School Vignettes: the weird boy

‪Digital painting of a white, blond-haired boy vigorously flapping his hands while walking. A white, brown-haired girl stands in the foreground, looking over her shoulder at him.‬

Sometime around 1988 (28 years before autism identification).

There’s this boy at school. He’s really strange.

He’s not in my class. He’s a bit younger, I think.

Most of the time, I see him on his own at break times, walking round and round the primary school buildings. Always anti-clockwise.

He moves his hands vigorously. He flaps them, but one hand seems to move from side to side, the other up and down. They’re held up in front of his face.

He makes noises as he flaps his hands.

They sound like a motor engine, and so I assume that his hand movements are a crude, inaccurate attempt at mimicking the actions of a driver behind the wheel of a car. I suppose he must like cars.

He doesn’t say much. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him speak. I’ve seen him cry, though. He seems to cry at lots of things. He wails. Wordless. He thrashes his arms as he does so. I don’t know why he’s so upset all the time.

There are times when I feel sorry for him. He looks even lonelier than I am. Or at least I assume he is – I’m often on my own too.

I like to be alone sometimes, and I often get annoyed when people try to insist that I join in with games at breaktime when I want to wander past the trees at the edge of the school grounds. And I feel lonely because everyone else is enjoying the thing we’re all doing, but I’m not. Other times, I’d like to play, but they don’t want me around. Then I feel really lonely.

At least I can talk to the other children when I need to.

But I wouldn’t know how to communicate with him. Sometimes I’ve been a bit scared of him, of his strange behaviour. I might even have pushed him out of my way once or twice. That probably wasn’t very nice of me.

All the other kids say he’s weird. Aside from a few of the more considerate girls, most are clear they wouldn’t want anything to do with him.

I don’t say much about it. I’m complicit in my silence but, after all, I’m weird enough myself. I give people enough ammunition to tease me already. Better just to go along with the consensus.

I wouldn’t want to draw any more attention to myself by disagreeing with what they’re saying about the weird boy.


[Image description: Digital painting of a white, blond-haired boy vigorously flapping his hands while walking. A white, brown-haired girl stands in the foreground, looking over her shoulder at him.]

Work Vignettes: awful away-day aftermath

Close Up photo of a cup of black coffee, and an Open Notebook With Pen

July 2017 (one year, almost to the day, after autism identification).

Our team is at a Marketing Away Day.

We’re in a hotel in a leafy suburb of the city. But we’re indoors and, aside from refreshment breaks and lunch, confined for the most part to one room.

It wasn’t the best of starts.

No in-advance agenda. No printed schedule available on the day. No timings provided.

The event begins with a series of “ice breaker” exercises.

***

One is a sensory game involving blindfolds, jigsaw puzzles and verbal instructions, with everyone assembled divided into smaller competing teams. We’re against the clock and against each other.

My severely deaf colleague is, of course, nominated as the instructions-giver – it makes perfect sense that she shouldn’t be one of the team members having to rely on listening. The other two of us don our blindfolds.

She shouts instructions and we try to assemble puzzle pieces into a coherent whole according to her words.

All I can hear, the entire time, is the shouting and chatter from the other people across the room. One male colleague’s voice, in particular, cuts through all else in sforzando bursts.

I’m wondering when the break is.

I get panicky as I work my way through the game. I can’t hear my colleague well enough. I yelp at her for clarification. The pitch and volume of voice grows as I struggle to remain calm and concentrate.

I’m wondering when the break is.

Then we have a music quiz. Name that tune. More my area of expertise.

But I’m so on edge I get disproportionately embarrassed whenever I get an answer wrong.

And overwhelmingly disappointed when our team doesn’t win because I jumped in too quickly to answer a question, but then lost my ability to speak coherently.

(I think the tune was Gangnam Style, but never mind that.)

I’m wondering when the break is.

***

Coffee break time.

One of the colleagues who organised the ice breakers approaches me.

“I’m so sorry. We should have realised that a sensory activity was a bad idea. I hope you’re okay.”

