The Rule of Three – confessions of an autistic a-hole

Have you ever found you had something to unlearn?


I don’t know about you but from the cradle to the workplace I’ve had my fair share of “How many times do you have to be told” and “You’re not listening” – with varying degrees of justification.

Standards change from one generation to another and a lot that was used to knock people into shape in my youth is viewed as abusive now – I’m not talking about corporal punishment you understand. I can appreciate that some people will always react differently to a known handicap (why should I object to that word as long as it isn’t used as an adjective for a person) to how they do to apparent stubbornness. But I remember a classmate in year four being challenged by the otherwise very affectionate teacher (and the best I ever had) “What have you got inside your head – peanuts?” A load of us got the giggles and said classmate seems unharmed by the slur which was more to motivate him to use his common sense than anything else.

But sometimes (if the author of this blog is anything to go by) these things rub off on us and we can copy them with the thought “Well it didn’t do me any harm.”

My personal bugbear has always been having to tell someone something at least two or three times, often in response to them asking the same question on a repeated basis. I take the motto that if the answer wasn’t important enough to remember then the question can’t have been important enough to ask in the first place. A few examples follow:


“Have you ever thought of learning to drive?”

This would seem an innocuous enough question if not for the fact that the same person had once said sympathetically “It’s so sad isn’t it that everyone’s expected to have the aptitude for driving nowadays” thus earning the distinction of one I would never have to dissect the matter with again. Small wonder then if I bury my face in my hands and scream silently. Expectations have been disrupted and something I felt I could take as read, I no longer could.


“Oi loike a bit of music Oi do. This one’s A Good Heart by Feargal Sharkey” says a colleague where I volunteer.

I politely ask his age and establish we’re only a year apart so we’re going to know a lot of the same music and that I’m really into music too.

The CD goes to Walk Like An Egyptian. “The Bangles – lead singer Susanna Hoffs” said colleague points out. “Yeah I know – I know my music” I reply patiently.

One song later he actually walks over to tell me artist and title when I’m in conversation with someone else. This time I snap “Yes I know my music! I know what the songs are!” He walks away and won’t talk to me. Say what you like but he has transgressed what I call “The Rule of Three” i.e. I’ve told you once, I’ve told you twice, you obviously haven’t taken it in so the only way I can make darn sure I’m not going to have to tell you a fiftieth time is to adopt a somewhat more brusque tone.

I can make exceptions. I hope I would be patient with someone who had Alzheimer’s or short term working memory disorder or with a company director who is already trying to remember fifty other things. But no-one can say to me “How would you like it if I did that to you?” because, to the best of my recollection, people HAVE done it to me and I have just had to shut up and take my medicine. In terms of employers, the ones who didn’t were usually the ones who issued a P45 further down the line. Also there’ve been times when I haven’t liked the way someone spoke to me and when I’ve told them so, they simply answer “Well I’m sorry but I couldn’t see any other way of getting through to you!!!” little realising that it works the same both ways and sometimes we get p***ed off too at the hindrances to giving and receiving communication that autism brings.

“Yes but not everybody’s got your memory ” I hear you cry. OK so not everybody’s got the savant type memory for such trivia as the station between Sevenoaks and Tonbridge or the colour of Tom Baker’s pyjamas*. But people have seen something as important enough to ask about so the answer must mean something to them. Or at least they could say “Sorry, I know I’ve asked you before but I’ve forgotten the answer”, one I have been known to use in this type of situation if only in order to avoid having criticisms of hypocrisy levelled at me.

Or maybe I’m just an a-hole…

Ah I’m breaking my own rule. Here’s a third example – click here for Exhibit C.

*The respective answers are Hildenborough and “Why should I care?”
Image from the cover of the Violent Femmes album 3 imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Really Wild?

1986. A youngster with a Howard Jones hairdo and red DMs gets his big break on TV. At home a near friendless geek watches, brooding on his reputation at school as a walking talking heap of trouble. The two seem worlds apart and yet…


A young Chris Packham on the first edition of The Really Wild Show, not to be confused with Howard Jones.

On 21st January 1986 my annual SEN review took place at school. At it was at the end of a Tuesday, my mother, who had attended was able to give me a lift home. “Your behaviour in class has improved” she said “they think you’re going to be an interesting guy when you grow up but what they’re really worried about is your behaviour on the trains.”

Concern along these lines had been raised once before when a complaint from staff at the station where I caught my train home reached the ears of my school. I had improved my behaviour accordingly and ceased whirling like a dervish near the platform edge (I knew how to keep my balance but had overinterpreted the absence of a yellow line and reckoned without staff and fellow travellers having kittens) and held off from other behaviours they seemed to have misinterpreted but none of this had desisted from a fellow pupil at my mainstream independent school kicking me backwards as he disembarked from the slam-door unit and my head striking an exposed nail where a blind-holder should have been. Just five days before the review as well!

There was more concern too. “Mrs Collins* says you’re not taking part in group activities”.

“I want to take part but no-one will let me join their group” I protested.

“Well would you talk to the counsellor about it please.”

