Autism At Private School

An image of a young Morgan overlaid with the title "Autism and Private School"

It surprises people to learn that I went to private school.

It might be the bright blue hair, the piercings or the sex blog, but I take comfort in knowing that people don’t get a private school vibe from me. I know plenty of kids who really enjoyed the privilege of private school, but I was certainly not one of them and I was certainly not alone in that. 

I was in a difficult position as someone who, yes, was paying fees – but who was paying those fees from a tightly-controlled trust fund that could pay fees and little else. We were never loaded, and things got worse throughout my five years there, until Year 11 (which, for non-Brits, is when 15- and 16-year-olds sit their GCSE exams, which determine which colleges they can get into and which are hyped up to the kids as being far more important than they actually seem to have been). In Year 11 we fled domestic violence and ended up in probably the coldest house in Staffordshire, and that’s what widened my eyes to the bubbled nature of private schools and other rich-people institutions, how they existed in their own reality that seemed truly ignorant to the shit that normal people experience and how I had, somehow, found myself on the outside of the bubble.

I’d felt Other for as long as I could remember, but (thanks in no small part to my mum’s excellent parenting) I started out proud of my oddness, considering “weird” to be a badge of honour. I didn’t mind being the weird kid at all until private school, at which point it became clear that I wasn’t supposed to be there, being weird. When people ask me whether I was bullied in high school, my honest answer is, “I don’t know.”

Private school kids, in my experience at least, don’t hit you, and they rarely yell slurs at you. Instead, they create an atmosphere of hostility that you can either co-create with them, or fall victim to. It’s insidious, all whispers and giggles and social media posts and questions with no correct answer (like when I came out as bi and was grilled for what felt like hours about which of the popular girls I fancied the most), and it’s impossible to point to singular instances of them making you feel like shit because it’s pervasive, built into the culture of private school much like other bits of ableism are. 

Oh, which reminds me: my private school was not well-equipped for disabled students at all, which I hear is not uncommon of private schools. The buildings were big and old with brutal staircases and very limited elevator access, sprawled across a campus that was big enough to require a ten-minute gap between lessons. When I was diagnosed with autism, the school – already dismayed at my self-harm and chaotic energy – was at a loss, and the only autism-specific resource I remember receiving was a set of laminated flashcards from the Autism Outreach Team (which were of no use to me as flashcards but which I stimmed with until they fell apart). The rule was that you couldn’t eat outside of the canteen, but I won permission to go, with one friend, outside of either canteen (yes, we had two. No, we didn’t need two) to eat somewhere quieter and with fewer bodies to bump into. Unfortunately, I had to explain that I’d been given this permission to almost every staff member I encountered, since apparently word had not got out that there would be a weirdo permitted to eat their Nutella sandwiches in the wild, and I hid in my form room whenever I could, no matter the nice weather or the presence of rambunctious boys, who kind of defeated the point of quiet lunchtime. I also ended up exempt from PE, and allowed to drop Latin, which meant that there were several hours a week I had to be accounted for. Now, in my school’s defence, they started out by putting me in the library to do some schoolwork during these hours, which seems pretty reasonable. What did seem unreasonable was their objection to my writing fanfic on the library computers (not even smut – I didn’t and don’t understand why they saw no benefit in my writing things that were not strictly school-related, but I’m not a teacher). The librarian snitched on me, and I like to phrase this next part as dramatically as possible: I was shut in a cupboard for my library crimes.

Phrased less dramatically, they decided to put me somewhere with no computer access. When they said “Learning Resource Centre” I perked up, thinking perhaps there were actually some resources in this godforsaken school. Instead, I was led to a cupboard in the Maths building, coated in cheerful blue paint but still, a cupboard. If it wasn’t a cupboard originally, it was being used as one, with a desk and a chair dwarfed by shelves and shelves of stationery.

They put me in the stationery cupboard for getting distracted from my schoolwork.

