Tuesday 26 September 2023

Burning Books?


I have trouble thanking people for gifts.  Thanking people for things that are not intrinsically beneficial to me seems inauthentic at best.  It is a nice thing to do – to acknowledge the time and thought someone has spent choosing and buying, wrapping and delivering the gift, but I struggle with the concept.  If the gift is something I need. Then, yes – I see the logic and then, a thank you is in order.  It seems to be more a matter of sentiment.  Were I to pretend to genuinely moved by the gesture, I would be as transparent as water, but not to respond, is to invite similar ill-feeling.

I am not sentimental.  I often pour over those old questions that are meant to make you really consider you priorities, and give clues as to the type of person you are. For instance: If your house was on fire, and you could only save one thing, what would that be? You are usually allowed to omit the obvious things (family members, pets etc.) but this has always perplexed me.  Those who would return for a pet, or a photo album, a cherished item belonging to a late relative are deemed more human and humane than those who would return for an expensive or useful item. Few would admit to going back for a laptop or phone (but I understand that has changed recently, which concerns me deeply).  When I ask myself that question, I struggle with everything about it:  Why is my house on fire?  Why didn’t I put it out?  Where are my family? I don’t have any pets.  Belongings are just things… stuff.  But then I think about my dictionary.

When I was about 12 or 13, I would go to the library, a lot. One day, there was a sale of books, and among the well-thumbed volumes were some older books.  One was intriguing.  It was thick, with marbled board covers and a half leather bound spine.  The words Lampriere and the date 1859 were visible in small capitals in gold.  I picked it up and looked at the price: £4.  I looked at the spine again and saw that it was a ‘Classical Dictionary’.  I had no idea what this was, but I liked classical architecture and words, so I looked inside.  I thumbed the pages and the book fell open at NI.  I read the first entry: ‘Nestorius – A Bishop of Constantinople who flourished A.D.431.  He was condemned and degraded from his episcopal dignity for his heretical opinions.’  I was taken aback – What was this?  Who was this person?  What was this language? What was episcopal?  I knew where Constantinople was, thanks to the old song, but the rest was intriguing.  I read on. Nestus, or Nessus – a small river in Thrace…  (Where was Thrace? ) Netum – a town of Sicily, now called Noto, Neuri – a people of Sarmatia (where was Sarmatia?)… Nicaea – a widow of Alexander who married Demetrius…

I was enthralled by the names and places immediately, so I bought the book and took it home.  I followed the references to their logical ends, pulling the threads of history and stories, places and events.  Some of them could be tied together, or led to more, connected threads.  Stories and histories began to emerge, piece by piece, name by name.  Within a year or two I had discovered Homer and Virgil, Socrates and Plato and more and widened my reading even more. My vocabulary had probably doubled in size and I had learned an appreciation of Latin and Greek syntax which helped me understand yet more words.  What a find this old dictionary was!

It has sat on my shelf since then, sandwiched between the complete works of Shakespeare and my Aubrey Beardsley Illustrated copy of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, to be taken down and carefully thumbed from time to time.  It is very dilapidated now, and I often think I might like to get it mended, but I'n not sure I could bear to entrust it to someone else. 

It struck me that this book might be the one thing I would rescue for my theoretically burning house.  But it would not be sentimentality that would spur me – it is just a book.  But it represents everything about me and the way I see the world: Snippet of detail, by snippet of detail.  The excitement of finding two snippets that have a common thread, or following enough threads to constitute a story of a battle, an adventure or a tragedy – it’s laid out within the pages of that book, just the same way it is within me. That book is the difference between me and almost everyone else… To most: A random collection of defunct facts about irrelevant places and events, but to me, (and hopefully, some others) it was a clue that led to another world; a rich tapestry of magical names and strange language that harks back to ancient times, great deeds and heroes of the intellect and the battlefield.  

