Autism for me as a worker

I haven’t written for some time as life has had many challenges thrown my way over the past few months. I haven’t written simply because the natural creative spark hasn’t been there; creativity isn’t something you can force: it’s either there or it’s not. When the tap has frozen over, you can either get stressed about it, or you can just make peace with it in the knowledge that, sooner or later, the ice will melt and the water will flow again. Water is a life force, water always finds a way to flow again. Water works on its own time, it ebbs and flows, it slowly erodes the most steadfast of walls and buildings. It will eventually find a way to seep through, somehow. Thus, creativity comes and goes, like the tide lapping the shore. Today the tap is gently turning clockwise, I feel.

I have written about my experiences of autism before, both as a child and later as a teacher. Two quite specific categories. But I wasn’t always a teacher per se: I didn’t become a teacher until I was in my late 20s down in Australia. For over 12 years before that, I worked various jobs in hospitality. I started working full time when I was 17. I had worked part time before that and, honestly speaking, hadn’t enjoyed it much at all… I had dropped out of college, couldn’t be bothered anymore with education. Education had been a nightmare for me, I found it so hard to simply listen and learn, I found it overwhelming. Looking back, I can understand full well now why I struggled so much with education and human interaction on the whole, I was autistic but I didn’t know it, nor did anyone else for that matter. I was just another annoying, disruptive child that needed to ‘concentrate more’ and ‘muck about less’. I left the education system under a bit of a cloud really. I couldn’t wait to get away, in truth. I sleepwalked into a full-time job in a small restaurant in my hometown. A pretty little riverside restaurant in a sleepy, drunken town in the southeast of England. I worked as a waiter for most of it. I loved the money at the end of the week, especially as it was almost always paid in cash (a rarity nowadays). Imagine a 17-year-old lad from a poor, working class background suddenly being given the best part of 2-300 quid in cash on a Friday afternoon. It doesn’t matter what your currency is, it was a lot of money for someone who had grown up getting hand-me-down clothes from older cousins that had outgrown them! The money, though, didn’t cover up the reality of my situation: I was now thrust into the real world, I had to interact with people, be presentable, and be professional at all times. Because I was unaware of my autism and therefore my ‘shortcomings’, I found some of the simplest tasks a real challenge at times. There were regular flashbacks to the conversations with my dad and being sent to find something in the shed when I was a little boy. What made it worse was that I was almost legally a man, so I was expected to be capable, reliable.

One example that I remember in particular was when I was working at this restaurant, the head waiter at the time was kind of ‘training me up’, and so he gave me a few jobs to do both before and after service. One of them was cleaning this rubbish old coffee machine that we had. So he stood there, listed the 4-5 steps of the cleaning process to me, then went on his way. Now, a ‘normal’ person would probably consider that to be clear enough, and then expect the job to be done. However, all I remember is the panic and fear within me as I realised that I had zoned out, so then I tried to remember all the of the bits he said (it was a lost cause!), then I panicked and suffered from what some might call ‘a mind-blank moment’ or a’ rabbit-in-front-of-the-headlights moment’. I withered under the intense pressure, but I knew I had to try something… so I played around with this machine, but to no avail. I was consumed by this panic, this fear. What was I going to say to him? How could I cover this up? What excuse could I find? It was a Sunday morning at 10am, so I couldn’t ‘blame it’ on customers, or having to clear tables as we didn’t open until midday! It’s funny even writing this now, as I think back, I remember all too well the feelings as if they were yesterday. Quite often I would panic, but I would also become defensive, something I have seen a lot in some of my brothers, and now with one of my stepchildren, too. Anyway, this head waiter inevitably came back after having popped to the shops, and quickly saw that I hadn’t done the job as he had instructed me to do. As it happens, he cut me some slack seeing as I was the new boy, and he kindly decided to take a different approach. What he did instead this time was he wrote the instructions down on a bit of paper. Problem solved, right? Hmmm, perhaps not. Whilst he was writing these instructions down and actively trying to make sure I could understand him, I found myself nodding, agreeing, yet completely daydreaming in my head, thinking about the most random things!! This still happens to me now, although I’m obviously much more aware of it than I was back then! Next thing I know, he’s handed me the scrap of paper with the instructions, and then he’s walked off. I started reading the instructions, only then to be totally distracted by his poor spelling and shoddy grammar! I was then daydreaming about why certain words are spelt a certain way in English, wondering why it’s such a non-phonetic language compared to its European counterparts, and so on. Truly, the last sentence or two could completely sum up my interactions with people, or should I put it more aptly: my struggles to interact with people throughout my 33+ years on this earth. These kinds of whimsical tales of yesteryear are ten a penny! It happened so often that it became ‘normal’ for me. 