I never did but we talked about a fair amount else. In those pre-diagnostic days (as I so often say on this blog) no-one knew how to handle me and it was either psychotherapy or farm me out to a special school. I realise now that special school didn’t necessarily mean being stuck with those with severe learning difficulties (or severe mental handicap as we would have called it back then) but at any rate my continuing to have psychotherapy was a condition of my continuing education there. The therapy ended at the end of second year and I was able to carry on another three years before leaving after GCSEs.

But I digress. Having got home early and needing space to unwind after that difficult conversation (albeit not as much as my poor mother needed after excessive questioning about what I was like at home, whether it would be better for me to board or have lifts to school instead of catching the train – “no way” said Mum who had recently started her career in the Church of England and had no intention of sacrificing ten hours a week to do long-distance school runs) I made straight for my room and the small portable television I had been spoilt with.

Long-distance commuting meant I didn’t get home in time to watch any trendy kids progs like Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds etc but the one silver lining of today was getting home in time to see a bit of a new wildlife programme for kids. Animal Magic with Johnny Morris had been given the chop (thanks to Michael Grade’s shake-up which also put paid to Crackerjack and deprived us of Doctor Who for 18 months) but his bald wild-eyed sidekick Terry Nutkins had been put with a couple of young trendy types for something called THE REALLY WILD SHOW which involved an audience shouting the programme’s name, hence the capital letters. That would take me up to Grange Hill quite nicely. Or did I just catch the last few minutes? Well either way.

The two young trendy types were a girl called Nick Davies (who went on to write a book for kids about the use of dung, guano etc in science entitled Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable) and a bloke with a mullet hairdo called Chris Packham whom Davies dubiously describes as “an expert on birds”.

“This is a world I can no longer inhabit”, I think to myself. “Getting home early from an innocent day of activity-based learning and kids who’ve mostly come to like me and just accept that I don’t really do playground games.” Letters home and meetings about your future were worlds away then and only thugs who threw bricks through windows had them. I felt like I had gone from Adrian Mole to Barry Kent, from Roland Browning to Gripper Stebson in terms of how I was perceived and responded to (forgive the 80s in-talk). Nick and Chris on The Really Wild Show are cool. I like to think I am but I’m still struggling to be fully accepted by my peers at school (oh heck I’m starting to sound like one of my old reports). Is it any wonder that I have regressed from being the health freak of two years ago who tried to dissuade the headmaster’s wife from finishing her toddler’s food because it would spread germs mouth-to-mouth to a weirdo who chews gum from under the desks cos his mum won’t let him buy the stuff? Or did my doing that make me controversial first? So much chicken-and-egg back then.

Fast-forward 31 years. I’ve worked my way down from IT at college to warehouseman to missionary to struggling drama graduate to failed Teaching Assistant and permanent fixture in the voluntary sector. I got diagnosed with Asperger’s at 21. Employers haven’t always been great but friends are increasingly understanding and there’s even been some reparation with teachers and pupils from school days.

And everyone’s asking me if I’ve seen the programme about Chris Packham. I knew he’d come out as having Asperger’s Syndrome but I take a lot of celebrity diagnoses with a pinch of salt for reasons explained here. But when even someone whose lodger/girl buddy could barely stand my company back in the days when I was getting used to having a label recommends it to me, I know I have to watch.

I recently got the present head of my old school (a mere strapling doing teaching practice with us back then) to send me photocopies of everything in my personal file. The package arrived yesterday. Bits of it made for heavy reading, especially from the three months or so leading up to the aforementioned SEN review. Subject of controversy, antagonising others then complaining of being teased (usually not immediately after the initial offence, hence my failure to make a connection). But how strange that reading those minutes again should coincide with the positive afterglow among the viewing public from the documentary Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me.

I’m sitting down to watch it on iPlayer now.

“In many respects, Mum and Dad completely facilitated your enthusiasms” says his sister.

“Obssessions” corrects Packham, “Yes but when things went bad they didn’t know why”.

“It’s hard to meet the needs, the safeties” says the mother of one young adult with the condition. Rather like what school staff and blokes in British Rail uniform would have been saying about yours truly back in 1985.

It seems me and the man with the mullet had a lot more in common than I realised that afternoon.

The world has come a long way since January 21st 1986.

And I for one couldn’t be more grateful.

I just wish I’d made it big at 24 like he did.


Packham today, in a more reflective mood.

*Name has been changed


Bigger fish to fry

I don’t always indulge my obsessions (oops sounds too clinical), hobbies (nope sounds like a toy horse for kids), passions (that’ll do) on this blog. But with the big hype around the casting of the first female Doctor Who (wow I can’t believe it’s not a joke anymore) I couldn’t not offer some perspective.


Image snapped from my computer screen. Copyright BBC.

So there I was tuned into Wimbledon final knowing that at some point in the gap between the men’s singles and the mixed doubles the announcement would be made. I even went on Wikipedia and taught myself how the tennis scoring system worked. Gone are the days when it was just launched at you out of the blue on the evening news though I have fond memories of my mother saying “Oh it’s the one who was in Hammond and Son” (she meant The Brothers) and four years later my going “Oh wow it’s that guy out of Jigsaw”.

