“Growing up in an Autistic World” – But is it My Autistic World or The Autistic World of Others?
My story here cannot be much more than likened to skimming a pebble across the pond of life. It is difficult to sum up 70 years of incredible experience. Some of the things I have to say are incredibly simple, but explaining them can seem complex. I have done the best I can, as briefly as I can. The story has little structure, much like much of my life experiences. The rest is up to you.
I am too old to have been diagnosed as Autistic In 1948. Through the 1950’s there was not the awareness of ‘Autism’ that there is today. But then, this was just after the War and people tended to accept what they were given and get on with it. Parents were more concerned about our physical health. Physical Health also impacts upon ‘normal’ Autistic Features of course.
I know that there was still rationing when I was young and I can remember this from the age of 2-3 years. I remember it because of the strange events this precipitated in my early life and the humorous reactions of my family, including my Grandparents.
Experiences like me eating a bar of coal tar soap, sucking on a lump of coal, getting a massive allergic reaction from eating oranges for the first time and messing with my Uncle’s deodorant stick. I managing to get it into my eyes. I often played on all this and often got into trouble as a result.
In many ways, I was fortunate to be born at a time when there was no understanding of Autism. I was unfortunate to be born into a family that had a Father damaged by his impoverished upbringing and the war. He became an alcoholic, addicted gambler and wife & child abuser.
On the other hand, I was also fortunate to be brought up mostly by a Mother, who was used to struggling. We were also Living with a wider family that knew of life struggles, with a talented Grandfather from a Jewish Immigrant Family and a talented Grandmother from an Irish Immigrant family. My Mother was a talented Artist who painted murals on the walls of our Family Room.
On my Father’s side, he was adopted into what seemed to me to be a very strange family. A grandmother with the affectionate features of ‘The Wicked Witch’ in Children’s Story Books and a Step-Grandfather who was fascinated by gadgets, spending his days (and most of his evening) under an oil lamp, fixing Clocks, Watches, Lighters and other intricate objects.
I tended to say very little as a young child and am told I was a ‘late developer’. Attempts to get me to Infant school failed at first. I can remember wetting myself on the first day. Once settled in I tended to stay with the quiet ones, just ‘doing stuff’. I seemed to fit in with the quiet ones.
The kids that spoke, laughed and played were too much for me if I was surrounded by them. I did try to join in, but tended to become the butt of their games and child-like sense of humour. I don’t remember feeling offended in those early days. I just didn’t fit. I was more interested in watching and listening at a distance.
In Junior School, it was much the same. I would watch what was happening in the classroom and check on what was happening outside, collecting information from all around me and only really paying attention in class when directly addressed by the teacher (Mr. Evens).
He was an amazing man. The classroom was plastered with images of Prehistoric Animals, Oil Wells, Machines, the Moon, Sun, Planets, Butterflies, Birds and other Animals. Just outside the classroom window was a bed of plants, with a playing field and trees beyond. We could see Birds, Butterflies and squirrels first hand, like an extension of the classroom wall displays.
By the age of 6 years I had my first two friends and I remember having 3 by the age of 8 years. There were others I spent time with, but we spoke very little and understood. Dennis Biney lived next door. He was a clown and always in trouble. Mary Ryley was just up the street and always beat me at Jacks and other games. Terry Smith thought I was awesome because I could run fast, a good skill to have then.
At the age of 6 years, I remember being regularly bullied by a couple of local kids. I could not understand why?I wanted to be their friends. Derek Peirce was the worst one, but I don’t know who it was that threw a brick at the back of my head, knocking me out. I remember he had blond hair like me.
I just remember coming round with my Mother and the Doctor standing over me and the world seemed strange, like I was detached from myself. I was laying on the couch by the window, not realising I had been injured. No pain and no blood. The world had changed for me. I became even less outgoing.
As I said, we were an ‘extended’ family, initially living in my Mother’s Grandparents House and moving to a place of our own by the time I was 6 years old. We still spent much of our time with Grandparents at weekends. I would also visit them on the way home from school as I got older.
We had many family Aunts and Uncles because my Mother’s Parents were also from large families. Our extended family also included lifelong friends of my Mother and Grandparents, who we would also call Aunts and Uncles. We got shared around a lot.
Sorry, I forgot, I was the first (and oldest) of 11 children and my Mother’s Health was often poor. She would regularly spend times in the hospital and we would stay with my Grandparents and later for periods in children’s homes, often separated from one another as children. I became head of the family early and was often the family carer. Eventually, we refused to go into Children’s Homes.
The contrast between living within the family and being in a children’s home was stark. At home, I would bring back stories of the day’s events and ask questions, mostly about the world and science. Once answered I would withdraw to my own world and leaf through the books I was given, mostly looking at the incredible photographs. In the Children’s Homes, we mostly kept our heads down and asked few questions.
Meanwhile, my Grandfathers fed my desire to know how things worked and I began to get an intuitive understanding how many mechanisms operated and then how radio, cameras, bikes and electronic equipment worked. I had access to shortwave radio and could listen to broadcasts from across the world, change valves and take clocks apart.
