World Autism Awareness Week: Graham’s Story

As part of World Autism Awareness Week, the Swadlincote Asperger’s Society presents two features with one of our members in his own words…

Some people call me “Mr Gray” (from my first name “Graham”) because of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” not that I’m complaining! My last name “Rodgers” is the Scottish version as my Dad’s Scottish, and my Mum’s local. I used to get annoyed when people spelt it wrong, but now when they write it down I just growl “The ‘D’ is silent,” a popular quote from Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” I love going to the cinema, sitting in the dark, it’s an escape. Sometimes I’ll go on my own if others can’t handle it.

I’m 30 now and I live at home with my parents. Its okay most of the time and my stuff is there. I know my parents won’t be around forever, but I don’t like sudden change – like when my computer breaks down. I’d hate to move away ’cause I’d have to start all over again; the worst things would be depression, anxiety, and isolation. My sister works at the airport, she works pretty unsocial hours. I work part-time. I’ve been made fun of it before, but I’m lucky to have a job and to hold it down for as long as I have.

I enjoy watching “Doctor Who.” I go to a yearly convention and the cinema screenings. I like the old-fashioned nature of right and wrong, good vs. evil. David Tennant is my favourite; he showed even an alien has feelings and can feel isolated. I also like “Family Guy” – it’s funny because they comment on things other people dare not say.

I was bullied at school, but everyone is who is different. I used to retreat into the library.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 20, after I had a nervous breakdown in my last year of college. I was studying performing arts. I learnt about egos and sociopathic people the hard way. After that I did a personal development course with The Princes Trust – a charity for young people who have not had much luck in life. They encouraged my creativity; I painted a mural for the team – and wrote an article called “Welcome to the Circus (see below)”. It was published in quite a few newsletters.

From that I volunteered for Project WIRED at the Brewhouse Arts Centre, making short films, and now I’ve found People Express who do the same kind of things. I’m really proud of founding a charitable group, as it raises awareness for adults with additional needs. I’m in charge of lottery funding for the project.  I feel it allows me to be more of a businessman.

There are stereotypes of people with my condition; like the “savants” you get in novels like “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” He’s good at maths – I’m bad with maths. I suppose I am “high functioning”, that’s accurate. I refer to it as my “condition,” as it is not an “illness” or “disability.”

I prefer the term “vulnerable adult” as it shows the problem is with society and not the person. We’re like walking acid-tests for people – if they mistreat us, it’s them, not us, it reflects on. There are positive things about being an “Aspie”; I’m committed and determined, I like solving problems, I can think outside the box and I’m honest. I have had to learn not to be honest to the point of hurtfulness. I want to be like everyone else but you have to embrace your differences to let it empower you. The negative things are; being mistaken for weak, being seen as weird, being misunderstood and having to be wary of people taking advantage. We all get anxious around people; you have to face it head on.

The art of storytelling is therapeutic for me as it’s taught me how to empathize with others; it’s helped me overcome my condition. I write mostly fiction now. As a child I used to make books. I’ve always loved writing. I go to book festivals and take part in workshops with published authors. I’m also a member of a writing circle. I have ambitions as a writer and publisher. I like spectacle and suspense in my stories. I like genre writing like adventure stories – I have a visual mind.

I haven’t ruled out being a father or other things people take for granted, but happiness has to come first.  I know I don’t need a glamorous life to be happy. The day I have to go to work in a fancy suit into a high up glass office is the day I throw myself out of the window! I am happy. It’s a nice day, I’m out and about and I have plans for the next few months.

The best things now are; meeting and working with new people, supporting the community, and having way more opportunities than when I was younger.

Life is full of surprises. Thinking about the distant future (or the past) only depresses you; my concern is with the present.

THE “G” IS SILENT:

An interview by Kevin Fegan

***

WELCOME TO THE CIRCUS

It was 1st November, my 21st. My team leader had invited me upstairs to what was going to be the exam room. He pointed out a wall in the top right-hand corner of the room. He said he wanted me to paint some kind of mural on the wall. He wanted caricatures of all the team members on the wall in some kind of theme. I was a bit astounded when he asked me to do it, as I’d never done anything that big before. I spent the rest of the day laying down the carpet tiles for the main room, all the time thinking of my wall. Oh yeah, and my birthday. I spent the rest of the early mornings at the team room sketching ideas for my wall. In the beginning, my team-mates were very picky about how many of each gender was in a small group, so I picked the boy-girl scheme, even though there are more guys then girls. I’m not very good at recalling faces, so I asked for a CD of the team photos. I spent the whole weekend trying to capture everyone’s face just right. So far, I’d kept my pictures secret.

Monday back, the last week of the project. I was eager to get my wall started. I had my drawings, small paint pots, and a couple of erasers, paint tray, different size brushes, and a couple of thick pencils. I came in, put my stuff upstairs ready to use, and did I start it? No. A week left, Thursday being a half day, and the brushes were still looking brand new. They wanted me to still be working on the waterproof locker room, which should’ve been done last week, but someone painted the lockers the wrong colour. So I spent the whole day painting the little gaps when I could’ve been working on my wall. To make matters worse, in the afternoon I was helping to stir a large batch of yellow paint, which was so large it sprang a leak. I went to look for a new container, and got some yellow paint from my boots onto the beloved new carpet tiles! Luckily, the paint came right off, but I was left very upset. They thought it was because I got paint on the carpet tiles. It wasn’t. It was because I went through the whole day without touching my wall, which I didn’t know how long it would take, and all I made was a mess.

