There is a stigma associated with the lack of eye contact in communication. We are seen as rude and/or disinterested. I find it incredibly difficult to make eye contact for a few reasons. I’m hypersensitive to sight, sound, taste and touch which affects my communication greatly as I find it very distracting when one of these senses becomes saturated.
By Alexander Blake
Hello, my name is Alexander Blake. I’m 26 years old and I’d like to share with you the way I see the world. I’d like to spread awareness about autism. Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of Autism which is on a vast and never-ending spectrum. I could spend many pages talking about the spectrum but you might appreciate if you understand “my spectrum” first. I’ve always wondered why I’ve thought and felt differently, had strange mannerisms and mimicked others throughout my life. Fortunately, I’ve grown up in an incredibly loving family where we’re all equally as intricate and wonderful as one another. So the journey for me hasn’t been as tough as for others.
A brief introduction to the younger years of my life, as these were my most individualistic days. In “first school” I was the silent wonderer. I had no idea of sounds, textures and shapes. My eyes seemed to drift in the angles of the room, blended in with the colors of the walls and carpets. Mad, you may think, but endless fun for me. I pretty much had a sensory room in one corner all to myself. Getting to know these environments was exhilarating and it still is. However, trying to figure out what on earth was going on in the classroom was extremely exhausting. I’m not sure how other people on the autistic spectrum process these early days, but these first fundamentals of my development were my first impairment that I remember. It’ll be cool to hear others’ experiences.
In these early stages of my neurological development I had no idea who I was. I had no clue about my actions or what I was saying to people. Everything I looked at seemed to be alive to me and everything had a purpose. It was as if I was naturally one with the elements and I couldn’t escape. Today, I still live with moments of drifting into my own world yet I feel I can manage as I can now understand it.
I remember in “first school” painting with little, white, plastic, glue spatulas and having to hold the handle in a certain way to get the appropriate glide from the glue spreader. I wouldn’t want to use paint brushes, pastels, crayons or felt tips. I found satisfaction from the flatness of the spreader and the way I could blend all the colors onto the painting. These experiences are crucial to the mental well being of people on the autism spectrum and to deny us this function can cause us to go into a meltdown within seconds. Disruptive behavior can be due to the lack of understanding of sensory needs of the child.
At age six I remember communication being so confusing, I remember break times and being outside in the playground and other people wanting to run around or jump into boxes on the concrete. All I wanted to do was be with this huge, dead, tree trunk. This tree trunk was alive to me, it helped me to interact, and it made me feel comfortable. I remember sinking my fingers into the deep grooves of the bark; it had me in a relaxed place where my thoughts could be free from the noise of the playground. My bum was perfectly pressured in one spot and my legs dangling. It was these positions that made me feel comfortable and in the right state of mind to at least engage in some form of communication.
I believe growing up in a large family helped my communication, as I could observe and just be in amongst it all. However, it was never easy and still today I find some communication incredibly confusing to the point of frustration. This brings me onto the mechanisms I have put in place to help me in social situations. When it gets tough I can visualize myself with the grooves of the tree or the angles of the room in which my thoughts can regroup and be free to talk again. I rub my first and second finger continuously. I’m not sure why but this helps me get into a rhythm of a sentence and think.
Thinking in Pictures
I have several scenarios visually stored in my memory for difficult social situations. When I have conversations with people I don’t know or am struggling to answer questions, I find myself digging into my memory of previous same questions asked or pictures I can relate sentences to. Depending on my mood, this can be done in a split second or depending on the words used can cause massive delay. This way of thinking can be frustrating. For example, if someone was to say the word ‘lighthouse’ to me, I would visualize a specific lighthouse that I’ve seen before. So, in order for my brain to keep with the conversation, it is a lot easier to hear direct, precise sentences. It’s as though I don’t have a choice to listen to the sentence as my brain automatically goes straight to the memory of the lighthouse before I have the chance to think about what’s being said.
I hate using the word ‘unfortunately’ but I catch myself using this word a lot in this article. I couldn’t understand why I was behaving the way I was; being told to leave most lessons the reason for which I had no idea. I couldn’t understand the difference between fact and fiction or having to read in front of the whole classroom. Concentrating on teachers’ movements and the way in which they projected their voice was far too exhausting. I remember fixating on the way someone moves – as opposed to hearing what was being said.
My mind naturally drifts to sounds, movements and shapes. I get so focused on the sounds being uttered I zone out and conversations are completely lost. At the same time not having a clue of how to react had me in serious trouble at school. I was completely misunderstood, and I believe many others on the spectrum are too, whether this be at school, in the workplace or even at home. As a consequence, I rebelled at home and at school. It was these years that I wish I had the support which I observe being used today. Support is crucial to emotional and social development. I found myself inappropriately touching things and people would tell me how extremely rude and arrogant I was. Monumental tantrums at home which tested my parents’ patience, people calling me a twisted freak, a weirdo and odd are all buried in my memory!