Imagine, for 12 years I struggled through life and work without really being conscious of who or what I was! I kept trying to apply this normal template to myself, only to come up short every time. It’s like trying to force a cylinder through a square-shaped hole over and over again, only to be consistently frustrated, disappointed, angry…only to be left wondering ‘what’s wrong with me?’. It was a heavy burden to carry, one which I carry a lot more easily now in the knowledge that I am wired differently and that doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily something wrong with me – there’s something different with me. That subtle change in language could work wonders, I feel, in terms of perspective. 

Things were even more challenging when I started travelling abroad. I remember my first experience of travelling in Europe (when we Brits say ‘Europe’, we mean continental Europe)… I had passed an interview to work for a French company called Club Med, which, if you don’t know it, is a kind of holiday company that organises ski seasons at resorts, or mountain activities, and so on. I had been given specific instructions on the various connections I needed to catch in order to reach this remote village in the French Alps. I remember it all too well: I had to get to London, first of all, fly from London City Airport to Frankfurt in Germany, specifically. Then I had to catch a connecting flight from Frankfurt to Lyon in France, then catch a coach from Lyon bus station to go to a small town called Landry, then from Landry I had to catch another coach to some remote hamlet in the middle of nowhere, then there I had to meet my taxi waiting for me sometime around 10pm to finally take me to the village in Peisey-Vallandry. Sounds straightforward enough, right? Wrong! 

Things went awry when my flight from Frankfurt to Lyon was delayed, meaning that the rest of my connections would then be affected. To give you some context, if this happened to me now, I would take it all in my stride, I wouldn’t worry or panic, but this has come from travelling around the globe and, more specifically, from experience, from trial and error. Back then in 2011 as I was running through Lyon airport, speaking my best school French and not understanding a word, it was a different matter altogether. I did eventually make my destination, albeit about 3-4 hours later than planned. It would have been a lot for any 21-year-old lad to deal with on his first travels, never mind someone on the autism spectrum with serious concentration issues to cope with! What made things even worse was that I had been given a specific list of clothes and attire to bring with me to the village in order to participate in the differently themed soirées; of course, I didn’t read my email properly, and so I turned up with clothes for only 3-4 days, forgot my shaver, as well as a whole host of other things. Seriously, when I look back at my first season with Club Med, I have to laugh at how absurdly chaotic it was, else I would likely cry. To make things even more interesting, I was now being given specific instructions in French on a daily basis! 

Most of the time, I couldn’t understand what was going on around me, I think I must’ve lived on pure adrenaline for weeks and weeks until I finally found my feet. I didn’t even get paid for the first 2 months because I couldn’t work out how to provide my company with my IBAN/BIC number from my U.K.-based bank. In reality, it’s incredibly easy to do, I’ve now done it a dozen times or more, but back then I had never been shown how to do such things. You see, that’s the thing with people on the spectrum: they almost always need to be taught how to do something, because they won’t naturally pick these things up like ‘normal’ people do. So, yeah, I spent the first few months in this alien environment in the middle of nowhere without so much as 5 euros to my name! 

Anyway, I’d like to make it clear that I don’t regret any of this experience, nor any other ones that I’ve had. They were the epitome of a ‘baptism of fire’, of the ‘sink or swim’ philosophy. Somehow I managed to swim, I managed to keep my head above the surface and not drown in my own pool of self-wallowing, self-loathing pity. Now, here, 12 or so years later, it seems all like a blur, a hazy dream that I dreamt a long time ago. I only remember it to be true because I can quickly tap into that feeling of pure anxiety, the sense of being truly lost. Now, here, 12 or so years later, I understand myself a lot better. That doesn’t mean to say that I no longer struggle with human interaction or basic messages at times, because I still do. But I’m lucky for many reasons: firstly, because it’s so open and talked about now within my close family, I no longer feel that sense of embarrassment or shame; rather, we that are on the spectrum have platform to talk about it in a freer way. Also, I’m incredibly fortunate because my wonderful partner is incredibly open minded and understanding of it. She doesn’t judge me or make me feel foolish, she tries her utmost to understand it, even if it’s often a challenge for her to do so. I count my blessings as often as I remember to do so. 

