Minding my language

I’m generally in a reflective mood on Saturday evenings. Today’s topic of reflection: words.

One of the hallmarks of my condition is having intense special interests. And words have been one of mine for as long as I can remember.

One of the reasons I read so much as a child was because I loved collecting words, storing them away in the filing cabinet I (figuratively) keep inside my head and bringing them out to show people. Not really to show off – although I’m sure that it came across that way at times – but more to share; to say “look what I’ve found; do you want one too?”. I got told off a few times at infant school for being ‘too clever’ in the words I asked the teaching assistants to write down in my spelling book. The problem was I only asked them to write words I couldn’t remember how to spell. But possibly asking for words such as ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ was not what they expected from a 6-year-old.

Poetry was always a particularly rich source of new words. I remember at about the same age I was tormenting the teaching assistants with my odd spelling requests I used to continually borrow ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ and ‘The New Oxford Book of English Verse’ from the library, much to the consternation of the children’s librarian who was trying to steer me towards the nice, age-appropriate picture books.

Poetry also gave me an appreciation that words could be used in different contexts and that using a word with a slightly different meaning could bring a whole new level of subtlety in terms of communication. And writing poetry allowed me to try out all the new words I’d been learning without needing to shoehorn them into one of the school story-writing assignments (much to the relief of my teachers I imagine!).

Words also provided me with an escape when the world became too difficult. I couldn’t really understand the world I was forced to live in. So I used to read about other worlds; worlds where I thought I would feel more at home. My particular favourite escapes were Isaac Asimov’s robot books – I used to wish I could move to Solaria, as it seemed to have everything I wanted. (And a part of me still wishes that sometimes, although I’ve come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t actually exist.)

In common with many other people with my condition, I can also take words far too literally. For instance, I had real issues with the concept of probabilities because, when introducing the topic, the maths teacher gave the following example:

There’s a 10% chance of being left-handed. So that means that if there are 30 people in a room, 3 will be left-handed

What confused me was that there were 30 people in my class… but 5 were left-handed. So I couldn’t see how the maths teacher could possibly be correct. And it took me another 15 years – until I was doing my Masters degree – before I actually understood what she had been trying to explain.

And probably best not to go into too much detail about the time when one of my classmates told me to go and take a long walk off a short cliff… Luckily cliffs were in short supply in Berkshire. But the teachers couldn’t understand why I was getting upset about not being able to work out how I was going to do what I’d been told to do.

It’s a bit of a strange situation. I love words. Most of the time I can use them relatively competently, at least in writing. But I don’t fully understand them; as a concept, they are still slightly alien to me. Sometimes I lose them completely. They can provide an escape when the world becomes too much, or they can unsettle me. Occasionally they can cause physical pain.

But I have come, at least for now, to a view on the words I use about this condition. I’ve tried out a few different descriptions to find what feels least uncomfortable. And my conclusion is to follow my formal diagnosis. I have an autism spectrum disorder. I am, therefore, autistic.


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