Recently I have come to terms with my behaviors. Yet I still find it difficult to include myself in social situations. I try to keep verbal communication to a minimum outside of my family. I wonder why people want to know so much about you without your permission. I’ve always struggled in conversation to listen to what others have to say. I like to observe. If I find topics of conversation unimportant or irrelevant then I will walk away. However, I believe I am adapting to this. I believe through school and college years where I was misunderstood I needed the most support and to be guided in the right direction; as opposed to being treated like a badly behaved child- which in consequence led me to be very depressed and gave me a feeling of worthlessness.
Mental health is a whole new topic in regards to Asperger’s Syndrome which I can touch on in a new article and I have some fantastic strategies which have all been done on my own through experiences tested on myself (drug free) of course. Not only did they help me through the dark times but have given me much life experience, which in turn has given me massive amounts of confidence – something I never thought I could have.
Let me talk about interviews. I think for anyone with Asperger’s it’s such a challenge to meet new people especially in a room where distractions are never ending. I’ve devised a few coping strategies of which some have been successful.
There is a stigma associated with the lack of eye contact in communication. We are seen as rude and/or disinterested. I find it incredibly difficult to make eye contact for a few reasons. I’m hypersensitive to sight, sound, taste and touch which affects my communication greatly as I find it very distracting when one of these senses becomes saturated. However, when in the right environment and mood to meets someone’s eyes, I lock onto them and it really does help my conversation. At that point I need reciprocal eye contact to keep the conversation going, otherwise I tend to follow what they’re observing and become distracted.
I remember one of my first work interviews reading on the form ‘shirt & black trousers’ required. I couldn’t grasp why a shirt & black trousers had to be worn. I ended up wearing the required attire after being persuaded and much frustration. The trousers were really uncomfortable – enough to completely take me off my game in the interview. Throughout the interview all I could think about was pulling my trousers off. Thank the lord I didn’t do this while the interview was in progress. It certainly would have been a sight for the interviewers! To this day I haven’t worn those ridiculous, loose cotton black trousers to an interview! I now understand that the texture and how I wore my trousers determined my communication.
I have had numerous jobs over the years. One of which was working as a Special Effects Technician in television and film. This was an interesting job – plenty of egos with little talent and the people with the talent were always overlooked. This job was perfect for me, I was making things every day, I got to set cars on fire, blow buildings up, rig actors up with explosives, pretend to die on camera, make prosthetics, atmospherics – and I was damn good at it. It was a very male dominated industry and the pay was very high. Other workers got pretty jealous of our salaries. I didn’t know I was being bullied at the time until a lovely friend told me. Other technicians were using my literal thinking as a weapon against me. I was not only bullied by people at the company I was working for at that time but by people from other companies as well. I can understand being bullied at school to some extent but at the workplace at 23 years old is ridiculous. I became distraught and resigned because I was mentally drained. I couldn’t keep up the ongoing mental battle with other workers. We had to show a stronger presence because we were paid a higher salary than the others. At the same time, I had no idea how to respond to these bullies and knowing I had to work alongside them for the next few months – NO WAY!
Unfortunately, running away was the only way for me and that’s what I did. I made lots of excuses to family, co-workers and friends as to why I didn’t go back to work in this industry but bullying is f**king pathetic at this age. I wish I was stronger to have stayed in this industry. The funny thing is I even tried explaining to my boss about my condition. However, he didn’t believe me and told me to carry on making the pyrotechnics. I kind of realized at this point that maybe my passion for making things was going to be extremely difficult while under the control of somebody who won’t even think about somebody else’s feelings, let alone their condition.
Anyhow, this brings me onto my next job. Working with the National Autistic Society, I worked for The National Autistic Society for a year, working with adults on the spectrum. Although I gained a great deal of experience working with adults and was able to hone my skills, I felt I would be able to offer more in the development of people with Autism if I were to start working with the younger-aged autistics. Although there were many admirable qualities within the NAS, fundamentally, I was not able to work within the parameters of such a corporate-minded charity. There were many areas to which I could have contributed. However, due to these restrictions this was not possible and therefore the service users were not able to enjoy the support from an autistic person’s perspective they so much deserved. I therefore found my position untenable.
In the end the job which challenged me the most yet was beneficial was working in hospitality at a local hotel as a barman, making drinks and serving food. Having to make small talk to strangers and staff was terrifying and daunting yet it got me listening to people; I developed a better understanding of socialising through observing and interacting. I got to be involved with weddings, business meetings and plenty of parties. Although it certainly helped socially it made me dislike people all the more.
I’ve never been one to obsess over a specific interest. I read a lot about Autistic adults getting work through their chosen special interest which is fantastic and extremely rewarding. A lot of adults on the spectrum don’t have these savant-like abilities to memorize patterns or numbers in a way that can be pursued as a career. It is extremely exhausting trying to perceive the world let alone learn the fundamentals to live independently. These precious ways of working come with extreme concentration, frustration, determination, blood, sweat and tears.
In my next article I will discuss topics on mental health, relationships and a go into a little more detail about work/ jobs – all encompassing Asperger’s Syndrome.
Cover image: Kirtanraw Subramanian “Bully”
Alexander Blake resides in Bristol, United Kingdom. He is 26 years old and diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.