Do As You’re Told

For seven years from shortly before my fifth birthday I went to a smallish private school called Clevelands Preparatory School. It was an old-fashioned establishment in an old Victorian house, and very much based on old-fashioned ideals.

That included the uniform. The boys wore short trousers year-round, and even the underwear was prescribed for the girls. Separate shoes for outdoors and indoors. And the school dinners: you ate what was put in front of you or you went without.

Discipline was strict, enforced through corporal punishment. In a small concession to liberal ideas it was the slipper rather than the cane. I don’t know what effect it had on other pupils but I found the thought of it terrifying.

So apart from my academic achievements (which were exceptionally good) I also learned to be compliant. To obey without question. To defer to authority. All because of the threat of violence hanging over my head.

After a little while obedience becomes habit. You don’t even think about questioning. You just do as you are told like a good little cog in the machine.

It was during this time that I developed strong inhibitions against many of what I now recognise as my autistic behaviours. Rocking, flapping my hands, echolalia and verbal stimming, toe walking. Because those behaviours weren’t acceptable, they weren’t how a good child ought to behave. “Sit still!” “Be quiet!” “Walk properly!”

As I have worked to overcome my inhibitions in recent years it has become increasingly apparent just how deeply that fear of punishment affected me. How much of it I still carry with me to this day. That fear is forever looking over my shoulder, judging everything I do to ensure I don’t break the rules.

I am almost incapable of breaking a rule. Even thinking of doing it fills me with a sense of danger, of dread. And I can trace it all back to my experiences at school. Back to that threat of violence. I fear violence: it terrifies me. Of all the triggers for my anxiety that is the most powerful, the one that can make me freeze, unable to even think. Literally scared witless.

These days I’m beginning to think of it as trauma, and I see parallels with the aversion-based conditioning of ABA. I was never struck, but I saw others punished. I saw one little boy who could not have been even 5 years old picked up bodily by the headmaster and shaken for refusing to eat his dinner, all the while being shouted at and verbally abused.

My heart is pounding in my chest just remembering the incident all these years later. And there were many others. I say I have bad things locked away in my mind: these are some of them. I have to move away from these memories now, lock them away again, wait for the screaming in my mind to diminish.

To me there is no doubt: I was conditioned to be compliant, obedient. It scares me to think that if someone in a position of authority had tried to abuse me physically or sexually I would have felt unable to say “No”. I still find it hard to assert myself when I disagree with my boss, say, or anyone else in a position of power.

There was another form of conditioning I underwent. One that was perhaps more insidious than the explicit threat of violence. I learned to seek approval, praise. It was a competitive environment and since I had no talents of the physical kind I could only rely on my mental abilities. Once it became apparent that I was gifted, excellence became expected. Anything less was received with disappointment and I felt the failure keenly.

Praise and reward is how I measure my worth: I am only as good as people tell me I am. It became my chief motivation and it still is to a large degree. And it’s all about satisfying other people’s expectations rather than setting my own goals. I’m not even sure I know how to work out what I want for myself.

In some ways I feel I am broken. Not because of my autism: certainly not that. But because I carry all this baggage of my past with me. It shapes every interaction I have with other people. It affects how I think and feel about events. I despair of ever being free from it: I don’t even know what such freedom might mean. But the weight of my past is suffocating me.

Unintended Consequences

It’s very difficult to admit that you are in the wrong. Especially if the misdeed was not an intentional act but a consequence of natural behavior.

With impeccable timing under the circumstances I read this blog post over the weekend. It was like looking into a mirror – and I don’t mean that everything appeared back-to-front! It was as if the writer had looked into my mind, seen inside as if it were crystal. I’m no stranger to recognizing aspects of myself in other Aspie blog posts: that goes with the territory. But occasionally I read something that could have been written about me. Which is kind of why I’m writing this now.

It doesn’t matter exactly what happened over the weekend. But what made it worse was my failure to apologize in a timely manner. You see, I started out thinking that because I hadn’t intentionally done anything to cause hurt then I couldn’t have done anything wrong and the other person must be behaving irrationally. I’d forgotten about unintended consequences.

To truly be responsible for one’s actions means accepting responsibility for all the effects, both intentional and unintentional, expected and unexpected, desirable and undesirable. And realizing that even unconscious, unplanned, unavoidable acts are included in this – accidents do happen.

“I never meant to…” is an excuse. It’s a valid excuse as far as it goes, but that’s not far enough. “It’s my fault” is better. I might not have been able to foresee the results of my actions, or even avoid doing it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t regret what happened. Accidents have causes. In this case I didn’t communicate early or clearly enough that I was approaching a crisis. It’s like being too busy defusing a ticking bomb to evacuate the surroundings in time. I had too narrow a focus on what was happening internally to think about anybody outside. And that was a mistake. There were consequences that meant the problems were more severe and lasted longer.

And so to the apology. I’m sure some people can say sorry and convey the appropriate sincerity regardless of whether or not they feel remorse. I can’t. If I’m going to apologize then I’ve got to understand that I did something wrong and regret it. Admit to myself first that I was wrong. That’s hard.

In some ways I had an easy life growing up. I had a natural gift for the subjects I studied in school and regularly achieved top marks with little effort. I got the “gifted” label early and it stuck. I enjoyed the plaudits. But the down side is that the more used you get to success, the worse failure appears. It makes you risk-averse: you avoid choosing the path of uncertainty because you have become afraid of the possibility of failure, of getting something wrong. In some ways being labelled as gifted is a curse: you’re only as good as your last [excellent] result. It made me happy, sure, but it made me awfully insecure at the same time. I identified with the label to such an extent that I felt that losing it would destroy who I was.

Admitting I got something wrong equates to admitting I failed. To accept being less than perfect. (Yes, I know intellectually I’m not perfect and I make mistakes but I don’t feel it – there’s still that belief that I have to achieve perfection just to keep on being myself.) I try so hard to get past this but it’s always there, like rails preventing me from changing direction. I still look for praise in what I do and dread censure: it’s made me a perfectionist, never satisfied with what I create because I concentrate on the flaws. It’s a never-ending school report with just the comment “could do better”.

So… it takes me time to get to the point where I feel able to admit that I’ve done wrong and apologize. Please bear with me and be patient.

I’m doing my best.

Correcting People’s Mistakes

I have an involuntary urge to jump in and correct people when I notice errors in what they say. It hasn’t escaped my notice that this often irritates the person I correct, but I have a hard time checking the impulse.

I’m not sure whether the cause of this is pedantry, perfectionism or simply attention to detail. Too much attention to detail sometimes because I end up getting distracted from the conversation by concentrating on the mistake. Interrupting the speaker to correct them also tends to distract them from what they were saying, halting the conversation.

Thing is… I’m trying to be helpful when I correct people. Accuracy is important to me – more important than saving somebody’s feelings – and I subconsciously expect that other people feel the same and would appreciate my efforts. Publicly correcting people can engender a hostile response – it embarrasses them, triggering a defensive reaction. In conjunction with my social anxiety, fear of this kind of response prevents me from speaking up in front of strangers. But it doesn’t prevent me feeling very uncomfortable about the error.

It’s the same with errors in writing – things like shop signs that might have spelling or grammatical mistakes. I have been known to take a pen and make editorial corrections to notices – the urge to do so can be impossible to suppress.

I find that people mistake my motivation – while I only strive for accuracy, they see me as a know-all who wants appear superior. They may even see me as arrogant. For the record, I’m not trying to impress people with my knowledge or make them appear ignorant and stupid. I just have an obsession for precision in language.