Eventually Roger Federer finished hugging people and disappeared into the changing room and Sue Barker said “But now the question is Who…. is Number 13?”

A woodland scene with whistling in the background. Another of the modern BBC idents (I say bring back the spinning globe)? Nope there’s a figure strolling through the woods. A figure. Heavily clad in black gender-neutral clothing (though the suede ankle boots were a teeny giveaway).

The camera pans up. The cloaked figure throws back the hood. A cascade of blonde hair falls down framing a made-up face which looks neutrally at camera for a moment then smiles as the woman steps slowly towards the familiar blue box.

As the birdsong and music fade, the black and gold letters announce “INTRODUCING JODIE WHITTAKER THE 13TH DOCTOR”.

Well I had to admit they seemed to be running out of ways to do the male version. We’ve had grumpy and/or volatile (William Hartnell, Colin Baker, Christopher Eccleston, Peter Capaldi) over and over and it hasn’t always helped the ratings. Patrick Troughton’s portrayal has been aped time and again whether in the comedy of Sylvester McCoy, the gasping energy of Paul McGann or the bow-tie of Matt Smith. I was hoping Capaldi’s Doctor would be more like the warm avuncular Jon Pertwee version but I was disappointed. Tom Baker of course is a colossus of a Doctor and David Tennant showed his influence while still making the character very much his own. Peter Davison was just a nice relaxed guy and Matt Smith was similar although I still describe his portrayal as Tennant-lite. Almost invariably from Davison onwards (1982) the actors have cited Hartnell or Troughton as an influence on how they played the role.

The Doctor works best when the new incarnation is a stark contrast to the overriding characteristic of the previous one while still bringing something uniquely theirs to the role. I didn’t see that in Matt Smith and while the change from his smug pretty boy portrayal to Peter Capaldi’s sinister take on the role was stark, I didn’t feel safe or at home watching the Twelfth Doctor.

And after all these years of it being suggested with varying levels of seriousness and naysayers (myself included) crying out against the possibility of changing the Doctor’s gender, maybe it was time to just flipping well give it a try.

We’ve had a female Master now and seen another Time Lord regenerate into a woman so it’s a no-brainer now that one day a showrunner will cast a female in the role. Even my constant refrain of “If the Doctor had always been female, no-one would be saying it was time for a man” carried so much less clout than it might have done before. Steven Moffat has been edging us towards the idea even though it is his successor who has taken up the challenge.

And with the old guard including Colin and Sylvester hailing Jodie Whittaker’s casting and highly respected figures from behind the scenes like writer Mark Gatiss (long a favourite of mine) doing the same, and a recast version of Bill Hartnell’s first Doctor coming back for the regeneration episode almost like there was no other way to usher in this brave new era (and brave it is you have to agree whether it works or not), I have to realise it’s time to drop my pet peeve and realise I have bigger fish to fry.

I have male friends who think it’s about time.

I have female friends who think it’s a dreadful idea.

But ever since Tom Baker joked in 1980 that he could be replaced by a woman, the idea has grown in strength and with the show hot property again since its 2005 revival (though it’s not as white hot as it was then) the pressure was growing. So it’s really a bit of a relief that we don’t have the usual dialogue where some cry out for a woman, some actresses even do well at the bookies and then the naysayers breathe a sigh of relief when another man is cast. So maybe it’s time for another sigh of relief – this time that this boring dialogue is over.

It’s happened. If it works, great. If not it’ll be a lesson learned.

But with North Korean citizens being tortured and killed for even so much as wanting to leave, welfare recipients dying in the UK because of our broken benefits system and the unlikelihood of many of the Grenfell Tower bereaved being able to find and bury their loved ones is this really worth getting upset over?

Somehow I think the Doctor would say no.

“Can do A” “Can’t do B” – the stereotypical views of autism

After the look at the stereotypical support worker in “Wot a kerfuffle“, we now turn our attention to the other side of the Little Britain coin. How does the apparently fraudulent character of Andy Pipkin represent the confusion in our lives as autistics today?


“Want that one!” “Yeah I know” “Stop paraphrasing me!” You can tell I watched my Little Britain DVDs a lot back when it was being made regularly and yours truly was getting through jobs like underwear.

Andy Pipkin. The apparent fraudster being pushed along in his wheelchair by put-upon carer Lou Todd, demanding what he will obviously not want when given it (“Want that one!” “Don’t like it!”), groping women in the street and getting out of his wheelchair and up to antics ranging from parachuting to climbing pylons and getting frazzled when Lou’s back was turned.

But without trying to attribute anything to Matt Lucas and David Walliams, who have continually insisted the character is just for laughs, let’s have some fun with character analysis (you can tell I studied drama). Just how needy IS Andy? Is he a total fraud? If anything he smacks of the sort of thing comedy, which works best when it’s anti-establishment, could get away with under the New Labour government when people with disabilities were treated much better than under what we’ve had up to now (April 2017) and readers of the Daily Mail (excuse the stereotype) who took the view that the majority of benefit claimants were spongers would have found expression for this idea in the character of Andy.