My grandfather was also a Photographer and Traveller, taking Photographs, Cine Films and later sound recordings of the places and people he visited across the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. He would later take me and introduce me to the experience of travel across Europe and the Mediterranean, mostly meeting local people.
Meanwhile, my Grandmothers taught me to play Piano, how to cook and how to look after animals. Cats, dogs Budgies and rabbits were the ones I remember having to play with. My mother & Aunt Alice taught me to draw, paint and read, among other things. All this was on top of what I was learning at school, but most of it was ‘hands on’ & answering my questions – A childhood of one experiment & adventure after another.
When my Father was around I can remember some great adventures with him, in spite of the problems he clearly had. I would go on trips with him, on the back of his motorbike, to his various places of work as a Scene Painter, Set Designer, as well as at his jobs In Exhibitions and the Renovation of Cinemas and Old Buildings.
I met Film Stars, Rock Stars, Politicians and spent hours on my own, exploring Film & TV Studios & sets, local Beaches & Local Parks, in the various locations he was working at. When my Father was absent from the Home (due to domestic abuse) I would often be consoling my mother. The earliest time I remember doing this was again at the age of 6 years.
I found myself in a similar role during my times in children’s homes, where many of my fellow residents were distressed and lonely. Being the kind of kid that was always asking questions, this tendency meant I would ask them what had happened to them and that was the beginning of realising I was not alone in my experiences. It also set the scene for my life.
I could see no difference between myself and the kids that were hurt by their experiences, or those who I now realise had learning difficulties. They all seemed part of normal life for me. I could not understand why we were often singled out and treated differently, in these rather strange environments?
And so it was, until I got to Senior School, where I found what I thought was my niche; Horticulture, Bee Keeping, Animal Husbandry and Biological Drawings. Too thick to do GCE’s and the like, I could prove myself in very practical ways; ways that I could enjoy, and ways that required little discussion or social interaction.
I nearly got away with it too, until the 5th Year, when the Maths Teacher (Mr. Rees), having chatted with the Science Teachers and others, challenged me and said he was going to move me into the GCE courses, putting me back a year and extending my schooling. Even my Horticulture Teacher ganged up with them.
I was stunned! I argued I was hopeless at Maths, could never remember formulae and had to read sections of science texts some 7 or 8 times before I understood any of it. I also reminded him that I had my English Teacher almost pulling her hair out in frustration, trying to teach me spelling, grammar and comprehension (most of which I still cannot comprehend).
Well, somehow or other, they got me through it all and I ended up with Maths, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, RE and even English qualifications. I still can’t believe I got them all, even though I knew the fundamentals of Science, including the concept of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and Genetics, which has fascinated me as conundrums (I suppose that is what you would call them).
Next, they convinced me to work as a Laboratory Technician and as a Teacher’s Assistant in the Sciences. This included supporting the Horticulture Department at our school. That I could not resist, it was like staying on at school and being Head Prefect & School Captain (which I had actually achieved by my last school year, amazingly).
The idea was to test out my interest in becoming a Teacher (Yes, I had shown that interest). I took on the job and continued much as I had been as a Student. Enjoying the practical work and getting to teach the kids that were falling behind, even helping some of the ‘slackers’ through intense, last-minute revision for exams – All of it science-based.
It was through this experience that I realised my interests in teaching were in the area of special education, but mostly for older kids and adults. First I felt I needed some real-life experiences and my Teachers agreed. I took a job as a Radio & TV Repair Engineer, with no qualifications and proved my worth within weeks, based upon my years of fiddling with electronics.
I only needed showing once and I was off on another voyage of discovery. We had a great Technical Support Team and we could fix anything that was thrown at us. I was soon a Field Engineer with my own car and started to get interested in other electronics, eventually learning about Computers and Programming. Meanwhile, I wanted to get back to Teaching in Adult Education.
I took a job as a Training Instructor & then Further Education Tutor for people with Learning disabilities. I also took a qualification and taught at the local Technical College. Within 2 years in 1970’s, I was running an ‘Enablement’ Service for people with Learning Disabilities, Autism and those with aspects of Mental Illness. My amazing manager, Ray Carter, became my Mentor.
Later, after a chaotic period at University, including involvement with Brunel Universities Research Department BIOS, I took on the job of establishing a ‘Therapeutic Community’. All done with my Managers understanding of the underlying learning disabilities of my own. I was able to prove my Social Analytic & Social Therapeutic Approach to Mental Health.
Having proven, for myself, my understanding that we ‘Live in an Autistic World’, I next trained up as a Computer Engineer, took a Job in that field and became a Computer Server Engineer. I then set up and run my own various business enterprises for a while. I succeeded in some and failed in some. This allowed me to keet up my Therapeutic Work & Research in the Community, as a Professional and as a Volunteer, right up to the present day.
