Saturday, 2 April 2016

Harnessing my condition to reach university

The classroom was silent. There I was, right at the back, sitting at the desk with 'SOUTHEND UTD ARE RUBBISH LOL' carved into the wood. I was bemused.

'Why are they shit?' I thought to myself. 'How can a football team consist completely of poo? That's biologically impossible'. 

That was me all over. I was always someone who would take things literally. Whenever someone was surprised and said 'Bloody hell!', I would wonder why hell was so bloody. Was the Devil on his period? My mum was once in a conversation and mentioned the phrase 'Too many cooks spoil the broth'. I just so happened to be eating soup nearby, and said 'Please don't send them here then, as my dinner is fine as it is!' 

Anyway, as I sat in class with the Southend Utd poo conundrum swirling round my head, apparently I was tapping my pencil on the desk rather loudly. Everyone turned round and stared at me. The teacher gave me a really intense glare, as if she was prepared to eat my liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti. I was confused, and completely unaware of my behaviour, or how it could be deemed 'socially unacceptable'. And events contributed to my diagnosis, a few months later, at the age of 10. 

You see, I have Asperger Syndrome, or AS, a form of autism. The symptoms vary considerably from person to person, but in my case they are problems with social interaction, anxiety, obsessive behaviour and hypersensitivity. In other words, I'm a bit of a goof. However, AS is a high-functioning form of autism, which pretty much means that I'm a goof who can talk to you. And talk to you I will. 

For it is World Autism Awareness Day, and I will use this blog to express a little bit about what it's like to be an autistic university student. I'm 23 now, but AS is a life-long condition. It will stay with me, and be a part of me, until the day I die (and beyond, if you believe such things. Just imagine an autistic ghost. That's where my pen-tapping will prove amusing. Fear me, puny humans!). Since I realised I will never be rid of it, and because I was diagnosed so young, I've developed ways of coping with it, and even using it to my advantage. 'Wield your autism like a sword', I often say to myself. Just make sure the Dark Lord Sauron doesn't tread on it, though.

My new, mysterious friend - autism at primary school 
You might be wondering who this 'friend' is. Where did I meet him? Why is he mysterious? 

Life at primary school was very lonely. Credit to the teachers, the environment of the classroom was so bright and colourful, very stimulating - too stimulating. For me, anyway. With autism, imagine having all the sights, sounds and textures turned up a notch. The greyest of greys become the sharpest of reds. The gentle running of tap water feels like a Metallica concert in full throttle. That's what it feels like. 

Overwhelmed by the classroom and faced with a fight-or-flight situation, I chose to fly. Fly away from any activities where - most importantly - other classmates were involved. 

For the first few years at primary school, the back of the class was where I remained. I was a decent student, with a knack for writing coherent - if bizarre and slightly disturbing - short stories. One was about the teachers being savaged by an army of rats and the children taking over the school. I didn't get a good mark for that one. 

Being isolated from my classmates was my decision. In all honesty, I had no idea how to talk to them. In my head it felt so much easier. 'Hi, I'm Alex. Would you like to play Pokemon with me?' I felt, however, that practically translating my efforts at socialising would not go well. I remember one time where I inexplicably decided to leave my shell in the playground, walk up to a pretty girl and talk to her. Instead, I ran at her like a buffalo in heat and stroked her arm for at least 10 seconds. She pushed me away. 'Leave me alone Alex. What's wrong with you?' Indeed.

I gradually became lonelier and lonelier. I felt like an alien, trapped in a world where nothing made sense, where nothing was accessible. I went on a school trip to the Lake District for a week. Every evening, the class was allowed to explore a wondrous park surrounding a huge, green hill. Every evening, though, I would stay on that hill, sitting on an old, neglected bench by myself, looking down at a population which I was not a part of. 

And so, in regards to my 'new, mysterious friend', I am in fact talking about my autism. My autism was my only real, permanent form of company. Autism was always there, by my side. 

Things got slightly easier towards the end of primary school. Casting began for a production of The Lion King, and I was somehow cast as Timon the meerkat. This was one of the most coveted parts, and absorbing the jealousy of my classmates was very satisfying, especially since I, the tallest pupil in the school by a mile, was playing the smallest character in the musical. Ha ha ha. Ha ha. Ha. 

My time to shine had come. This was despite being made to wear a skin-coloured leotard as part of my costume. Autistic people are typically not renowned for their fashion sense - who has time for such matters - but I looked like a huge, awkward saveloy. This didn't matter though, as I took to the stage with gusto. I would not dare look Pumbaa in the eye, as eye contact would make me want to die inside. This resulted in most of my dialogue being delivered to a cardboard tree. It was my best work though, and I will never forget it. Standing up in front of a hundred parents, looking like Mr Blobby's son, but overcoming my fear of others. Alex 1, Autism Nil.

Back to square one - autism at secondary school 
Big school came at me like a freight train. Everything was, quite literally, much bigger. At my quaint, leafy old village school, I was one of the oldest pupils. I was one of the establishment, and I had finally started to express myself. But my new school was like the Empire State Building in comparison, and I was back at the bottom of the food chain. Gazing upon what would be my place of education for the next 6 years, if you were really, REALLY quiet, you could hear the sound of myself sliding back into my shell. 

