Is it bad to feel Special?

You know how you try not to be that kind of special? It's not that you want to be normal but being able to pass for normal usually makes life so much easier.

Far, far easier to stifle down your meltdown than run out crying and slapping the doors until they open; better to keep quiet than give in to the little voice in your head that desperately wants to tell Dave about his hair; terrible to find yourself making That Face because Liz has started explaining Windows to you again; awful to realise you have been making your own repetitive noise for the last five minutes to drown out the noise of your co-workers talking.

Yes, being that kind of special is for when you can't help it - as long as you can help it, you tend to keep it under wraps until you're somewhere safe. Then, like a tight belt, it can all hang out and you collapse and forget the rest of the world.

How galling then, to find myself having to pass for normal lately and need to put up with people discussing RT Teen with me, as if he is Special.

I've been trying to set up work experience for RT and have found a really great place where he can explore his Art and help other people with theirs. It's volunteering so no 'proper' job, but he's going to be learning all kinds of things, including how to deal with other people.

He does need some help. He has coping issues, he finds people difficult and stressful sometimes, he finds life the same, he needs guidance and care and someone who can tell him when to just quit it, if he swims in the cool sea of honesty too much.

But how disheartening to have him discussed like he is Special. Not as the eccentric academic who finds life a little perplexing, but as someone who is on the spectrum and needs help because people like him need help; 'they' need support, 'they' need guidance.

I know 'they' do, I know we do. I know I could have conducted each of these interviews and phone calls from the starting point of, 'Myself and my son are both on the autistic spectrum'. But would it have been the same?

How would the conversations have gone if I didn't do grown-up? After all, if you're on the spectrum and admit it in a professional setting, you immediately become one of the people needing help. It's a metamorphosis visible to the naked eye, seen in the face-change, the eye-flicker, the unconscious movements of the hands as people take longer to choose their words, either for fear of causing offence or because they want you to be able to understand what they are talking about.

Instead I have been the mother of a son on the spectrum and, in looking for help, have endured well-meaning 'they's and kindly comments on soft achievements and gentle results. The only meeting where he was fully discussed as himself was with an adviser who knew RT years ago and takes everyone at face value - Joan, you are a star!

My son is an academic with an acerbic style of honesty; he is an artist who transforms illustrations into digital images to an industry standard; he is an eccentric person who revels in meeting other eccentric people. He is very special, but is he Special in that other way?

Maybe it's not so much the wrongness of this word, but the rightness which bothers me? Am I asking too much for the world to view him as a highly-intelligent, creative person who needs a little extra help? Does his place on the spectrum mean he is automatically Special? Am I more fearful of the label than what it entails, for him and for me?

I don't know. All I know is that we have to go for a joint interview on Monday and be told lots of information about an opportunity to join a project for people like him. I am not ungrateful, I really hope it works out. But I hate that it's all set up from the premise that there are people like him: every person in the project will be someone's best beloved, with their own amazing qualities, lovable endeavours and awkward habits.

I have to put aside my worry about RT being treated as Special and, yet again, concentrate on not being Special myself. I need to be his advocate so I can pick up all the information and help him make a decision. I must not, must not! sit and stare at the person talking because of their teeth, or look at the calendar, or the window, or the fax machine. I must not allow myself to become bored and make my own entertainment, I must resist the urge to be funny.

And RT must have the free rein to be as Special as he likes, without me worrying over it or wanting to stand between him and the kindly people looking at him in that particular way.

In the end, if this will help him, does it matter how they refer to him or exactly what it is called?

You know, it does matter, it really does. Sometimes I think it's the only thing that matters because we all start with a name, a word which defines who we are when we aren't able to say it for ourselves.

And no matter what, our name should be the only label we carry around because that one was written in permanent ink and sewn on with love.


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The Myth of the Broken Face

The blank stare, stony-faced, unwelcoming, generally frozen expression is one of those 'clues' we hear about when it comes to spotting the aspie among us. You know them by the face that doesn't change to suit the situation, by the monotone voice and so on.

Yes, when it comes to society you can spot aspies really easily because they're the ones mimicking automatons. No need for I-Robot or even good old Robbie, you have your aspie to do the unfinished humanoid for you. (You do hear the sarcasm, right?)

Is this true? Sometimes, maybe. It's true if we're bored that we might switch off and unlike the more socially worried, switching off is taken seriously. So the blank face appears as you talk and, dimly, we wait to switch back on again when you've finished.

And the monotone voice? Hmm, I suppose it's also true that my voice might take on a level quality if the rest of me is struggling like a cat in a harness to figure out what to say next, when to say it, what to do when the other person speaks and so on. The voice can be the least of my worries, so deal with it, okay?

But the blank face and monotone voice are only half the story. I am very, very guilty of going the opposite direction, towards the sort of animation that would make Pixar proud.

I find myself, in lessons mainly, getting so engrossed in what I'm describing that my whole face, voice, hands, do the describing along with me. No need to set the tone when I'm talking about Macbeth and his walking forest - I can be the walking forest, I can be Macbeth!

