Autism: When Awards Can Be A Negative Thing…

There was recently a thread on Twitter started by Claire Ryan who tweeted:

“When is giving a child an award at school, not an award at all?” – along with this excerpt about an autistic boy called Jack.

Jack reported being anxious recently in assembly as school were giving out awards. He would sit thinking ‘don’t pick me’. When he was picked he was very anxious and worried about which way to walk to the front of the hall with all people watching him. Jack was able to describe how this made him feel saying “my bones were dust..my brain was mush..if I could curl up into a ball and fall into a hole 50 feet deep”

A thought provoking tweet which stirred up memories of sitting in the school hall DREADING being given an award because of having to walk up to the front to receive it. You could bet your dinner money that somebody would stick their foot out on route to ramp up the humiliation factor and when you crave invisibility this is the LAST thing that you want.

My infants school had a ‘star’ system where children were awarded gold and silver stars for good work/behaviour. We also had black stars, which are sort of self-explanatory. Nobody wanted one of those. I liked the gold and silver stars because they were aesthetically pleasing. I like shiny stuff. What can I say? Maybe I was a cat in a past life. However, I did NOT like going up to the front of the class to receive one because it meant that everybody would look at me so I deliberately underachieved in my favourite subjects in order to avoid it..

For example, I purposely made myself read slower in order to avoid going to the teacher to get a new book. It seemed like I was below average but in actual fact I was an early self-taught reader who could easily read an entire book in a couple of hours at home. I was also reading books way beyond my age group but as far as the school was concerned, I was slow.

Despite my avoidance strategies, I would sometimes forget myself like when I ran a 100 meter sprint in the school sports. I didn’t realise how fast I could run and to everybody’s surprise, including my own, I won the race.

So, there I was, face down on the grass (dying) when I got an overpowering whiff of Paco Rabanne. This could only mean that my class teacher (and head of sports) was close by and sure enough he was standing over me with his mirrored sunglasses on looking like something out of Top Gun.

Actually, this anecdote story predates Top Gun but you get my drift?

He grinned at me.

Temporarily blinded by the glare off his whitened teeth, I gasped ‘Alright Sir?’

‘Well done young lady!’ *pats me on the back but I’m highly-sensitive so it feels more like a thump*

Then came the kick in the metaphorical flaps.

You’re in the athletics team and practice starts Thursday after school.

Shit. Shit. SHIT!!

Didn’t say shit, obvs.

Instead of feeling euphoric as I imagine most other children would – I felt sick to my stomach.

I didn’t want to be in the school team.

I didn’t even like sports except for watching football and Wimbledon. Plus, I did enough nervous sweating at school without having to work one up in my own time. The problem was that I couldn’t verbalise my feelings. I didn’t understand that I could have said no so I found myself turning up for athletics practice and the next thing I knew I was on a noisy coach bound for the local athletics stadium. Can you imagine how sensory that was? I was that anxious, I forgot how to hand the baton over for the relay race. That occasion was for town. Next came running for my county – by which time I was totally stressed out and visibly so. My mum asked me why I was doing it if it made me so unhappy? So I simply stopped turning up. Needless to say, Sir wasn’t pleased.

I don’t hold a grudge. How can I? He had no idea what was going on inside my body and mind as I wasn’t able to verbalise any of it. I suppose from his point of view it just looked like I was messing him about? He misunderstood me but then being misunderstood has been the story of my life.

Then there was the time when I got 98% in my history mock exam..

Teacher read out our scores. She read everyone’s name out except mine. That’s when I started to feel sick because I figured that I had either done exceptionally shit or exceptionally well.

Either way, it wasn’t good.

She read my name (and score) out and looked pleased for me. What she didn’t understand was that it reminded the class dickheads that I was there and that it had been a few minutes since they’d thrown something at my head. Needless to say, any sense of pride was obliterated by the feeling of wanting to die.

That 50ft hole that Jack described? I know it well.

I underachieved on purpose and the main reason was that achievement equaled anxiety.

The majority of replies that came from #ActuallyAutistic people (including myself) were that receiving awards causes distress and anxiety.

This isn’t to say that autistic people don’t want awards. Most people appreciate recognition when they have worked hard on something. It’s the social aspect of it that is the problem. For me, opening my book and seeing a gold star would have made me happy. It would have been enough. Having to face the entire class took the pleasure away and turned it into something very unpleasant. Just as being picked for the athletics team took away my pleasure of winning. For a child to purposely underachieve has a detrimental effect on their present and their future. No doubt Jack’s teacher meant well but despite their good intentions, the child was distressed.

It’s impossible to get things right every time but when teachers get it wrong they really need to learn from it.

The Boy likes to get rewards at school but he doesn’t like going into assembly to receive them. On a VERY good day he will go and get his award but will have to leave immediately. It’s all about gauging how anxious he is and if he is up for it or not on that particular day.

