I felt like the naughty kid at school when I left work today. Usually when I leave a number of other people are also making the trek to the car park, and we all leave one after the other, but today, despite leaving at the same time I always do, the car park was full of cars, and no one was walking out with me.
The reason for this was because work were putting on some training about ASD. For those of you who aren’t in with the acronym lingo, that’s Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
(Yes, by the way, I do work with kids. Don’t worry, I find that as laughable as you probably do.)
I didn’t sign up for the training for two reasons, the first being I’ve had a similar training session before and recently. The second being that Autism is something my family deals with all the time. Much like the last training session, I doubt this one would have told me anything I didn’t already know.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that everyone is on the spectrum somewhere – most people falling within the ‘normal’ parameters. Members of my family, as my mother so succinctly put it, are a little more ‘on’ the spectrum than most. Myself included.
Recently, at a different training session at work, we were asked to walk round the room for a while, then stop and pair up with someone near us, randomly selected by our wandering around. We then had to look into their eyes and project our gratitude for them in what was supposed to be a ‘team building’ exercise. I’m not sure if I succeeded at projecting gratitude, but I was an absolute ninja at holding eye contact.
You should try it. It’s really hard. The woman I was paired with is a natural communicator – the sort of person who would put her hand on your arm and hold eye contact as she spoke to you to make sure she had your full attention, and to let you know you had hers. She said to me afterwards that the better I was, the harder she found it, and I could see it as we stood staring at each other for those two minutes. The longer I held her gaze, the more often she looked away.
The reason I was so good at it is because holding eye contact is not natural for me. It’s something I have to think about all the time. My natural instinct if someone catches my eye is to look away. I have to consciously choose to hold eye contact, and it makes me very uncomfortable if it’s not with someone I know.
I don’t pretend to have even a mild case of Autism. I just have some autistic tendencies – the eye contact thing, not being very good at telling lies – exacerbated by a fairly abrasive personality.
The kind of kids I work with are not the sort with extreme Autism. They are what is known as High Functioning Autistics – kids with some social and behavioural difficulties, but who are able to function, and even excel in a regular environment. This is where Charlie is.
Charlie, my youngest sister before the really young one, has never been officially diagnosed with Autism. She didn’t speak until she was three years old, she doesn’t understand metaphors and she lines her socks up in colour order. She’s exceptionally bright and driven – predicted As and A*s at GCSE. She wants to be a doctor, and if she continues as she is doing, she will be. She’s bright enough to know what she struggles with and conscientious enough to do something about it.
After missing the training session at work, I went to my mother’s after work for our weekly Zumba session. I asked Charlie to borrow a head band to hold back my fringe, as I’d lost mine. It was the sort of lost where I was sure it would turn up, just not in time for 6 o’clock Zumba. I had no alternative that wasn’t either hideously unattractive or completely impractical.
Charlie reappeared about five minutes later with a collection of about twenty head bands.
‘You can have up to three of those,’ she said.
‘What do I need three for?’ I said, imagining myself with one round my head, two hanging off my ears.
‘One for now, one in case you break that one, one in case you lose one,’ Charlie said, very matter of fact. ‘I would let you have more, but I want to keep some for myself.’
I didn’t ask what I would do to the first three to require more headbands. It was typical Charlie – practical, logical, covering all eventualities. I laughed and chose one plain black one.
I didn’t lose it or break it.