African Elephant

So what's the story?

The photograph above is of a pencil drawing Didi did at school back in 1980 when she was about 10 years old. The drawing was too big to scan, hence the rather poor quality photograph.

This drawing is an example of the early "true life" style drawings Didi used to create before she got into abstract and surrealist techniques. At the age of around six, Didi had been lucky enough to visit Kenya with her parents and, on safari one day, an Elephant made rather an impression by charging at the jeep in which she and her family were being driven!

AS children usually have extremely vivid memories - even from their cot! It is as if memories make a more "concrete" chemical pathway in the brain than they do with NT children - the memory will be technicolour with all sounds, smells and other sensory input being recalled as vividly as the "vision part" of the memory itself. NTs can often do this with memories of traumatic events - but AS people will tend to do it with almost any event.

It is also probably for the same reasons why young AS children may be more strongly affected by phobias than NT children - and frequently they are phobias about things that seem weird to NTs. An AS child may have a fear (as Didi did) of things like buttons! This may be because of a powerful memory of something uncomfortable - an AS child's sensory awareness tends to be greater than that of a normal child so something uncomfortable will be a far bigger deal to an AS child than an NT child and will therefore form a stronger chemical pathway of memory.

Luckily Didi didn't develop a phobia about elephants, despite being still able to recall the elephant incident in great detail!

So, it was many years after the elephant incident that Didi drew this picture - when she had just started at secondary school. She had been moved to that school a year earlier than her peers because she'd got bored at primary school and, thinking that secondary school would be more fulfilling, she simply passed the entrance exam and that was that. However, Didi's excitement about her first day at that new school began to be replaced by something else as a result of the bullying that began from the first day there.

Why did it go so wrong, so quickly? Well, Didi made a "bad" first impression. That morning, not knowing how else to interact, Didi walked up to the schoolroom window (before the teacher had arrived) and started talking about the weather and the clouds. Didi had always found it hard to approach people directly, so tended to get on and do her own thing - but with the thought that if anyone was into what she was doing they would approach and engage with her (and perhaps eventually become friends) and those that weren't into what she was doing would simply leave her alone. Of course, such a technique is fine at primary school - and often effective! But secondary school requires an increased degree of social sophistication! The fact that Didi was so much younger than the others didn't help! If she had started at that school in the junior year like everyone else had, the transition probably would have been easier and her peers a little more forgiving of her eccentricities!

The majority of AS children will have interests such as the weather and the clouds - what are called "special interests". Didi's other special interests that became utterly fascinating to her at various stages in her life were geology, veterinary science, parasitology, anatomy - most things medical - and she would create little notebooks, including drawings, about these special interests. Other AS children may have special interests in anything from comic books to football. So the interest (and there may be more than one at any point in time) may vary between individuals with AS, but they will all tend to have in common the need to write lists, little notebooks and/or collecting things or facts!

So you can see from the above that, whilst the subject matter will tend to vary, it is the degree of application and intensity with which AS children accord to their particular interests that differentiates them from NT children - who usually have a passing interest in something but can't be bothered to do all the work!

In fact, an AS child will tend to appear really rather unhealthily obsessive ((from a parent's perspective and to some extent or another depending on the individual) about their special interest. For example, an AS child will usually become upset - possibly very - at being interrupted whilst engaged in their special interest, or upon being asked to do something else. An NT child might get a bit annoyed, but again, it is the intensity of the emotion that tends to differentiate an AS child from an NT child.

Combine the usually unusually detailed knowlege about the special interest with the fact that AS children often show a marked superiority in lexical, reading and writing skills compared to their NT peers and you can see why AS children are commonly referred to as "little professors".

So, of course, the other girls were "weirded right out" by having such a geek - and one so much younger than them - in their midst who was spouting forth about things in which they weren't interested. Perhaps if Didi had been wearing nailvarnish (not allowed in school but you were deeemed very cool to risk wearing it), or talking about a boyfriend or a pop band instead, things would have been different - since such things were all in which the other girls seemed to be interested.

Thus that fateful September morning in 1980 it began: the other girls picking on Didi, calling her "square". It wasn't until a while later that she found out what "square" meant in the context in which the girls were using it - a social label for someone who isn't "cool" and who, nowadays, would instead probably be labelled a "geek" or a "nerd".

Didi was just Didi, into anything "science" and "natural world". The fact that she was successful in her schoolwork, and that the teachers seemed to like her because she could answer questions the others couldn't, just compounded the issue. Some children even began calling her "Spock" because she was often saying things like "fascinating", "intriguing" or "curious" because indeed she was a major fan of Star Trek and had a huge crush on Spock as a child. Now, this makes Didi giggle like anything when she recalls it now, but it was very hurtful at the time!

Interestingly, Star Trek's wonderful Spock character is commonly cited as a hero of children with AS. Also, such children often display something called "echolalia": repeating a word or phrase that, for some reason, they like - and often also attempting to use the same accent as the person they heard originally say it! They may like the word or phrase because of what it means - or, more commonly, because of how it "feels" to one or more of their senses when they say it (e.g. the feel in their mouth, or sound in their ears, or whatever).

Didi was exhibiting echolalia, without realising the diagnostic significance of course, when she was repeating things like "fascinating". It is amusing perhaps to note that at this age, Didi had learned not to add "Captain" (as Spock would have done) after "fascinating" as it irritated her parents and got her told off - but she always thought the full phrase in her head!

Like many AS children, Didi could also recite all sorts of advertising jingles which could have her falling about giggling. Another AS fact - they often have strange senses of humour!

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