But let’s take another look at character motivation. Why would anyone fake a disability? Is the motivation necessarily ulterior? In today’s system, you have to exaggerate a bit in order to prove to the powers that be just how needy you are.

For example, the whole view that if you can do A, then you can do B and C as well. This has reached an extreme form in the idea that if you can lift both hands above your head then you are fit for work and other such drivel. Can you cook? You have to say “No” rather than “Well I can manage one or two simple dishes but the heavy multitasking element, as well as that involved in buying loads of ingredients makes it harder still – and no, a class in cookery won’t suddenly mean I don’t need benefit” (see here for more along those lines). To the vultures in power, a teeny bit of ability is like a teeny bit of yeast to a Jew at Passover – if it’s there, it invalidates everything.

So what are you left with? You can either claim to be able to do more than you can, which won’t help anyone, least of all yourself, or you can claim to be able to do less in which case, if your mindset is as literal as the average Aspie type (and I include myself to an extent) you’d better not let the DWP vultures see you taking a stroll in the woods (“You don’t look disabled to me”) or even buying a train ticket to London (“How can you afford that on benefits?”).

And even beyond the government, friends and family have their assumptions too along the lines of “If you can write a song that moves me to tears then you can do a soup.” Either that or they will insist you need occupational therapy when noting your zip has ridden down and yet when it comes to executive function and keeping one’s home in an orderly state, they’ll tell you it’s nothing to do with ability or even gender (where others would say “This place needs a woman’s touch”) and that you just need to forego some luxuries and pay for a cleaner. Either that or they’ll tell you you can’t manage your money in one breath and in the next will assert that you really ought to do something about your weight problem. So from “Can’t budget” to “Can diet fanatically” in one breath. Dogmatisation. It ain’t helpful at all.

Even in childhood I had some of this. “A clever chap like you not knowing that?” on the one hand while on the other begging my mother not to mention co-ordination problems on a form for a youth weekend away because I didn’t want to be prohibited from taking part in anything (mercifully I wasn’t).

But I have my own modus operandi for this. My motto is simple.


You would have needed someone to tell you when you were a kid. But now you can stand up for yourself inasmuch as you feel able. “Yes I can do A. No I can’t do B.” “Yes I think I could learn C with help. No I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do D – it’s just part of my disability.”

Never let anyone create a system that says “You can do X and therefore you can do Y” or “Well you struggle with A so why bother trying to learn B?”.

YOU know. You don’t need anyone to tell you.

Or as one folksinger put it “You may criticize me/Try to analyze me/Put me in your little pigeon hole/I’ll still hold the key to the place where I am free/A world that only I control”.

If the world adopted this motto, the Andy syndrome of apparent fraudulence would be a lot harder to find. Mr Pipkin himself would probably step out of the wheelchair and still show some signs of retardation (or whatever the politically correct term is) but at least not have to fake paralysis in order for his genuine needs to be taken seriously.

An Autistic on Sesame Street Part 2: In the Flesh

Julia has arrived – and she’s in the flesh!


Image not owned by me – for educational and informative purposes only.

Longstanding readers of this blog will remember my flight of nostalgia in October 2015 when it was announced that a character called Julia who has autism was being introduced into the Sesame Street franchise. Those who don’t can read it here.

But now Julia is no longer confined to the ‘printed’ medium. No longer simply the stuff of PDF literature, she made her full debut on the long-running children’s series (48 years and counting) on April 10th 2017 (yesterday as I type this) as a fully fledged autistic muppet (perhaps I should rename this blog).

Here in the jolly old OK it hasn’t proved possible to watch the entire episode but a ten minute clip has been made available on Sesame Street’s official YouTube channel – you can watch it here.

So – what are my thoughts? I can only engage in a conversation with myself 18 months ago when I first ruminated on the character and how she might manifest if moved to the physical medium.

AUTISTIC HERMIT 2015: I mean getting a human actor to portray an autistic/Aspie character is simple enough… But you try creating a puppet that acts like an autistic stereotype with lips fixed firmly and expressionlessly together and puts clenched fists on the side of its head and pulls its jacket over itself when the verbal taunts get too much etc etc.

AUTISTIC HERMIT 2017: Wow she does put her hands on her head – check out how the siren from a passing emergency vehicle gets her going. I don’t remember being bugged by those myself but it’s clearly part of the overload for her and wow this muppet can actually move her hands – I don’t recall Kermit or Miss Piggy ever doing that.

AH 2015: Aside from being difficult to operate such a puppet, Sesame Workshop would probably get done for discrimination before you could say “Me love cookies!”.

AH 2017: Well she’s met Big Bird already. Let’s hope it’s only a matter of time before she starts aping Cookie Monster although this could set a bad example to young viewers…

AH 2015: What’s also a pity is that everything is now seen through the sanitised eyes of Elmo, who simply has daddy explain to him that Julia has autism. Personally I would have loved to see a little Big Bird bewilderment or Oscar having a grouch about this incomprehensible newcomer – this could really speak to how we often are out in reality where not everything’s A okay.

