Never Gonna Give You Up

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(By the way, the title of the post is not altogether relevant.  It’s just that I have musical echolalia, and Rick Astely has been going around my head ever since Ash Wednesday, and I thought some of you ought to share my pain.  You’re welcome.)

One of the things that happens to all Vicars during Lent is that about a million people ask you what you’re giving up.  I’ve never really understood whether this is supposed to be small talk or an actual question requiring an honest answer.  Either way, it always strikes me as a bit too intimate and personal for an opening gambit while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil.  After all, the point of Lent is generally that you work on something you really struggle with.  If you try to give up swearing, for instance, it’s probably because you think you swear too much and it’s a bad thing.  So when someone asks you what you’re giving up, what they are really asking is “what do you consider to be your greatest failing?”  That’s not intrinsically a bad question, but I’m not sure it’s something you should necessarily have to discuss with someone you’ve only just met, or in a room full of people.

Despite the the fact that people ask me every year what I’m giving up for Lent, the question always manages to floor me.  After several years of floundering around uselessly, I’ve developed a strategy for dealing with it, and I’m ashamed to say that the strategy involves not quite telling the truth.  (Hmm, because lying is a really good thing to do during Lent… not.)  Unless I know someone really well, I’m just not willing to divulge that I’ve attempted to give up staying awake most of the night playing a computer game, or that I’m trying really hard to diversify my diet to include more than one item in any seven-day period. Why?  Because I don’t really need people to know that the reason I’m too knackered to do that thing they need me to do is because I’ve been up all night playing Township and eating Edam.   Mmmm, Edam.

To be honest, I’ve always struggled with the whole Lent thing. I don’t drink enough alcohol or eat enough meat to make those worthy things to give up, and some of the things that other people might call luxuries I regard as absolute necessities. Give up riding a horse for six weeks?  Never gonna happen.

I know that everyone can get a bit self-delusional about the difference between needs and wants, but I think this is especially tricky for those of us on the Spectrum.  There is a big difference, for instance, between *preferring* your beans not to touch your chips and *needing* your beans not to touch your chips, otherwise you will feel physically ill and you won’t be able to eat any of it and you’ll feel an overwhelming urge to scratch the skin off your own face and the whole world will EXPLODE.

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At the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld and his things we don’t know we know, I reckon that for most people, all this stuff falls into three main categories:

1. Things we need

2. Things we don’t need, but we do want

3. Things we think that we need, but we actually just want

So, for instance, we all know that we need food and drink to survive – it’s no good giving up everything including water for six weeks of a Lent and presuming that you’ll still be in a good state to enjoy your Easter Eggs. On the other hand, we all know – however much we might wish it wasn’t so – that chocolate is not actually essential to our survival; we could stop eating it for six weeks without anything bad happening to our bodies at all.  But then there is the grey area of number 3 – all those things that we say we need but which are actually non-essential.  No, you actually will not die if you don’t check Facebook; and you really can leave the house without make-up; and guess what? Plenty of other people manage to get about on public transport, so maybe you don’t absolutely need to drive your car five minutes down the road.

But this is where it gets really complicated for Autistic people. We all have our little foibles, routines and – dare I say it – obsessions. Will I die if I can’t put on my favourite onesie as soon as I get home?  Absolutely not.  Will it rock my equilibrium, and prevent me from doing anything constructive for the rest of the day, and possibly the day after that? Absolutely.

At the heart of most of the current debate about Autism is the question of whether Autistic-ness (routines, stimming, perseveration and all that) ought to be curbed or encouraged.  That’s a whole can of worms I’m not even opening here (although it’s probably pretty obvious which side I gravitate towards).  But I do wonder whether it sometimes prevents us from making some informed decisions about the difference between our own wants and needs. In a shiny, happy world of Autism acceptance, I would be able to stay up all night playing games and eating cheese to my heart’s content, and then stay in bed all day and nobody would mind. In the real world, sadly, most of us have to have a stab at earning a living, looking after our kids or animals, buying groceries and preventing our homes from resembling rubbish dumps. That means that sometimes we need to make some hard choices, sorting out the things that are necessary for our wellbeing (horse riding) and the perseverations that have got slightly out of control and are threatening to derail our whole lives (Doctor Who DVD box set, I’m looking at you.)

So, what am I giving up for Lent?  Nothing. I can’t cope with that sharp transition that happens on Ash Wednesday from doing *whatever* to not doing it.  So this year, I started the work in advance, gradually working out what were the things that were really important and necessary at the moment, and what I could gradually begin to let go. I have no doubt that other things will take their places and become new obsessions (or maybe they already have – see ‘Edam’ above); but that’s not the point. It’s about working out the difference between a need and a want. And maybe for everybody – Autistic or not – that’s what Lent is really about.

