My first day on this earth was very nearly my last.
When my mother went into labour early one Wednesday morning in the autumn of 1956, she first cycled to the shops to stock up with food and then returned home to wait for what should have been a repetition of my sister Rachel’s trouble-free arrival three years earlier. After my six year old brother Simon’s difficult breech birth, when she had been surrounded by gawping, mainly male, medical students, my mother had no wish for another hospital delivery, but by noon on the Thursday it was clear that something was wrong.
Soon after the ambulance took my mother to hospital my father, who was at work, was informed that either mother or baby would not survive. Subsequent failure to detect a heartbeat seemed to confirm this gloomy prophecy and a decision was taken to yank the baby out with forceps. Against all the odds we both survived and apart from scratches from the forceps I appeared unharmed.
My father, rushing back from the office, was naturally anxious to see his wife, after so nearly losing her, as well as meeting his new daughter, but he had a dilemma. He was a deacon of the local Baptist church and they had a meeting that night. Since his earliest days he had been taught that when duty and inclination clash, duty must always come first. As a result, believing that was where his duty lay, he went to the meeting, a decision my mother found hard to forgive.
Recently I read that a high proportion of children with Asperger’s had difficult births and I wonder what damage may have resulted from the trauma of my arrival. Yet the descriptions I have heard of my paternal grandfather provide a bigger clue. As well as being a brilliant mathematician, he was a perfectionist with very poor social skills and a rigid moral code. In character my grandfather closely resembled his own father and he married his first cousin on his father’s side. Whilst my grandmother was a friendly, sociable person who was the complete opposite of her husband, the chance of any genetic peculiarities in the family being passed on to their descendants must have been increased by their marriage. From an early age I was told that I had inherited my grandfather’s mathematical gifts and it now seems highly likely that my Asperger Syndrome was part of that inheritance. Whilst I am his only descendant with an official diagnosis, it is my opinion that most of his male descendants also share the Asperger traits in varying degrees.
My earliest memories are of Sunday school, to which I was sent from the age of two. There was one little American boy who puzzled me greatly, as nearly every week he would ask to go to the bathroom. I was not aware of any bath in the church building, unless you counted the pool beneath the floor of the church in which people were baptised, and why would anyone want a bath in the middle of Sunday school?
Another thing I noticed at Sunday school was the collection. Each week we put our pennies, thruppenny bits (coins worth three old pence) and sixpences into two baskets, then halfway through the meeting an elderly man would put his head round the door and take the baskets away. The teachers told me that the money was for God, so I reasoned that this man must be an angel who would take the money up to heaven. Looking back, I think he may have been the church secretary, who far from being angelic was a grumpy man who had once badly upset my father.
As well as being a deacon my father was the church organist (and he often took on other jobs in the church as well). Once in the middle of the service, the church secretary had called out to my father, telling him to play the next hymn more slowly. Although he appeared very confident in public and was sometimes accused of being insensitive due to his difficulties in reading body language, my father was actually hypersensitive to criticism and lived in dread of a similar attack. Despite the fact that I had probably met this man and been introduced to him as an ordinary mortal, the difficulty I have had all my life in recognising faces would have stopped me from connecting the angel with the grumpy church secretary.
By the age of three I was accustomed to walking to church and to my sister’s school, since we had no car and my pushchair had been stolen on holiday. We had left it at the top of the cliff while we went down the steps to the beach, only to find it had vanished when we returned. My parents could ill afford a new pushchair so we had to manage without one. Although my sister’s school was nearly a mile away, I coped well with the double journey, except on alternate Mondays, when the road sweeping machine came along our street. There was something about the whirring brushes that terrified me and I lived in dread of these days.
My parents also had to cope with my fear of dogs which started for no apparent reason when I was three years old. I have since discovered that this is a very common fear in children with Asperger Syndrome or other forms of autism. Our hypersensitivity to noise and touch can make a barking, leaping dog impossible to endure, even without the additional fear of being bitten.
Another source of terror at this time was any journey by train. Whilst not fearing the vehicle itself, I became hysterical at the thought that it might suddenly start moving while we were getting on and carry me away, leaving my parents on the platform, or vice versa. Years later, my mother commented on my early fear, expressing sadness that I had trusted them so little as to fear that they would abandon me. I looked at her in astonishment.
"Of course I trusted you. It was the train I didn’t trust, fearing that it would start moving and separate us before we could all get on."
She then explained that the guard always checked that all the doors were closed before allowing the train to start. If only I had known that at the time but of course my parents did not understand the reason for my fear.
Soon after my fourth birthday, my mother enrolled me at the local nursery school. The Principal informed her that there were few places available and she had to give priority to children in greatest need, either due to their home situation or the child’s own problems. My mother confessed that she could give no reason why I needed nursery school, other than the fact that I was bored at home, yet we were offered a place, the Principal saying: "We do need some normal children." Little did she know!
If my mother was hoping for some time to herself whilst I was at nursery school, she was soon disappointed, as within a month I had caught German measles (rubella) which I generously shared with my brother and sister. Within days of Simon and Rachel returning to school I was home again, this time with measles. Missing nursery school didn’t bother me at all. Despite enjoying some of the activities there were two major drawbacks: the lunches and the toilets.