AH 2017: Well hey now we’ve had the Big Bird bewilderment but he doesn’t take long to get used to the newcomer. Oscar meets Julia… now that I would love to see!

But even today I have my reservations. In my day we had to learn to fit in. Not to the point of doing things we didn’t want to but just in realising that we couldn’t always propose or set the terms of the activity we were trying to participate in or initiate and that we would likely end up loners if we did. Just because Julia does ‘boing boing’ doesn’t mean everybody else is obliged to play tag the same way. Do we want autistic kids to get the idea that they are entitled to set the corporate pace wherever they go? Also there are health and safety considerations – if they really want to be gritty and realistic they’ll have to have Julia lacking co-ordination and spatial awareness and bouncing straight into another player, but I don’t think they’ve quite got round to giving muppets the capacity for tears and nosebleeds just yet.

But this middle-aged cynicism aside, I do applaud the way in which professional psychologists and the like have been consulted in the development of the character and the lady who created and operates the puppet has a son with autism who has seemingly no objection at all to the character and is even seen to give the puppet a cuddle almost as if she calms him like Julia’s toy rabbit Fluffster. I can’t seem to find the link right now despite having watched it only fifteen minutes ago. I guess this is what they call impaired executive function.

Right – I’m going to paint an 11…

Blue Sparks and Long Weights – the early working years

The workplace is a lot more politically correct now than it used to be. There are grievance procedures and HR departments if you get given grief whether disability related or otherwise. But it also used to be a lot less target-driven and there was more scope for people with certain challenges to develop without dismissal. Or was that just the place I worked…


I had left full-time education. I had a lot of anxiety and I needed more space to clear my head than I felt a coursework schedule would allow at the time. Knowing we were entering a recession at the time (1992) I decided to do the two year Work Preparation Programme at the college where I had been ‘studying’ over the preceding year. Little did I know I was basically stepping into a course that dealt with individuals who might be classed as dropouts and ruffians. My escapades on day release at college deserve a piece to themselves.

But I was getting through placements like underwear. Over the first four months or so there were two I left because I didn’t like them, one I got dismissed from after one day and another looked promising and earned me a day less in college (the better you were at your job the more days per week you spent on placement) until I was told that ‘two week trial’ did not mean I’d get taken on for longer if I did well.

But it was a few days after the last of these finished that the placements officer said “I’ve got something at a warehouse that does Christmas cards. Would you be interested?”

I said yes and the next day was driven to the warehouse of Alban Greetings. I was taken inside and introduced to the manager Colin Richards, a short man with a friendly but abrupt manner.

“Do you want to work here?” I did.

Initially it was a doddle. The newbies from the college usually spent the first day out helping one of the drivers and I was no exception. On the second day I was putting gift tags, string etc into boxes to be taken to our dedicated home workers to assemble. I enjoyed this. Nice and simple and colourful too. But on the third day I had a broom thrust in my hand and got told to sweep the floor.

So I did. And every time you finished there was more to do.

And more.

And more.

And still more.

How clean is clean? It was a while before anyone told me to just focus on the “big dirt” i.e. dropped polybags, discarded cellophane wrap etc rather than worry about wiping dust off railings. Colin’s temper had me abandoning logic to the point where I would ask Naz, Colin’s immediate junior, if I needed to pick up euro holes from the floor. He’d send me round to the machine room to collect twenty red ones “and make sure they’re not faded” and even the machine room supervisor saying I should tell Naz to get stuffed didn’t make me realise the guy was pulling my leg.

For the whole of that fifteen-month placement, sweeping and cleaning was my main task. I didn’t dare complain – Colin Richards turned out to be a fearsome man to get the wrong side of, although he did tactfully ask on one occasion how I felt about sweeping all the time and tell me how important my role was by saying that you couldn’t have a Red Indian chief without having lots of little Indians doing the menial work and giving me two free boxes of Christmas cards seemingly to placate me. But I didn’t dare leave either – I had been in too many placements in too few months to justify it, and besides there turned out to be a very warm family atmosphere there.

It was after Colin had left for pastures new that autumn that I moaned to Tom the stock control guy that I was here to learn work skills and I wasn’t learning them sweeping the floor. He passed this on to Naz who had taken on many of his former tasks of management who said that the only reason he hadn’t given me more to do was because I was much too precise which admittedly Colin had tactfully told me before then.

I got given other less menial stuff to do as time went on but it hadn’t taken Colin and the lads long to work out I was game for a wind up. I fell for two classic workplace pranks. One involved Colin sending me round all the other warehouses on the estate asking if we could have “blue sparks for the angle grinder”.

“What’s an angle grinder Colin?”

“It’s part of one of the machines. Now go!”

I should have remembered Colin had a habit of adopting a brusque tone in order to conceal a prank as well as when he really meant it. On one occasion he had placed a box of tray dividers in my hand and ordered me to take it up to the packing bench on the mezzanine floor.

“Take that up to Ike” he ordered “and tell him from me ‘Meshuggah. And it’s very important!”

Assuming Meshuggah to be the name of the manufacturer or somesuch, I obeyed.