(Hilariously, this was when I wrote some of my better fanfic, because I handwrote it in the cupboard and then actually proofread it as I was typing it up. Also, I listened to a *lot* of MCR and Fall Out Boy, because nobody was checking on me to see that I’d slipped an earbud in. I’d go so far as to say that some of my favourite hours were those quiet ones in the fucking cupboard, away from the constant hum of kids talking and the paranoia it could induce. I wrote and watched clouds out of the window and probably recharged my sanity a great deal before having to go back to the chaos that was home.)

There are plenty of other moments I look back on and am filled with emotions on the resentful-to-horrified spectrum. One that still lives as a thorn in my sided is that I was told explicitly that I couldn’t put in an Extenuating Circumstances claim for my DT coursework, because fleeing domestic violence isn’t acute in the way a bereavement is. This was false, and my claim probably would have been accepted, raising my grade (I got a C overall, having scored an A on the exam but been dragged down by my D-grade electronics project). I don’t know whether I was lied to or simply a victim of the ignorance that comes of only letting a handful of the most socially-acceptable disabled kids into your school. 

(There was also the blackmail incident, but I’m so tempted to put that story on YouTube that I’m not going to detail it here, except to say that I don’t think any laws were broken.)

I truly don’t believe there was any explicitly-discussed, agreed-upon agenda to treat disabled kids like shit. I don’t think they cared enough about us for that, to be honest. They simply refused to engage with the notion that some of their perfect, posh little students could be disabled, and as a result they had no resources at the ready for kids like me, no policies or alternatives or anything, just a cupboard. I felt distant from my neurotypical peers and forgotten by my school, and other private school kids I’ve talked to can relate, whether they’re autistic, otherwise learning-disabled, or any other kind of disabled. 

I would like to end this blog post with the sentiment that private schools should do better, but my experience there shaped my angry leftist belief that actually, private schools shouldn’t exist. I didn’t manage to get a better education through money, but I did access the privilege of having a more prestigious education that looked better on applications. Schools have the power, I believe, to really level out the playing field for all kinds of kids and to unify them under the banners of equitable education and community. I don’t think private schools are going to do anything more than further distance kids from each other, imbuing the sense that they’re either distinctly superior or distinctly inferior to other kids. Education should be at such a high standard across the country that the only additional benefits money can get you are a comfier seat, but we’ve got quite a while to go.

If you’re a current or ex-private school kid, my sympathies to you. Please follow Baby Morgan’s example and be subversive at every opportunity, run for student council and be as loud as you safely can about the beautiful ways in which you’re different. (Also, if you’re a current private school kid, please click away from this blog, because I assume you’re not yet 18/21/the age of consent in your location. You’ll have plenty of time to look at weird sex blogs when you’re older, but right now please try and enjoy being a kid. Kids should get to enjoy being themselves.)

The Basics: What Is Autism?

Purple and blue box which reads "The Basics: What Is Autism?"

Welcome to The Basics, where I give an overview of a topic that I talk about a lot. This time, already more than a week late for the start of Autism Acceptance Month, I’m here to give an overview about autism. 

I talk about a lot of complex connections between autism and kink, autism and sex, autism and mental health, etc etc. I never want to condescend readers who are already immersed in the discourse, so I usually skip the bit where I explain what autism is and how it affects a person’s life. But there’s no shame in being unaware of exactly what autism is or what it’s like to live with – nobody is born knowing anything and a lot of conversations about it, like with most things, assume a level of knowledge that not everybody is going to have. If you don’t mind that this is a sex blog, this post will hopefully constitute a useful primer that you can send to your loved ones instead of trying to explain it all yourself.

Autism, originally named “autistic psychopathy” because psychiatric medicine was Like That, is a neurodevelopmental condition (that is, it affects the development of the brain), and some autistic people (including myself) regard it as a disability. (We sometimes refer to autism as a “neurotype” to indicate that it is not a disease or ailment but rather a valid way for a brain to be arranged. However, many autistic people express pride in their different neurotype, or neurodivergence, whilst still feeling like being autistic in a world built for allistic (non-autistic) people is disabling for them.) This of course means that autistic people are at risk of ableism perpetuated by individuals, as well as by organisations like Autism Speaks, which most autistic people hate for their emphasis on a cure, their advocacy for unethical practices including ABA, their puzzle piece imagery that suggests we’re incomplete people, and/or for the fact that only a fraction of the money they pull in is spent on helping autistic people in any tangible way (here’s a PDF from ASAN with more info). Because autism affects the brain, it expresses itself in a huge variety of ways, but some common ones can include hyper- or hyposensitivity of one or more of the senses, periods of intense hyperfocus on a singular topic or task, difficulty learning and applying social rules, and difficulty with interoception (the perception of one’s own body including hunger, thirst, etc). My favourite quote on this topic comes from Tony Attwood: “If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum,” i.e. autistic people are just as different from one another as allistic people are from one another. 

