‘Second-term syndrome’ has been something of a hot topic in the PGR office of late. Several of us first-year students have found that after the active and productive first term in research, the long months after January have hit us with something of a sucker punch. Even as the key research questions surrounding your project start to crystallise, new kinds of task rear their heads. For one fellow PGR student, the challenge has been starting her ‘proper’ research after a term spent writing a literature review; for me, whose ‘literature review’ is baked into the thesis itself rather than existing as a standalone chapter, the difficulty has been buried in the methodological mayhem of investigating ‘historical background’ after years spent honing my skills in literature research.

The ‘context chapter’ is, though, a topic for another blog post. Instead, I’d like to return to my proverbial roots with this slightly shorter piece, which will be based around an altogether different challenge that the second term has held in store for me. While I’ve been in Exeter since September, it wasn’t until January this year that I started to make full use of the University’s resources to help with … well, something that I’ve never actually blogged about before.

I have Asperger’s. Unlike most people aware that they have the condition, the majority of whom are diagnosed before they reach their teens, I discovered this very late: aged 22, to be precise. A medical professionial suggested that I get myself ‘checked out’ after identifying certain traits in me — social impairments, sensory sensitivites, and so on — but it was still something of a shock to discover, after navigating through school, university and living abroad, that another ‘label’ had been waiting around the corner. The irony in all this is that the label in question, Asperger’s Syndrome (also called Asperger Syndrome, or just Asperger’s), technically doesn’t exist any more: in the fifth and latest volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders, the core manual for mental health professionals worldwide, the term was subsumed into the broader category of ‘Autism spectrum disorders’. Asperger’s as a term still has some social currency, thanks in no small part to (somewhat problematic) news reports about Vladimir Putin’s alleged experience with the condition and articles analysing people as diverse as Immanuel Kant and Luna Lovegood. One of the main reasons that I use ‘Asperger’s’, though, is that it has a rather more specific meaning than its more catch-all alternative, one which broadly correlates with what has been described as ‘high-functioning autism’. The DSM-IV, which still made use of ‘Asperger’s’ as a defining term and using which which I was diagnosed, used to offer three diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s: ‘qualitative impairments in social interaction’; ‘restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour or interests’; and ‘qualitative impairment in verbal and non-verbal communications.’ In practice, this means that while I can comfortably carry out day-to-day activities and make a good show of ‘integrating’ with others, I often have to process mentally what seems to come intuitively to others. As a consequence, I’m not immune to the occasional faux pas in social situations, and my rather intense and all-consuming interests in certain things and repetitive behaviour patterns can lead to me coming across as more than a little ‘different’ after a while. Quite apart from the obviously deleterious social effects that can ensue from being perceived as ‘weird’, people with Asperger’s will often analyse previous conversations, sometimes to a remarkable degree, in the hope of discovering some kind of pattern that seems to come so naturally to everyone else.

I started looking for support through the University after needing to move home rather suddenly and unexpectedly, a situation that was motivated in part by some side-effects of Asperger’s. Aware that the University offered specialist mentoring in this area, I made the necessary appointments, and am really happy to be able to say that I’m glad I did. To cut a long story short, the mentoring has been brilliant in helping me with some of the more practical, day-to-day aspects of university life, which often get ‘lost’ in the all-consuming rush from one task to the next that my Asperger’s seems to leave me doing. Alongside this, I’ve started being a little more open about Asperger’s, in the hope that it will help the people that I see regularly to understand precisely why I might not ‘get’ certain jokes or react in a certain way. I certainly don’t want to use Asperger’s as an excuse, but rather as an explanation: I’m not defined by Asperger’s, and am not in any way a ‘failure’ in terms of social interaction, but I am, in some way, ‘wired differently’, and as a consequence won’t get everything right all of the time.

In this respect, I’m very lucky to have two wonderful supervisors, both of whom are aware of my Asperger’s as well as understanding some of the advantages that it can bring to PhD-level study. In the wake of a tricky period for PhD applications last year, one very good friend of mine wrote me a lovely and supportive email in which, despite being unaware of the fact that I had Asperger’s, she identified several common traits in autistic individuals that can prove very useful in postgraduate study. She was, of course, right: an eye for detail, skills in data organisation, and stamina for work have all been invaluable since I started here at Exeter. Outside work, though, I remained nervous about talking to my friends about it, scared of alienating them. That started to change when, having been asked to run a quiz during a coach journey in a ‘University Challenge’ style, I decided to test the waters somewhat by preparing an exploratory question.

