I’d like to start with a brief introduction– this is me –aged 3 – with granddad who was trying to get me to smile for the camera …
It took me a long time to figure out WHY, although I eventually did – this was taken at a recent dance event.
As a child I was simply considered a bit odd. I was also lucky enough to have an environment where I was never bullied or excluded because of my odd behaviour. I was simply accepted and left to get on with whatever solitary activity took my fancy — reading (from the age of 3) — Lego — guitar practice — ballet practice — horse grooming.
My official Asperger’s diagnosis didn’t come about until I self-referred for an assessment aged 49, until then I managed to camouflage my Asperger’s by living in a different country and working in a second language – English people forgive you a lot of things when they see you as German.
However, it turns out – all those ‘quirks’ are nothing to do with me being German, but with the fact that I’m autistic.
I’ve been slowly learning more about the condition, and there are vast amounts of information on the internet, but I’m particularly fond of this recent talk by Tony Attwood on Asperger’s.
It helped me make sense of a lot of unanswered questions, and one quote that sticks in my mind from that talk is that it’s possible to swing from a clinical to sub-clinical presentation of Asperger’s depending on the social or working environment, time of day, life experiences, hormones, etc.
So, whilst I had some of the markers for Autism in childhood – hyperlexia – sensory seeking behavior, with a love of sandpits, swings and horse-grooming, I did not have them to the extent where they would be considered ‘clinically significant’ or, indeed, a problem.
Tony also explains that ‘symptoms may not become manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities or may be masked by learned strategies’,
This is very much true for me, and it’s quite significant that I only became self-aware of my condition and self-referred for diagnosis after I became a teacher. No environment is more challenging than one where you don’t have your own desk or your own classroom and where on the way to your classroom you have to battle your way through a crowded corridor against a stream of hyper-excited, noisy teenagers and arrive to deliver a captivating lesson whilst trying to work out the needs of 30 of these individuals – sometimes working out the needs of one individual at a time exceeds my limited social capacities, never mind 30!
That’s because the capacities that I am lacking, like other autistic people are in this Triad of skills:
I have to apply logic to social rules rather than managing intuitively like normal people– It sort of works, but it can be really exhausting.
Other times small triggers build up until I become very anxious and need to spend some time by myself to ‘reset’ my inner balance.
Since one of the things that helps my inner balance is the physical act of swing dancing, this is exactly what I spend most of my spare time doing. I’d never thought of myself as needing ‘stimming‘ practices to cope until I worked out that maybe my love of spinning while I’m dancing may not be entirely neurotypical 😉
Crowded ballrooms can still be quite scary, but I love how the simple phrase ‘would you like to dance’ will grant you access,
and once you’re on the dance floor, we tend to communicate without words anyway, and that’s where I feel the ‘playing field’ is much more even between autistic and non-autistic people – provided you’re on the part of the spectrum where you can cope with physical touch in the first place – remember – not all autistic people are alike.
I still struggle with the social interactions bit, which is why Ron Dobrovinski’s rules for lindy hoppers, or blogs like Bobby White’s or talks like Peter Flahiff’s at Birmingham Swing Festival is something I lap up.
I’m always really grateful if someone explains social rules to me. I might not ‘get them’ straight away, but I can learn.
Of course, it is a lot easier if that explaining is done in a way that acknowledges that I wasn’t intentionally trying to be rude or insensitive or even malicious. Just because I find it difficult to express my feelings doesn’t mean I don’t have any!
Remember my original point about me as an unsmiling 3-year old? Sometimes I can still come across like that, although I do try to make an effort. Dancing is one thing that will change that and where smiling becomes effortless and genuine for me. The great Frankie Manning summed it up nicely.
Then there is the community around swing dance and Lindyhop: it’s a community where I feel safe, because it’s somewhere where I can share my enthusiasm for the dance with people who will never get bored of learning about Lindyhop, talking about Lindyhop, dancing Lindyhop. I feel very lucky to be part of that community
There’s a lot more I could say about this topic, but I’ve taught myself that 10 minutes is the cut off point for whatever subject it is I’m talking about – because I will go on for hours if left unchecked – I have been known to try and explain the recent rule changes in regional Volleyball using people’s pint glasses in the pub, long after the audience has started dropping hints it’s time to change the subject (remember subtlety is wasted on ‘Aspies’).
If you’d like to know more, drop me an email or come chat to me at a dance event. I promise I will stick to my self-imposed 10 minute rule, you might also be interested in this 5-minute talk I delivered at a recent Ignite event.