Don't train your aspie!

You know how they say, if you hear something often enough, you start to believe it? I was torturing myself with some past stuff last night. I was caught up in that replay mode, where you know you've heard it a thousand times before, a bit like granny's stories of when she told Mrs so-and-so just what she thought of her, but can you stop it? Of course not.

It's not just at night. Through the day, in normal life, the replay starts and you hear the old voices, the familiar phrases. Most of them tell a 'truth' about you, something you learned growing up or which formed part of a significant relationship.

One of my truths was always that I was not practical, followed by the well-worn and amusing diatribe on how the practical gene skipped a generation, how my children would probably get it instead. And then the sideways jump to how it didn't skip past my cousins though - at which point I'd be likened to my great-grandmother, who preferred her gardening to keeping the house clean and tidy. She died a heroine so I never minded that too much.

Except, when I've become more assertive with age (and it took a loooong time), I discovered that while every nail I might knock in was likely to bounce back out, I was very good at looking at the bigger picture and showing other people where to put the nails.

This often meant I was seen as being critical too, but my advice or reasoning usually solved some difficult problem that the practical people had spent an hour scratching their heads about. It was obvious to me, but being so resolutely not practical, I stayed away until the sound of cursing and nails being removed was too much to bear.

As a non-practical person, I have also been pushed away from sites of busy-ness and doing, as if my very presence would hold up the fine industry of real people, the ones who can knock in a nail. 'Here, get out of the way!' was the usual phrase, or 'Can you not do anything but stand there and look?'

If you get used to being sent off or made to take part (rather than stand and look) then cause problems, you start removing yourself from the situation. You grow accustomed to sitting in another room and listening to the sound of those hammers, working away with the kind of industry that built empires (and you know how they usually turn out).

You become adept at reading through the disturbance, or pushing refreshments through the gap in the door so you won't be drawn in to helping or told off for being there at the wrong moment. And, you really, really get used to admiring other people's shoddy handiwork because you know you couldn't have done it half as well yourself.

In other words, you train yourself to step back and only take part when it's all over, by which time you have no choice but to say it all looks good. You have no room for manoeuvre once you have vacated the situation.

If you have the courage to stay and help in your own way, not by wielding the hammer but by looking at things from your unique perspective, then you have a far greater chance of helping out. You can often make things better than by leaving the room. However - and this is a big however - this only works if the nail-hitters will allow you to help in your own way.

If they insist on doing it their way, or on your space in the plan being dictated by how they see the world, then you will do little to help and might make things worse. Blaming you for your part in this compounds your feelings of helplessness and detachment, making it less likely you will be involved the next time, and so on.

So, taking part in situations you have been trained to avoid does take courage and not just on your part. Other people need to put down the hammer occasionally and consider there may be a better way to make the world than by fixing one plank at a time. They also need to be brave enough to look at their aspie and say, 'What do you think? Is there anything else I can do?'

And then, they have to listen to the answer too.


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It's a process. Pro-cess. Prrr-ocess. You know, a PROCESS!

For anyone who missed it, the word for today is PROCESS. See, now I'm shouting. You can always tell what kind of week it's been if you're shouting by Wednesday.

So, RT Teen, fellow aspie, artist and person extraordinaire, is going to a new college in a nearby city. He needs to get there and back on his own and do all the little, important things which non-aspies take for granted. In other words, he has to connect with the real world without real-ectifrying himself.

He started at the college last week, so as part of the preparation for independent travel, I drove him there a couple of times, doing a reccy of the train station he would be using, tracing the routes around the city, finding out the best way to get to college and so on. An important part of this is the minutiae of city life, such as knowing which side the traffic will come from when you cross the road and which side streets cut out whole swathes of walking.

We picked out landmarks, such as the Aga shop with teapots made to look like little stoves with food on top (all right, I picked that one out. I so want a stove teapot now). We admired the smell from the biscuit factory and memorised the road name he needs to find if all else fails.