Also, as I’ve got older and as I’ve progressed in my teaching career, I have encountered so many people that have borne the hallmarks of ‘being on the spectrum’. Now, I’m no expert on this topic, I can only talk of my own personal experiences, but I recognise many different aspects and qualities of autism in others. A case of self perception through others, like the metaphorical mirror being held up to my face. Some would run from their own reflection, but I choose not to. I think it’s healthy and fundamentally important for one to admit one’s difficulties, perceived failures, and struggles. If we don’t talk about these things, they won’t just go away and take care of themselves. There needs to be room for healthy, non-judgemental discussion with people that are brave enough to talk about who and what they are. I am no longer embarrassed by being autistic, I am proud of it. I see it as a gift. This is why working with children has been so important for me, I’ve had many opportunities to put my arm around the struggling kid, to take them under my wing, rather than be impatient with them and shame them in front of their peers. What has that ever achieved, anyway?! I now have stepchildren as well as another child on the way.  I have been blessed. One of the children is without doubt on the spectrum in some way. It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? The irony isn’t lost on me. The fact that I now have to deal with, manage, try to nurture, and guide a child with learning difficulties on a daily basis is indeed ironic. I see it as a blessing; in fact, I see it as part of my role, part of my path towards love, compassion, and understanding, away from judgement, derision, and impatience. My unborn child may also be on the spectrum in some way, something I have pondered about here and there when I finally get 5 minutes to myself. If she were on the spectrum, she would be a very lucky little lady as she would have understanding and compassionate parents who both have had firsthand experience of autism, both directly and indirectly – the very thing that I didn’t have nearly 34 years ago. How many other children have there been like me across the countless generations? Too many to remember, sadly. But what we can do, as humans, is we can learn from our past, both recent and distant, we can break the cycle of repetition by taking a different approach.

Here’s the outgoing question: should we be giving our children on the spectrum enough medication to keep them ‘calm’ and easier to parent, or could and should we perhaps change our perspectives on what autism is? Remove the stigma, wipe away the awkwardness and embarrassment, sit down and try to empathise rather than judge. 

What do you think?

Autism for me as a child

Riverside thoughts in early 2022, sitting with Janus

So this is my second entry in my series on autism. If you haven’t already read my first instalment entitled ‘autism for me as a teacher’, make sure you have a look at that one as it’ll give better context to this entry I’m currently mulling over. The links are on my page/bio!

I can instantly feel that in writing this entry, I will inevitably strike a few chords from my past, stuff that I used to have trouble talking about or even acknowledging, but I feel that this is all part of a necessary, cathartic process. Make no mistake, as a child, I truly struggled with my autism – I still do at times now! I can honestly say hand on heart that I don’t really remember being ‘self aware’ before my late teens or early 20s; while that period of my life can wait for another blog, I suppose I should start from the beginning. I often used to host workshops and open-classroom events when I was a teacher back in Italy; over time they came to be known as ‘The Story of English with Daniel’, and I would often talk about history in general as well as linguistic history and word etymology. Almost every time we would look at something, I would often come up with a particular favourite quote of mine: ‘if you want to understand the present, sometimes you have to delve into the past and go back to the beginning’. Now, the moment isn’t wasted on me as I apply that very maxim to myself and my journey as a young man ambling along the autism spectrum.

Sometimes I recall a story my mum often tells about me as a young child, it’s a story about how I was visited by some kind of ‘child analyst’ whose job it was to analyse young kids and their social abilities, let’s say, pertaining to certain age groups. She often recounts it as me being ‘very advanced for my age’ (I would have been 2-3 at the time); in fact, so advanced that I ended up doing the next age group’s test and scoring well on that one, too. She says that I was a very expressive, loud baby; I had this ability to make all sorts of different noises that most wee bairns of my age simply couldn’t. It’s an interesting start to the story because perhaps someone without any prior knowledge of autism in children might instantly assume that there would have been difficulties from the onset. Not in this case. Autistic children are, in my view, extremely gifted in many different, unseen ways. 

I don’t really remember much about my early years which, of course, is understandable, but I have a vague memory of what it was like when my first sibling Darren was born. When he was born, he was a very quiet, sweet-natured little baby, in many ways a polar opposite to me. Of course, as a toddler that had been used to being an only child since the start, it was an odd scenario when suddenly another little soul came along and Mum and Dad tended to spend more time with him. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I can clearly empathise with my younger self at that time: I was obviously jealous and envious of all the attention that my little brother was getting, rather than me. I’m sure this is a story that has been told for countless generations. We were both very different as children, too: Darren was a quiet, lovely little boy, relatively stress free compared to me. There’s no question that I loved him (and still do!), but as an autistic toddler trapped in my little head, I couldn’t understand the world around me. I was often a very naughty little boy doing extremely bad things. I did things like strip the wallpaper off of the walls, pull the curtain rail off the wall, jump through my cot because I was jumping so excitedly on it for hours, even smash things up in a temper tantrum (more on that at a later time). I don’t once remember being aware of myself in these moments, but maybe you’re thinking that that’s normal as you were just a kid…which kid is truly self aware, after all? Well, you may be right there. 