“It’s alright, I’m fine”, I lie.

***

Most of the day is spent discussing our marketing plans for the forthcoming year.

A lot of talking. A lot of listening. A lot of sidetracking.

Our team works well, and I like most of them, but as a group of people, many of them (myself included) have an endless need to jump in, make ourselves heard, and to say our piece.

crescendo.

accelerando.

affrettando.

I’m getting a headache.

The Fire Exit sign is backlit, and the light is flickering.

There are so many noises in this building.

Pipes clanking.

Footsteps.

Doors opening and shutting.

Old-building creaks.

Nothing is played in unison. There’s no reassuring pattern to the prodding and poking of each sound. I inwardly wince at sounds. And I inwardly wince in anticipation of more sounds.

Would it be okay for me to slip out and take a break unprompted?

I know my manager said this was fine, but I still feel awkward about doing so.

***

Lunchtime. We eat. I feel the compulsion to interact with everyone.

Then I escape into the hotel grounds for some quiet, and some greenery.

I’m a little late back to the training room.

***

Afternoon session. Action planning. Back to the talking. Back to the listening.

presto.

Headache intensifying.

Heart rate rising.

A cacophony.

I can’t focus. Everyone’s talking at once. How can I be expected to contribute anything to this?

“Excuse me! I’m really sorry, but I can’t concentrate because everyone’s talking at the same time. Would you mind trying to slow it down?”

I catch one colleague opposite me giving an exaggerated eye roll.

Shit.

I really to sort this out with her later.

***

The end of the day. Finished. Migraine is in full swing.

I spot the eye-roller.

“Hi! I just wanted to catch you and say sorry for earlier. I was having a really difficult time. I hope things are okay.”

“Um, can we talk about this tomorrow? I really don’t want to discuss it now.”

“Sorry, but it would be great if we could resolve it now. I don’t want to leave it hanging.”

I can’t leave it. I’ll be dwelling on it all night if we don’t sort it out now.

“Look. I think you were really rude earlier. We’ve all had a very difficult day and I don’t like being spoken to like that.”

Was I rude? I don’t think I was that rude. I’m sure I said “excuse me”.

“I know, I’m sorry. But this day’s been incredibly difficult for me to cope with. You know I struggle with all the sensory stuff, with listening and so on.”

“That’s fine, but it was difficult for all of us. You know, I bring a lot of myself to this job, to this team. I don’t appreciate you being rude, and I’d rather not talk about this any more.”

“Okay, bye. Sorry.”

Why do I keep apologising?

I feel my face getting hotter.

The pressure of the world forcing its way down upon me.

All senses smashing together as one. Atoms in a particle accelerator (but what remains after the smash in this case?).

A crescendo of emotions, inner and outer noise.

forte.

fortissimo.

***

I walk out through the main entrance gates, and as I walk, the tears come.

The world simultaneously closes in and zooms out.

Oscillation. Then a sonic boom.

I feel myself walled off from it by an invisible force field.

The tears stream.

I start to wail.

I punch my fists into my thighs.

I start to scream.

fortississimo.

I lean against a wall. I can barely hold myself up.

Another colleague finds me. Hugs me. Takes me to a nearby pub, buys me a drink and listens to me as I rant and rave. My headache remains, but I gradually become calm. My colleague offers kind words and no judgement.

Later, I take the long route home. stentando.


[Image: Close Up on The Coffee and Open Notebook With Pen, by Marco Verch. Creative Commons 2.0 licence.]

Therapy Vignettes: the awkward silence

A hastily-sketched digital painting of a shadowy female figure seated by a window shaded by blinds, gazing attentively but ambiguously towards the viewer.

[Note for non-UK readers: in this, and similar posts, I use the term ‘counsellor’, synonymous with what others call a ‘therapist’, i.e. someone who works in a one-to-one confidential setting providing listening/talking therapy and support.]


Autumn 2000 (15.5 years before autism identification).

I’m in a dimly-lit room in the secluded, greenery-shrouded portacabin that (at this point in time) houses the university counselling service.