At the station, once we were ready to do the journey by train, it was a comedy of errors. I'd forgotten I didn't like train stations until the minute before we had to use one. So, throughout our process of familiarisation, I had to fight a feeling akin to when I drive into a dark, scary multi-storey car park.

We did manage this journey, though almost got on the wrong train which would have taken us on a beautiful route across Northern England and into Yorkshire. As we don't live in Yorkshire, this would have been an interesting detour.

So, as you can see, we have hopefully covered the whole journey and, fingers crossed, RT Teen will do it by himself tomorrow.

I'm very happy with his progress but, as the days have passed since he started last Monday, I am feeling increasingly aeriated with the people around me who think that he should be able to hop on a bus or a train and do the journey by himself from the start.

Let me be clear: anyone who knows him, knows he is an aspie and most of them have known him his whole life. Since when was RT the kind of person who could switch off his aspieness and suddenly manage, as if by psychic lightning-bolt, things he has never done before?

Day by day, people have assumed he's going to college on his own, has been 'popped' on the bus or train at my end and left to it. He is an aspie, he's always been an aspie. He gets his sense of direction from his mother and takes the disconnect from real-life to a whole new level.

He does not, by virtue of reaching voting age, suddenly know what other people know. If it was really like this then we'd all be automatons who could download a new program when we wanted to do something (tempting, isn't it?).

He. Is. An. Aspie.

I've had to say this as if it was news and then endure the pause while the other person tries to work out where I'm going with the statement and what it has to do with RT going to college or their comment that he'll 'soon get into the swing of things if you let him'.

Readers, if I was to leave RT to get into the swing of things, he would be in Bronte country by now, possibly holed up in a Yorkshire tea room somewhere, being looked after by friendly old women, feeding him cake and asking him when he's going to have his hair cut.

Every day people have expected him to be going alone by now, when what we've been doing is working through the whole process so that he reaches a stage of travelling independently without panic. If something goes wrong, he needs to be able to fall back on the other things he has learnt about his journey.

It is a process, I've said, over and over. A process.

I've tried to explain where we are in the process and again, that moment of silence where their image of a teenager doesn't match up with the idea that RT planned out landmarks today and worked out which subway to use.

If I have to tell one more person about the process, I may just scream. Tomorrow, he'll go by himself. He'll follow the process we built up over the last week and a half. And he won't panic because he was a part of that process and not simply thrust into the situation and expected to manage.

Sometimes we all need a little bit of process in our lives, even those people who think the lives of others are like pop-up cards, all merry and ready to use. And after helping RT get ready to take this journey alone, I've also realised how much the process has also helped me.

From now on, when I do something new, I'm not going to wing it and tell people everything is fine. Instead I'm going to say, 'I'll get the hang of it eventually, it's a process you know.' And let them fall silent if they want, I'm done explaining.


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Hiding behind yourself

I dreamt last night that I had found a really good new mask to wear. It was white and slightly transparent so you could see my face through it. I knew people wouldn't be able to see my face clearly, so I was going to wear lots of black make-up around my eyes, kind of like in the first days of television when they exaggerated the make-up so it would look real on the screen.

The aim was for my blackened eyes to show through the mask and then people would see my eyes as normal. I have no idea how this was meant to work, it was a dream after all, but I remember the relief I felt at having a plan. I knew this one would work and I could relax at last.

Funny how you need a plan to relax. When most people think of relaxing, it's because they can forget everything, including planning, and just kick back. For me, I can't relax unless I have planned and know I'm ready for what might come.

Two things resonate in this dream: my need to plan and my need to have a mask that works. Do you see how it never occurred to me not to cover my face? How sad and strange!

I've often worried about how I present myself to the world and I know my feelings tramp across my face in hob-nailed boots. When I think I have them hidden, I'm aware of how much my eyes still show. And, in the dream, the eyes still showed because I made sure they did. Yet. even though I was making them more visible, I was also covering them with make up. I didn't cover them with a mask, like the rest of my face, but I still disguised them under war-paint.