The thing is with autism on the whole is that children on the spectrum don’t do things in the way that ‘normal’ children do; a common example of this would be with ‘normal’ kids naturally picking things up through social interactions and/or simply by watching, then copying what they have seen their peers doing. That wasn’t the case for me: I struggled with a lot of these things. It’s also funny when I think about these things because now I am 33 and I am the eldest of five brothers, two of which have both been diagnosed as autistic in some way or another. The third sibling Jay was born in 1994, and I fondly remember what it was like in the mid-to-late 90s having a small, fat-faced baby around the house all of a sudden. I used to love making him smile and giggle (something I’ve never grown out of with any kids, really). I recall that when Jay was diagnosed as being autistic sometime in the late 90s, my mum was in tears in my bedroom the same day after we had just got back from the doctor’s. I didn’t understand at the time, of course, but now, almost 30 years later, I can only imagine what she must have been going through at the time. You see, in the late 90s, autism was a relatively newfound thing; there was nowhere near as much awareness and chat about it as there is now! It was still a blurry area, a bit of an uncomfortable, taboo-like subject. Times must have been hard for our mum because she was a young mother of 3 boys under the age of 6 whilst our dad, bless his grafting heart, was always working 6 days a week, often driving up to London (about a 4-hour commute every day there and back) to work as an electrician and earn what he could to feed his young family. Dad told me once that when we were young boys, he wouldn’t see us in the mornings because it was too early, then he wouldn’t usually see us in the evenings because we had already been put to bed. Now, as an adult, I can only imagine how frustrating that must’ve been for him at times as a young father. The other thing to throw into the mix is that our father is also on the spectrum, although has never been diagnosed. He was born in ’61 and there would certainly have been no concept of ‘autistic’ or ‘in need of special help and understanding’. It would’ve simply been a case of ‘he’s a bit simple at times’ and a smack round the back of the head if he was lucky. Thank God that times have changed and continue to do so, that’s what I think! 

With Dad also being on the spectrum, you would have thought that that could have helped, but no one was aware of it at the time, least of all Mum and Dad! For Dad, I guess, he would’ve just been ‘normal-ish’ in his own eyes, and Mum would’ve loved him dearly but not understood his ways and issues. You can imagine the dynamics of the house when we were kids! Somewhere in between a father and two sons on the spectrum, you had Mum and Darren who were the relatively ‘normal’ ones, with all of us jostling for attention and love of some kind in what was at times an angry and confrontational household. Perhaps this is somewhat tangential to the original argument, but I’d like to paint an accurate picture of my childhood for you, the reader, to be able to better understand what I’m building up to. 

When I think about my relationship with my mum when I was a child, she was very loving and caring, although, in her own subsequent confessions, she struggled to understand why I was being ‘such a naughty boy’ a lot of the time. She admitted that she struggled to cope with me and, at times, didn’t know what to do with me. Again, as a grown man now, I can only empathise with her and how that must have made her feel; part of me wants to apologise for how I was, but another part of me thinks that I was just a kid, an autistic kid, so I didn’t know any better. Maybe there is no longer any room for this ‘blame culture’ and it’s a case of understanding and appreciating what we learnt from it all and making peace with it. As I mentioned before, my dad was often away from home with work, so it was seemingly almost always down to Mum to parent us, try to guide us, teach us things, and so on – at least, it seemed that way at the time. One of her oft-maligned ways of keeping 3 rowdy boys under control was to rule through fear. Now, I don’t want to give a bad impression of my mum or make out that she was some kind of monster, because she wasn’t, but I can now understand why she may have acted in the way that she did. I wasn’t allowed to use the kettle or toaster by myself until I was a teenager. That might seem like madness when compared to your households, but at the time, that was a reality for us. Why did she do that? Well, I’m fairly sure it was because I was so unpredictable as a child, I might have done something daft like stuck my fingers in there, or, more likely, hurt one of my younger brothers inadvertently, then blamed someone else. You see, autistic children don’t automatically pick things up, as I mentioned before: we aren’t good at naturally ‘getting it’, or reading between the lines, we’re not good at taking hints, or reading body language. It doesn’t come naturally to us, so I guess I must’ve been an around-the-clock nightmare when Mum was trying to run a house, feed us, bathe us, control us, and so on. She is very much a different person now, much calmer and less highly strung, so I imagine she would do things very differently now, but we’ll never know until she has some grandchildren to test her patience! I think it’s also important to consider how much of an impact my behaviour must have had on my two younger brothers: I’ve only ever really seen it from my own suffering viewpoint, but for them it must’ve been so frustrating at times. Above all for Darren who was by and large a ‘normal’ boy that was more often than not inhibited by his mad older brother’s erratic behaviour and the universal restrictions that followed. 