One thing that often comes up when autistic people talk about their experiences is the fact that they only represent, well, autistic people who can talk. Some autistic people never talk in English words at all, and some (like me) can talk your ear off until they’re overwhelmed, distressed, tired, etc, at which point they lose the use of most or all of their vocabulary. Some autistic people will find use in augmented communication devices that can say particular words or phrases for them, while others use sign language, write things down, or use a combination of different methods of communication. It’s true that I don’t know what it’s like to be an entirely nonspeaking autistic person, but I do know that nonspeaking =/= non-communicative. Some autistic people struggle to read tone, facial expressions, body language etc, but that doesn’t mean that these aren’t ways for an autistic person to communicate. I typically work on the assumption that all people have something of value to say, no matter how they say it, and that it’s worth trying to perceive the atypical, nonverbal ways a person might communicate.

As a linguistics graduate I also tend to assume that language is extremely important in most areas of human existence, but I’m confident in saying that it’s especially important when discussing disability, just as it is with other marginalised identities and groups. You might see a lot of autistic people talk about a preference for identity-first language, as opposed to person-first language. Person-first language refers to “people with autism”, while identity-first language refers to “autistic people”. Many autistic people, including myself, prefer the latter, as they feel that the former (often championed more passionately by allistic people than autistic people) linguistically removes their autism from them, positioning it the way we would a diagnosis of illness rather than neurodivergence, and implying that personhood and autism are at odds with one another. That said, we have the right to decide which language we identify with, and if someone tells you that they prefer to be called a “person with autism”, you should definitely listen to them. Also, given Hans Asperger’s relationship to eugenics as well as some people’s opinion that Aspergers Syndrome is essentially autism, but in a way that’s useful to capitalism, you shouldn’t apply the labels of Aspie or Aspergers to someone else unless that’s the language they use to describe themselves.

Since autism is technically a developmental disability, I once found myself punching one of my Year 7 classmates for using the word “retard”, which I think most people know is an ableist slur. Except I wasn’t defending my own autism; it would take 6 years after my younger sibling’s diagnosis for me to get mine, at the age of 14. There were a lot of reasons for this, but one of them was my assigned-female status that encouraged me to mask a lot of my difficulties and discouraged the adults around me from labelling them as autism. It is well-known that diagnostic criteria are usually sculpted according to the presentation of a condition in your average white male, meaning that many assigned-female autistic people are diagnosed late or never, as are autistic people of colour and autistic people with one or more additional condition. Autism is not a condition which significantly warps your relationship to reality, so you will find that a lot of autistic people (especially online) are self-diagnosed using the plethora of resources that are out there, and formally-diagnosed autistic people welcome them with open arms (and if they don’t, they suck and you should unfollow them), especially given the inaccessibility of a formal diagnosis if you aren’t a cookie-cutter white guy (and sometimes even if you are). 

