Trigger warning: low self-esteem, bullying
Chapter Four of “Living with Asperger’s Syndrome” focuses on Matty’s time at high school, his struggle to navigate the complex world of teenage friendships and how all of the bullying and confusion eventually led to him failing his exams. I recall my own grades dropping when I was at a similar age. Year nine can be a difficult time for students with autism because as we get older, friendships are no longer interest based. It’s not enough to like the same band or tv show as somebody else, suddenly you’re expected to have an inside out knowledge of the complex social hierarchy of teenage friendships, what makes a person ‘cool’ and what to do if you fancy someone… none of these things come intuitively to someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s as if, overnight, everyone around you has started to speak in a strange language, and are baffled when you can’t understand what they’re saying.
Now, here’s Matty’s take on his troubling teenage years, and the lengths that some students will go to just to fit in…
Throughout school I struggled to know my friends from my enemies. The volatile nature of the environment made it difficult to predict what would happens next. I didn’t have a routine, and I felt lost in big school. The behaviour of other students was horrendous. It seemed like two ‘tough guys’ would get into a fight at least once a week while their peers formed a tightly knit circle around them, jeering. The teachers did nothing to stop this.
My anxiety worsened around year 9 and I was hand flapping almost constantly. I developed an addiction to listening to music with headphones and vocally squeaking, getting all the anger out through my lungs. When I was lost in my favourite music it was easy to imagine a better life. I started to shake more, and talk to myself, which soon became noticeable to others. As I began to develop empathy and theory of mind my self-esteem got worse. I finally realised how strange I must appear to others- they probably thought I was insane! I tried my best to hide my unusual behaviour, but couldn’t. My low mood meant I was not looking after myself, and I soon developed bad body odour and acne. Other students called me ‘Gollum’ and this nickname stuck with me until the end of school.
I still found the concept of relationships baffling. I once followed a pretty girl home without thinking twice about the consequences. My social skills were so limited I couldn’t think of another way to show her that I fancied her. I knew I would never purposefully harm another person, but this not make me desirable to girls.
One subject I looked forward to studying at GCSE was drama. I loved to create characters and pretend I was someone else. Unfortunately, my drama class was packed with all the students who had caused me pain over my first four years of high school. Every lesson felt like a battle against the bullies rather than an opportunity to learn. I realise now that I must have done something to deserve all this attention, but at the time, I couldn’t work out why I was being bullied. I knew my hand flapping, social awkwardness and lack of fine motor skills probably made other students uncomfortable, and my shoes were from the charity shop my Mum worked at. But it still felt like undeserved attention.
During my final year at high school, I realised I needed help and started attending group counselling sessions. To my surprise, this was where I met a girl from my drama class. She was coping with very different issues to myself. We started to get along with one another.
One day, I was called out of class unexpectedly and met by a teacher who just stared for a few moments. I thought I had done something wrong, but he invited me to a swimming lesson. The girl I met at counselling and drama also came along. Eventually, I had a moment during class where I learned how to ‘swim’. It wasn’t in any particular style, but I could travel along the water. This would be an early sign of my determination to find coping strategies. Just when it seemed like things were looking up, the girl I’d met through counselling and swimming started to join in with my other bullies. She also denied ever going to the counselling sessions with me. By now, L and I no longer spoke. Friendship could be very fickle.
I had too many things going on in my mind, and could barely concentrate on lessons. I realise now if I’d focused more on my studies I might not have had so many problems later on. But my education seemed the least important thing. I used to find lessons interesting, but often forgot their purpose. I didn’t do any revision for my GCSE’s and failed every exam as a result. It seemed like the only goal of high school was to survive. The outcome of my grades was not important. My dad could not understand why I struggled so much and I laugh now when I think back to how he thought I was an idiot. But people do seem to judge you on your grades at school. I left year 11 without a clue of what I was going to do next.
The next chapters of my blog will bring you up to date on my life. Fortunately, they should be a lot more positive than this one. Thanks for reading, and Gwen, thanks again for letting me post this.