“I’m not so self assured” or “All my troubles seemed so far away” – my troubled early adolescence and the Beatles’ music.

Music therapy is a big thing today. Part of me thinks if only they’d had it readily available in my youth but then I remember how much harder I found it to open up and be myself when forced to lay my emotions bare in other kinds of therapy.

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I made my own music therapy. I found I could think and express myself far more clearly with a lyric or two to identify with. Oh sure we all have to some extent. Who hasn’t found a love song to sigh along to with those early crushes. But let me give you a timeline.

I had always appreciated music. I had been exposed to folk music at an early age courtesy of an aunt and uncle with guitars and always enjoyed the records my mother got from the library of songs like Old Daddy Fox and Peri Meri Dixi Domini (google them) considerably more than the stuff like The Wheels on the Bus and I’m A Little Teapot that were supposedly the height of excitement and intellect for the average child of my age. With books it was the other way round – I never really stayed deeply into them after I got past the age of having illustrations to guide me but that’s another story.

When I was five my mother bought me a Beatles record – a rare pressing of their first American album (the same as the first British one but minus two tracks) that just happened to be in our supermarket. I liked it so much that she got me another – a compilation only available on the European continent where we were living at the time (sadly lost in a house move a few years later). I loved that so much that she bought me a songbook. All in alphabetical order, no discography or guide to that strange eight year journey through their recording career. But we sang Yesterday, Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da and When I’m Sixty-Four at school, a kindly great aunt gave me the Yellow Submarine album one Christmas and somehow I knew there was so much more to these four guys.

 

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In the summer between Junior and Senior Schools I felt the need for a trip down memory lane to a safer place. I didn’t get kicks out of watching The A-Team and didn’t have the co-ordination for break dancing or doing wheelies on a BMX. My beloved Doctor Who had had an 18-month hiatus imposed on it by the then controller of BBC1 and there was a bit of a vacuum. I had spent the summer before buying five-year old books with my pocket money to try and get the ghost of infanthood laid (and complete my collections) before I had to go to secondary and be all intellectual (I thought) and the mental erosion from this episode was noticeable – I was studious enough at school but at home my mind was full of which members of the Munch Bunch lived in flowerpots and next door to whom etc etc. Now one year on, once again I needed a safe familiar place – one that wouldn’t have anyone saying “Isn’t that a bit young for you?” As end of term tension simmered while we worked on the end of year play (I only had a small chorus role) I found my mind drifting to what little music I had in my personal collection at the time – bits of classical, some French chanson my mother had tried to turn me onto and… the Beatles.

I had a record token left over from Christmas and after an exhausting week at an activity centre where they thought the height of excitement was to spray you with string or push you into the pool, I decided to get a Beatles record. And I did… it was called A Collection of Beatles Oldies and collected so many songs I already knew from the lost compilation along with gems like Paperback Writer which I’d heard my father singing round the house on occasion and Michelle which I absolutely fell in love with (partly cos I had a crush on the Michelle Fowler character in Eastenders).

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Soon I could talk of little else. I got a second hand single with the two tracks missing from the American album I’d had and bought second hand singles and rereleased EPs whenever I could. My uncle put loads of his Beatles vinyl on tape for my twelfth birthday and for Christmas. One guy at school even gave me a compilation tape he’d nicked off his brother (Rock n Roll Music Volume 2) – not often I’ve been guilty of receiving stolen goods but hey I was only 11.

This influx was to prove fortuitous, for the transition to secondary school, although initially it gave me a thrill to have different teachers for different subjects and a homework diary, proved very difficult. Although it was merely the secondary department of the same school where I had spent my primary years, the major influx of new pupils couldn’t get their head round me and my ‘differences’ and it didn’t take long for the taunting to begin. I reacted by shouting and yelling a lot and it wasn’t long before there was a concerned phone call to my parents who were duly summoned in and told I was to see the school shrink. It also didn’t help that the staff at the railway station, who had perceived inappropriate and potentially hazardous behaviour from this strange youngster had spoken to my school who had in turn written to my parents thus causing them (and me) even more distress. Well heck no-one told me you had to keep back from the platform edge even when there wasn’t a yellow line! One of the railwaymen had clearly got on the train and followed me as there was also a report of “embarrassing other commuters by pulling non-existent threads out of their conversations” rather an exaggeration as although I found myself being befriended or addressed by other commuters, ranging from old ladies to college students, who saw me wandering up and down the corridor looking for the perfectly positioned seat, I didn’t usually butt in on conversations between perfect strangers.