Autism is often diagnosed in children, in part because they have not yet learned the bundle of masking techniques that make it harder to spot autism in adults, and in part because the diagnostic criteria were originally written based on only child subjects. However, because it’s how your brain is built, it’s a lifelong condition that affects adults as much as it does children, and autistic adults are out there in your communities, hopefully living fulfilling and safe lives. I say this because people often forget autistic adults in their zeal for helping autistic kids, when in reality autism can feel more disabling in adulthood because of the added pressures of employment, housing, etc. Upsettingly, this focus on kids still doesn’t result in them receiving appropriate resources. If you can deal with ableism and child abuse then I strongly encourage you to investigate the #StopTheShock movement, as well as to research the harms of ABA, or Applied Behaviour Analysis; both these things indicate a desire to remove a child’s autism, or at least make it less visible to surrounding adults, rather than increasing their quality of life and equipping them with skills that will make life as an autistic adult easier. Resources for autistic people in general are either non-existent or wildly condescending, which is one of the reasons so many of us are being shouty on the internet, and resources are even more sparse for adults than they are for kids. There are disproportionately more “autism-friendly” screenings of children’s movies than there are of teen or grown-up movies, and autism-friendliness seems to mean little more than “you can get out of your seat and the volume isn’t as aggressive” in most of these settings. Again, autistic people are as different from one another as allistic people are, so trying to make any venue or event “autism-friendly” sounds like something of a fool’s errand to me. (I need audio to either be nonexistent or painfully loud, for example, and dimmed lights make my head hurt because visual processing is not my forte even in regular lighting. This makes so-called “autism-friendly” screenings distinctly Morgan-unfriendly, but I’m glad that some people get benefit from them and I hope we can build on the model to allow even more autistic people, kids and adults, to enjoy cinema.)

There is a lot more to be said about autism and the amazing autistic people educating others than I can fit into a single blog post, but the key points are:

  • Autism is a brain difference that manifests differently in everyone
  • It affects sensory perception, social interaction and attention/inattention, among other things
  • It is a lifelong condition which many consider a disability, especially in a world not built for us
  • Most, but not all, autistic people seem to prefer identity-first language (“autistic person”)
  • If you say “retard” in front of me, in Year 7 or now, I will hit you
  • Autistic girls, people or colour and adults are underdiagnosed, but this doesn’t actually make them any less likely to be autistic
  • I personally stand strongly in favour of self-diagnosis for autism
  • Autism-friendly cinema screenings and shopping hours annoy me an unreasonable amount due to the aforementioned differences between autistic people’s needs
  • There are many, many autistic creators and educators whose voices are valid, valuable and worth your time to check out! I can’t link all of them, but here are a few:

 

Thank you for reading, and I’ll see y’all soon!

Splitting in BPD (Or: A Guide To Loving Me When I Hate Your Guts)

Allow me to define “splitting”. It’s a behaviour often found in individuals with BPD, characterised by suddenly and intensely wanting or needing to detach from someone to whom you were previously attached. I can only compare it to those mad thoughts you have about going to live in some nearby woods when you’re 14 and arguing with your mum about your school uniform, but amplified to be inescapable, all of that adolescent rage attached to it alongside fear, hurt, revulsion, heartbreak and every other feeling you could attribute to a trauma response. It’s the brain’s way of protecting you from more unhealthy attachments, so it happens in response to a stimulus of some sort – but one of the cornerstones of BPD is hypersensitivity, so the stimulus that prompts us to split might not actually be as dangerous as it feels. Whether it’s a punch to the face or an ignored text message, it feels intensely dangerous, so much so that my brain then takes action, working to replace any fondness with anger or fear by creatively reinterpreting real-world evidence until it fits with the all-or-nothing, “this person is dead to me” narrative.

The first thing that you need to know about splitting is that it hurts me more than it hurts you. You will probably feel wounded, rejected, anxious, frustrated, and it will suck, but I am also having all of those emotions in BPD form, i.e. with the intensity of a thousand suns. I don’t just put you out of my mind entirely when I split on you; I agonise over it. My thumb hovers over block buttons until the muscles in my hand cramp whilst I try to weigh up how reasonable I’m being. I type and delete messages I will never send about what’s hurting me and what I need. Sometimes, I act like a dick, and I know as I’m doing it that I’m being dickish, but it feels like the only safe thing to do. My deep, reptile-brain impulse is to destroy the relationship beyond repair so that there’s never any danger of more hurt, and I spend hours with my stomach in knots, arguing with myself about how I can’t have normal human relationships and how selfish moving to the woods might actually be. I can identify when I’m splitting (though I couldn’t as a furious 14-year-old) but I don’t split for no reason. I can’t automatically reconnect with reality when my brain is twisting things, blowing them out of proportion and shoving them through traumatised lenses, but I can try and conduct myself in a way that Connected-to-Reality Morgan won’t deeply regret. This mostly involves distancing myself, not in any embarrassing noticeable ways like hitting that block button but just reaching out less, trying not to give my BPD any new ammo with which it can maintain the split. At this point, frustrating though it is, all you can do is leave me to my space and my thoughts. 