I don’t like being held back. I’ve been held back my whole life. They said I was a “little slow”. Its one thing to have a condition, but it’s another not to have that condition recognized until fairly recently, and then realize the first twenty years of your life were just a farce. No wonder I get so mad. You might not think it, but I’m the angriest person I know. I always feel the burning of rage inside me, but with my condition, I tend to bottle it up, and that just makes it worse. You think I like having the Incredible Hulk inside me? I always hulk out at the closest character. I know it’s not the right thing to do, but being around humorous, noisy, domineering, and sometimes even caring people does that to me. I don’t know why I lash out at the people who care. I guess I can’t tell the difference between someone who truly cares, and someone who’s holding me back. I spent the whole of that night going over this in my head. I was going to talk to my team leader about it, but the second I arrived next morning they said I could start. That’s one chance to voice my feelings out the window.

Tuesday wasn’t too bad. I took my thick pencils and drew the entire outline across the wall. I was doing a circus theme, with twelve stars (one star per person), around the ringmaster, with our team leader’s face. I wanted everyone to have a nice big star so that everyone’s face could easily be seen. The outline took all day, considering I had to move four of the stars higher up than planned, and I finished the day off by painting the stars fleshy- pink so I wouldn’t have to paint the faces later.

Wednesday was even better. I painted my team leader’s face with pupils, mouth, and ginger sideburns, which he was a bit upset by. Hey, you wanted a caricature, so I gave you a caricature. I outlined myself with an edgy face to show my unpredictably, and peering behind my star I did the ghostface killer from Scream. To raise funds for the project, one of the things we did was a pub collection in fancy dress. I went as that character. After that I painted my own face, just to see what would be the easiest way of painting the faces. As I was outlining the faces, people started to come up to have a look, to see what they looked like. Some of them loved their caricatures, others started to make requests on which star they wanted, or some other object they wanted on the star. It’s not easy agreeing to it, knowing how little time you’ve got. Not to mention I had to put up with people silently peering over my shoulder just to look. After outlining them all, I started painting small details like eyes, hair or grins. And I still didn’t know how much longer it would take.

Thursday I really started to feel the pressure, it being a half day. The second the door was opened I went straight up, put my waterproofs on, and started. The first part of the morning was okay, but then someone put the dreaded CD player on. It’s not easy to concentrate when it’s in the same room with you, blasting out some speed garage/house/techno/rave/dance “music”, just so everyone can hear it. I started to notice the thick black paint was making a huge mess of my paintbrush water. At one point, a couple 0 f the lads were prating around with a tennis ball, as I was carrying the dirty water. The damn thing almost hit me in the face. I snapped at them, my face red from stress. Out of all the other twelve people here, only one asked if I was okay. She told me to have a break, but I didn’t want one. I had already decided to sacrifice any tea breaks I had, and just have dinner, and the second I’d finish, I’d go back to the wall. I felt a bit better when I’d finished for that day, although I noticed we were out of yellow paint. I needed it for the stars, and they were still pink. That afternoon, I had an interview for my work placement, so I picked up some yellow paint before going home. There’s one less thing to worry about.

Friday I arrived, paint can in hand; my team leader was already there looking at the wall, and gave me some reassurance. All morning, I dedicated every single second of my time to that wall: painting, drawing details, checking, painting over mistakes, not always in that order. At this time, I had a fairly aggressive view of everyone around me, but in the afternoon one of the girls came up and asked if she could help. Well, I was doing all the more complicated areas of the picture, so why not? I told her to paint the team leader’s suit and tie with that thick black paint I hated so much. My team leader said he looked like an undertaker. After she had finished what I wanted her to do, one of the lads came up and asked if he could help with anything. I was a bit dubious about letting him, because he had a bit of a bad reputation of late, and I didn’t want to be near the volcano when it erupted. Then again, I didn’t want to paint the ringmaster’s top hat, which was high up, with that dreadful black paint, so I let him go. I explained to him which parts of the hat I wanted painted, because the top hat was going to have “Team 153” in white on it. As he was painting the top hat, I took my yellow paint and started painting asterisks, dotted around the bigger stars. He did the top hat exactly the way I wanted it, without any complaints, and in my eyes he had redeemed himself, I started painting the remaining stars yellow, whilst my other teammates started painting the floor around me blue. Approaching 4pm people started to gather upstairs to see the finished product. I gave the wall a final check to see if I missed anything. Finally, after three days and a half of exhausting work, I personally gave the wall the thumbs up.

The wall looks amazing. Everyone stands out on it, it’s brightly colourful, and everyone thinks it is top banana. I like to think it’s very trendy too, as everyone on it looks like a character from a modern cartoon. It wasn’t easy though. They say artists suffer for their work, and I certainly did. You know what the most ironic thing is? Given all the different kinds of people I had to tolerate whilst on the Prince’s Trust course, this really is a circus!

Graham Rodgers

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These features were taken from our coffee table book “The Big WELCOME Cafe.” Still available in hardcopy!

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