In the dream, I was trying to explain to my mother why the make-up needed to be black and so bold. It was all over my eyes and it shone. I guess I looked like Cleopatra when she wakes up in the dumpster after an all-nighter. My mother wanted me to leave the make-up off but I told her, 'Then nobody will be able to see me.'

Again, the paradox. After hiding for so much of my life, I want a mask to keep myself safe in front of other people but then to highlight my eyes so they can see me - the very eyes which betray my feelings so often.

In the cold light of day, I have no desire to share my feelings with everyone by highlighting my eyes. The mask, though, I can see why I'd approve of that. Imagine the relief at finding just the right one and being able to feel safe when you go out into the world.

The eyes? They're a different matter. I guess part of me does want to share the real me with the world, so long as that self is protected by the mask and make-up. Possibly that's what we all want, even the most open of us. Who really wants to be naked and vulnerable in this bad old world?


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Coping with people who like to shout

Sometimes I feel like having a sign, ready to haul out when I need it: Don't Shout At Me. Do you think it would work? Do you suppose the Shouters would pause long enough to read it?

In my experience, they would. They'd be able to read that sign and carry on shouting if they liked. Or, for effect, stop what they were doing, read it and then shout louder because I've committed another atrocity.

They must be atrocities, right? I mean, I don't shout unless I have to or my temper has really got the better of me. I used to shout a lot more then realised it was learned behaviour and adapted to weed it out. Now I try not to do it, I take advance warning if my mood rises or my voice does the same.

I'm only human. I can shout if I have to; I can lose my temper and scream if I'm really pushed. And I can have an aspie meltdown and storm off, bellowing.

Shouters love to shout because to them it means other people must be listening. But just to be sure, they raise their voices to be certain they're the centre of attention.

Then they concentrate on your reaction, the person who dared to cause this outburst. You may think they're out of control and can't stop the shouting or have a runaway temper. It could be true but I doubt it. Do you know what they're really doing? Behind all the noise and bluster they are watching to see how you're taking it.

Are you upset, like a good wrong-doer? Do you look guilty? Do you want to cry? All great results, people but you want to know what the big one is? The thing they really want is for you to shout back.

Why would they need you to shout back? Simple, they need you to be the bad guy in all this. If they stand and yell at you with no response, their satisfaction-to-temper ratio diminishes and they have to increase the range of their performance.

If you stay completely silent and don't feed the fire, what do you get? You actually get a whole lot more shouting. Like a toddler rolling around on the floor, a tantrum is no good unless someone sees and reacts.

Readers, it took me years to learn this is a perfomance, as much an act as when I pretend to be normal and force myself to enter real-life. Unlike my own performances, this one always, always needs an audience, whereas mine is solo street art, meant for nothing except getting through a crowd.

How is the aspie meant to know this manipulation for what it is when we have trouble understanding even ourselves? You'll know when it's not the right kind of argument by how you feel about it.

You might not be able to explain why you feel this is wrong but your whole being will be off-kilter. It's one of those times when you have to follow your instincts and believe you are not to blame.

Like many aspies, I have been shouted at. Quite a lot, in fact. I don't know whether it's low self-esteem, a quiet personality or a willingness to get along with people: whatever lies behind it, I've attracted Shouters. And then, I've let them Shout.

The secret is to walk away, it's the only permanent answer. If you can't do that, you have to learn to deal with it and the best place to start is with yourself. Other people shout because they can, they choose to shout. It is not your fault.

Breaking the best china or falling on the dog or deleting all of Game of Thrones might be your fault. But the decision to shout instead of talking is theirs.

Never be tricked into believing it is you who causes the Shouting or that it would happen with everyone else too: shouters choose their audience wisely, and aspies can be a very good audience indeed.

Here's to all the people who told me these truths over the years, and eventually helped me believe them.


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I don't always act like an aspie, but when I do...

This week, I had to be a grown-up. RT Teen wants to change his college course which, due to lack of choice locally, means also changing his college. So, on Thursday evening we traipsed through to Carlisle College for an open night to meet new tutors.

I'd worried all week about him changing colleges and by Thursday night was really existing in some other, lighter place. Courageous enough on the outset, but by the time I'd driven through to Carlisle, I seemed to have used up all my sense.

