Break away from the borderline

5th April 1996 at 01:00
An Asperger sufferer "came out" about his syndrome - just once. I remember the first - and last - time I told a friend I was an Asperger. Like most people he thought it was a vegetable, so I carefully explained it was a mild (in my case, very mild) form of autism that probably explained, among other things, the shambling walk, intermittent stammer and general "unworldliness" for which I was well-known.

An hour later, the friend - a well-informed, top-grade student - ran back to me excited. Had I ever considered going to Las Vegas, he asked? Making a packet at the gambling tables, calculating odds to the last decimal place through some magic mental power?

The connections were plain to see. Asperger equals autistic, autistic equals kooky, but lovable idiot-savant with staggering abilities, hanging out with Tom Cruise. Thank you, Rain Man.

I read the story about Tim Hardcastle (The TES, March 1), a classic sufferer from Asperger syndrome, with great interest and sympathy.

One thing which struck a chord was Tim's reaction when his condition was confirmed: "It's wonderful, I've got congenital brain damage!" Well, I didn't see it as brain damage, but it was a tangible, definable condition, something that labelled me and explained many of the things I disliked about myself.

Why I was so clumsy - I couldn't hit cricket balls after years of practice (I still fear the word "catch!"). Why my gauche interactions made me the school clown - a rather less congenial label than Asperger. Why I was "different", not in a cool, exciting way, but simply because I didn't fit in.

Along the way it also explained childhood anecdotes that my parents insisted on dredging up. How, for example, I was such an unresponsive infant that, after frequent visits from the "deaf lady", the conclusion was, "Well, either he is deaf or he's a funny little personality."

Why I was obsessed with trains and terrified of electricity pylons. (That phase passed, thank God, or my credibility might have been even lower than it already was.)

Why I was kept back at nursery school, verbally bright but retarded in skills like button-fastening, pencil-pushing, cutlery-using and hand-washing. (To this day, it's a challenge to light a match, open a tin or tie a tie.)

Why, after a plea from the educational psychologist, I was allotted a church school place for "social reasons", rather than going to the local comprehensive with my classmates.

When I got to university, my tutors solved the problem of my execrable handwriting by allowing me to dictate exam answers.

My peers accepted my idiosyncrasies and, as I finally gained long-term friends, I learned to tone down my personality. I even learned to laugh at the inevitable minor mishaps - a good thing too, as my headlong tumbles from my bicycle soon became a source of student hilarity.

I found out I was Asperger in my final year, by which time I was aware of my specific difficulties and found some ways of coping. My main concern now is self-presentation - seldom a priority in student life - as I enter the no man's land of job interviews.

I've always been disinterested in clothes and have to remind myself that interviewers notice if I haven't combed my hair, or arrive clutching a battered rucksack instead of an executive briefcase.

In retrospect, would I have coped better if I'd known I was an Asperger at a younger age, or if my teachers had?

No, simply because I was a borderline case. I was a nuisance to teachers, but I never slipped into the "problem child" category, and the teachers dealt with me as most teachers do, with firmness and common sense.

Knowing that I could be described as "loco-motor dysfunctional" rather than "clumsy", or "obsessive" rather than "anti-social", wouldn't have prevented these being problems to overcome. In fact, if I had been aware of the labels, I might have seen them as a get-out, an excuse not to improve myself.

I'm a borderline Asperger, but in this age of labels many children rightly count themselves borderline Aspergers, or borderline dyslexics, or borderline dyspraxics: labels are only any good if they have some practical use.

Sadly, in the real world, there are too many borderlines, and not enough special needs teachers to deal with them.

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