked my own path more. I still listened to what people said about me - intrinsically, it's a part of me and probably other aspies too - but I was also able, when necessary, to make my own decisions based on what I wanted. Or, at least, based on what I knew I didn't want.
I made more difficult decisions, bad decisions, good ones, absolutely mad ones. But making decisions is still the key, because that means you are being your own person, no matter what. Sometimes, it can be hard to bring together the things you want or don't want, with the kind of person you are expected to be. You get mixed up between what you want and what other people want for you.
I think the important thing to realise, for anyone with aspergers, is that decisions can be made for the most important of reasons: not to improve life as such, or make things better, or even to please other people. No, sometimes the most important decisions are the ones which recognise what you need to leave behind. An aspie may not be able to verbalise what is wrong with a situation, they simply know they need to be away from it. Later, given time, they will probably surprise you with the reason they had to leave something behind. At the time, you need to help them by supporting that decision.
This support is so important. Many if us have grown up being told what to do and how to do it, we have needed the extra guidance and the explanations of how we should behave in life. There comes a time, though, when the aspie needs to be trusted. If they say, this is not working, this is not so, then let them make that decision. From the outside, it might seem they are doing the wrong thing, but from the inside the castle walls are crumbling to dust and have been for a while. There are no more defences left, there is only the aspie themselves, standing in a deserted courtyard, unable to see the invisible, unfightable foe coming towards them across the broken walls.
Let them decide when it is better to give up the fight, before it gets to the stage of being a lost cause. Let them save their strength for all the other battles, the ones which, when won, improve the golden feelings of self-esteem and peace of mind.
And for the record, readers, I went on to take my A levels at night school, at my own pace. Then I went to college and was still the first one in the family to get my degree. It all worked out for the best and I still did what was good for me in the end.
I just needed to know I had choices. We can do almost anything if we know there is another way.
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