Suddenly I had become a problem case – one of the “bad boys”, receiving treatment I thought only juvenile delinquents got. Suddenly, Lennon-McCartney lyrics that had just started to become meaningful became much more so. Songs like Help! and Yesterday, both quoted in the title of this piece (though I turn my nose up at the latter nowadays), were my real therapy. It really had become the case that I was not so self-assured, my independence was vanishing in the haze life was no longer an easy game and I needed a place to hide. Written by John and Paul respectively – Paul the promising student, John the rebel constantly marked down for insolence etc. Previously I had polarised everybody as either Menaces or Softies thanks to my love of Dennis the Menace and other strips in the Beano where the bullies and the wimps were polarised (today’s autistic kids seem to do the same with Perfect Pete and Horrid Henry). Now I saw that in real life there was no need – the rebel and the student had formed the most popular band of all time together and written two equally vulnerable lyrics. You didn’t need to be plonked in front of a psychoanalyst to “talk about your feelings” as I had been on and off in those pre-diagnostic days when the then powers that be thought my problems were likely to be purely emotional. All you needed was a record and singers and writers who felt the same way and had committed it to plastic with a little help from their guitars.

And if I needed a stroll back to childhood innocence again then I could do it without the aid of the Munch Bunch or other juvenilia – all I needed was to listen to something like the White Album where a psychotic suicidal song like John Lennon’s Yer Blues sat snugly between Paul McCartney’s more all-age friendly Birthday and Mother Nature’s Son. A pop/rock song took about as long to listen to as a children’s picture book being narrated, was just as entertaining and nobody could accuse you of being juvenile for liking it. The TV series The Rock n Roll Years opened your mind up to the political unrest going on at the time and to other music too so all in all I was enjoying innocence and experience all in one.

The year got better as it went along. Although it took time to learn the difference between me misbehaving and others misbehaving (they weren’t having to see the shrink!), the letter home which had caused such hurt was burnt up and washed down the sink by my mother who had sensed my ongoing distress and need for full closure. I even became the notorious Beatle freak of the class – when our music teacher announced that her Beatles songbook had gone missing there was a cry of “Give it back Stobart!” from across the room. Surprisingly enough, I knew it was only a joke.

There were more adventures to come and rock would be there throughout them all, defining and shaping my worldview, giving me an outlet where previously there had been little and an escape route that no-one could deny me.

More to follow soon…

 

I Saw the Light: The relief of diagnosis

Some people question whether they or their apparently Asperger child should receive official diagnosis or not. Here I present a case for it for anyone who has it within their means.

Lights on in a darkened room. The effect of diagnosis.

What’s wrong with you Stobart?

Were you in a car crash?

Did your mum have chickenpox when you were born?

Why do you miss cookery lessons? (ANSWER: I was seeing the school shrink in the first half of the double period).

Questions like these plagued my secondary school years. I had thought past eccentricities and apparent neuroses to have been dealt with and that years of psychotherapy, physiotherapy and what have you up to that point could be left behind, even though I’d noticed one or two relapses in myself at the time. The fact that my school had both Junior and Senior departments and I could therefore stay and not suffer a near complete change of classmates could only have been an advantage, surely.

Scrub that word only. A major influx of new pupils had arrived, many of whom had come to board and weren’t used to my still somewhat eccentric nature unlike those who had been through the Junior Department with me. Hormones combined with homesickness and in some cases traumatic family backgrounds… Here was someone for them to take it out on.

Spastic

Mental

Cripple

Joey

Animal

“I see they let you out of quarantine” one of them remarked after we’d returned from a trip to France.