No, I probably wouldn’t go back for it. It would be difficult to replace, but I have to believe there are one of two more of them out there…




End of an Era

I have always marvelled at my relationship with my son.  It is a rare and fascinating thing; surprising and delightful - baffling and energising. I have watched him grow from a baby; helpless and needy, through year on year of discovery and adaptation.  I have seen him try and fail, learn and forget, grow and withdraw.  Where once there was a weak and directionless tributary, easy to dissuade and encourage with few well-placed pebbles, now flows a river; drowning obstacles and carving it's path through solid rock. Floods and droughts will colour his mood, and I must not stand in his way. Not that I have any intention of doing that.

Of course, I have not enjoyed every aspect of this journey.  It is impossible to 'enjoy' watching your child learn about prejudice, misogyny and hatred, and wrestle it into a place where it can be safely dealt with. I have, however, taken enormous pleasure in seeing him recognise and overcome such things.  Now, as he approaches another key juncture in his life, I can't help but look back and bask in pride at the young man he has become.  He is not a genius, has no extraordinary talents or skills.  He works hard, but not as hard as he should, and therefore achieves, but not as much as he could. But he tries.

I am, by nature, an objective person, and I have always been honest with my son.  I could no more give a glowing, falsely positive review of a drawing or a piece of writing, nor claim that it was less than it worth, for whatever effect.  Sometimes he would be disappointed that I didn't appear to like something as much as he had hoped, and sometimes he would be surprised as I listed all the unintended merits of another of his projects.  But in the round, he has come to understand that he will only get an honest opinion from me.  Of course he also understands that my opinion is just that:  My opinion. We butt heads constantly, but I usually give in.  I realise he is no different to me in that he needs to find out for himself.  He will not be taught.  Neither would I, and I know how much I have learned, despite this.

I am coming to terms, as all mothers, and parents generally, must, with the fact that he is his own man.  He will go his own way, whether I think is it the right choice or not.  I fear for him, but not as much as I would if he was not his own man.  He is about to enter a world that is almost as alien to me as the  90s were to my mother.  As he turns 18, I hope we have done enough to give him the skills and the will to succeed for himself.  We will be there for him, for as long as we can sustain.

Friday 31 December 2021

Reasonable Adjustments, naturally.

Well, we've all talked a lot about what went wrong in 2021, but I don't want to dwell on that.  Good things happened too, although our media seeks to keep us as depressed and hopeless as possible, on a diet of disasters and bad news and celebrity banality galore.   You have to look for balance.  Seek out positivity.  Excavate a new and beneficial path.  It's for that reason I have promised myself more time with Nature in 2022. 

Like many people with Asperger's/ASC, I have always found comfort and wonder in the natural world:  Alone on a beach, in a forest, by the side of a pond - I can while away hours, watching a spider clambering through the grass, or a Jay, burying peanuts and marking the place with a few well-placed leaves.  Equally, I can be transported by the song of a Dunnock or a Starling in my garden, or hang motionless in the water on a solo night-dive, torch off, to watch the bioluminescence of the plankton swirling around my hands.  Nothing brings me such peace as when I am alone with nature.  

I have never really thought too much about what I need for my own peace of mind - I have always done what I thought was needed by others around me - parents, friends, my family, my employers...  Now, however, when I consider how I can feel such desperate anxiety, even in familiar environments and in trusted company,  I am certain that I need to make a significant change and immerse myself in nature, once and for all.  

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by every aspect of the natural world - from geology and palaeontology and detailed scientific aspects of entomological studies to bird-watching, underwater exploration and growing my own fruit and veg.  I have created countless paintings, illustrations, photos, projects and collections to extend my connection.  My years in environmental consultancy taught me how intimately entwined our lives are with the natural world, despite our efforts to separate ourselves from it, and it also taught me how complicated, impactful and effecting those relationships can be.  

My years in education brought home how much our young people have lost as our society forgets its relationship with the natural world.  Will this lead to a society that is ignorant of nature?  It has certainly distanced itself from the devastating impact we have had upon it, so perhaps.  It is true I have been dismayed by the lack of interest shown by young people I have taught in sustainability, plastics in the environment, ocean acidification and climate change and even just being out of doors. But when I witness the wonder shown by a small child as a pill bug unrolls from its little segmented marble, or when they see the caterpillar miraculously become a chrysalis, I know it is recoverable.  Indeed, we must keep trying. The alternative is unthinkable.

