This will be the first in a series of autobiographical blog posts from guest blogger Matty Denton. Matty describes his experience of growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome, chapter one focusing on his time at primary school. I found his account deeply moving, and saw many of my own experiences mirrored in Matty’s childhood. The misunderstanding and bullying he faced at school is a reminder of just how important autism awareness is. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome require an environment that meets their sensory needs and teachers who understand both their condition and their style of learning if they are to achieve their full potential. It’s also vital that teachers and pupils show respect for autistic kids, not demanding they stop stimming and try to be like everyone else. No teacher would demand a paraplegic child to give up their wheelchair and starts walking, because they need to be more like other children. If you know anyone that works in a school, I urge you to share this blog post with them. Every teacher is bound to come across an autistic pupil at some point, and if they are to support them effectively it’s vital that they understand their world. To that end, here’s chapter one of Matty’s story…
I want to share my experience of living with Asperger’s Syndrome, my earliest memories of feeling different to others, my strategies for coping with this condition and my plans for the future. I’m going to split the story into several chapters, covering my early days, me adolescent days and my adult days.
I remember my first day at school vividly. I was placed in reception with strangers and I remained disengaged and unresponsive. I didn’t participate in games or role play. I’d developed a powerful attachment to my mum (partly due to her mollycoddling) and have a tendency to rely on her too much to this day. As a child, this resulted in me crying persistently when apart from her.
I struggled with all the activities in reception, especially the ones requiring good coordination and dexterity. Until middle school I couldn’t tie my shoe laces properly. It was bedazzling watching my dad tie my shoes and button up my coat. The grip in my fingers was not strong enough and I couldn’t make the loop. (I can tie them today, but often the loop is not tight enough and I have to keep making attempts until I get it right). I would wear my school uniform inside out or back to front, not caring, or not understanding that it was the wrong way around. Even now I wear odd socks, forget to take the labels off newly bought clothes and wear t-shirts inside out. It’s instinctive for me to do this. Obviously, it’s the creative side of me coming through and some of these things are becoming fashion trends now. But back then I was made fun out of, called names and humiliated by the staff at school.
When teachers projected their voices it deafened me, and was very frightening to listen to. I used to spend time on my own, shaking instinctively and flapping my hands. None of these behaviours were normal for a five-year-old. As the years went by, I became jealous of the other “normal” pupils and angry at being labelled as an underachiever. Despite not showing my full potential, I never felt stupid.
I was particularly reliant on my best and only friend (well call him L). He befriended me one windy afternoon. The wind had nearly blown me over, as back then I was very small and fragile. He helped me indoors, and a friendship was born. I was incredibly attached to him, and could not understand why he needed to interact with others. When he left my side to play with other children I took this personally and got very cross. On days when he was ill, I could not understand where he was. I never had the urge to make other friends. Groups formed around me quickly, but without L I was alone. This continued until year 11 when we went our separate ways.
When I made mistakes the teaching assistant found it very amusing, sharing these mistakes with other students. One day, I got called into the head teacher’s office and she summoned some students from my class. I was confused. The head teacher said ‘these are your friends; you can talk to them as well, stop following L around’. I never meant to upset L or misbehave. But the children in the office were not my friends. They made fun of me.
I’ve always been sensitive to what other people say and back then I took everything literally. Other children would shrug off name calling or criticism, understanding that it was just banter. But I was hurt. The moment the head teacher had left, the other children started making fun of my stimming. It kept happening, and eventually my parents were called in. That afternoon I was in a word of my own, flapping away, when I saw my mum in the corner with her arms folded. She never explained why she was there, she just said ‘don’t let the others see you doing that’. I used to enjoy doing laps of the playground while talking to myself and pretending I was in a film. That day, the head teacher explained to my parents that she was worried about me and didn’t want other children to see me doing ‘that thing’
One time, she also got in touch with my parents to ask why I had a bruise. Next thing I knew, I was seeing a psychologist about my behaviour. They said I had excess energy, but there was nothing about my behaviour that suggested I might have a disorder. At parents evening my year 2 teacher informed my parents I cried too much and she couldn’t handle me.
This all continued until the end of primary school. It wasn’t strange for a kid to be disengaged with school work, but I really struggled to concentrate. School felt like a prison to me. I dealt with stress by retreating into my own world, stimming and getting generally over excited. Teachers were clearly frustrated with my level of interest and effort. My self-esteem was very low (thanks to the bullying) and being in the ‘yellow group’ with the underachieving children had turned me into an underachieving child. At the time, I had no desire to work hard and get out of that group. My motivation to achieve would develop as I matured.
Thanks for reading! Chapter 2 of Matty’s story will be uploaded this Friday.