My life on Mars

13th April 2012 at 01:00
A student has shared his experiences of growing up with Asperger's syndrome in a new book aimed at parents and teachers

Joshua Muggleton wants to save other children from going through what he went through at school. He is 22 and about to graduate with a psychology degree from the University of St Andrews. It is quite an achievement for a boy who didn't fit in and even tried to take his own life.

Mr Muggleton was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when he was 15 and has now written a book to help parents and teachers understand this form of autism. Raising Martians - From Crash-landing to Leaving Home is a lucid account of his experiences and a self-help guide that is simple to read and full of illuminating insights only an insider could provide.

It is a positive book, which also highlights the special gifts some people with Asperger's syndrome may offer as highly-focused thinkers and problem- solvers. The objective is to help everyone else understand the Martians' perspective and support them to fulfil their potential.

The book is sub-titled How to help a child with Asperger's syndrome or high functioning autism and has been highly acclaimed by leading people in the field such as Jane Vaughan, director of education at the National Autistic Society.

She says: "Every parent - and, indeed, everyone who works or lives with children or young people with autism - should read this lovely book. In my 30 years of working in the world of autism, I have not read a more valuable book and throughout it Josh's humour shines through."

According to the National Autistic Society, people with Asperger's syndrome find it more difficult to read the signals that most of us take for granted. They find it more difficult to communicate and interact with others, which can lead to high levels of anxiety and confusion.

They have difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination. And while characteristics vary from person to person, common traits are love of routines, special interests and sensory difficulties.

The book provides detailed information for teachers about how to create what Mr Muggleton calls an "aspie-friendly" environment in schools, which are often busy and noisy places for people like him.

It explains why usually sociable break times are stressful for these children, who need some space and quiet. And it emphasises that telling them the plan of exactly what is going to happen next will ease anxiety and distress about coping with anything new.

While it is emphasised that all children with Asperger's syndrome will have different traits, often something as simple as reading a story to the class may be difficult for them, because they may struggle to engage with the story and will prefer factual books.

Information covers the journey through childhood, with advice on everything from friendships and bullying to transition to secondary and exams. It shows how support and understanding from their teachers can make the journey through education less stressful for children.

Raising Martians is also a story of courage and survival from someone who has developed coping strategies along a challenging and often very painful journey. The opening dedication is to the author's parents, John and Julia:

"They picked me up when I fell down

They pushed me when I needed to run

They let me soar when I needed to fly."

Now at the University of St Andrews, Mr Muggleton has found a safe haven, somewhere he is living happily and independently, thanks to good friends and supportive staff.

This morning local streets are busy with undergraduates in billowing red gowns striding purposefully towards the celebrations to mark the installation of the university's new rector, writer Alistair Moffat.

It is probably not yet quite warm enough to sit outside, but after four years away from his home in the south of England, Mr Muggleton has acclimatised to the east coast of Scotland and shares his story sitting on a bench outside the psychology department in St Mary's Quad.

The first thing you notice about the author is that he towers above most people at an impressive six feet four. He has a big, friendly smile and shows no outward signs of the anxiety or self-consciousness you might expect, given his background.

He says this is all down to acting and that he takes his cues from studying other people's behaviour, noting the strength of their handshake and tone of voice, then responding likewise. So at conferences, if he is meeting an MP or a business executive, he will stand tall and appear more confident than he would if he was meeting a younger teenager with Asperger's syndrome.

"What I do when I meet people is I use masks and so for me interacting with people is acting," he says. "I modify how I engage with people to reflect their level and their cues."

Early in the book, Mr Muggleton defines the "triad of impairments" first coined by Judith Gould and Lorna Wing in the 1970s to describe autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger's syndrome. He describes them as the way we communicate verbally with people, how well we get on with them and the extent to which we can imagine what they are thinking and feeling.

In Asperger's syndrome, he says, this can result in pedantic speech or a very literal understanding of speech, lack of understanding of social rules, frustration at communication problems and very focused, rather than flexible, thinking. "The advantage is that we often become experts on a subject that interests us," he says. "The disadvantage is that we find it difficult to deal with disruptions in our routines."

He remembers going with his family to the US on holiday when he was about 10 and how, for four months beforehand, he badgered his father with a battery of questions daily for information about intricate details about their travel plan.

Eventually his father wrote down the details, which satisfied his anxieties, since this way the information didn't vary. "I can imagine perfectly well - what I have problems in is imagining what's going to happen," he explains.

As a young child at school, Mr Muggleton found life bewildering. "When I was at primary school, I thought the other children were telepathic. I didn't understand what they were laughing at or how they understood how to play games.

"I had problems with non-verbal communication, so didn't understand subtleties of body language and gestures, especially in imaginative play. Even something as simple as pretending a stick was a sword I didn't get."

But he lived on his wits and for a while managed to get by, watching what everyone else was doing.

"I saw myself very much as an anthropologist among the monkeys, trying to look at dominant groups and how they interacted with each other and how they communicated. I used that to learn how to mimic and because I was such a good mimic, my Asperger's syndrome wasn't picked up," he says.

Mr Muggleton's condition wasn't diagnosed until he was 15. Life at secondary school was much more stressful and the cracks began to appear in his cover, with the autistic traits becoming more apparent.

"I was the weird kid who had no friends, so people would trip me up in corridors, kick my chair, try to make me say silly things or just deliberately wind me up," he writes.

The bullying that had started at primary became worse at secondary, and his depression culminated in nervous breakdowns and attempts at suicide. "My depression was caused in two ways, firstly the never-ending bullying I received at school, and second, the lack of teachers' understanding," he says.

"It got to the point where I was just coming home every day from school and going into my room and crying. For me it was a living hell that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy."

In the book, he describes how one Christmas he tied his school tie around his neck and kept pulling it tighter and tighter. "I continued to feel that low for the next four years, over which time I would try and kill myself at least two more times, possibly more," he writes.

He says he recounts these low points so readers are aware of what can happen, so they have a chance of stopping it. His teachers had no training in autism or Asperger's syndrome and he is adamant that they were not to blame. "They did incredibly hard jobs with very little time and fewer resources."

He believes little changes can make a huge difference for young people in education: "Understanding is what I want teachers to take away from the book more than anything else."

When he graduates in June, Mr Muggleton will move on to the next stage of his journey, with hopes of a career as a clinical psychologist helping people on the autism spectrum. But before that, a second book is to be written - this time making research into Asperger's syndrome accessible to the lay person.

`Raising Martians - From Crash Landing to Leaving Home' by Joshua Muggleton is published by Jessica Kingsley, price pound;12.99

Further information:


Identifying children with Asperger's syndrome and understanding their needs is an important step for teachers and parents who want to help them. Joshua Muggleton suggests some pointers that may provide clues to children struggling at school.

"For me one of the things that is quite telling is if you look out on to the playground and there is someone who is by themselves for most break times or goes into the library - that's a common sign," he says.

"It's worth looking out for people who are reporting bullying and parents who are reporting bullying and considering, `do any of these Asperger's symptoms fit?'"

Signs teachers might look for include problems mixing with peers: "For example a social ineptitude, either not interacting very well with peers, not having many friends, being quite aloof - making a lot of social mistakes is a common one.

"Another common one is getting very stressed at things they shouldn't be getting stressed at."

Not all children affected will be academically able - some may have specialist areas of interest in which they excel. With the right support, gifted children will have much to offer.

"If I am going on a flight, I want someone with Asperger's syndrome to have checked over the plane. If I am signing a contract, I want my lawyer to have Asperger's syndrome, because I know they will look over every sentence meticulously," says Mr Muggleton.

Photo by Alistair Linford


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