Now that ‘Therapeutic Community’ is the Local Community and the Therapeutic Methods & Techniques are the positive engagement with Music Arts, Crafts and the Practical Skills of Everyday Life & Work; within the real world social environment. All possible with the dedicated help of a few volunteers and professionals; working together to increase mutual understanding within cooperative partnerships.
In fact, as I think about it, that is how it has always been and it is still the most effective way for me and those I have worked with over the years. It is about blurring the boundaries between ‘classifications’ and Identifying the problem of ‘disablement’ being within the social environment itself.
Once the key people in the local Community (Shop Keepers & Workers, Pub Landlords & Staff, Library Staff, Professionals and even Councillors) understand the real problem, the apparent disablement of individuals effectively disappears and becomes an Alternative Enablement. The rest of the community learns from seeing it work in practice, watching people just take things in their stride.
I am not saying the problems and challenges disappear altogether. I still have periods where I withdraw into myself, appearing detached from what is happening around me and at other times racing ahead, manically getting things done, gabbling and missing some important social clues. I am just grateful to have survived, compensate and found people who understand me like I seek to understand them.
These are ‘features’ we can observe in many people who are variously Identified as Autistic, Schizophrenic, Bipolar, odd, misfits, eccentric and so many other forms of human classification. It is also true of many who are not classified or identified in any way. People who are often misunderstood and largely ignored, or grumbled about; until they are understood and feel appreciated for who they are and what they can offer.
In this respect, I have been very fortunate in the eventual outcomes for myself and I wish the same good fortune for others. This is my contribution to ‘Autism Day’, please accept it for what I intend it to be; a message of hope for all those who are ‘beautifully different’, including those who don’t realise they are different in their own very special way. Diversity is the basis of human progress and success (when it is successful).
Albert Einstein was considered a Genius and yet he was recognised in many ways as Dyslexic and Autistic. He asserted that there is Genus in every child. He is right. As he affirmed, his recognised genius was the result of looking at the universe through the eyes of an enquiring child, looking for the simplest of solutions and theories to explain the universe’s apparent complexities. In that, he succeeded and it is those brought up in the classical worldview who struggle with these ideas.
“Growing up in an Autistic World” is relevant not only to those who have experience the State of Autism, but those who find themselves trapped in the worlds of Learning Disability, Schizophrenia, ADHD, Bipolar States, Traumatic/Toxic Shock Syndromes and many other identified ‘Mental Conditions’ and even Physical, Sensory and Neurological conditions. You see, it is the social world that has become Autistic and limited in its diversity of thinking.
These are not just isolated ’States of Mind’, but are more like diverse ‘States of Relationship’ with the social world and the physical environment. From a social point-of-view, these perspectives are often common among many who experience the world differently, for any reason. Like us all, they seek explanations for those individual experiences. That is a fundamental human desire and requires a common, cooperative dialogue.
Just as a final point, when I worked with Brunel University’s Social Science Research Department (BIOSS) I met Professor Elliott Jacques, who introduced me to his Social Analytic Theory. The research was undertaken in many fields of human activity (including Autism & Learning Disabilities) and we discovered that it is ‘natural’ for us to go through periodic Psychological Transitions throughout our lives, not just in childhood and Adolescence. Failure to naturally do so causes trauma (Life Crisis).
I am 70 years old this year and life is still a big adventure, observed through the eyes of a child, astounded by the beauty, simple direct understanding, but also astounded at the apparent stupidity of some people’s conduct. Here are some inspiring quotations that I have used to steer me on the obstacle course of life. I hope you find them helpful:
Albert Einstein is broadly credited with exclaiming “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.
“Only two things are Infinite; ‘The Universe’ and ‘Human Stupidity’; and I am not too sure about the former”. Albert Einstein
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead – Anthropologist and original Feminist.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing”; Edmund Burke.
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.” – John F Kennedy.
“Those who would sacrifice Liberty for Security deserve Neither” – Benjamin Franklin Founding Father of the USA
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it” . . . ‘The brave person is not they who do not feel afraid, but those who conquer that fear’ (Adapted). Nelson Mandela.
Here are some of my own
“The most important emotional, psychological and spiritual means of recovery & re-empowerment from any abuse (of any kind) comes first with the public acknowledgment of its occurrence” – Terry Couchman. 1972.
“There is more that binds us in our mutual suffering than can ever divide us in our amazing differences” – Terry Couchman 2008
“We should always look more to that which works for us, rather than that which other claimed to fail” – Terry Couchman 2008
“It is possible to know too much about things of relatively little importance” (Overwhelm) – Terry Couchman 1982
My Poem: ‘Consequences’ (one of only two in my lifetime so far)
Inspired by my English Teacher, who worked hard to make me literate and introduced us to the Inspirational Philosopher A J Ayer (Logical Positivism) at a young age. His advice to me, on asking him a question; “Get up and do it again, perhaps a different way”.
Tis not the like, as we may find,
incongruously etched upon our mind,
But more a searching and erroneous quest
from which we’ve chosen second best.
But were we at our destination,
What horrors could then great us there?
To see the outcome of all our actions,
Help reap bad corn and take our share.