First identified by the Austrian psychologist of the same name in 1944, which form of high-functioning autism is typically defined by patients displaying impairments in social function and repetitive patterns of behaviour? In popular culture, it has also come to be associated with characters such as Sheldon Cooper and Christopher Boone, protagonist of the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Unfortunately, no-one got the question right first time. They did, however, ask for the answer, and it was their reaction that helped me to decide to be a little bit more open. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect: something about maths, maybe? Big Bang Theory jokes? To my surprise, I got neither. Instead, a friend replied, entirely unprompted: ‘Oh, yeah – I had a friend with that. He got 100% in his English A-Level.’ This kind of ‘special interest’ is indeed a common characteristic in people with Asperger’s, with one recent memoir on the subject describing it, somewhat counter-intuitively’ as a ‘refresher’ that ‘gives a sense of emotional enjoyment’. That memoir, if you can indulge me for another week on this topic, will be the subject of my next post, as I offer some distinctly half-baked thoughts on Laura James’ recently-published Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World. For now, though, I’m still thinking back to that coach journey, as I get ready about to start another one to a rowing training camp. I do need to thank the person who offered that response; I’m still not sure if she realises how lovely that was to hear.

Cover image: a tiny (7cm) German-to-Serbo-Croat dictionary, found in the Oxford branch of Oxfam bookshop. I’m not saying that my interest in books and specifically referencing is indicative of Asperger’s; I’m just heavily implying it.

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4 thoughts on “My experience with Asperger’s: studying, socialising, and starting to speak up

  1. An excellent post Ed. Indeed we have only scratched the surface of autistic spectrum disorders.

    A good question refers to the criteria for deeming someone as having Aspergers or not. Is there a cutoff? We talk of people being ‘on the spectrum’ – so everyone is on the autistic spectrum to some degree, some more than others.

    Does it really matter? Well, we can try and evaluate the burden of a condition on ones daily activities but if eminent psychologists and psychiatrists don’t agree on whether Aspergers is necessarily pathological, why worry?

    All things considered, it would seem that this is a positive for you given what you have written. Just as long as you perceive yourself as being relatively unencunbered by this diagnosis and that you are able to continue passionately achieving your academic aims then I don’t see a problem – and nor should anyone else for that matter!

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    1. It is indeed a good question! There is some debate about the precise usefulness of the term ‘spectrum’, which I touch on in my latest post, but I agree that getting a diagnosis has definitely been a positive step for me. That’s not to say it’s always been easy, or that Asperger’s hasn’t thrown up some pretty major roadblocks in academic and ‘para-academic’ tasks alike, but I’m pleased to report that my ‘passion’ remains undimmed …

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  2. Thank you for writing this, Edward — I must be among many who want to understand these things better. I’d agree that you get a lot of stamina from somewhere!

    I thought I would add – about the social side of things that you mention — that cut-and-thrust of many conversations can, as I see it, be inherently quite difficult to read, and bound to lead to missed cues and blunders: hardly anybody gets ‘everything right all of the time’ and I actually think, including myself, that most people are not very good at conversation. By that I don’t mean to downplay the difficulties that Asperger’s syndrome does bring about, but rather to say that it might not always be to blame for all of them.

    I like the sound of a literature review being ‘baked’ into a thesis. I hope you doughn’t knead to take any whisks as you advance currant human knowledge.

    Happy Easter!

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    1. Thanks for replying, Mr. Newman! To be clear, I certainly wasn’t suggesting that all conversations are either ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ for any one individual. Asperger’s is more a ‘complicating factor’ than anything else, and as I mentioned in my comment to Mike, being aware of it is a key step in helping oneself to manage these difficulties (which are nevertheless more prevalent in people with Asperger’s) more effectively. As for the literature review, let’s just say that taking whisks is the yeast of my worries.

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