Ike – Colin asked me to give you this,” – Ike looked at me quizzically – and he says “Meshuggah-”

Suddenly everyone burst out laughing. I went downstairs again in sheer embarrassment. Laughing, Colin told me it was “The Hungarian word for shirtlifter.” It later turned out to actually be a Yiddish word meaning ‘mad’. Ike, an elderly Jewish bloke, was not unused to Colin calling him this and had no objection  – it was just considered part of the banter.

Anyway, in a similarly brusque tone Colin had instructed me to get the “blue sparks”. I didn’t think he’d mean literal sparks, maybe something along the lines of a spark plug. The other three warehouses had nothing along those lines – one genteel receptionist even walked into the factory and returned saying “I’m sorry we don’t have anything like that”. No instruction that nothing “like that” actually existed.

It ended with my being told to look for them in the back of a delivery driver’s van but when I found it empty the subject was dropped. It was only about a year later that another guy on placement told me an angle grinder was a tool used in construction and that “The only blue sparks it’s got are the ones what fly out of it!”

The pranks didn’t stop there though. One time I reported to the office that I needed a plaster as I’d cut myself. After Colin had initially remarked “Well what do you want me to do? Kiss it better?!” he made some remark about how “There was a guy here who cut himself and died of gangrene a few years ago”. Hayley who ran the bench upstairs didn’t help when she said “Oh yeah I remember” when I told her about it – mind you her smile should have been a clue.I got really paranoid about cuts after that (usually incurred with a scalpel blade while cutting through shrink wrap) and Naz would tell me “OK just sit in the canteen holding your nose for five minutes”. I did this quite a few times before Colin told me there was no need and told Naz to stop. But even before then they were using other fake remedies like getting me to run down the side of the building and back in some crouched position. When I got back, Colin said “You know that’s the fastest anyone’s managed in the 16 years the company’s been running.” It wasn’t till a few months after Colin had left that I discovered no-one had died of gangrene. My health-related anxieties at work ceased therewith.

Another time I got paranoid about having to clean up a spillage of rat poison and whether I’d washed my hands sufficiently before eating. It was some weeks before Tom, who was the first aider, told me that it doesn’t kill humans, it only makes us throw up. They took advantage of my hypochondria no end – putting boxes on my feet so I didn’t step in the poison and writing brand names on them with their marker pens and one time even taping bin liners to me as protection before the driver I was assisting that day (who initially thought I was threatening to knife him when I used a kitchen knife in my lunch box to get them off) told me to use my common sense and that it was obviously a joke.

Apart from these psychological games however, I could still laugh at some of the more humorous pranks. One week a guy called Vince who was only working there for three months said to me in his most serious tone “Could you ask Naz to get me a long weight?”

I approached Naz with this request, keen to learn about a piece of equipment other than the broom.

“Oh” said Naz “I think Brian’s got it”. I duly walked to the machine room where Brian Mahoney operated the printing machine.

“Brian, Vince needs a long weight and Naz says you’ve got it.”

“Yeah mate I think I need to ask Colin first”. He disappeared.

Eventually 1.30 came round and the buzzer sounded for lunch break. When we resumed work at 2.00 I returned to Brian.

“Weren’t you going to get me the long weight?”

“Er I’m not sure I’m allowed to give it to you after 2pm”.

Eventually I gave up and walked over to Colin’s office. He told me to wait outside.

Colin disappeared through to the offices and eventually walked through again with a few blokes in suits.

“Colin weren’t you going to-”

“Wait WAIT!” he kept saying with a grin.

Eventually Michael Allan, a South African with a strong accent remarked “Why don’t you stop looking like the village idiot and think what it was you asked for.”

I did. And I got it. By now it was 3.30. I poked my head round the door of Colin’s office and said to the girl at the other desk, “Tell Colin thanks for the long weight.”

“You mean you fell for that old chestnut?” she laughed.

Apparently Colin had pulled this on people before but this was “Definitely the longest wait.”

But that evening when we gathered at a pub to bid farewell to Rhianna who ran the bench upstairs, I really felt like part of the family. Towards the end of the meal, Colin told me to make a speech. I could tell he was maybe having a bit of a joke at my expense but people liked what I came out about how brilliant Rhianna had been to work with with so it paid off once again.

Tom and his wife Jane gave me a lift home. It turned out Jane had already heard about me. “What have you heard?” I asked with slight apprehension.

“I hear you’re quite popular” she replied.

There was little doubt about it. People knew I was a bit different, they knew I was a wind-up target but they had seen me slaving away with the broom without complaint, they knew I knew my pop trivia and knew what year Simon Bates was doing on The Golden Hour (shows how long ago it was) and did good impressions of Colin etc and I knew how to be nice with old ladies anyway having a female curate for a mother – although Colin did once order me to go back upstairs and apologise for relieving my nose in their recycle bin. Heck I didn’t really understand why I was a bit different either and I was only just emerging from a period of OCD based anxiety, scruples etc so I hadn’t quite got back to my old self yet but with the motto in my heart that I must do everything to the best of my abilities no matter how much it hurt, I did this as best I could and it paid off. I learned something of how to roll with the punchesand turn it to good.

