The day my life changed - I wasn't 'weird' - I had Asperger's

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
But getting a diagnosis at last was a relief - and fuelled my ambitions

When I was at school, I was always thought of as quiet and geeky. Most of it was seen as the attributes of a stereotypical mathematician, odd and quirky and taking things literally. I remember one English lesson, we had to write a poem about contrasting emotions. Mine was about love and hate, and the teacher said I was being sarcastic, but I was being serious. It was just that I had a very simplistic view of these emotions. No one looked at whether I had special needs.

It was only when I started teaching that it became a possibility. When the special needs list came around with a description of each pupil, staff would say things like, "That sounds like you," although I ignored it at the time. At one school I was working closely with the pastoral staff and they started to notice things. If they said, "I'll be with you in a minute," I would be standing there exactly a minute later, waiting for them. I didn't realise I was doing it.

As I have always stuck with maths and the sciences it wasn't really obvious, but then I started helping pupils with their Ucas applications. I found when they used metaphors I would take them literally and wouldn't have a clue what they meant. One student said something about a kitchen sink and I couldn't grasp what he was on about.

What seems logical to me isn't logical to other people. At first I put it down to being a mathematician, but someone suggested I look into getting tested.

I took an AQ (autism spectrum quotient) test, which you can do online and is meant to see if you have autistic tendencies. Mine came back with a fairly strong, positive reading. Then I went to my GP, which started a long process as it is difficult to diagnose adults.

There were psychological assessments to ensure I wasn't depressed or had any other illness, and then I was referred to an autism unit at the Maudsley Hospital in London.

I spent a day there, talking to people and doing tests. At the end they said I had Asperger's. It had been a gruelling day and I felt brain dead, but finally knowing was such a relief. It did take time and effort, and you start to wonder whether it will be worth it and what you are going to achieve, but it gives you a feeling of security. You know you have these difficulties, and you feel you can help not just yourself, but other people as well.

It's nice to know that all those times in my childhood when people thought I was being anti-social, or I was just a little bit weird, that there was a reason for it. It also means that if there are any difficulties, I know how to work around them. I have two teaching assistants who know where I need extra help, and they know my filing system.

But I have had a lot of difficulties in job interviews. The feedback I received was that the person on paper was not the same as the person in the interview. In the classroom I come alive, but in an interview I spend a lot of time having to go through the processes of sitting still, looking at someone, wondering whether I have looked at them for too long and if it's time to look at someone else, wondering what I'm doing with my hair, while all the time trying to answer their questions. I have missed job opportunities as a result.

My current school, the Community College in Whitstable, Kent, has been fantastic. They asked me to do some staff training on what autism is like. Our school has a lot of autistic pupils and I explained that in certain situations I would react in a certain way, and that if pupils were lacking in empathy it doesn't mean they don't care, it's just that they don't know how to. The school also knows that if a pupil requires a bit of empathy, then maybe I'm not the person to deal with it.

Since I've been diagnosed I've been appointed curriculum leader in maths and my head has said I have come out of my shell. I have been given the opportunity to progress my career and succeed, and to be seen to be coping well with it. Just because I have Asperger's doesn't mean I can't get a job and get on with life.

Kate Williams was talking to Nick Morrison. Do you have an experience to share? Email features@tes.co.uk.

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