My own son has been brought up with Nature, land and sea.  His curiosity was indulged at every opportunity, visiting amazing places, learning to scuba dive, joining scouts, meeting and talking with ecologists and naturalists from an early age.  I knew he was 'hooked' the day he came in from the garden and told me how some of the little wolf spiders were carrying tiny snail shells instead of egg cases.  So, what about those who have missed those opportunities, who have been shut down by fear, or lured by the comfort of minimum effort, and cannot be persuaded to look up from their smart phones? How do we reach them? 

When I think about social media and consider how it can corrupt, misinform and ensnare, I temper my thoughts by considering its ability to influence, enchant and educate.  If they won't come out to meet nature, we must take it to them.  So why give our children these powerful and poorly-understood tools, only to complain about how they use it?  If we gave a child a hammer and no instructions, they would probably destroy something with it long before it occurred to them to build something with it.  We must be ready with materials to use, be prepared to show them what can be done, what is achievable, accessible, and be confident in our answers when they ask 'why?'.  Only then, can we tempt them out into the real, authentic world and all its wonders.

I'll never forget the expression on the face of the teenage student who had never tasted a raspberry before (only the fake flavours in sweets) as he stripped the canes on our school allotment of their fruit.  Likewise, I will never forget the day we found a juvenile blue shark in the shallow waters off our favourite beach: We tried to show the local holidaymakers its stunning colour and explain how it may have become disorientated, but they were convinced it was dangerous - children were pulled from the water by their parents.  My consternation only increased when those same parents later encouraged their children into the water to feed their unused crabbing bait to a large male grey seal...  There is much to learn, but the effort is essential, and this is something I will never tire of.  

 My son when he was much younger, discovering that the skin of a shark is rough - priceless.


Thursday 30 September 2021

Killing with kindness

 I recently decided to take a bit more control of my life.  Did I sell up and move to the coast?  No.  Did I quit my job and start writing my first novel?  No.  Did I sell most of my belongings and buy a boat?  No. (They are planned further down the line, I assure you!)

No, my first step along the road to 'including myself' was to change the day I celebrate my birthday.  My actual birthday occurs virtually on top of Christmas, and has always been more of an obligation than a celebration:  Almost guaranteed expensive prices, poor choice of cards, rejected invitations, terrible TV, cancelled bookings and dreadful weather.  I have, traditionally always done my best to ignore it and actively encourage anyone I know to do the same.  I decided to announce the change via Facebook (many of my friends and family have begun to use Facebook over the various Lockdowns, and the handy notifications they would receive when I changed the date of my birth to May 23rd (a perfect choice for weather, availability and general demeanour) they would all get reminders.  It worked very well, and I find myself looking forward to enjoying an extended Christmas celebration, unadulterated by the inevitably doomed Birthday planning.  A real win-win.  

I mention this, purely because it is a clear and unique example of doing something for myself, successfully. In my new job (nearly a year here already), I have come to an awful realisation which may throw me back into the maelstrom of seeking employment once again.  For the strangest of reasons:  Kindness.

I work in a school with a group of incredibly caring and kind people, all undoubtedly, highly empathetic.  I am an Aspie, highly logical and, although empathetic in my own way, a world away from their experience.  The job is comprises lots of admin tasks carried out in quite the most hectic and disordered environment I have ever experienced.  Together with the added pressure of constant interactions with staff, health professionals, pupils and parents, it's one of the most challenging I have ever found myself attempting.  And I am failing.

