During my childhood, my parents often commented that I was ‘born awkward, and awkward ever since’. I was a firstborn, so they had no prior experience of raising a son. I wasn’t failing so badly in school that I ever had to see a psychologist, although my Mum despaired of ever persuading me to play with other children. They never thought I might have a condition with a clinical label, though Asperger’s wasn’t so well known in the 1980s.
Looking back, it explains a lot. School playtimes were a nightmare in primary school. Often I would just walk forlornly around the edges of the yard, kicking up the dirt; sometimes I would go and tell appalling puns to the teacher on yard duty. I simply didn’t know what to do during playtime, and didn’t particularly want to join in any schoolyard games that seemed remotely rough.
Secondary School was a little less taxing, since I could volunteer to work as a Library Monitor during break times. But in my pre-teens I was so sensitive to other pupils using foul language, that quite a few made a point of coming and using it just to wind me up. I had no inhibitions about reporting bad behaviour to staff members, and on those occasions when a class teacher let the pupils go in order of good behaviour, I would always be among the first cohort. And being bright, teachers quite often prefaced their questions to the class with “Does anyone apart from (my name) know the answer?” That didn’t bother me then, but in hindsight I see that being both a goody-goody and a swot doesn’t make you many friends!
When I entered seminary, I received some puzzling feedback. My end of-first-year appraisal went something like this: “You are a great student, you seem to be faithful to your prayers and you do your chores. There’s just one thing we, the formation staff, are worried about – your being.”
“Oh. I’m not sure I understand. Can you explain that in other words?”
“What would you like me to do about it?”
“We don’t know.”
“Is this a significant issue for my onward formation?”
“So you are telling I have a significant issue, you can’t articulate what it is or what I should do about it, but I need to sort it out?”
This was a puzzle. The only sensible action I could formulate for my Second Year Plan was: “To be.” I hesitate to call this an action plan, since being implies something other than doing. Nevertheless, I framed an action of spending time in reflective silence. But I knew this wasn’t touching the heart of the issue.
Half-way through my seminary formation, I went on a pilgrimage with a group of young adults. I got chatting to one of them and it quickly emerged that we had a great deal in common. At our respective schools, we had each been the most intelligent and best behaved child, the one who found playtimes a bore. (Why waste time playing when there were more things to study? And no other child invited us to play, still less explained the rules, anyway!)
At the end of the conversation, she said to me: “I’ve just been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I think you may have it too – you should get it checked out.”
So when I got back to seminary, I went to see the chief counsellor and asked if she had considered the possibility that I was autistic. She hadn’t, but thought it was a good idea. I was sent off for the relevant tests, and the diagnosis was confirmed. Finally, it helped me and the staff put a clearer label on this mysterious “problem with being”. It concerned the subtle exchange of signals through body language which typical humans send and receive all the time without being fully aware of it. (Later, I came to appreciate that reading the emotions in other peoples’ eyes is a key part of this.)
Divine providence arranged that meeting on a pilgrimage in another continent. Because of it, I reached the root of something the seminary might otherwise have failed to diagnose. Thanks be to God!