I concentrated hard on the driving, as I was at that stage of stress where you feel disconnected. We got through the city, parked up and then had to find the college. I was prepared (for once) and we trotted off in the right direction.

Like country bumpkins, we got stuck on the wrong side of a barrier and couldn't figure out where we were meant to cross the road. Eventually, we saw a familiar looking building (thank you, Google Street View!) and hurried over. Once someone had pointed out the large button with Press Here written on it, we managed to open the doors...

It was a big, open space with lots of glass and very hot. The open night was going to be in the foyer, which also turned out to be their canteen area and main thoroughfare. Tables and chairs everywhere, with very few labels and none of them for Art or Computing.

Oh dear. We sat down on the edges, looking like we'd been dumped and waited for enlightenment to strike. It didn't, so we started wandering around the tables, vaguely angling towards any tutors who looked Arty or Computery.

Finally, a sympathetic admin woman caught sight of my face and came over to help. She identified the non-Arty looking Art tutor and we were off!

It went very well, though RT can't join the Art course this year due to how much he has missed. The Art tutor loved his work and made all kinds of helpful suggestions. Then, at the end, I found myself rounding off with a meme.

Yes, I've spent so long online that I now speak in memes. This is kind of embarrassing even with people who know me, but seemed to delight the Art tutor, who thought it was very funny. It was; I slotted it in the right place and presented it with panache, but, looking back, I'd rather have just thanked him and wandered off, like any other mother.

Onwards and upwards and, by bothering the disinterested receptionist, we found the Computer tutor. He turned out to be IT Teen's old tutor, who jumped ship from our local college and went to a better working life in Carlisle. He followed the department head, also IT's old tutor, who did the same thing. He was quite surprised to finally meet IT's mother and brother.

We got on very well, talked about IT, made fun of his iphone while he wasn't there to defend himself and talked about retro computer games too. He was more than willing to have RT on his course, using IT's consistent enthusiasm for computing as a reference.

This was weird, as when both boys were small and going through school, each new teacher would look at mini-RT Teen and say something like, 'Oh, I expect you'll be a good, hard-working boy like your brother!'

RT was good and he could be hard-working, but mostly at home and not at school. It was always a shock to his teachers that he wasn't a carbon copy of his brother and was so good at making their lives interesting.

Funny that the same phrases still come out all these years later. Ah well, at least these days RT will be less likely to climb things he shouldn't or introduce himself to new people in creative ways.

I did resist the urge to meme with the Computer tutor but, unfortunately, heard myself describing to him how the Art department at our local college always made me feel like going in with a flaming torch to clear the air and liven things up a bit. There were other descriptive phrases, but he seemed to take it all well.

Also, and I haven't been able to get to the bottom of this, there was a certain lack of surprise when I was being 'eccentric'. I just dread to think what IT has said over the years.

So, there we are. We found the right way out of the building and the short way back to the car and both flopped into our seats like we'd swum the Channel. RT is to turn up on Monday for a trial day, then he can make up his mind about the course.

Readers, I have to tell you that the fog had lifted by the drive home and I was able to travel safely again, as well as replay all the things I said to both tutors, in alarming technicolour. A good sign is that, unlike at the local college, neither of them flinched or widened their eyes while I was speaking. Perhaps, this time, we have found the right place!


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Always playing catch-up

Can you imagine me at twelve? I was a bookish child, glasses, quiet with a tendency to drift off from whatever was going on around me. My favourite things were reading, writing and sci-fi and other worlds were often more enjoyable than the real one.

At this age, my mother and step-father decided we were a Healthy Family and we would go Walking. Oh readers, not just walking to the shops, or down the road with the dog; not even walking, gently, round the local lakes. No, serious walking, with a rucksack, map and compass, sensible walking boots and, depending, camping gear (on our backs).

I remember enjoying buying the boots. My square little feet. usually so awkward in shoe shops, seemed made for the little square boots meant for serious walking. I took this as a good sign (note: I am no longer one of those people who trusts in signs).