This brings me onto the second thing you need to know about splitting: unsplitting is hard work. Fighting my impulse to run is hard enough, but unsplitting requires you to walk directly towards the scary thing. There’s a principle in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) called “Opposite Action”, where you identify an irrational feeling or impulse and you act in the exact opposite way that your impulse wants you to. In splitting, for me, this looks like sending a message after a long period of quiet, trying to make plans or being openly affectionate towards you again. They are small acts that are too terrifying to commit whilst sober a lot of the time, so Stoned or Drunk Morgan picks up the slack while their fear and hurt are somewhat numbed. This opposite action can only happen, though, once I’ve identified why I’m splitting and whether this person is actually dangerous. The obvious piece of advice here, then, is to continually prove through your actions that you are not a danger to me. The other piece of advice I would like to give is that if you think I’m doing Opposite Action, or if I’ve been quiet for a while, or in general if you don’t know where you stand with me, just respond with enthusiasm. Make it clear that you’re glad to hear from me. Essentially, reward me for doing the hard scary thing, and leave the ball in my court when it comes to beginning a discussion about the splitting itself, because I’m probably too scared for that in this early stage of unsplitting.

Here is the third thing about splitting: it’s not about you. It’s really, really not. My brain, with its rigid little boxes, has tried to file you in the same cabinet as some other people who did some other things. If you get busy and don’t respond to my inane messages about memes and movies, my brain tries to put you into a cabinet with other people who stopped messaging me abruptly, which includes people who did that exact thing in order to manipulate me. If you said something on a rainy Monday morning which came off as irritable, my brain tries to put you into the same filing cabinet as the man who shoved me towards the top of the staircase when I was 15, because in that situation, irritability preceded abuse. Those filing cabinets are alarmed, and they were like that before your files showed up. I’m really stretching the filing metaphor here, but I want you to know that the majority of the time, a split is a function of my brain, not of our relationship – it’s usually only minimally connected to your behaviour, and has much more to do with the behaviour of cunts you’ve never even met. All I can say is try – and I know it’s fucking hard – not to take it personally when my brain links you to evil bastards and floods me with fear. If you do take it personally, mid-split or mid-unsplit is maybe not the most constructive time to ask me for reassurance, but if you understand splitting (due to blog posts like these), you have the opportunity and the vocabulary to talk to other loved ones about what’s going on with us, so you can at least process it a little before you and I start to discuss it.

The fourth thing, for everyone to know about splitting, is: it passes. It’s hard work, and sometimes it’s not worth it. I split on celebrities after one transphobic joke and I don’t care enough about them to work through all my DBT techniques in order to forgive them and move on. I split on people who, with distance, I end up seeing are legitimately dangerous. But I also split on people who are patient and loving towards me, who accept that sometimes I need space and sometimes I need attention and sometimes I need help figuring out which one I need. I split on people who are beloved by my support network and said support network helps me to unsplit, safe in the knowledge that this time, it’s definitely just my BPD and not a real threat to my wellbeing. I split on people regularly, in smaller ways and bigger ones, but I conquer it when I realise it’s worth conquering. My brain has this extremely strong mechanism by which to keep me safe, but I’m stronger even than that, because I have learned and am learning how to shut the filing cabinets and say hi. The fact that people with BPD have relationships like the ones I now have, characterised by love and mutual support and trust, is a testament to the ferocity with which we fight, every day, to be good people despite our pain. And again, let me reiterate, splitting is painful, but us people with BPD know that, and knowingly take on that risk when they form and keep relationships, every single day. Therefore, my final piece of advice is to remember that people with BPD are working hard to stay in your life, on purpose, every day, because we have decided that you’re worth it. Remember that we’re people, and we’re often great people, and for that reason alone we’re worth the hard work, too.