    • The thing with autism is that normal rules don’t apply.
    • Each child is different with individual needs.
    • Some autistic children are unable to verbalise their feelings.
    • An autistic child might be able do something one day but will struggle with same task the next.

To clarify. Autistic children like to feel a sense of achievement but how the recognition of that achievement is undertaken must be carefully thought out or irreparable damage could be done.

Teachers, take note.

Things People Say That Drive Autistic People NUTS!

You don’t look autistic.

Is autism supposed to have a look?

When a person says, ‘You don’t look autistic’, it’s fairly obvious they don’t have a blithering clue what autism is. Maybe they watched Rain Man and believe that every autistic person looks like Dustin Hoffman?

Or, that you should be wearing a skull guard helmet..

In all fairness, people probably think they are paying you a compliment (ish) but what they are actually doing is belittling the difficulties that you face on a daily basis. Also, in that person’s eyes it puts you above other autistic people (such as those who do wear protective head gear) because you can pass for ‘normal’ and they can’t.

Here’s the thing..

I don’t consider myself to be better (or less) than any other autistic person.

I don’t consider myself better (or less) than any neurotypical person.

We are all human beings.

You’re obviously high-functioning.

If by high functioning you mean I can speak, dress myself, take myself to the toilet and do housework? Yes, I can do those things.. However, to me, the term ‘highly functioning’ implies that I can do things WAY better than the average person.

A super functioner?

Where’s my cape and tights?!

Super strength? FUNCTIONING.

The reality is that a good day requires a LOT of effort and some days I struggle to function at all. When I am overwhelmed, I stop functioning aside the very basics needed to keep my family and myself alive. I shut down. I can’t speak. I can’t read beyond a single sentence. I can’t complete simple tasks like washing the dishes or folding laundry. My brain buffers, then freezes and it can take days for it to unravel itself. I have to spend hours on my own in order for this to happen.

Last night, I was in bed for 7pm.

I’m 47!

Would you say this is functioning highly?

What’s 97865 multiplied by 98?

Why do some people assume that autistic people are math geniuses?  I can’t stand the motherfudging subject!

My dislike (bordering on the pathological) of mathematics started in 1975 with the words ‘add and take away’.

I’ve been hyperventilating ever since..

I can give you the answer, but I’ll need a calculator.

In contrast, The Boy could recite his entire 12 times table at the age of 4. He likes maths – the weirdo.

What medication do you take for it?

I don’t take medication for my autism because it’s NOT A FARKING ILLNESS!!

I do, however, take medication for migraines, arthritis and the general aches and pains which comes from being an old fart.

Autism is an excuse for bad behaviour.

Autistic people don’t choose to have meltdowns.

They don’t wake up and think, ‘You know what? I REALLY fancy losing my shit today. Toast, anyone?’

It’s not a nice feeling to lose control, whether it manifests outwardly or internally. It is a reaction to overwhelming situations and having to use up so much energy trying to survive in an overwhelming world.

It’s EXTREME ANXIETY, not bad behaviour.

My sister’s friend’s brother is autistic. You’re nothing like him.

Firstly, I don’t have the necessary parts to be like your sister’s friend’s brother.

Secondly, no two autistic people are the same – just as no two NT people are the same.

Autistic people have similarities but all have different abilities and strengths. That said, we do share one thing in common, which is that each and every one of us is FABULOUSLY AWESOME!

You’re married, can hold down a job, have children. How can you do these things if you’re autistic?

With a great deal of effort, cocker.

I drive as well! Fancy that? An autistic person being let loose on the roads. QUELLE HORREUR!

P.S 25 + years of driving. No points. No parking tickets.

I also manage to drive AND lick the windscreen at the same time.

You’ve just been sarcastic. YOU CAN’T BE AUTISTIC!!!!!

I do irony too.

You’re a person with autism. You should use first language.

I am autistic. I am an autistic person. My autism defines me otherwise I wouldn’t be me.

Here, I can only speak for myself as some autistic people wouldn’t thank you for calling them autistic. They would be up in your face faster than you can fart. Having said that, the majority of autistic people use the term ‘autistic person’.

Incidentally, I saw a Facebook thread where the parent of an autistic teenager was having a mini-rant about people using the word ‘Aspie’ because it’s insulting, apparently.

The fact is that most people with Aspergers, refer to themselves as an Aspie.

I refer to myself as an Aspie but primarily I am an autistic person.

 

You can look me in the eye. You can’t be autistic!

Technically, I’m looking above your pupil but it’s such a subtle thing, you’re unlikely to be aware of it. As a child, I spent hours standing in the corner at school for being ‘rude’ and not looking at the teacher. I wasn’t EVER being rude. It distressed me to look people in the eye, so, technically, I was abused by every teacher who ever punished me for not doing it.

It’s taken decades for me to be able to maintain eye contact with people other than my immediate family and even now, when I am anxious, I will spend more time looking at your feet than your face. I have to remind myself to look up occasionally.

Yes, I can look you in the eye – sort of – and I am autistic.