Ruth Mills – Aspergers

Ruth Mills – Aspergers

I had whooping cough at age 3, which my mum said affected my personality; I was noticeably more “cantankerous” and temperamental after recovering from the whooping cough.

I did have behavioural problems In primary school, and saw an educational psychologist; at that time, there was no mention of autism or Aspergers, but I was diagnosed as a bright child (in the top 2% of the population academically), and subsequently went to “Explorers” classes run by the NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children) on Saturday mornings. I do remember that I did find a lot of primary school rather dull and not challenging or engaging enough though; on reflection, a lot of the behavioural problems I had were probably caused by boredom and not being stimulated academically enough.

Secondary school was very different;  I had a much greater enjoyment of my time at secondary school compared with primary school. I consistently found the work much more enjoyable than primary school, and was usually towards the top of the class in most subjects. I did have a lot more problems with being bullied at secondary school though, especially in the first two years, where I was singled out for being rather strange and eccentric, and had the mickey taken out of me for being mis-coordinated in games lessons. From the third year onwards, I joined an electronics club that was run by a lab technician in one of the physics labs – which benefitted me greatly – both in terms of being away from the bullies during the lunch break – and in terms of getting to learn something which interested me greatly (technology such as computers and electronics has always been one of my “obsessions”).  My favourite subjects in school were a mixture of science/technology subjects (particularly chemistry, which I went on to study at university), and music and art (which are both other “obsessions” of mine too).

In terms of being understood, I usually had a very good relationship with the teaching staff, as I was bright and nearly always well-behaved in lessons. Although I was a “primary target” for the bullies, I did have a few close friends that I got on really well with. I think I was reasonably well supported by the teaching staff, although, again, at that time, I had not yet been diagnosed with Aspergers or Autism, but was just considered to be a bright pupil who was a bit eccentric.

I would actually say that my condition stood in my favour in terms of my ability to achieve, particularly in those subjects that I especially enjoyed; but I nearly always had a high level of enthusiasm for all the subjects that I studied (I guess the one area that I had real problems in was team sports, which I just didn’t seem to “get” – thankfully I had opportunities to excel in other areas in PE though, such as trampolining, which I especially enjoyed).

I do think that my Aspergers was key to the route I took through education; I always had an interest in science, especially chemistry. During my third year of school, my grandmother died; she lived around 200 miles away from where we did at the time (we were up on the Wirral, she was down in Weston-super-Mare), so we were down there for nearly a month sorting her affairs out – in term time. We stayed at my uncle’s house; my uncle having a large collection of books, including several on chemistry, which I read obsessively while I was there, which boosted my enthusiasm for chemistry even further. Later on, during the sixth form, one of my favourite books was actually the 1959 British Pharmaceutical Codex, which I used to read just before bedtime, which had the molecular structures and chemical formulae for lots of different drugs and medicines.

 

One thing I remember vividly was my organic chemistry interview at St John’s College in Oxford, where I drew the molecular structure of cocaine, which I’d remembered from one of my uncle’s chemistry books. Surprisingly, I found the work at university very heavy going compared with school;  I found it very hard to adjust to the change in teaching styles; at school, things were generally explained in great detail, whereas at university, there was a lot that I had to go and find out myself from books; I also found it difficult going from being top of the class to just very average. A major effect of both of these factors was that I had a lot less enthusiasm for my course than I imagined that I would have done.

The year at university that I enjoyed the most was my fourth year, where I did a research project in the physical and theoretical chemistry laboratory which involved writing computer simulations; it was this which introduced me to programming in “C” and working with Unix.  Although I’d always been interested in computers, this was the biggest and most complex IT project that I’d worked on to date (by a long way).

One of the plus sides of things about university (compared with school) was that I wasn’t bullied; I did feel quite lonely for a lot of the time though, and was also very naive in terms of relationships (where I do feel that my Aspergers put me at quite a disadvantage in terms of not being able to “read” people very well).

I’ve always worked in IT. After graduating from 1996, I went to two job interviews; one for a lab technican’s job at a shampoo factory (which I didn’t get offered); the other for a software development job at a local computer firm (where I got a job offer the same day). Apart from work experience at school (in the local council’s environmental health lab), this was the first time I’d actually had any experience of work.

In general, my experience of work has been very positive; computers being something that I have a real passion for; in this sense, I feel that having Aspergers has helped me in terms of being able to maintain focus on the work.

The two main negative experiences I’ve had at work have both been on very highly pressured projects with tight deadlines and excessive overtime. In both cases, I ended up very stressed out, and having Aspie “meltdowns”, including doing things like sending inappropriate emails. I think one of the main reasons for that was that in both cases, it felt like the work was taking over my life, to the exclusion of everything else.

Other things that tend to stress me out/make me less focused at work are too much background noise, and being distracted when I’m deep in the middle of something. I also get frustrated in big companies where there are too many levels of management, and silly politics.

I’ve found that being self-employed definitely suits me better than working as an employee (even when doing consultancy projects), as I do feel like I have a lot more autonomy and control over what I do, and can work hours that suit me better, even if that means working fairly unconventional hours the greates barriers I have  overcome are almost certainly, having problems with handling stressful situations, and taking on more work than I can comfortably handle. I guess also, geography, in that I find commuting, particularly in traffic jams, quite stressful and exhausting a lot of the time.

The most important event that supported me in achieving direction to employment was Initially, the IT firm where I got my first job, for taking me on and giving me a chance, as that was absolutely key to the rest of my career. In recent years, it would be finding the Salon Geek website, www.salongeek.com – as it was this that opened me to the possibility of combining my IT skills with my interest in the beauty industry – to design websites for salons, and work on a salon software system (which is still a work in progress).

I would tell other people with Aspergers to try and seek employment that lets you make constructive use of your passions and obsessions – e.g. in my case, my passion for computers and technology. As one of the key elements of Aspergers, I think, is to have obsessive enthusiasm for particular topics. So to be able to work in an area where you can exercise your obsessions seems like a “win-win” situation for both employee and employer; the employee gets to do a job that they absolutely love, and the employer gets a dedicated passionate person working for them.

I would say to employers considering taking on somebody with Aspergers to seriously consider doing so – to accept that someone with Aspergers will almost certainly be “different” to most other employees (perhaps less so in an IT environment, where there is probably a greater prevalence of Aspergers than many other careers) – and that it’s really important to understand what makes someone with Aspergers “tick” – in terms of keeping them happy and getting the best out of them.

I think valued occupation has been one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my life; as well as the enjoyment of the work, it’s enabled me to support myself, buy a home, etc. I almost certainly spend more time working than doing anything else, so it’s absolutely critical to be working in something that I really enjoy, otherwise I just wouldn’t be happy at all doing something that I wasn’t interested in.

 

To find out more about Aspergers click HERE