Sunday 10 May 2020

Early Childhood

One of the first things that the psychologists ask for when you request a diagnosis is an interview with your parents. In my case that was impossible. My father died in 1979. My mother died more recently, but was in no condition to give interviews. My brother and sister are both younger than me so did not know me during early childhood. 

I did manage to speak to some old friends of the family, who recounted various stories that I also remember. These became family favourites, endlessly repeated by my mother as she tried to give an account of how I turned out. As she kept saying: "you were eccentric from the moment you were born". I think I can now safely say that "eccentric" = "autistic". I wonder how many other "absent-minded Professors" fit that profile.

One of the earliest stories concerned this interaction with my paternal grandmother:

GRANDMA: Look! Look at all the lickle dickie-birdies on the lawn!
ME: Yes, Grandma. Three starlings, a blackbird and a robin. Erithacus rubecula. It’s a male or a female: young birds lack the red breast.

According to my mother, I was 3 years old when that happened. I'm a bit sceptical about that, but I was very young indeed. I had memorised the contents of the The Observer’s Book of British Birds. I used to read it over and over again, fascinated by the information it contained. To this day I can recall the layout of each of the pages, with their alternating black-and-white and colour photographs. Birds, and the natural world in general, became my special interest during early childhood.

From my point of view, this conversation was far from an example of eccentricity. I merely wanted to share what I knew. I don’t think I was showing off or being arrogant, and I certainly didn’t want to embarrass my grandmother. It was just that these facts were fascinating and I wanted to get them out of my head and into the world. Looking back, I now realise that of course that is exactly what I have been doing all my life: absorbing information and ideas, critically examining them and then enthusiastically communicating them to others. That is the essence of being a Professor, I suppose.

My ability to focus so intensely on things caused tensions, especially with my father. As I grew up, I found I had a 'photographic memory' (although this is a misleading term). I could read whole paragraphs or even pages at a single glance, a technique which I still use in my academic work. My father, by contrast, was proud of the fact that he had never read anything apart from the Bible. One day, when I was aged perhaps six or seven, he snatched a book out of my hand:

FATHER: You cannot be reading that properly! You are going too fast! 
(He read aloud half a sentence from a random page).
FATHER: What comes after that?
ME: It appears on page 23, which is a right-hand page, near the top. 
(After which I quoted the rest of the sentence exactly, and some of the following paragraph).
He never challenged me like that again.

My parents were Christians who believed in the old maxim “spare the rod, spoil the child”. My father, in particular, tried to drive out my unwanted behaviours with threats and punishments. While this was a common enough technique at the time, with me it went beyond what would be normal discipline for a child. My maternal grandparents even intervened at one point, alarmed by what they saw as excessively harsh treatment. My father gave them short-shrift and, if anything, stepped up his disciplinary regime.

Seen from my vantage point today, I guess this was an amateur form of aversion therapy. Behaviour my parents didn’t like was accompanied by an unpleasant stimulus. For example, my mother put a foul-tasting substance on my fingernails to stop my incessant nail-biting (it didn’t work - I just learned to like the taste anyway). My father’s methods were more violent, consisting of verbal and physical punishments that grew in number and intensity. It all seemed completely arbitrary to me. I can remember trying to work out why I was being punished. It seemed to happen on alternate nights, and I started to keep track of the patterns. I made diary entries about it. Thursdays were particularly bad days. I can remember sobbing uncontrollably into my pillow one day and resolving that I would never forgive my father for his unfair treatment of me. 

I was frequently told off for being “too clever by half”, being “selfish” and “trying to be different”. In one celebrated incident we, as a family, visited some church acquaintances who lived nearby. The wife of the house served “curry puffs” for tea. I expressed my disapproval with such precision and ferocity that I had to be whisked away. We rarely visited anyone after that, with the exception of a few relatives and family friends who were close enough not to be bothered by my “eccentricities”.

The problem was that I did not know I was different. Each day would begin with the overwhelming inward stream of information from my eyes, my ears, my nose, my mouth, my touch, that I still experience to this day. At the same time, I would launch myself into a futile effort to try to connect it all up and make sense of the world. I worked so hard to understand, but could not, with the result that I had a sense of failure every day. I assumed that everybody else was having the same struggles, but were more successful than I at dealing with them. It took many decades for me to realise that, in fact, they were not and I am different.

I always tried very hard to behave well. I was never violent and I didn’t have meltdowns. Instead, I internalised everything and would shut down, often unnoticed by others. Why did I do this, when I was being overwhelmed by such powerful feelings that I would lose contact with the world around me? Because I was working so hard to do the right thing, to get it right, to abide by the social rules as far as I understood them. I believed that my honesty would shield me from getting into trouble. I was ridiculously honest and would tell my mother not only the things I had done but also the things I was planning to do, for example:

ME: I’m going outside now, to play in the mud.
MOTHER: Don’t do that.
ME: Oh, alright.

But in the end, my honesty was no defence. I was usually wrong and I frequently got chastised. I can remember becoming desperately upset by the injustice of it all. 

This is difficult to write about, not so much because the memories are uncomfortable, but because I would not want anyone to get the idea that chastising autistic children leads to a successful adult. This lies behind Applied Behavioural Analysis and other controversial therapies. In fact, the only things my parents achieved by their strategies were to make me (and themselves) unhappy and to drive my autism underground. Take, for example, the business of eye contact. My father constantly told me to “look at me when I’m talking to you” and backed up the command with punishments. So I figured out how to fake eye contact, something which I still do. This has been a benefit in terms of functioning in non-autistic society, but it has come at a cost in terms of my mental health. He only succeeded in changing outward behaviours, but never got through to what was really going on. The depth of the reality of that is revealed in early photographs, which show me squinting, apparently frowning, while trying to look directly into the camera.

By way of comfort, I engaged in some of the “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities” which characterise autism. Some of these were interiorised and so undetectable by others. I would catalogue things endlessly (I still do this) and collect items such as toys, stamps, butterflies, apples, anything. The pleasure was not so much the collecting as the organising into elaborate systems, alphabetically, by colour, by type, etc. I would rearrange the items frequently, using the different systems. I would also repeat certain words and phrases over and over again, mostly either under my breath or in my head, but occasionally, when alone, out loud. And I would constantly try to align things, such as a mark on a window-pane with a tree outside, by closing one eye and shifting my head position. The more obviously physical “stimming” (self-stimulating) behaviours were suppressed by my parents. I can remember flapping my hands, from which I got pleasure, but this was frowned upon and prevented. I would also twirl my hair surreptitiously, something which continued until I was in my mid twenties. 

It’s hard to be even-handed about such memories, and a child’s perspective is not one that really carries much weight in later life. However, seen through the lens of an autism diagnosis, I can understand why my parents struggled so much. They must have been very frustrated and, frankly, exhausted by me. I never gave them a moment’s respite, because my brain was so active and constantly struggling with social and sensory challenges. It is perhaps not a surprise, therefore, that this phase of my life came to an end at age 7, when I was sent away to boarding school. The reason given for this move was that they had “had enough of me”, which I guess sums up the difficulty.