I am utterly exhausted by it every day.  I am told: 'That's the job'.  And it is.  I underestimated hugely, the amount of interaction I would have to manage when I applied for the job, (but it wasn't explicitly stated in the job description) and there was so much to learn, so quickly, it's only now, after a year, that I can reflect and realise this is not for me.  I know this must be a familiar realisation for many of us, on the spectrum.  It is always going to be a minefield; employment, that is.  Those of us on the Autistic Spectrum who are capable enough to 'pass' for 'normal' (whatever that is) fall into an impossible trap:  We enjoy little of the understand and compassion rightfully given to on those who are in visible distress and extreme difficulty.  We have all the same disadvantages - difficulties in forming relationships, making ourselves understood and procuring the help we need to manage in our working environment.  Indeed, the less we appear to struggle, the less likely we are to attain any of these things.  Our apparent ability to cope and to manage make us vulnerable.  This seems to be particularly true of women on the spectrum, (especially late diagnosed) who have become skilled social mimics.  These skills never become intuitive, however, so the energy required to maintain them is enormous.

I find myself in a situation I never thought possible, and it is probably testament to my own skills at appearing to 'fit in' ('camouflaging' as autistic research has now coined it), together with my conviction that I would be better off in an environment with lots of kind people.  The final straw in my case is the care and concern shown to me, now that I have started to crumble.  I can take no comfort in it.  I don't know why, exactly - perhaps it is a consequence of many years of cumulative trauma from continuous misunderstandings and social rejection, (there is interesting new research on PTSD in ASD) or is it is merely another level of interaction I am unable to reciprocate, because it is genuine, heartfelt and continuous?  The irony of this is not lost on me, I can assure you...

Ten Years After (First published October 2019)

 (Written October 2019)

It has been a tumultuous couple of months, and not just because of Covid 19, Lockdowns and new vaccines.

I have finally been pushed to limit of of my capacity to put up with my job and my employer of 10 years.  I am very pleased with the new role I am about to begin, but there are always regrets, aren't there?  My regrets are same as always in these situations, but with a couple of added extras...  

Regardless of the reasons for moving one from jobs in the past, (redundancy, company collapse, recession, the employer's contractual irregularities, excessive, unremunerated overtime) I have always regretted that communication could not salvage the situation:  Perhaps I was unaware of some unseen hierarchy, or underestimated the significance of some relationship or aspect of the job valued by my superiors... Sometimes I have been oblivious of political changes happening within the company, and the consequent social activity of other staff, vying for position before the axe fell.  Sometimes, my inability to fit in socially was all it took for me to be 'selected for redundancy'.  To my knowledge, it has never been a result of my inability to do my job to a high enough standard.

On the few occasions I have decided to leave, it has usually been at a point far beyond where most people would have decided the situation was untenable. I am tenacious and reluctant to admit defeat, and tend to hang on in the hope that a solution presents itself.  But to decide to leave because it is right for me, is a fairly rare experience. I feel strongly that, on this occasion, I had gone above and beyond to find a solution to the endless hail of unpredictability and flawed strategies that I have had to weather for the last 3 years.  I can adapt to change, but this was too much. 

But, enough about the things I cannot change.  I mentioned some new regrets earlier, and these are oddly welcome.  It appears I have managed to make an impression in the last 3 years, with staff and students who have told me they are sad that I am leaving, and this has led to some feelings I rarely experience:  I will miss them.  I am not entirely without empathy, (I dont believe any autistic person is), but I do struggle with these feelings for two reasons:  Firstly, unless someone explicitly states that they value my efforts, I assume they do not.  This is not due to some desperate need for validation.  It is merely a consequence of Asperger's - I cannot interpolate other people's feelings about me into my own self-image when they have not been communicated explicitly.  It will never occur to me to think I have done a good job purely on the basis that no-one told me I did a bad job.  Even when I pleased with the outcome of a task I have performed, I will always have some expectation that someone, somewhere is disappointed, if I don't hear explicitly that it was satisfactory.

The difficulties with this behaviour, is that it comes as a huge surprise when people do communicate these things explicitly.  In my experience, it is something reserved for goodbyes.  I was unprepared for the response to my 'goodbye' message, from staff and students.  I was truly humbled by the number of messages of thanks I received.  I still marvel at the way I have spent the last few years oblivious to these feelings. But this is the reality of Asperger's.  It can appear oddly self-serving to illicit comment from people, just so you hear it explicitly - how would you know their response was genuine?  

