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Rory Patton On Growing Up With Asperger’s

For most of his life, Rory Patton didn’t know he had Asperger’s. Our in-depth interview with him offers unique insight that will educate and inspire you.

Rory was brought up in the Yorkshire countryside of Scotland. He attended Giggleswick School, then Glasgow University, where he studied divinity. Married, as well as a father and grandfather, he has worked in call centers for the past 30 years. Rory has Asperger’s – but he wasn’t diagnosed until the age of 56. Since then, Rory says, “suddenly much of my life made sense.”

Ed. Note: I met Rory on Twitter. When he suggested that our site should feature more articles about adults with autism, I invited him to take part in an interview, and he readily agreed. He has not held back in discussing his childhood, his challenges and his successes … and what he has to say is vitally important.

Interview with Rory Patton, August 2010

… suddenly much of my life made sense.” – Rory Patton

A in A: What are your earliest childhood recollections of being “different” from other children? How did the experiences affect you?
RP: I tended not to mix freely with other children. My mother used to tell the story of a friend’s birthday party where I was not to be found with the children at play. After a search, I was found curled up under the piano reading the books the birthday boy had received as presents. I used to escape from my little brother by climbing on top of a cupboard with my books. I always preferred my own company to some extent because interactions with others too often went wrong. While other children played together I ran around the playground being the Range Rider – I call that imaginative play

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Giggleswick School

A in A: What other incidents in your childhood or adolescence had an important impact on you?

RP: I used to love to throw stones in the river when I was small. One day when I was still four years old I took my brother in his pushchair (stroller) to the river to throw stones. For that act of kindness I was given a savage beating by my mother for which I never forgave her while she was alive. I have never handled physical displays of emotion very well, and as a child tended to shy away from anyone who insisted on hugging me, except for a very few. Unfortunately my mother was given to physical expressions of affection which I would repulse.

At the age of three I got into trouble for trying to teach the little girl next door how to pee standing up. It hurt to be shouted at for being helpful.

I tended to be somewhat excluded by my school fellows — or did I exclude myself? My property was repeatedly vandalised. I had a ferocious temper when roused and the other boys frequently made me lose my temper so that I would be the one to land in trouble.

A in A: You’ve attended a university, sustained a career, and raised a family …   how have you coped with Asperger’s in achieving all these things?

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Glasgow University

RP: Because I never knew I had Asperger’s it never occurred for me as a problem while raising my daughter. I suppose my inability to appreciate how she felt about things may have been a problem for her, but I was largely oblivious to it. Even when my daughter was self-harming, my primary concern was whether I was failing as a parent it never really occurred to me to wonder how she was feeling. I suppose that sounds callous, but it’s just what was so. I know I love my daughter, but I’m not sure how to communicate that to her… I rather just assume she knows.

A in A: What challenges do you continue to struggle with?

RP: There are so many but not all are present all the time. The biggest challenge of Asperger’s is my lack of an intuitive feeling for others. In order to understand people’s actions and their reactions to me I need to examine a process logically. I don’t naturally connect actions with consequences, so I am not inhibited in my actions by a concern for the feelings and opinions of others. When I have time, I can calculate the consequences of an action and often work to lists, but if something happens for which I have not provided I can upset people.

My wife says I am incapable of dissembling, and it is almost impossible for me to disguise my feelings. I have a bad habit of telling people what I would have said or done had not my social awareness prevented me. I am often a little too honest. My wife’s family doesn’t tell me things they want kept a secret because — while I do not tittle tattle — if asked, I will answer questions honestly.

Processing issues are a big concern, but not all the time. I failed my Geography A Level because, when faced with the third paper, I was unable to understand a single word. Because of my inability to comprehend  the consequences of my actions, I just walked out. What I should have done was just sit and perhaps before the end of the exam I might have started processing and done enough for an overall pass, but I was unable to do that — and back then, no one knew there was a problem. Sometimes people can speak to me, and while I see their lips moving, I cannot absorb a single word. Because all my sensory input – particularly auditory – seems to come at once, sometimes I can’t make sense of any of it. The strange thing is that often the input does eventually get processed, sometimes days later. Some sounds, like sirens, can be problematic when I am taken unawares; some sounds are less of a problem when I have advance warning.

I am terribly clumsy. I think my spatial awareness is at fault. I reach for things and knock them over, I frequently manage to bump into things like doorposts – how difficult can it be to walk through a door?! – and sometimes I just fall over.

A in A: Do you wish now that you were “neurotypical,” or are you comfortable with who you are?

RP: As I have never been “neurotypical” I have no point of comparison from which to say whether I would prefer it. I don’t know if I am comfortable with who I am — in fact I am often very uncomfortable, but I do like who I am. I resent people who are “neurotypical” thinking there is something wrong with people with autism just because they are different. It is true that some people with autism have severe problems in society; it is also true that many of these will improve greatly as they mature. I would like a society able to support our diversity so that we can be encouraged to play our part according to our needs and abilities.

A in A: Would you say there are benefits to having Asperger’s? If so, what are they?

