Between Ourselves on Radio 4 yesterday featured a fascinating discussion between Olivia O’Leary and two men with Asperger’s Syndrome. It provided an excellent insight into the syndrome. Although the interviewees were adults, they reflected a great deal on the impact of Asperger’s on them as children and teenagers.
Both talked about the difficulties of social interaction. Unstructured environments with other children and young people were particularly problematic, whereas one-to-one communication with adults was fine. Because they stood out as being different, both were bullied and teased. One of them, Ben Delo, described his disproportionate responses, throwing a desk at a child who had taken his rubber for instance. He and Frederick Veal both also had obsessions, in Ben’s case computers, which had the advantage of being a route into working life and into friendships. Frederick remembered compulsively banging his head when he was still in his cot. One of his other childhood obsessions was spinning, which took him into a dream world. He could not understand other children not wanting to spin. Frederick also talked about his extreme sensitivity to sound as a child, and his compulsion to repeat things he heard.
Although his school recognised that he had learning problems – despite high intelligence he was unable to write even his name or to read until very late – Frederick was never given any kind of diagnosis as a child. It was not until his son showed developmental delay and was diagnosed with Asperger’s and dyspraxia that he found out the causes of his own difficulties. For both men, diagnosis was a huge relief. Ben is considerably younger than Frederick, and his diagnosis was much earlier, when he was eleven. He already had a strong inkling, since his skills in electronics enabled him to bug his parents’ phone and listen in to their conversations. As a result of his statement, Ben went to a school with a special unit for children with autism and Asperger’s and then studied maths and computer science at Oxford. Frederick too went to university, though very much later in life and only after overcoming immense hurdles. He described his terrible introduction to working life as a teenager and how his failure on his first and only day as a dishwasher led him into a lengthy crisis of confidence.
The inability to understand idioms and ambiguous language has been a feature throughout both men’s lives, though both have now learnt ways to cope with it. Frederick mentioned the difficulty his son has if asked to ‘keep his eyes peeled’. The phrase creates an image in his mind that is immensely painful to him.
Well worth listening to.