'When did you first realise that you were 'different'?'
This a question that I – along, I suppose, with many fellow Aspies – am often asked. I never have to think twice about my answer. It was one very specific morning in my first year at primary school. I was 5.
School wasn't easy for me from the start. I'd never been with people outside of my family circle, and I struggled to make friends. I didn’t like being with so many other children in a noisy classroom. I had no interest in games and tended to spend my break times alone in the playground, or hanging around with one or two other 'misfits' that no one else really wanted to know. I coped, though. For a while, I was top of the class for reading, writing and spelling - things I'd learned to do before starting school. The reports that mum and dad received said that I was bright, though quiet, with a tendency to be unfocused. But things generally seemed okay with my development, and there were thoughts that I might forge ahead and do well.
Then, later that year, something happened that changed everything for me: an incident that has haunted me ever since. I mark it as the true beginning of my sense of being different to other people; of being apart from them in some way. I don’t mean this in terms of feeling superior. I’ve never felt – not even as a child – that I was better than anyone else. In fact, I’ve never really striven to be better than anyone else. I know my strengths and weaknesses pretty well, and I’ve usually tried to play to the strengths – as most people do. But never as a way of beating or besting others. Whenever I’ve achieved good things – attained my degree, or won running races or writing competitions – it’s always been more about personal fulfillment for its own sake, rather than enabling me to feel brighter, fitter, cleverer or more talented than my peers.
That incident, though, made me feel something that I still feel, to a greater or lesser degree, to this day. It was certainly alleviated when I got my diagnosis. But it never fully goes away. It’s the sense of being not better than, or even on a level with others – but inferior to them. And not just inferior to anyone else. Inferior to everyone else. From that incident – those few long minutes on that one day, more that fifty years ago – I’ve had the overwhelming sense inside me that I’m not in with the race, but simply trying to keep up. Some days I get a second wind and am there with the pack and drawing ahead a bit. Other days, I’m lagging back in last place, and losing ground all the time. The bottom line is, no matter how good I might be at something, I’m always ready to accept that I’m failing in some way: that I’m probably wrong, and that other people know better than I do – about anything at all.
Even though it happened so long ago, I can remember so many precise details of that day. My class teacher was Miss Farnham. She was a tall, spare-framed woman with a large, beaky nose and a tightly-curled ‘old lady’ perm. She wore blocky shoes, drab dresses, and shapeless cardigans with hankies stuffed up the sleeves. She had a stiff way of walking, like she had a plank down her back, and a high, colourless voice of the kind you often hear droning from the mouths of semi-comatose back-bench politicians. She always seemed ‘old’, as adults invariably do to children, but she probably wasn’t more than about thirty-five. Maybe memory, and the way she definitively marked it for me, makes me do her a disservice in this description. Not by much, though.
Each morning in class, we did number exercises. Miss Farnham had given us each ‘number’ books, in which she’d written a different number, in red biro, at the top of each blank page. Our task every day was to turn to the next blank page and fill it with copies of the number at the top. The pages were quite big as I remember, so you could easily fit a hundred or so copies of the number in the space provided – depending on how neat or scrawling your writing was. Mine was always untidy. That, though, wasn’t the issue.
On this particular day, the number I had to copy was ‘3’. As with reading, I’d learned to count, and knew the shapes of all the numbers, long before I started school. A friend of my dad’s, who came around one evening a week to go to the pub with him, had even taught me to tell the time – sitting me on his knee and showing me different times with his watch. I had the incentive to learn, because he would always give me a penny or two if I got things right. The main thing was… I knew numbers, so it was never a problem for me. I filled the page that day with number ‘3’s without even thinking too much about it. It was one of the easier exercises I had to do. When I’d finished, I handed my book in for marking, then waited for the milk to be handed out.
After break, Miss Farnham made an announcement.
“Harry Chadwick. Come out to the front of the class, please.”
There was silence suddenly, and all eyes in class turned to me. I could tell from her tone of voice that something was wrong. Terrified, I went up to her desk. She had my numbers page open and showed it to me.
“What do you call this?”
I looked at the page, baffled. She pointed at one of the numbers I’d written.
“Number three, miss,” I said, quietly.