Let's get the good stuff out of the way first. One of my particular autistic traits is obsessive tendencies, and it just so happened that my obsession at the time of secondary school was to do with writing. One of my best works was a story called Owl and Lizard. It was basically about two animals who were friends. No rats or images of teachers being eaten, thank god. My English teacher recognised my work, and I ended up winning an Excellence award at the end of the year, which filled me with pride. I was not, however, accustomed to the social etiquette of awards ceremonies. As I took to the stage to receive my certificate, instead of shaking hands with the headteacher and walking off again, I just stood there, frozen, my deranged smile locked on my face and presented to the audience in a ghoulish manner. It was like the Joker after a sugar binge. The audience laughed at me. I didn't care. I was the best at English in my year. RECOGNISE.

However, obsessive tendencies are, as you can probably gather, not always good. Especially when it comes to girls. A female would make nice gesture towards me, and in my head it would descend into chaos: 

Me: 'Do you mind? I'm trying to revise for my exam'. 
Me: 'Nonsense. Why would she be interested in someone like me?' 
Me: 'Hmm, I suppose you're right, lol. What should I do?' 

It's safe to say that harassing a classmate is not the wisest move. I had no idea I was doing anything wrong. But in secondary school, when something is even remotely creepy, the playground is much less forgiving.

If I felt it was bad just being disregarded at primary school, the bullying in secondary school felt like a nightmare. People would shout things at me as I got off the bus or walked through the corridors. I would get messages on Facebook - a fairly new invention at the time, as was cyber-bullying - which would call for me to kill myself. Things came to such a point that the Head of Year intervened, and the police almost got involved. But it was too late. The trauma of enduring months of hatred had taken its toll on my studies, and I left school with awful grades. 

The Dark Ages - life after school
Upon leaving school and despite my poor academic performance, I was just grateful that I had survived the ordeal at all. But my autism was still with me. I was part of the bigger world now, one without teachers to rely on or special needs departments. One where I needed to focus on starting a career. The trouble was, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn't have enough UCAS points to go to university and, fundamentally, there was nothing that really interested me. This was my autism at work. The thing is, I had developed so many obsessions about the world - dinosaurs, animals, stand up comedy, buildings, history, football, cooking - that I didn't have the foggiest about how to define myself anymore. 

And so what followed was a great depression.

I would stay in bed, all day. No ambition, no future, no hope. I considered suicide a few times. I honestly believed that I was a broken toy that needed to be disposed of. 'Why would anyone care if I was gone? I'm autistic. That's code for invalid. I'm better off being less of a burden on others.' 

Luckily, I snapped out of this mindset. I'm not sure how, but I did. 

The reinvention - teaching myself an A-level
An immense idea came to me. The idea that all was not lost for me. I applied to UK Open College, a distance-learning organisation, and started a Psychology A-Level course. This was a massive turning point for me. An expensive turning point, might I add - the course alone cost £400, a hefty sum for a young man with almost zero money. 

This was going to be a huge challenge, as distance-learning does what it says on the tin - you study from home. You have a little bit of guidance from a tutor hundreds of miles away, but you are more or less on your own. It was daunting, especially for someone with autism. School was scary enough. How was a meant to cope when my only source of support nearby was the pet cat, whose only specialty was 'how to efficiently lick an arsehole clean'? 

I then had a revelation. I decided to turn to turn to harness all my autistic obsessive energy and put it into my studies. Every day was the start of a new, strict discipline, where I would study in the morning, rest at lunch and study in the afternoon. 

I completed a two-year A-level in 4 months. Yes, 4 months. 

Ladies, you may form a line.

Results day was nerve-wracking to say the least. My anxiety came into play. I think approximately 70 miles of fingernails were nibbled that day. By me alone. (Yes, they were my own fingernails. Chewing someone else's fingernails would have been socially unacceptable. See? Personal growth). 

In the end, I got an A in Psychology. It was the happiest day of my life. 

Now and the future - starting at the Open University 
Well, where am I today? I'm 23, and I'm in my second year of a Psychology degree at the Open University. The OU is distance-learning, so you can gather why I chose to study with them. And yes, my autism is still with me. But I wouldn't have it any other way. There have, of course, been hard times in the past and many more challenges to come. But I am always glad I have autism, because without it I might not be where I am today. Autism is like that friend who annoys you to death, but you somehow can't live without. As that saying goes, 'Sometimes the thing you hate the most is the same thing you'll miss when it's gone'. 

Since April is World Autism Awareness Month, I will be writing more posts about my time as an autistic student, particularly at university, where I struggle to meet new people. I will also explore other aspects of my life. I really hope this blog has captivated, and aroused. But not in a sexual way, of course. As that would be socially unacceptable. 

I encourage all of you to share this with your friends. There are at least 700,000 autistic people in the UK alone, and just one reading my story of conquering the bad side of autism might help a sufferer realise that they're not alone, they're not a loser, and they can be a success.