`Emotions and events are black and white'

27th February 2015 at 00:00
A student with Asperger's shares her experience of the condition

I am female, maths is my worst subject, I love creative subjects and I have friends. I went against everything I thought it meant to have Asperger's and it seems the medical profession was similarly misdirected: it took a long bout of depression, two suicide attempts and 16 years of my life for a psychiatrist to diagnose me with the disorder.

I don't blame school for not spotting it - I think it's more of an issue with the whole system. However, I do think schools need to better understand what living with Asperger's syndrome is like for a student.

That's complicated, because the truth is that Asperger's is different for everyone. But my experience can perhaps at least give an insight into the condition and highlight the common misconceptions about it.

For example: if the start of this feature was a bit blunt, I apologise, but that's the way it is with Asperger's. Well, it is for me. There is a black-and-white side to emotion and events. They don't mix well. When they do, it's messy, with no distinction; the line between emotion and reacting to an event in a "correct" way is blurred.

To solve the issue of reacting to an event in the "correct" way, I have a picture in my mind of an infinite number of doors, each individually labelled for a certain event; inside each door is a list of appropriate responses to use. But because there are so many doors, I can't always get it right.

It's also important for teachers to know that I have a number of broken doors in my brain, such as the memory door. The panels are broken and it's hanging off its hinges: a lot of information seeps out. Unless I physically write something down I will not remember it, and even then it's still difficult to recall. Sometimes a drawn image helps. An image is far easier to imagine. And there is no right way for the image to be, unlike words, which have to be spelled correctly.

Rebooting expectations

Another thing to note: I become focused on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. The only way to ease myself into something else is to have a transition break. Like a computer, I have to update, shut down and reboot.

The same goes with all changes I make in my life: it has to be a calculated move so I am prepared. Without this I become, well, confused and everything starts to get overwhelming, especially for things like exams.

But "overwhelming" doesn't even begin to explain the hyper-sensitive hearing I experience when I feel this way. Some people may call it a superpower. It's not super. And the only power it has is to produce an empty exam paper.

When you sit in an exam hall with this hyper-hearing, you can hear every pen to paper, scribble, shuffle of feet, cough and sigh; you can even hear someone's breathing loud and clear. I might as well have everyone within an inch of me. The room may seem silent but I am on such hyper-alert that I get distracted by the noises.

That test you're doing? It doesn't happen, because your brain is only filled with sound and movement; there is no personal space. Those doors and lists I mentioned earlier? You can forget them, because that noise is pushing against you and it's impossible to reach any door.

I discovered that the best exam conditions for me are also a form of torture - white torture, to be precise, which is when you're in a white room and deprived of all senses. Apparently you start to hallucinate within 30 minutes. Now, I'm not here to say that white torture should be used for everyone, but for me a room with no other noise or colour would be the ideal exam environment.

What do I want you to do with all this information? Well, I'm not asking you to treat me completely differently, I'm simply asking you to understand what it's like being me. Asperger's can be misunderstood. Teachers can believe it to mean all sorts of things that are inaccurate. Some can even fear it. Perhaps I can help to alleviate that fear and the behaviours or responses I exhibit can be understood, or even better supported.

But then I'm just one person, and when you meet or read about a person with Asperger's, that's just it: you've only met one person with Asperger's. That's what being on the autistic spectrum means: not everyone is the same. And this is something that schools need to understand - people who have this disorder need to be treated as individuals. You need to know them according to what they love and not their label.

K R Huskinson (not her real name) is a first-year college student in south-west England

What else?

Use this research from the Autism Education Trust to guide your classroom practice.

Engage students who have special educational needs with this film-based inclusion project.


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today