When pushed to think about my relationship with my dad, it’s quite a different story. Again, I’m sure there have been countless tales since the dawn of time of sons wanting to gain their fathers’ approval, yearning for their trust and love. My story has a similar theme. My dad and I are in many ways very similar as adults: we like history, sport, a couple of cheeky pints, amongst other things. We also function in a very similar way and observe many similar things that most people would simply overlook. Autistic people seem to be able to remember the most irrelevant pieces of information, or the most insignificant yet whimsical memories of events. For example, Dad has never forgotten one man that we used to occasionally drink with and ended up playing on the same team as us for a Pub Cricket Team match a few years back. The man in question took Dad’s cricket ball with him after practice one evening (who knows whether or not he meant to) and Dad has never forgotten it; every time we mention this man’s name, it’s instantly the ‘man who stole my cricket ball’! Anyway, that is of course an account of how alike we are now as grown men, but it was quite a different situation when I was a young boy. I think, in my dad’s defence, I was a very annoying, loud and needy young child, but….which child isn’t, right? But I was annoying, I know that for a fact. Perhaps, in my defence, there was a distinct lack of understanding of an autistic child fumbling and blundering his way through every single day as though nothing really mattered. 

One of the most striking and poignant memories I have of my childhood is the instance in which my dad would be angry with me: I can remember countless times when I would be in my own little world, deep in my head, thinking about something to do with my toys or wherever else my creative imagination took me; suddenly, my dad would come into the room angry with me because he’d been calling me. Because I hadn’t answered him, he had had to come upstairs and fetch me, or get me to do what he wanted me to. He often used to say that I was ignoring him, or that I could hear him and I was just being ignorant, followed by a few choice words. Of course, I know that wasn’t the case, and my pleas of innocence fell upon deaf ears in the end. For all I knew, the world could’ve crashed down around me – I was off with the fairies…!

Another instance of our relationship was when I would crave being around him, I would try to gain his approval and so I would loiter whilst he was working on something in the garden. Dad has never really been able to sit still and watch telly, he’s not built that way; instead, he has always been either out the front or back garden, mending, fixing, building, or cleaning something, come rain or shine, whatever the weather. One recurring memory is of him sending me into the labyrinth that was his garden shed in order to fetch a specific tool. Now, for anyone that is autistic or has an autistic relative, you might be thinking that this is an autistic person’s idea of a nightmare! Often, autistic people have real trouble remembering short-term things, and particularly struggle with being given instructions, especially long-winded ones (makes me think of my brothers Jay and William). It almost always ends up in a mess, or, more accurately, what I like to call a ‘mind-blank moment’. Anyway, he sent me into the shed to find, let’s say, the ‘medium-sized chisel without tape on the handle’ – I actually shudder at the thought of attempting to look for something like this now all these years later!! I walked into the towering shed, looked around, forgot what he had said, panicked because I couldn’t go back to ask him to repeat for fear of his temper, then panicked some more because I realised that I would indeed have to go back to him and confess my failure, then to face his wrath. Everything played out as I had feared it would, then I was shouted out, a few F bombs here and there, then I went off feeling utterly crestfallen with my tail between my legs. What’s more, I then usually went indoors and unconsciously took it out on one of my brothers (usually Darren) and then my mum went nuts and the whole vicious cycle was in full flow again. 

This scenario with my dad is one that has played over and over in my head for years; I eventually tried thinking about it in a mature, objective way sometime in my mid 20s and came to the conclusion that this affected me more deeply than I had ever been aware of. Indeed, I developed a kind of ‘I’m not good enough’ complex in myself which would go on to decimate my relationships with many people for years to come. Thankfully, I have made peace with the hurt and pain of a lot of this now, and I feel stronger and wiser for it. It could even be said that without those harrowing experiences as a young boy, I might not be writing this blog now. 

It is, of course, only fair of me to both empathise and thus show how much my dad has changed since the late 90s: he’s quite a different man now in many ways, much more mellow, much less angry (due in great part to his fabulous wife, Claire), he’s a very different father with the two young boys he has had with Claire, too. He is very patient with them, more understanding with them than he likely ever was with the first three, more laid back, and, most importantly, has seemingly allowed love to enter his heart, rather than hate and anger. The way he is stems a lot from his rough childhood with his disciplinarian and brutal father, but that’s not my story to tell. 