RP: In many ways, I think my advantages are huge. I have an ability to engage in repetitive and painstaking work. I am very good with procedures, and with constructing procedures. I love structure. While I have no intuitive appreciation of action and consequence, I can logically project a step-by-step process and flowchart it. Although in general I have a short attention span, once my attention is caught I can maintain focus for hours without stopping to eat or drink. Sadly I am not “gifted.”* Although I have an IQ measured at various points between 110 and 135 I have never found a particular – and lucrative – niche, but there are many people whose Asperger’s traits combined with a particular talent have become very successful.

Socially, Asperger’s is a disadvantage, and I sometimes feel very disconnected from people. On the other hand, I am happy to be on my own — then I am free from the inevitable distractions provided by other people. I doubt if Aspies are going to waste time at the water cooler. On my scheduled breaks I find another terminal and do personal work while avoiding conversation. When I do converse, I don’t generally waste my time on trivia.

One advantage I have is a lack of worry. It would be wrong to say my life has been entirely happy – I have twice been treated for depression – but generally, I am very happy. Because of my inability to appreciate consequences I tend not to worry. Although I can logically calculate a chain of cause and effect, it carries no emotional charge.

A in A: Is there anything you regret about having Asperger’s?

RP: Although for many reasons I am glad I was not diagnosed as a child, I regret the effect that not understanding had on my relationship with my mother. Had she explained why some of my actions were inappropriate instead of just lashing out, I probably would not have resented her all my life. It is only now, reading the blogs of parents with autistic children, that I am understanding what a worry I must have been to her — especially as she didn’t understand the way I was either. I realise now that she was trying her best to help me, but the tools available to her and the complete absence of informed support meant she never really stood a chance.

A in A: You say there are many reasons you don’t regret the fact that you were not diagnosed as a child … what are they?

When I was a child Asperger’s was unknown in Britain, so like many others I could not have been diagnosed. I am very grateful that I never had a diagnosis to use for an excuse for failure. Unless I am very engaged, I tend to be lazy — and I suspect I might have used Asperger’s as an excuse for not working. As it was, without a diagnosis I had to make my way through the world and support myself. It could be argued that appropriate support might have enabled me to be more successful, but I have been married for around 30 years and have been gainfully employed for all but a couple of months of my working life. Perhaps with support I might have have completed my university degree — but perhaps not; many normal people don’t.

A in A: You’re active on Twitter. How has that social media environment been valuable to you?

Firenze_with_hatED150x150RP: I love social media. It provides all the benefits of social interaction without the disadvantage of having to cope with people. The communication is focused, whereas “normal” communication meanders back and forth through various topics, which makes it difficult to process the useful information and separate it from the irrelevant.

I love the freedom social media gives me. I can sit in a safe environment and I have complete control over my interactions. You can contact me, even send me a direct message, but I don’t have to respond — and if I don’t respond, I don’t have to handle your emotional reaction. I can take time to process information and respond appropriately, whereas in ordinary conversation the speed at which one has to respond on occasion has me cause unintentional offense.

As I am sitting here,Yoono is feeding updates into a column by my browser — which means I can follow interesting links. Basically, social media, like everything else I do with my PC, is about sharing information. I am an information junkie, although my interests are limited. Since my diagnosis, my primary focus has been on autism issues … which has turned me into a bit of a bore, I suppose.

A in A: What advice would you offer parents raising a child (or children) on the autism spectrum?

RP: Firstly, your child – if you are not on the spectrum, or even if you are – thinks differently from you. Just because you would hate something doesn’t mean he does.

Secondly, be patient. They process information differently. Hang on in there; they will, as a rule, improve over time.

Thirdly, give them space to be great. They may never accomplish all you would like, but they have the right to aspire to greatness. Don’t limit them with your beliefs … they may well surprise you. If they don’t accomplish a goal, be there for them anyway.

Fourthly, respect their boundaries. Do not force physical displays of affection on them. Explain what physical displays are appropriate, but let them choose for themselves. Do not be upset if they don’t respond as you would like to displays of affection; it doesn’t mean they don’t love you — they probably do.

By all means try different therapies – autism brings with it other health problems – but don’t worry about a cure for autism. Just do what you must to give your child the best possible life, cure what you can and make the best of the rest.

There is no substitute for knowledge study the facts but also learn from the experience of others. Remember that each of us is unique so if what worked for their child  doesn’t work for yours don’t worry, try something else. If you find something that helps you and your child share it.

Be inspired. There are some amazing people who are either parents – like Amalia Starr or Jeff Stimpson  –  or on the Spectrum like Donna Williams who are blogging regularly. There are others who have written books. Read and be inspired.

A in A: What do you wish other people understood about Asperger’s?

We are different — but we are still human and deserve the same respect as everyone else. Be aware that although some of us are very intelligent, we may sometimes have processing problems; don’t treat us as if we are stupid. The “Golden Rule” is wrong: don’t treat us as you would be treated, treat us as we want to be treated – feel free to ask.

Visit Rory’s blog: springingtiger.wordpress.com

Follow Rory on Twitter: @springingtiger