My noisy reactions and the way the stress caused me to fall back on my baser self soon had me back in psychotherapy again. And it didn’t matter how I bettered myself or tried to. Kids rarely let each other forget anything and although there was a strong hardcore of people who liked and respected me, torture continued.

Others with diagnosed conditions that everyone knew about did not suffer bullying – at least not that I ever noticed. I will never forget David* who had lost several of his abilities following a series of misconducted operations and now needed someone to either write for him or hold his arm which he had lost natural control of and was having to learn speech all over again. We all knew basically what had happened and while some of us occasionally mimicked him behind his back we all felt dead sorry for him and wouldn’t have dreamt of torturing him.

But no-one knew what to make of yours truly. Even the staff got it badly wrong on occasions. A class discussion about an outward bound expedition we’d just returned from saw the teacher ask “How did we feel about working with people like Tim* who’s deaf or Christopher (your author) who can er… be a bit of a pain sometimes?” My assertion that if I weren’t given quite so much hassle then it would be a different story was rebutted with “Er well I’m not sure about that.”

Even the fact that I was statemented told me nothing. It had been sold to me as a way of saving my parents money based on my past difficulties and knowing I had managed to overcome neuroses and behavioural problems in the past, I was keen to try and develop beyond where I could be deemed to have special needs.

Leaving school, I thought I could leave all embarrassments such as typing a sentence on the computer with the tip of my tongue, absent-mindedly walking out in front of a car on the school trip and finding myself rolling on the bonnet or dancing like a loon round the biology pond regularly despite equally regular shovings in, safely in the past and be welcomed by the world beyond as a normal human being.

But it was not to be. College brought on even more hassle. When we did Of Mice and Men for the English GCSE retake, it wasn’t long before I got nicknamed Lennie and though I had become more thick-skinned by then it was clear that whatever had caused me to act weird in the past wasn’t going to go away.

Then came work. I still remember the manager of the placement that eventually became my first permanent job calling me over to where he and others were enjoying an informal chat and asking me what it was about me that was different.

“I mean like when you write on your jeans with your finger – that’s more like something my two little girls would do.”

The misunderstandings and telling-offs were beginning to proliferate there too.

“Anything coming down the other side?” asked the van driver I was occasionally assigned to help.

The only thing I could see coming “down” was some water running down the passenger door window. I pointed this out and got snapped at. I had no idea he was talking about traffic.

Eventually it dawned on me that now that I no longer had the local authority to back me up in the area of special needs, I needed to get this thing called Asperger’s diagnosed officially. We’d only recently learned much about it having heard it suggested as one possibility some years before, but this was so obviously ‘it’ – years of psychoanalysis, experimental diets and neurological analyses had failed to solve anything and reading what little literature was available at the time was like looking in a mirror. But with the official word of a specialist, I’d have something to tell prospective employers as well as leaders of clubs, church groups etc – something we knew rather than just something we’d heard about. It would not prove to be a panacea for problems but it would at least mean there would be no enormous question mark hanging over me and how to deal with issues arising. Well, much less of one anyway.

And I’m so glad that on December 15th 1994, my mother and I made the trek to London (you have to take someone who knew you when you were little) sat with the specialist and got the thing officially recognised. Unlike much of what had gone before, it was my idea and remains one of the best decisions I have ever made.

So my advice to those unsure whether to get their condition officially diagnosed? If there are no practical obstacles… go for it! Don’t rely on your guesswork or books or online resources – it will hold little water with the powers that you or your Aspie offspring will have to submit to. Chances are they’re already not really knowing how to take you or your child anyway and while that won’t change completely with everyone, awareness and knowledge is greater than when I was diagnosed half a lifetime ago and more people will be prepared to help where necessary once they know.

My motto is Go and Tell.

Go and get diagnosed (if you can afford it under your country’s medical system and I know some can’t)

Tell your boss/headmaster/vicar/rabbi/etc

It will prove advantageous in the long run.

*Names have been changed