The Dark Side of the Moon

Out of all the comments I’ve received about having Asperger’s syndrome, I would say that the best one so far is from my friend Hanna: “Of all the people I’ve met with ‘issues’, you’re the only one that doesn’t make a big deal of it.” She said this to me over a cigarette as we stand freezing at 3am in a nightclub smoking area. She could have chosen a better time and place to say this but I think it’s the thought that counts. Besides, you’d be surprised of the sort of high-end conversations you may hear in smoking areas. Since finding out at eighteen that I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a child, I have kept relatively silent on the subject. This is mainly due to the fact that I’ve never wished to be defined by my condition as I feel it has relatively little effect on me. But equally, I am aware that in a place such as university where people are constantly reinventing themselves, some people might think I’m using my condition as a source of attention. More recently I have felt the need to talk about my Asperger’s syndrome in a more formal manner. Not necessarily in a cathartic way, but simply because I feel that this way I can provide people with a better idea of what it is like to live with my condition. Nevertheless, I can’t and won’t try to speak for everyone on the spectrum as everyone’s story is very different, but I hope I can give you some insight of what it’s like being a student with autism.

Although my condition affects me in minor ways, I would say that it still causes me difficulty in social situations from time to time. To this end, the best way I can describe having Asperger’s is that it is like having social dyslexia. I am aware that trying to describe one disability by comparing it with another might be confusing but bear with me. Whilst I can understand what someone is saying to me, I struggle with things such as body language, facial expressions, etc. For this reason, it’s easy for me to take things at face value without considering what someone might actually mean. Equally, I can be quite blunt when I say things. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it can get me into trouble from time to time. I’m still not sure if one my friends has forgiven me for telling them one of their essays was shit the night before it was due – she got a first in the end so no harm done in my eyes. Needless to say, subtlety has never been my strong suit.

Whilst my condition initially may not seem like such a bad thing, it’s a big source of anxiety for me. It leaves me constantly analysing conversations, worrying about whether I’ve said the right thing at the right time, wondering where I really stand with people. This thought process is useful at times but it can be easy to blame yourself for things when it’s not necessarily your fault. My condition is very much a learning experience in this respect as I’ve gradually gotten better in social situations over time. In this respect, I think people dismiss or don’t understand Asperger’s syndrome because understanding body language and social convention are things most people take for granted. In this respect, going to university was a more daunting experience for me than for most. I had only found out about my condition a few months earlier and so I wasn’t feeling sure of myself or where I fitted in. Whilst I was excited about leaving home and entering the big wide world, I equally felt like I was being thrown into the deep end.

The first few weeks of university are a blur for me from all the drinking but one of the things I noticed within days of arriving was how people were so keen to reinvent themselves, to stand out from the crowd. There were people like Sophie who dyed her hair ginger and put on freckles using henna paint, or Harry whose wardrobe consisted exclusively of charity shop items and who claimed that Shaun Ryder was his auntie’s first boyfriend. I couldn’t help but find some of these people obnoxious and fake but as time’s passed, I will say they have grown on me in the same way that a tumour grows on a brain. However, all I wanted was to fit in and to be liked. For this reason, I spread myself wide, trying to make as many friends as I could in the hopes that some of them would stick. I think that that was a good decision on my part although I realise now that I might have been a bit too keen. I was still somewhat daunted by the social side of university, but if there was one thing I had learned from my sixth-form days, it was that alcohol was the perfect antidote for being shit with people. If you ask any of my friends of their earliest memories of me, they will be of me being blind-drunk. Thus, if you take nothing else from this, I hope that you remember that if you want make a good impression, just get shitfaced. Yes, you will probably make a tit of yourself but you’ll probably be too drunk to remember what you did so it’s a win-win in my opinion. With autism, it can be difficult to see things from someone else’s perspective and it can feel like you’re the only one that’s shit with people when in fact it’s a minor disability more or less everyone has besides Alan Carr or Jonathan Ross.

As cliché as this will sound, my first semester in Sheffield was a rollercoaster experience, as I’m sure it was for a lot of people. While I made friends and enjoyed my course, I couldn’t help but feel cut-off from everyone, that I was always standing on the outside looking in. Equally, I wasn’t sure whether I was only friends with people out of convenience and whether our friendships would last once we had all settled into university life. Thoughts like that were common and not always easy to deal with. I remember going home for my first Christmas at university and seriously wondering whether Sheffield and university as a whole was really for me. However, once the winter passed, I started to feel like I was finding a steady footing in Sheffield. A significant factor of this was that I finally told people about my condition. I was strictly against telling people about my condition for similar reasons which I stated before. I felt the need to tell people, yet I was scared of what could happen once the genie was out of the bottle. However, despite all the build-up of this event in my head, it actually ended up being rather underwhelming. To this end, I actually ended up telling my friends over drinks as the conversation turned to autism. It seemed like a natural time to bring it up and so I finally told them. There was surprise at first, as none of my friends ever suspected me of having autism but from there on, they asked me a few questions about it and then things just carried on as they were. At first, it felt great to get it off my chest but within a few days, I couldn’t help but feeling like I’d made a mistake in telling them as it sent my paranoia and anxiety into overdrive. I felt like something was going to happen, like I was going to be ostracised and forgotten about at any given moment. As time passed, however, I realised that that sort of thing was not going to happen and neither should I expect it to.

Talking to people about my Asperger’s certainly led to a big turning point for me and enabled me to come to terms with it, but it was a while before I was able to overcome all the other insecurities associated with it. I continued to struggle with where I stood with people; even my closest friends. It might sound vain to worry about what people think of you and at times it probably made me look very needy and insecure, however, I believe that it was always a sort of defence mechanism for me as in the past I’ve had people who I thought were my friends prove me otherwise. Again, you can’t help but fear that something might happen or wonder whether your friends are talking about you behind your back. It was a difficult train of thought to break out of and because of it, I’d say there were times where this placed some of my friendships under strain. In order to deal with this, it’s important for me to remain optimistic at all times, and to not assume that people don’t like you just because they don’t have much to say to you or ignore you by accident when you pass them on the street. As I go into my final semester, I feel like I’m a good position when it comes to my relationships. I have a strong group of friends from my house and course which I hope to stay in touch with long after we graduate. University has allowed me to see my condition in a different way as now more than ever, I can see it as a blessing and not a curse. That isn’t to say that I’m better or worse than anyone else, I simply just excel at things that other people might find difficult and vice-versa.

I have seen me change myself in a number of ways over the last couple of years. For one, I have lost any love I once had for jaeger-bombs, and I’ve gone through more Netflix series than I could have possibly imagined. However, all in all I think university has played a massive role in me coming to terms with my condition and I feel much more confident and self-assured about it. What I think people don’t realise about university is that it’s not just about getting a degree but rather, it’s just as much about being independent for the first time and learning to live with different people. That might be something a lot of people take for granted but for me and I imagine, many other people on the spectrum, it is a great achievement. Above all, whilst I don’t wish to come across as didactic in saying that you shouldn’t dismiss people with autism, I hope that this can at least offer you a new perspective into something that most people would just sweep under the rug.

Thomas Fay