All three of us children were fussy eaters, my brother and I being the most reluctant to try out new things. At home my mother would never force us to eat things we disliked and would usually provide some alternative. Sometimes she felt that she should be stricter and let us go hungry, but we were all so thin that she didn’t dare risk our health. Although she was criticised for spoiling us at the time, looking back I realize that she instinctively did the right thing. Refusal of various foods by children with Asperger’s is usually due to heightened sensitivity to certain tastes and textures as well as fear of the unknown, rather than a behaviour problem. At the nursery school, not only were we expected to eat whatever we were given, but also those who failed to finish the first course were denied any pudding. To make matters worse, the nicest puddings always seemed to be served on days when the first course was inedible. Sheer hunger compelled me to try a few things I would never touch at home, but some tastes and textures revolted me so much that I would rather starve than sample them, so sometimes I would have no lunch at all.
The toilets were another source of anxiety. There was no toilet paper in the cubicles and children had to ask a member of staff if they needed any. We were also told that it would only be given when we had done what was euphemistically called "jobs". (A different euphemism was used at home.) Once I had the temerity to ask for toilet paper when I had not fulfilled the necessary requirement and received a sharp scolding. Distressed and confused, I confided in my mother, who came up with a solution. She made some special pockets in some of my knickers so that I could take my own toilet paper to nursery school and not have to risk angering the staff again.
Although I made one friend at nursery school, a little girl a year younger than myself, generally I did not mix well with the others and often found myself alone. I also remember one of the staff telling me crossly that there were twenty five children in the school, not just one. It was a relief when the summer holidays began and I said goodbye to nursery school forever.
One good thing about the nursery school was that it made "big school" more attractive by comparison. The days were much more structured and I enjoyed the reading and sums, although the latter were always too easy. When we first arrived each of us was asked to show how far we could count and I was most annoyed to be stopped shortly after reaching one hundred when I could have gone on for much longer. The frustration of being held back and not allowed to progress at my own pace in maths continued throughout primary school. Fortunately my brother, Simon, shared my love of maths and would sometimes give me a lesson. Over the years I also learned a lot simply by studying numbers and noting their patterns.
Numbers held an endless fascination for me. There was the way that you could tell whether a number was a multiple of three simply by adding the digits. If the result was a multiple of three then so was the original number. Square numbers were particularly interesting. Long before I was able to prove it using algebra I learnt by observation that for any number N, if you multiply N+1 by N-1 the result is always N squared minus 1. As a small child, I used to amuse myself in church by counting the number of hats worn by the ladies. Later on, as my knowledge of maths grew, I started factorising the hymn numbers and working out which of them were primes.
The problem of school dinners continued during infant school. The children were not allowed to bring packed lunches and my mother said that I would have to wait until I was nearly eight and at junior school before she would allow me to walk back on my own and have lunch at home. At least there was no rule stopping you from having pudding if you hadn’t eaten the first course, but on one occasion I was literally force fed with a spoonful of rice pudding by an exasperated dinner lady. Of all dishes, rice pudding was the one I loathed most, more for its looks and texture (which reminded me of vomit) than for its taste. My father had rice pudding poured over him on more than one occasion as part of a school performance, giving him a lifelong revulsion which has been shared by all his children.
Mercifully the force feeding episode was not repeated, but day after day I was made to sit at the table long after the others had gone out to play and endure the reproaches of the staff. Much as I dreaded adult disapproval, there were some foods I simply could not bear to eat and I would frequently arrive home nearly fainting with hunger.
Finding friends was no easier than it had been at nursery school. Whenever I asked a group of children if I could join them, I would get the reply "N O spells no."
I would immediately retort: "I know it does", annoyed by their attempts to be funny instead of giving a straightforward answer. Still, even this hurtful reply was preferable to the tactic used by some children in later years of simply ignoring me completely when I tried to talk to them. There was, however, one girl, Pam, who would sometimes play with me and between us we invented the cave game. In this game we were brothers who explored caves and kept finding hidden treasure. It was Pam’s idea that we should be boys as she felt that exploring caves was a male pursuit. Whilst I enjoyed my friendship with Pam, I was often infuriated by her tall stories, one of which was that she was really the daughter of John Lennon. I knew this was impossible and didn’t hesitate to tell her so, but she kept on with the story.
In the classroom, one of the activities we enjoyed was playing with the toy shop. On a couple of occasions Pam showed me a cardboard sixpence which she had taken from the till. Inspired by her example and wanting to impress her, I stole a cardboard half-crown. To my disappointment Pam didn’t seem at all pleased. Soon afterwards I was filled with remorse and wanted to put the cardboard coin back, but by then I had chewed it so much that this was no longer an option.
Pam’s mother disapproved of the friendship, largely because of my behaviour at Pam’s sixth birthday party. I have always found group situations difficult, much preferring one-to-one and I arrived at the party tired out after a day in London watching the Lord Mayor’s show from my father’s office. I don’t recall doing anything outrageous at the party, but was so irritable and bad tempered that everyone greeted my mother’s return to collect me with an audible sigh of relief. When Pam’s mother offered me a handkerchief as a parting gift, my usual preference for truth over tact led to the response: "I don’t want that."
As a result, Pam’s mother decided I was not a fit companion for her precious daughter although there was nothing she could do to stop us mixing at school.
A few weeks after this disastrous party, just after Christmas 1962, snow arrived with a vengeance heralding the start of the most traumatic year of my early childhood.