This may seem a minor issue, an inconvenience, overcome by the will to believe people are being genuine: Trust.  But there lies the problem:  Trust is a difficult concept for someone like me, and when comments are made under circumstances like this, there is little opportunity to test their veracity and gain the evidence I need.  Which is, of course, the dilemma at the heart of what trust is...

An unwitting tourist shows off the local wildlife...

Tuesday 6 October 2020

The New Normal

 Like many other educators and school workers in the UK, I returned to work in September to a workplace and a job I no longer recognise.  I have lost all context. My autism means I require structure to be able to function normally in my usual role of cover teacher.  This structure is the only way I can manage the social jungle that is the workplace.  Up until now (for the last ten years, that is) I have managed to weather the elements of educational workplaces that generally constitute anathema to autistic people (noise, constant change, lack of breaks, unexpected incidents etc.) but no longer…  I often ask myself why I chose such a job.  The answer is invariably the same:  Because I can do it, and do it well.  I should add that this would be my response, whatever the job I was doing, else I would not be doing it.

The truth is a little more complex, and will be familiar to many of you with Asperger’s…  The truth is I didn’t want to do this job.  The truth is that, in my 45 years undiagnosed, I cultivated such a deep self-loathing (due to my inability to ‘get anything right’ where relationships were concerned) I didn’t consider my own wishes when I made the decision.  Nor have I, before or since.  In a chaotic world, I would impose order, but my self-loathing would only allow me to impose order on myself, and what I was immediately responsible for.  Healthy, no? On the upside – it made for a very capable, adaptable and hardworking employee.  But such a volatile combination of drivers inevitably invites exploitation. 

In the years since my diagnosis, I have educated myself about Asperger’s and all it’s associated co-morbidities, it’s psychology and personality and physiological/neurological characteristics.  I have learned new language to help me understand the hidden aspects of the world I occupy, and I have seen truly remarkable progress in others just like me.  But I remain. Rooted in no-man’s land.  Exposed and unmoving – a target to some and an obstacle to others.

We have all struggled in some way or another during the pandemic, and I find it difficult not to see my own difficulties as ‘minor’ compared to what others have suffered.  My job description was changed without my agreement to include 1:1 support with SEN students, as well as cover (a dangerous combination that might leave vulnerable students without support).  My breaks were reduced, my work day lengthened and my previous responsibilities removed with no notice.  I had to navigate new processes and procedures around Covid19 – one-way systems, more screeching bells as classes were staggered, chemical sanitisers, open doors and windows that allow air and the noise of hundreds of frustrated secondary school pupils to circulate freely.  The list was endless, and I had no time to absorb, assimilate or process any of it.  I communicated my concerns and they were ignored.  Again. And again.  But still, I stay.  Although my sanity is fast declining, my bravado is intact and tosses around terms like ‘constructive dismissal’ and ‘looking at options’, but I know I am not brave enough to stand up for myself.  Because, with all my wisdom and knowledge, I still doubt myself: ‘What if I’m wrong?’ 

There is something so incomprehensibly heavy holding me here, and the pull of my experience, knowledge and abilities, and the love and confidence of friends and family exert a wholly insignificant force in the face of its gravity. What if I call their bluff and they laugh in my face? It seems like such an inconsequential thing, but it seems I care only about what other people think.  It is the opinions of others that has shaped my existence, so convinced was I of my own inadequacy. I am the product of 50 years of trying to fit in somewhere.  The space I occupy is a lie, and spread out behind me is a shadow, intangible and inaccessible, of the life I should have led.  Maybe it’s all the stress and anxiety.  Maybe it’s my age.  Maybe it’s appalling and repeated ill-treatment of an employee with ASC.  I cannot say, because I don’t have the courage of my convictions.

My rational self of course, leaps in to rescue me at this point, but only by berating my logic.  It reminds me of how insignificant my concerns are, how small my contribution is, my impact – in the grand scheme of things.  It really doesn’t require all this drama.  Does it?

Paul Nash - No Man's Land

Friday 10 July 2020

Lockdown Low or New Normal Nerves?