Or using a great big simile to illustrate something, a good one, you know? Like dragons eating princesses or something equally colourful. I get right into it, I do the voice, I do the claws, the face becomes the dragon.

My students generally react well to this, probably because children up to a certain age are big fans of the over-describe. They appreciate the fun and effort that goes into the right face and a good soundtrack.

Sometimes they can be surprised, if they're serious children from serious families. It doesn't stop me, though - obviously, it makes me worse. Usually they forget to be surprised and step into the world of face gurning and voice changing.

So, I notice I've talked about two extremes here. Does that mean I operate in extremes of blank face or dragon face? Possibly. And the voice, monotone or drama? Maybe.

The in-between, trying-to-be-normal voice and face are held back for when I need to speak to real adults and people in authority. You don't want the ones paying your wages or deciding your fate to see you getting carried away in tales of Gloria and the Graysnipe.

Sometimes, though, it's far too easy to slip into the over-describe with people (adults) who aren't expecting it and aren't used to other adults doing it. I don't realise I've slipped until I see their eyes sparkle and their mouth twitch.

This is how other people get to know you, though. Sometimes it's far better to slip and show the real you than to carry on trying to be what others expect. If they see the face pulling, is it such a bad thing? And if it worries them, then it's a shame they lead such sheltered lives.

As for the ones who most often see your blank face and never hear the dragon growl, what can you do? They just have to go on believing this is the true aspie and not get to know the other side of you.

You keep the best part of you for the best people. Or the ones you slip with - and often they also turn out to be the best people. It may surprise them to see you re-enacting a scene from Shakespeare but, well, life would be very dull without a little drama.


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Apparently there'll be hugging...

You know when you look back over those job interviews where everything you did or said seemed to come out wrong and you may as well have screamed across the table, 'Don't hire me! Are you insane? I would be TERRIBLE at this job!'?

And then the ones where you managed to pass yourself off as the perfect employee, said the right things and knew what they wanted to know? (We won't mention what happened once you started the job and had to repeat all this success on a daily basis).

When it comes to the workplace, most aspies have an eccentric approach to job hunting. The systems in place do not favour those of us who like to say exactly what we mean; they favour people who think first, weigh up the options, know the right phrases.

When a potential employer asks what you'll be bringing to their company, having resisted the urge to tell them you'll be bringing a packed lunch, you also have not to tell them how much better everything will be once you've sorted out their staff rota (not even colour-coded!), purged their outdated, paper-based filing system and transferred their database into those boxy things sitting in the corner that Gladys has been using for her spider plant collection.

The correct answer is something along the lines of how their company is just fab, that your amazing skills are a great fit because this is how you'll improve perfection by helping them become even more brilliant. And so on.

And when they ask you if you've faced any challenges, they don't want to know, not really. Unless you happen to have a triumphant story of your struggle to re-emerge from the Australian bush two holidays ago, they want some clever-sounding monologue on how work was kind of challenging but you overcame it by being a genius (just not as much of a genius as they are).

This silliness is something I've learned over the years. I can go into most job interviews and be who they expect and often who they want (I should offer training courses in this). Getting the job is a fun challenge, like The Crystal Maze without the death traps. It's keeping the job I find nigh on impossible.

But readers, soften your hearts for a moment, because now RT Teen is looking for a job and things are far worse for him. As if it wasn't bad enough before, now the interviews he will face are all about showing the real you by doing activities, group games (I'm starting to hyperventilate), team-building (...) and, oh, I'm sorry, I have to tell you - hugging.

Yes, apparently there'll be hugging.

Hugging?? Is this not some kind of abuse?

You go to a job interview to show them you can do the job and find out what sort of company they are and they make you hug each other? Cats are for hugging, not other job seekers! People are only for hugging if you love them, or it's the only alternative to listening to their problems. Or small children, they like hugging, but they don't know enough about people to have been warned off it yet.

Your competition, though? People who are fighting you for a job? What if you don't want to hug them or they smell or they look like they bite? What if they hug too long, for heaven's sake? Do they get a polite tap on the shoulder like a dance competition and then have to leave the floor?

Whatever it is, it seems to have very little to do with stocking shelves in a supermarket. For what it's worth, I have a feeling an OCD, non-hugging, efficiency freak may be more useful in keeping a shop floor tidy and running smoothly than someone who hugs strangers and can dance in front of a room full of people who aren't also dancing.

I have nothing against companies using new methods to find out if people are who they want, but really, is this the way? Perhaps if job hunters hadn't needed to fit into a pre-shaped box in the first place then everyone would have told the truth and been themselves to begin with and none of this would be necessary.

You know what, though? It isn't necessary. Just take those aspies who don't pass the standardised tests and who fail at social handling and put them on the other side of the interview table. We are the kings and queens of getting to the bottom of things. We will find out who people are and what they really mean and never need to hug anyone. Ever.

Unless you are employing animals, small children or unstoppable extroverts. Then you can get Bob from Accounting to do it.


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