It’s cold and grey outside. Late autumn. Close to my birthday.

Taupe vertical blinds shade the anonymous nearly-square window.

A cube-shaped cardboard box, ornamented with a pink, purple and cyan floral pattern and dispensing crisp, white tissues, sits on a low wood-effect table.

***

I’ve been seeing the counsellor for a few sessions now.

All since – upon my return from a long day manning a society information desk at the Freshers’ Fair, and on catching sight of the sight of piles of unwashed crockery and pans in the kitchen – I broke down uncontrollably on the floor in the back doorway of our student house, and my friends insisted I see someone about how I was feeling.

And here I am again.

And here, once again, is the same silence.

***

It always starts this way.

Having greeted me as she led me to the therapy room, the woman sitting opposite me has remained silent since we both sat down.

Earnest, attentive eyes on me.

Waiting.

It’s always like this.

What does she want me to do?

What are the rules here?

Is this the way all counselling sessions are supposed to begin?

I try to work out my opening gambit. What is the first thing I should say in this situation? What does she want me to say? Talk about how I’m feeling? Talk about what my week has been like? Actually ask her what’s supposed to happen?

And if I don’t speak, will she eventually prompt me?

Or might it be possible that the entire 50 minutes passes by without a single word?

And how might that help me?

Would she actually allow that to happen?

I just don’t know.

I wish someone would actually tell me what’s supposed to happen. It’s making me agitated.

Earnest, attentive eyes on me.

Waiting.

***

At last, the silence becomes too much.

I resign myself to breaking it – hoping that, as I start to speak, I’ll gradually work out what I actually want to say, and that, gradually, I’ll become at ease with speaking to this stranger staring earnestly and attentively at me.

I take a deep breath…


[Image description: A hastily-sketched digital painting of a shadowy female figure seated by a window shaded by blinds, gazing attentively but ambiguously towards the viewer.]

Work Vignettes: the verbal warning (Awkward Coffee #1)

An off-white, disposable coffee cup with a plastic lid, placed on an off-white surface, against a blank white background.

Image credit: John Beans (https://myfriendscoffee.com/)

September 2002 (14 years before autism identification).

It’s Monday morning. The start of a new term. Last week was College Enrolment Week.

***

(Just a few days ago, I had been clad in a cheap, over-sized, garishly yellow “Here to Help” staff polo shirt. Small, black insects had clung in loose but numerous clusters to the stingingly bright, sweat-soaked synthetic fabric.

For one extended workday, I’d been assaulted by noise, questions, crowds, confusion, chaos, jostling and overwhelm. Body odour, food smells, raised voices, untidy piles of papers, leaky pens, thirst. No hiding places.

Afterwards, I had trudged, head pounding, sweaty-polo-shirt sticky and migraine sick, back to my friends’ flat. I’m staying with them short-term while I find somewhere else to live, after a recent, sudden relationship breakup.

After a brief slump in their sofa, some food, and brief interactions with my friends and their two-year-old daughter, I’d lain myself down on the mattress in their spare room and cried until I was too exhausted to stay awake.)

***

My line manager has invited me to the college canteen for a coffee.

“I need to talk to you about last week.”

“Okay…”

“I know it was a very busy time, but I have to let you know that some of your behaviour was unacceptable. It’s one thing to get flustered, but I absolutely cannot abide swearing.”

“I’m really sorry. You know I’ve just recently come off the medication the doctor gave me. It takes time to get out of my system – they didn’t stop the prescription soon enough. It’s making it difficult to control myself.”

“I really think that’s no excuse. This is a college. It is not acceptable to speak like that in front of students.”

“I know that. I’m so, so sorry. I’m just having a really difficult time. The breakup was awful. You were away when it all happened. It’s so hard. It’s going to take me a long time to get over it. I’m really stressed at the moment.”

“I know you’re having a difficult time. We all have struggles. But it’s important to keep your personal life separate from work. You mustn’t let these things come out in front of people.”

Clattering from the kitchen.

Chatter from nearby tables.

