Moving Pictures: The upside of undiagnosis

The increased common understanding of autistic conditions in children is an advantage in many ways? But is it a disadvantage in others? Are we in danger of starting to over-pamper? Read on for a classic example…


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“Well we know a lot more now.” So say many of my former teachers when I see them at reunions and talk with them about the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome that eluded us all at the time. From some of them this seems intended as an apology for handling certain situations less than well. A couple have even done so explicitly.

But I can’t help wondering… What if I HAD had a diagnosis back in the 1980s? Would I have been saddled with a learning support assistant like the poor lad in my year who’d lost the ability to write? Surely then I would have lost a lot of the self-confidence that enabled me towards self-betterment. Would the word ASPIE have become a playground insult the way words like SPASTIC did? Would I be concealing it as a guilty secret from classmates just as I did some of the more embarrassing gaffes of earlier childhood? Or… worse still… would I have been allowed to get away with murder (see – I can do metaphor) like I often feel today’s Aspie kids are?

Yep, sorry mums, dads, guardians etc, you did read that correctly. We need meeting halfway in life. That is a given. But we also need to be helped to reach our full potential in terms of social conduct. As I keep saying, it’s not that we can’t do it at all, it’s just that it doesn’t come naturally and even in adulthood we can make mistakes in this department. But I fear that with so much more provision made nowadays, we may be heading for the opposite extreme and where the powers that be sometimes used to just exclude us, they will instead accept our social gaffes as a given and leave them unchallenged.

I worry, for example, when I hear of autism-friendly cinema screenings. I’m not saying these special presentations are bad in themselves. They are particularly helpful for those who have severe problems with sensory overload and need the volume not too loud and the crowd not too big – but that’s not the issue I’m dealing with here. They can also be good in terms of being somewhere to take a child who has not yet mastered the art of controlling outbursts or the desire to run around when the plot gets boring or difficult to understand so that the viewing pleasure of others isn’t spoiled. But in terms of that latter point, I can’t help feeling concerned that the kids requiring to be taken into these screenings may either feel discouraged from improving their capabilities in this department or simply come not to want to, much less believe they ever can. A mentality could easily develop of thinking “Well I’m autistic and therefore I can get away with it.”

Speaking personally I only ever needed taking out of a cinema once in my childhood. I had little understanding of dramatic presentation, I hadn’t even heard of a cinema, much less knew what a film was when at the age of five I was taken to a broadcast of the now largely forgotten Pete’s Dragon. All I knew was that it was intended as a treat and I was only going to get taken if I was good. I don’t think I even paid much attention to the interaction between the live action boy and the animated green reptile with his refrain of “Boop boop boo boo boop.” To this day all I remember noticing is that a little boy in the next row had been allowed to take his shoes off – I think this must have been what I took as my cue to just do whatever. I certainly wasn’t aware that I had to sit and look at what was going on on the enormous screen at the other end of the room in total silence and without once getting out of my seat. At any rate I’m pretty sure I remember keeping anything but quiet, making my boredom pretty evident, being taken out before the film was over and having it made clear to me in no uncertain terms that my behaviour had been totally unacceptable. I knew what I had done wrong and no further punishment ensued that I recall.

But the point is, I learnt from it. And I carried on getting good practice when we occasionally attended pantomimes and suchlike. By the time of my next trip to the flicks three years later (a repeat screening of Mary Poppins), my worst habit was turning around to see the smaller image coming from the projection camera. A few months after that I got taken to Annie – mainly because a girl from school wanted to see it again and to spare her folks a rerun, my mother had agreed to take us both over half-term. A mild relapse in behaviour in demonstrating obvious boredom but of course then you still had the interval (“Ices and soft drinks will be served”) so your limited attention span could get a break.

But sitting through a screening of Snow White in London just before Christmas that year was a doddle. I already knew the story courtesy of Ladybird Books etc and had seen clips on shows like Disney Time and Screen Test so focussing and enjoying was no problem at all. Oh yes and mum had sung me Heigh-Ho from an early age. Fast forward a few months and Dad and I are mooching round London on a day used for a spot of bonding while my mother was away on a training weekend. “Oh look, ET’s on” Dad says. So we go in – we’ve just missed the beginning but probably a good thing as I think I would have been repeating the phrase “penis breath” ad nauseum the moment we got home. The worst I can remember doing is turning to Dad and whispering “Is ET dead?” (mercifully he wasn’t). At any rate, even with no interval, at the age of nine I had now mastered basic cinema etiquette. Apart from shovelling my popcorn when I saw The Phantom Menace in my mid-twenties that is but that had more to do with my general state of anxiety about other stuff at the time.

For me, three years of not being taken worked the trick. For today’s Aspie kids it might be three years in the autism-friendly screening. So if your autistic child needs taking into it, fear not. There is hope. Let him/her know that if they can learn to behave better then one day they can be taken into the ‘proper’ screening. It will give them a goal to aim for. And for goodness sake, don’t try to convince them they’re necessarily stuck in all their existing patterns for life.

FOOTNOTE: Keying Pete’s Dragon into good old Wikipedia while working on this entry, I discovered that a remake is due to be released next year. I wonder what a new generation of Aspies will make of it in their special screenings.