A few weeks ago, I was sure of my new routine.  I had weathered the changes from normal working to home working, home schooling etc. and I was pretty sure I knew what was expected of me.  I even had the temerity to enjoy, somewhat, the limited social interaction and communicating via typed message alone.  I allowed myself to get comfortable.  I should have seen this coming.

I suppose we have all, as a society, had opportunity and need to reflect during Lockdown.  There is much talk of 'The New Normal' - an unhelpful and misleading term.  I doubt many of will return to exactly what they were doing before, in exactly the same way.  For some, it is seen as an opportunity to change practices that weren't working, for others - an opportunity to make a change for the better.  For others still, it seems to be an opportunity to trap people into new working practices that benefit only the company and not the employee, an excuse to increase workload, cut pay, change contracts.

My work situation is changing whether it is good for me or not.  My contract will be changed to include new duties that will mean more contact time with students, less breaks and longer days.  This has been brought in without discussion or agreement and without due consideration for the 'reasonable adjustments, to which I am entitled as a person with Asperger's. I have been advised that, if I want consideration, I will have to fight.  But this is not a rant or complaint.

I am aware of my rights, but I have always struggled with the idea of entitlement.  I have spent every waking moment of my life trying to appear normal, to fit in, and give people what (I think) they expect of me. And I have been, in the most part, very good at it.  Perhaps I would have been better off, had I not been.  Like many women with Asperger's, I can, with effort, appear relatively similar to society's idea of what someone like me should be: A 50-something working mum.  (But this is a facade.This might be a familiar description, for anyone who was diagnosed later in life.)  But I know I need time in my day to 'decompress' after perlonged social interaction.  I know I need time to process and discuss changes to my working day and practices.  I know I need time to prepare for front of class lesson delivery.  So why wouldn't I contest a change that does away with all of this?

A colleague told me in confidence, that I should involve HR, play the Autistic/disabled card, and fight for what I am entitled to.  What is difficult to grasp is the effect of years of deference to change.  Change is inevitable, and it is difficult for someone like me to tell whether what I experience as needs will be considered 'reasonable' or not.  Like many people on the spectrum, I struggle to identify how I feel about things, so I have learned to accept other's people's opinions on whether things should be important.  This isn't as unworkable as you might think, as long as you surround yourself with people who value you and have your best interests at heart.  Unfortunately, it doesn't work so well when you are dealing with people who don't.

Before I was diagnosed, I was convinced that the world was filled predominantly with closed-minded, stupid , impatient people consumed with self-interest. (With a few, notable exceptions). As I became a little better acquainted with my diagnosis, and later with TA), I realised that my estimate was a bit off and that, generally, most people were okay.  In fact, I came to think that perhaps everyone had the capacity to see me for who I am, to value me (as much as other people and things) and have the capacity for flexibility or understanding and compassion.  It appears I was wrong.

I am informed enough and articulate enough to explain my situation and my needs to most, but when you find yourself having to explain and justify again and again and again to the same people, I have to consider that there is an element of 'lip service' going on.  And it grieves me to see it so rife in the field of education. I am forced to make decisions about changes based on ill-considered, harmful assumptions with little or no time for processing, discussion or reflection, time and time again.  I could fight it, explain, justify, and all those tools I have at my disposal, but there is a part of me, I think for the first time, that wants to give in.

If I am forced into a position where I have to defend my 'rights', remind them of entitlements, their responsibilities and my vulnerabilities, I suspect I will not be able to.  I have help at my fingertips: advocates willing to make my case for me, but I am unwilling to ask.   I have never, in all my working life, asked for consideration, better equipment, a larger budget, training, promotion or a pay rise.  I have always worked hard and tried to progress professionally regardless of the cost to myself or (to my shame) my family, and I continue to provide skills and expertise 'beyond my pay grade' so to speak, without remuneration or recognition.  But I cannot help but think that allowances made after an argument, however eloquent or justified, will continue to be made begrudgingly.  This, I feel, will only serve to reduce my standing even more, and increase my isolation.  I am at a loss, and would normally start looking for another job, but my age and the current climate negate this.  A quandary indeed... and one that I hope isn't shared by any of you...