And off we set, up hill and down dale! On every day off, come rain or shine, we'd pack our things into the car, find some godforsaken part of the Lake District and lug it all out again for the sole purpose of carrying it with us as if we were primeval man.

My main memory of these walks is watching as my parents vanished up the path ahead. The dog was already dancing along in front, insanely happy at all this exercise. My parents, in the fervent grip of Healthy Living, would set a good pace, rucksacks seemingly light-as-air on their backs and walking sticks angled gaily as we made our way through the hills of Mordor.

Me? Well, having torn myself away from my latest book (left, longingly, on the back seat of the car), I would be trudging along behind, my rucksack feeling like it held the pony we should have brought with us for the trip and my feet already hot.

Any sunshine was sent to blaze into my face, or make my hair sweat or as an early alert system for the midges who adored me. Any rain found the gap in my waterproofs, especially that sad and secret place at the back of the welly-boot where one drop of rain can feel like a waterfall as it passes down your leg on the way to your foot.

Any puddles masquerading as dry ground had been warned I was coming and any entertainingly deep holes, full of muddy water, also waited. Other people stepped lazily over swampy ground, foot to grass clump, with the ease of the mountain goat. My feet stood on the same clumps and the whole thing became like a scene from Labyrinth. I would not have been surprised if evil fairies leapt out and took me off for supper.

Throughout this tortuous experience, I would still be left behind. The back view of my parents, faces raised to enjoy the scenery, voices coming back to me, full of laughter, with the occasional wary look behind to see if I was still moaning as much as before (I was). No matter how much I protested, I was still brought out (we know you'll enjoy it) and I was always left behind.

I remember going up to a local beauty spot to see yet another waterfall (you can tire of them). The path was rugged and steep, you had to hold onto tree trunks to get up the hill and there were leaves and dead tree bark all over the ground. It was hard going.

Halfway up, as usual, my parents waited for me. It took a few minutes for me to catch up, then off we went. No time for me to have a rest, or even a breather. As soon as I caught up, they'd speed off again, up the rest of the hill. Then repeat, as they waited at the top just long enough for me to catch them again.

It always seemed as if I was catching-up but never quite making it. I had the idea that if I kept at it, if I was continuously subjected to this inhumane treatment, then I would become hardier and fitter, more able to deal with it and keep up to their pace.

It never did work out that way. However light they said my rucksack was, it always seemed heavy to me. No matter how fast or slow I walked, I was always left behind. If I walked slowly, they waited and then I got no rest as we set off again. If I speeded up, so that I was almost matching their speed (but never quite), they walked even faster, thinking I had finally got the hang of things.

The only respite was the picnic, which meant that me, my parents and the midges could all settle down for a bit on a bench or a rock and find out whether the tea had leaked into the sandwiches. Sometimes it hadn't and even burning my mouth on a tin cup couldn't take the shine off finally sitting down, dreadful shoes off and be-socked toes crying into the fresh air.

I've often thought back to those times over the years, partly to sympathise with myself, sometimes to sympathise with my parents for having to put up with my incessant and proficient whining. Mostly, though, I think back to it when life is getting away from me again, the rucksack heavy on my back, the way ahead full of grass clumps and swamp and my quiet solitude left behind somewhere.

Readers, it doesn't matter if we carry a light pack compared to other people - to us, it might be heavy and shift about unpredictably as we struggle to keep up. Having the right equipment doesn't always help either: what do the shoes matter if all we can think about is the sun in our eyes or the rain down our back?

Mostly, none of this is important if we are always left behind to walk alone. We might deserve it for being a moan, or too slow, or too lazy or just not willing to jog along with other people. Occasionally, we might be way back on the path because none of what we are doing suits us like it does other people.

For anyone who is ahead and always seems to be looking back, please wait for us and, when we catch up briefly, wait a little longer. Just because we are standing next to you doesn't mean we are ready to start walking again. Sometimes we need a few minutes to remember we are not walking alone and that you are willing to wait a while.


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