Anyway, I think it’s also important to say that Dad has become much more self aware when it comes to autism, and he often wears it as a badge of honour like I do. Through his growing awareness and self acceptance, this surely has helped him to be a good father to our two youngest brothers, William and Edward the Younger. Another thing I’d like to say is that Dad is very much a doer and not a talker, he’s not one to sit down and have deep chats about things, per se (although he’ll certainly ‘talk’ at length about the decline in refereeing standards in English football!). What’s more, he has always inspired his boys by being a man’s man, by being a grafter, by being a salt-of-the earth type; a fountain of knowledge when it comes to DIY, gardening, or keeping animals, we boys ought to tap into that as much we can, while we can. 

When I think about my own experiences as a young, autistic boy, it leads me to think about my younger brothers and their experiences of it. Jay is 6 years younger than me and, as I noted before, was diagnosed when he was still very young. He might argue that the diagnosis never really helped him, that’s for him to say, not me. What I will say though is that we, as a family, have struggled a lot with him over the years, no one more so than me, perhaps. For many, many years, Jay and I didn’t get on at all because I would spend most of my time getting wound up with him about his ways, his behaviour and his inevitable defensive mindset. I never understood it at the time, I wasn’t so aware of myself, but something suddenly clicked back in my late 20s; I had started to make peace with my own past and my own previously confusing nature, which meant that I didn’t look to constantly pick on people or embarrass people due to my own shortcomings. That’s something that I did with Jay for a long time, and, naturally, he simply didn’t want to be around me. 

Regardless, as I made peace with myself, I realised that one of the biggest reasons why Jay irked me so much was because he was so similar to me in so many ways, so it was like a metaphorical mirror being held up to my face anytime he was in the room. It dawned upon me that I could and should actually be more empathic and compassionate with him, that I should try to help him if I could. I still often crack the same joke whenever I introduce him to someone when I say that he’s a ‘younger, hairier, more autistic version of me’, to which he usually retorts ‘…and better looking’! We are incredibly alike in our manner, and we share so many mutual interests, so it felt natural to me to try and help him understand why he is the way he is. We’re quite lucky in the sense that we have a unique relationship where I can tell him in a tactful, constructive way of how he comes across at times. Sometimes I’ll text him because I haven’t heard from him in a while (I’ve often been abroad somewhere over the last 11 years), and I’ll ask after him, and so on; most commonly, I’ll get a short message back with him directly answering the one or two questions I’ve asked, and nothing else. The thing is, an autistic person will see it like this: “I’ve been asked how I am, so I’ll tell them how I am; I’ve been asked what I’m up to, so I’ll tell them what I’ve been up to”. They will see things in a very ‘black or white’ manner, and they won’t read between the lines and naturally understand that someone is messaging them because they miss them and want to spend some ‘time’ with them; rather, the response is usually: “They didn’t say they wanted to chat, how am I supposed to know?”, and thus this is where frustration can be born. It’s something that he still struggles with at times, and perhaps always will do until he becomes a bit more self aware. Anyway, I’ll endeavour to support him as best as I can, make no mistake. 

There are so many more things I could write about here, but they’ll have to wait for another time and another entry. My hope is that in sharing my story of my experiences and struggles with autism as a child, we in turn might become more aware of it as it is very much an invisible way of being that gets overlooked as ‘daft behaviour’, or such like. To all the people that have given me such wonderful feedback so far, I’m truly thankful to you; I’m also grateful to those that have reached out either privately or publicly and shared their own accounts of their struggles with autism, either with themselves or through a relative/child of their own. It’s easy to sit back and listen, but it takes courage to sit forward and speak, so thank you….

D

x

Autism for me as a teacher

Although this may not seem to make sense from a chronological point of view, a little voice in my inner sanctum is urging me to start here with the more recent experiences as both a teacher and an adult. Perhaps this in turn will help jog my memory of my struggles and experiences from yesteryear, we shall see…