I’m Surrounded by Idioms

imageYesterday, I had to attend the most boring training day ever a fascinating training day which was a worthy use of the time and talents of all 100+ participants. As I had an appointment in the next town shortly after the day was due to finish, I knew I would need to leave a little bit early.  Unfortunately, because I got so bored I left two hours before i needed to innocently miscalculated my timings, I ended up with a fair bit of time to kill.  So I did something I rarely get the chance to do, and spent a quiet hour in a coffee shop.

The magazine rack in the coffee shop offered me only two publications to help me pass the time: a magazine about sailing, and the Daily Express.  As sailing’s not really my thing, I opted for the newspaper, reasoning that even though it was unlikely to contain any actual news, there might be a Sudoku in there.  And so it was that I found myself leafing through right wing rants, scare stories about health and disability, articles about celebrities I’d never heard of, a Sudoku puzzle (sadly, already completed by someone else) and the horoscopes.

I don’t normally read horoscopes as a general rule, because I think they’re bunkum; but this one caught my eye:

“Chances are you’ve spotted a fly in the ointment… But don’t jump to conclusions this morning. Call me to hear when there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

That’s a lot of metaphors in one short horoscope (not to mention some very vague advice, and a cheeky plug of the vastly overpriced phone line).

One of the things that’s often said about autistic people is that our literally-minded brains fail to grasp the meanings behind the colourful sayings which so enrich our spoken language – things like “don’t bite my head off” or “grasp the nettle.”  But I’m not sure that’s the whole story, for two reasons:

1. A lot of autistic people are excellent wordsmiths and poets (just have a read of some of the blogs on the web), and so have shown themselves to be perfectly adept at using and understanding metaphor and imagery.  Unless someone can put me right, I’ve never met anyone (autistic or not) who actually expected showers of domesticated quadrupeds to fall from the sky.

2. The origins of so many of our idioms are now so archaic, and in some cases completely lost, that I’m not sure anyone could intuitively grasp their meaning without having them explained. For example, nowadays pots are for plants and kettles are made of plastic; unless you generally do all your cooking on an open fire, what sense does it make for one to call the other black? In my experience, most children (regardless of neurology) find idioms baffling, amusing and interesting, which really suggests that no-one just ‘gets’ them on a first hearing.

I wonder if part of the reason that autistic people appear not to understand idioms is because idioms are so deliciously ripe for echolalia.  They usually ‘bounce’ nicely, which makes them fun to say (“a stitch in time saves nine”), and they often conjure up vivid mental pictures or concepts (who wouldn’t want to imagine it raining kittens and puppies?), which makes them stick in the mind.  (As a child, I always thought that the phrase “a hair’s breadth” was “a hare’s breath,” and even today, whenever anyone uses the saying, I immediately think of the soft, warm exhalation of an oversized bunny.)  Anyway… it shouldn’t be too surprising if these are exactly the kind of phrases which get lodged in your brain and then used in contexts which might seem inappropriate or wrong.

In addition, there is that autistic need to know, the passionate desire to collect and understand information which means that while other people might just let an unusual phrase slide, autistic people want to understand the origins, the meaning, the whole nine yards.  (Nine yards of what, exactly?)  So, while some people might just be happy with the explanation that ‘a fly in the ointment’ means a problem, I want to know what fly, what ointment, how did it get there, and a hundred other questions that probably make me look like an idiot.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t ever times that literal-mindedness gets in the way of understanding idioms – I once got into terrible confusion about the Mediaeval German writer Thomas a Kempis, simply because I had heard someone describe him as “a Young Turk.”  And maybe I do miss clues in context or inflection which tell everybody else, “alert: not to be taken literally,” but that’s another story entirely.  The fact is, idioms by their very nature are culturally specific, and they all need translation and interpretation.  Nobody just gets them intuitively.

Years ago, I was walking through a tube station when I came across a small girl struggling to carry a bag down the stairs.  Her mother was way ahead of her, and hadn’t noticed that she was struggling.  I wanted to help, so I went up to the girl and said, “Do you want a hand?”  She looked up, nodded, and then put her hand in mine.

Sometimes literal-mindedness is a beautiful thing.

Wholalia

STOP PRESS! This is The Most Awesome Thing Ever.

I found it on FeministAspie’s blog.  So far as I can tell, she hails from the UK; is a woman, a Feminist and autistic; loves Doctor Who; and probably goes to the same University that I did.  And she posted this video.  All of this makes me happier than really befits a woman of my age and station.

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*flap flap*