Let the reader understand I never sucked up to Colin. Some of his management techniques left a lot to be desired for. Everyone knew I was a bit odd so it wasn’t hard to call out whoever had left a floater in the gents having omitted to check whether a second flush was needed.

One day Colin was with some of the other lads chatting round a stationary fork-lift. As I passed, Colin called me over with a big grin on his face.

“Hey Chris. Chris. When did you last use the loo?”

I knew what would be coming. “Errr about 10-15 minutes ago?”

“You didn’t do a poopy did you?!”

“Er yeah I did actually.”

“Oh get away from me!” snapped Colin pushing me out of the way.

My mum wouldn’t have let me get away with that!” remarked Brian Mahoney referring more to my faux pas than Colin’s management technique.

Another time I was about to go into the single cubicle gents when Colin came up behind me.

“Chris! Tom wants you.”

I moved out of the way and he hastily entered the cubicle in my place.

I walked over to Tom who turned out not to really want me after all.

But for all that, it was clear I had Colin’s respect otherwise I would have been sent back to the college and had to wait around for another placement to turn up. When Colin left that autumn, I was, once again, invited to give a speech. The verbosity I now pour into writing came into these periodical speeches.

I mentioned that next week my favourite band (the Bee Gees) would be releasing a new album. “I think the title’s quite appropriate” I said “because it’s called… Size Isn’t Everything.”

Everyone burst out laughing. I was making a joke about Colin’s height, I had no idea it was an old phallic reference. “Well was that meant to be a compliment or what!” remarked Colin.

But clearly he wasn’t offended. When I left that day he said to me “It’s been a pleasure Chris and I mean that. Here’s my address, contact me if you ever need a reference.”

* * * * *

After Colin left, Naz effectively took charge. He became a lot more snappy. “Chris! How many times!” “Chris! What have I told you!” I could see that my difficulty in understanding certain instructions and in not being able to work both fast and accurately at the same time was obviously being caused by this condition and that I would need an official diagnosis in order to be able to tell employers about this then relatively unknown condition. I knew that I no longer had the luxury of the Special Educational Needs department behind me as I had had at school and that I needed something official in terms of proof. I had told Naz about it and that I would need to hear “move the pallet to your right” rather than “move that pallet”. He acknowledged it but said little.

I left Alban Greetings in May 1994 having done placement there for just over a year. I had had enough of constant reprimands, teasing, having to wipe bird droppings off directors’ cars and other menial tasks. No-one wanted to see me go and a petition was signed to keep me there. Naz signed it three times and a couple of wags wrote Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ. The next placement had me doing production line work which was actually a lot more fulfilling but didn’t lead to work by the time the course ended in June. Nevertheless I finished the course in good standing largely because of my work at Alban Greetings and I was praised by the tutors for my progress.

I took a few weeks to just recuperate emotionally after the course had ended. It had been a school of hard knocks and for a few weeks I was content just to eat doorstep sandwiches and watch reruns of Trumpton and the like. Eventually I got back to applying for work but the next big event on the horizon was my official diagnosis six months later.

So much made sense now. I began to realise I wasn’t just a freak. I was prone to missing a tease, not knowing how I came across, eccentric tics and all this was because of a condition that would never go away but could at least be tamed somewhat.

The following summer I returned to Alban Greetings on a paid contract. There had been a shake-up, certain key wind-up merchants had gone and although Naz and his new sidekick Ash could tear into you for England, the practical joking had stopped, no-one was sending me round to buy their rolls anymore and I could tell Naz must have had a word with everybody and told them the behaviours of old were off limits. Instead of just sweeping, I now worked with Tom on finished goods, preparing pallets for final dispatch. Two years later I left of my own free will to pursue other projects.

Since then I’ve had quite a few other jobs, most of which I didn’t leave of my own free will as well as lengthy periods of unemployment. But for all the political incorrectness, impatience, lack of HR department to report grievances through and flagrant disregard for health and safety (they never used the fork-lift cage), Alban Greetings gave me a chance in life that pretty much no other company ever did.

Names have been changed (mostly).

I, Autistic Hermit

Some thoughts on the present UK benefits system and being moved to a lower benefit for reasons that need to be coaxed out of the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) via the red tape of a “mandatory reconsideration”. Also on a film that every single MP, Lord and DWP type needs to see.


Just over a month ago I was reassessed for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). I had been sent the re-application form back round September and got it sent off ironically just before Damian Green, the present Work and Pensions Secretary announced that people with chronic conditions would not have to re-apply anymore. Chronic, for the uninitiated, does not mean severe or bad but lasting for a long period of time – note similarity to ‘chronicle’ and ‘chronology’

Just over a week ago I got a letter telling me that I had been moved from the ESA Support Group (i.e. not having to look for work anymore) to the ESA Work Related Activity Group (i.e. being expected to work constructively towards becoming employable without actually being obligated to apply for anything). No reason was given for this other than “A change in circumstance”. They didn’t even say which one, me and my trusty support worker had made it totally clear to the assessor that there had been no improvement in my condition be it medicinal, miraculous or otherwise.