When I first became a teacher back in Australia in late 2016, I don’t think I had any idea how important and relevant my own experiences with autism, learning difficulties and grasping basic things would ever come to be. At the time, it was an important career change, make no mistake, and it was a mixture of excitement and worry, just like any other who takes a leap of faith, be it in their late 20s, late 30s, or even later. Before becoming a teacher, I had worked in hospitality and public relations for about 12 years; I left school at 16, flunked out of college at 17 because I was sick of education (the irony isn’t lost on me!): I just wanted to work and earn my own money. I had had some insight to children with learning difficulties during my years in hospitality, although I was nowhere near as self aware in my late teens and early 20s as I was even 5-10 years later, never mind now! It was only really in becoming a teacher that my self awareness grew; you see, when one is teaching, when one is at the centre of a group of 6-7 adults, 6-7 professional people waiting on your every word, that tends to have a knock-on effect. I personally thrived in that arena, the aspect of public speaking is something that has always come naturally to me (something which isn’t inherently autistic, but more about that later!). Where I myself thrived, others at times withered under the pressure of the public eye – it’s not an easy thing. I can think of many people I know who simply couldn’t do that job, and that’s not to blow my own horn per se, I mean that we are all made in the eyes of the Creator with different skills, abilities and ways that might serve each other in different ways. Anyway, being a teacher and thus being under constant scrutiny from students and bosses alike tends to create a kind of sink-or-swim scenario for any fledgling teachers, often brutal but effective for sieving out the diamonds from the grit, so to speak. I am lucky that I have very good communication skills (which I say with humility) which in turn I get from my mother: she is a qualified psychotherapist for cardiac arrest victims, so clearly something runs in the blood there! It wasn’t until mid-2017 that I truly tested my teaching mettle when I moved to Modena, Italy, to become a teacher at a private school there; it was more like an institute for specialised learning than a regular school. There weren’t any desks, no teacher at the front with a cane, pointing and getting kids to monotonously repeat until the target grammar became imprinted in their little minds. No, it was a school that had mostly adult learners, I would say that the average age was about 30, you could teach anyone from 18 to 65, and this in itself was refreshing as well as challenging. So, for the first year or so, my work mainly consisted of working with adults and teaching them the basics of grammar, pronunciation and other things needed for a basic grasp of any language. However, after the first year, I started to branch out more and work in local places, including schools and institutes (the Italian education system is very complicated compared to the English one, so I mainly worked in ‘institutes’ which were essentially places of learning like a normal school). This is where my work with younger people truly began in earnest: firstly, I started working in a private Catholic institute, mainly working with children between the ages of, let’s say, 10-13; then, I worked in a scientific institute teaching teens aged 16-19 (more about that in another blog). These were both wonderful experiences for me, truly! Why so? Well, I have always had a natural affinity with children in particular simply because I am a big kid inside! I say that with some unreserved, unashamed pride since I believe that we as adults are constantly brainwashed into suppressing and burying our inner children in order to ‘be serious’, ‘grow up’, and ‘focus on the real world’. Yet I can’t help but feel that in neglecting the inner child, we have lost touch with our true nature, our true essence. Besides, I’ve never tried to lose touch with my inner child, and as a result, I’ve always managed to ‘win over’ most children I meet with my daft, jocular and often playful nature. I love kids around the ages of 10-13 because they’re still at a stage where they’re keen to please and impress (most kids, not all) and so it meant that I had a natural segue to maintaining a good, competitive and, most importantly, fun classroom environment for learning. Kids, however, are not all as sweet and rosy as perhaps I’ve suggested so far; they have this innate, instinctive ability to pick up on energies and atmosphere, and will quickly push all the buttons they can to see how far they can stretch the boundaries with adults! Small things like shouting out aloud, playing around, chatting with their mates whilst the teacher is talking, and a whole array of other things I won’t name now. What’s my point? Well, I had to quickly lay my boundaries down – the rules of the classroom, as it were. I’ll admit, I’m quite a disciplinarian with my younger students; this comes from my own strict upbringing which inevitably left its indelible marks upon me as a boy and then later a man. I like order (classic autism trait, sticklers for routine!), I like respect, I like manners, but I’m fair; I also think it’s important for the students to have their own say and speak their own minds. This is something I never really had as a kid from either my teachers or my parents at home; the 90s were different, kids were seen and not heard for the most part – sometimes neither seen or heard and told to go upstairs and ‘play nicely’. Times have changed, of course, all things change in the end, and this is no different. I have tried to approach my teaching with a modern approach even if we’re learning about the past. There’s a mantra I picked up from a video I saw online about the Finnish education system: respect for yourself, respect for others, respect for the classroom. It struck a chord with me and I’ve never forgotten it; in fact, I’ve adopted it as a philosophy of my own. Right, so all of this necessary backstory can finally lead me to talk about my experiences with autistic children! 