Her expression hardened, like I’d just called her a name. She rattled the book and held it closer to my face.
“It doesn’t look like it to me.”
A few low chuckles now came from the classroom behind me. She slapped the book down on her desk, then picked up a piece of chalk and handed it to me.
“Go and write the number three on the board.”
I looked at the piece of chalk in my hand. I looked at the blackboard.
“Come on,” she said. “Write it on the board, so that everyone can see.”
I could feel the tears coming already. I had no understanding of the situation. It seemed like an awful joke she was playing on me. I went up to the board – how huge it seemed – and wrote a perfect number ‘3’.
“No. It doesn’t go like that. Do it again.”
The chuckles in class behind me were getting more numerous, and louder. I simply couldn’t believe what was happening. Had other people been lying to me all along in telling me what the number between 2 and 4 really looked like? I drew another perfect ‘3’.
“That’s wrong, too. It doesn’t go like that.”
It suddenly felt like my brain was fusing. The laughter was now building to a chorus. I kept writing ‘3’s, over and over. Each time, I got the same response – though they were getting increasingly exasperated.
It doesn’t go like that…
It doesn’t go like that…
IT DOESN’T GO LIKE THAT!
Within a few minutes, the board was full of figure ‘3’s which were all, apparently, wrong – and I was a complete mess. The class was in hysterics. I could hardly see the board through my tears, and barely keep hold of the chalk with the sobs that were racking through me. In desperation, I wrote ‘3’s lying on their sides, like the way I drew birds, or like curved-bottomed ‘W’s. I wrote a ‘2’, then a ‘4’, then a ‘5’ – even though I knew these were definitely wrong. I just didn’t know what else to do. I was panicking – I know that now. Many years later, when I found out what ‘cognitive dissonance’ meant, I understood. I knew that what I was doing was right. Yet I was being told that it was wrong. So I naturally tried doing the wrong thing to see if that worked. But nothing did.
Finally, given the pitiful state I was in, she snatched the chalk out of my hands and sent me back to my seat. It was one of the shortest and most horrifying walks of my life, with the whole class laughing at me and bearing down on me – like the screaming crowds at the Colosseum, taunting the next helpless victim being thrown to the lions. How was it that they were all in on the deception, too? How could they not see that I’d written it correctly? Even those on my own table, whom I’d come to think of as friendly, were laughing at me. Laughing at the fool who didn’t know how to write a simple number.
Miss Farnham approached the board with a flourish.
“Let’s show him how it’s supposed to be done, shall we.”
She scrubbed away my efforts with the board rubber. Then she chalked – large enough to fill the board – the number ‘3’. Except hers looked like this:
“That’s how it goes,” she said. “And that’s how I want to see you do it in future. The same way that everyone else manages to do it.”
Looking back, it seems like quite a trivial thing now. Perhaps it was my first lesson in the idea of familiarity breeding contempt. If I’d looked closer at how she’d written the number on my page, I would have gotten it right first time. But I’d never seen a ‘3’ written with a flat top before. And when I knew what the number was, from my first quick glance at it, I just wrote it as I’d always written it. Little did I realise what an impact that one tiny mistake would have on my life.
Many people would probably just get over something like this and move on. But I was so traumatised by the incident that it made me unwell, and I was off school for a few days. Mum and dad visited the school and made a complaint. I don’t know what the full outcome of that was, but I know that I returned to school soon afterwards. Things were never the same there, though. This ritual humiliation in front of all my classmates had an inevitable effect on my relationship with them. It was as if they had something over on me – like I was wearing a badge which marked me out. Or like they were in on a secret that I would never be party to.
People didn’t lose any opportunity to exploit my apparent weakness, and it wasn’t long before I started to get bullied by one or two of the others. Also, I was now terrified of anything to do with numbers, and fell behind with learning arithmetic. I was alright with simple addition sums, but struggled with the rest – especially multiplication. It’s difficult to express the way I felt about it all, but after that incident I sensed, at an instinctive level, that I was somehow disadvantaged in comparison to the others. Apart from with English, which was always my good subject, I fell behind. I began to dislike school.
I also began to become more isolated - because it felt safer.
I began to feel different. And always have since.