At any rate I got a polite phone call a few days ago enquiring why I had not made it to an appointment that day (they don’t have to be as strict about missed appointments as they do with Jobseekers Allowance). I could only tell them that I had received no letter or text informing me of said appointment which just goes to prove that the DWP do not practise what they preach in terms of punctuality and efficiency. Mercifully I was able to rearrange but there are still questions that need to be asked.

That evening I attended a screening of Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake. I won’t spoil it for you but it totally shows up the present system for the sick, heartless box-ticking monster it has become. I know Tory voters who agree with me on this – what does that tell you? I can only share with you now my own take on the theme.

I, AUTISTIC HERMIT demand that the Department of Work and Pensions consider the following:

  • Being fit to do tasks is one thing. Being able to do them in such a way as to meet the standards of an employer who has a target to meet is quite another. I have never been good at combining speed with accuracy in a high pressure environment so please do not assume that any of your so-called workshops are going to therapise that out of me.
  • Most of the so-called proper jobs that can be accessed on the doorstep and that we can afford to commute to are temping jobs. Personally I do not cope well with being phoned with a potential booking, often with only a few hours notice. The last time it happened it was with so little notice that I was unable to emotionally prepare myself for it after a traumatic few days recovering from other bits of dung life had thrown at me.  The result was that on the second day, when I was suddenly and unexpectedly required to work without a trainer (I’d been told I’d have one for the week), I was so stressed with trying to meet the required pick rate accurately that I could barely even absorb what other people were saying who wanted to help. Two of them got shouted at as a result and one never forgave me and by the end of the contract was blanking me every time he walked past.
  • I need my evenings. Seriously why is it that this side of 1997, 9-5 or even 8-4 jobs in warehousing (not that I’d fit in anywhere in these target driven days) are about as common as rocking horse dung? We all rely on our social life to some extent to keep us sane and if the only times I am free are when Tupperware parties and ladies’ coffee mornings are happening then what does that do for my feeling of relevance to society or even for my need to be around like-minded people. The 6-2/2-10/10-6 pattern is alright if all you want to do is go clubbing and get hammered at the weekend but otherwise forget it. I reckon the demise of the industrial day job probably has a lot to do with New Labour which came in at around that time. I’m no Tory but I left a warehousing job in late 1997 to do a year out and when I came back, found even my old company had fallen victim to the target-driven mentality. As it is, the latterday Conservative administrations love it but then Tony Blair did have a reputation for out-Torying the Tories on some matters.
  • The majority of jobs I have held from 1998 onwards have been terminated by the employer, mostly because I couldn’t be both fast and accurate (a multiple focus issue). Even a degree has done little to amend this matter because the only ready work it got me was in the educational sector where one mistake and you’re out of the door usually for reasons the school asked the agency not to repeat despite the seven kids you helped with their English and the lad who told Learning Support personally how helpful you were with his Maths.
  • Do you really think that workshops (so-called) on CV writing, interviews etc are anything new to me? The fact is that employers want to see your FULL employment history and however hard you try to disguise it, they can always tell when you’ve had a string of sackings, redundancies or what have you. 1999-2001/2001-2/2002/2003-4/2004-5 and that’s before you add in the temping. Throw in a degree and a couple of postgraduate qualifications and even then I feel trapped by the social housing situation us raspberry ripples tend to find ourselves in. You can’t just up and move to the city and do voluntary theatre in education or whatever because a move in the public sector is much more complex than just jacking in one shared house or lodging for another. Add in the fact that my father lost so much money on fraudulent investments that I can’t even afford to part-buy a flat in the capital and you have a recipe for benefit street and temping agencies.
  • With all this in mind I must ask that whatever you do, you never EVER put me on Jobseekers Allowance again. At least not until you drop the requirement that we prove 35 hours of job-related activity per week. Do you really think with all of what I’ve put above that there are that many jobs I can realistically fill that amount of time applying for? I will do my best while in the Work-Related Activity Group but you can take it from me that this may mean a lot of volunteering and just occasional ventures into paid work like maybe a voiceover or two – perhaps even a book. But I am no longer 19 years old and the “Get a proper job first” thing has not worked for me so I am now more than entitled to a little of what I fancy (and I don’t mean mattress-warming).
  • I refuse to work to any hidden pressure to either be in an unsuitable job or back on JSA within a year. It is one thing to expect us to either sh*t or get off the pot. It is another thing entirely to chain us to the pot and force feed us with figs and prunes.
  • If I ever EVER again apply for a job under pressure from yourselves and it doesn’t work out then I demand that you put me straight back in the support group and leave me there until I give notice of any miraculous change.I remain respectfully my own. Not yours – except when I turn up to tick your boxes. My own person.

    Autistic Hermit

    P.S. And that’s before you get to the sick new policy that new additions to the Work Related Activity Group will get paid the same pittance as those on Jobseeker’s Allowance from April 2017 (which I’m grateful to have just missed). Damian Green are you really so keen to boost the use of food banks?