I’ve taught in Australia, Italy, Poland and the UK, and I would say that I know Italy and its education system the best. Without a doubt, Italy is a long way behind other countries regarding autism, even simply in acknowledging that it exists. If I had a pound for every time I did my prep for a new class only to be told about a problematic student because he/she had ‘some problems at home’, I’d be well off! Certainly, one doesn’t teach to become rich!! I teach for the passion of helping people, be they old or young, ‘normal’ or ‘special’. The most common example I can give of personally recognising children that may or may not have had learning difficulties is this: a typical class would involve me presenting the target material for the lesson, then having the students give me their ideas on what it means, next to outline a clear plan, then finally to put it into practice. Sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? It should be for a grown-up mind, but kids work differently, kids think differently… I remember one particular time in which I did exactly as I have just said, I even had the students repeat back to me the clear instructions I’d given, I then put the students to work, and then saw how things would pan out… I remember this one boy in particular, his name is Giuseppe (naturally) and I did my usual of observing the room as the kids started on their work; I tend to look around to see if anyone is struggling, and I saw this young lad sitting there with his eyes darting left to right, trying to look at what his classmates were doing without being caught. What would you have seen here? A naughty little boy that was trying to cheat? Well, I saw myself in that little boy, the same confused, lost soul stuck in a sterile environment where one is taught not to learn but to constantly repeat until it sticks. So, I crouched down next to him, I met him on his level both literally and figuratively, and I asked him if he was ok. A slight shoulder shrug and an awkward half smile. Was this a naughty boy just ‘looking for attention’? My gut instinct told me it wasn’t. You see, I’m also an empath, meaning I can feel people’s energies, both good and bad, whether I like it or not at times… I’m like a sponge for energies. I could feel this little boy’s confusion and anxiety. I asked him again “Are you ok? Do you understand?”, but again I was met with a lack of eye contact and hesitancy. It was like a window into my childhood all over again. Lack of eye contact is a classic trait of broader autism (although I must state here that I’m no expert on this, I only talk from personal experience). So, I went over everything with the boy in detail, partly in English and partly in Italian, so that he could understand what he had to do. In the end, he did one of the best pieces of work that day, and I knew on my way home later that day that I would remember this little boy for the lesson that he had taught me, for the understanding that came to me of that situation. Of course, he would have no idea whatsoever of how I was feeling and maybe never will, but he played his part, nonetheless. I have no doubt this was just a small lesson, an important lesson given to me by God/the Universe/Fate or whatever name most resonates with you, if at all. It was an important moment because it contributed to my burgeoning philosophy towards teaching on the whole, it reminded me of another mantra that I love: ‘when one teaches, two learn’, or something to that effect. It’s an oriental philosophy, although I’m not sure exactly where from. It makes up part of my belief that a teacher should always be and stay humble as anyone can teach you anything, whether they are important CEOs of a big company, or wee Giuseppe in the corner of class 2C. No one ever knows it all, and if they do believe that, they’re heading for a fall, in my view.  As I write these words, I am welling up a bit… Why? Because what if another teacher had approached young Giuseppe in a ‘traditional way’? What if he had been deemed to be playing up or attention seeking? How would he have reacted? Would he have gone into a little shell? Would his classmates have poked fun at him for having spoken up whenever he didn’t understand? It’s beyond doubt that this has happened to not only Giuseppe, but many other kids all over the world, for generations. So, to conclude things here, the moment gave me two overriding thoughts in the end: 1. as I said before, anyone can teach you anything, so keep an open mind and a humble heart; 2. there’s more than one way to skin a cat! For those who aren’t familiar with this expression, it means that there’s more than one way to do something, although I am keen to point out that I don’t condone the harm of any animals in the name of idioms and the like!

I sincerely hope that my account here has given you food for thought… it may be that you yourself have had dealings with someone on the spectrum, or you may be of the mindset that we mustn’t mollycoddle (overprotect) kids too much and that they’ve become soft. I used to think that way when I was younger and angrier with the world, unable to look at my own shortcomings and more inclined to see faults in others; regardless, I certainly don’t feel that way now. The way I see it, we as human beings are all unique in our own way, and we all express ourselves in different ways, be that through writing, singing, dancing, making something, or through a plethora of different ways. I truly believe that we the adults of today have a responsibility to at least be more aware of autism in the hope that there can be better understanding of tomorrow’s adults, tomorrow’s workers, bosses, decision makers, carers…tomorrow’s people! Through understanding, we can communicate better; through better communication, we can have more compassion for those who are different to us, and I believe this is our ultimate goal as a global race: to value and cherish variety and difference in one another, not to be all the same like robots without our own forms of expression and communication.  

Thank you for having read this blog; this is part 1 of a 3-part series on my experiences with autism. The next 2 instalments will be named ‘Autism for me as a child’ and ‘Autism for me as a brother’, so stay tuned for further updates! Blessings