Searingly bright sunshine streaming through the window behind my manager, silhouetting her face and making me squint at her through barely-open, scrunched-up eyelids.

I can still see the spidery clumps of dark blue mascara that coat her eyelashes, but perhaps it’s my mind’s eye filling in the blanks.

I can feel my face getting hotter. I imagine it getting redder. My eyes…

“Let this be a warning on this occasion. But I cannot have this sort of thing happen again.”

“Okay. I’m really, really sorry.” The tears have started. I bow my head towards the table, so that neither of us sees the other’s face.

I realise it’s going to be time to get back to the office soon. There’ll be students to see.


[Image description: An off-white, disposable coffee cup with a plastic lid, placed on an off-white surface, against a blank white background.]

Catching the quiet

Full colour photograph of an orange “super moon” in a deep blue sky, to the left of which are the black, silhouetted branches of a leafless tree.

I must take my life’s rare moments of calm where I find them.

Catch hold of the string holding the serenity balloon before it floats away into the blue.

I cuddle my son to sleep almost every night.

After a busy, noise-filled day, my whirlwind, bounce-off-the-walls, never-still, never-quiet younger child has listened to me reading him stories – all the while attempting handstands, inspecting the slight rip along one side of his dinosaur poster that was torn into existence by an errant foot, examining a stray vehicle rudimentarily constructed from Lego bricks.

I have done my best to contain my frustration at interruptions and interjections, my exasperation at the small limbs whose darting, distracting movements scratch at the smooth canvas of my peripheral vision or knock the picture book out of my hands. I’ve remained calm and patient, despite my exhaustion.

(I have medication now. These days, I am far better able to manage bedtimes than I was six months ago. My temper has been tempered.)

At last, his eyelids are drooping. He issues a yawn. He curls up on his side. Finally, he tells me he wants the light off, and a cuddle.

I oblige. I draw the jungle-animal-patterned duvet up around him so that he is “nice and snug”. And I lie down next to him, on top of the duvet, and I put one arm around him. Nuzzle my face into his soft hair. Often, he asks me to take his little hand in mine and hold it tight, and I do so.

Some would say that I’m too soft. That young children need to learn to self-soothe; to get themselves to sleep without parental input. That he won’t ever be independent if he can’t fall asleep by himself. That I’m making a rod for my back and not giving myself enough of a break.

Maybe. I don’t believe so. He will fall asleep alone on occasion. But where’s the harm in giving reassurance to a small child who needs it? In letting him feel safe, secure, and loved? Surely that’s a better path from which to work towards independence anyway, if that’s the thing that’s desired?

Besides, I have an ulterior motive.

The room is darkened. Still. I am comfortable. And he is quiet. This is a break.

I catch and enclose that quiet in my cupped hands like a butterfly. All too soon, I know I will need to release it; let it flutter free from my hands’ prison. I will have to let the balloon float on.

He’s been asleep for a few minutes now.

Downstairs, I hear repeated bursts of the Danger Mouse theme tune. I hear his big sister running, careering and thudding around the living room; humming, clicking, singing, squealing.

Soon, she’ll want to talk to me. She’ll need to share her latest grand idea, impart the details of her latest imaginary world, or outline the plot of her latest work of fiction. She’ll want to talk about her day. Share her worries, excitements, or causes for celebration.

And I’ll listen. I’ll be there with her.

Just Not. Quite. Yet.

It’s been a busy day. Office greetings. Kitchen small-talk. Meetings. Listening. Processing. Dark glasses in bright rooms. Headphones to block out the noise. Smells. Heat. Sweaty clothing. Sore feet. Too much tea. Dry mouth. Plans to make. Tasks to prioritise. Work to do.

And before I do my next round of listening, I need, however fleetingly, to catch the quiet, and hold it close to me as I hold my son.


[Image description: Full colour photo of a deep blue sky lit by a yellow/orange “super moon” – a full moon that appears slightly larger than normal due to its proximity to Earth at a particular point in its elliptical orbit. To the left of the picture is the black silhouette of some leafless tree branches. Photo by Dave Grubb.]