'All my life I've known that I was different'
Laurence Mitchell was bullied at school and struggled in relationships. So when he learnt he had Asperger's at 47, it was a relief
Richard Garner has been Education Editor of The Independent for 12 years and writing about the subject for 34 years. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a disc jockey in London pubs and clubs and for a hospital radio station. His main hobbies are cricket (watching these days) and theatre. On his days off, he is most likelt to be found at Lord’s or the King’s Head Theatre Club.
Tuesday 03 July 2012
Laurence Mitchell was aware that there was something different about him from his early days at school. His fellow pupils would bully him because of his awkwardness in communication. Even his teachers would single him out in front of the class when he failed to perform. "I was picked on by the bullies," he says. "They would get into my pockets every week to see what they could take. That was at the age of 11. My parents didn't know what was wrong with me."
It all became clear when the 58-year-old reached the age of 47 and visited the Priory clinic. He felt he needed a psychiatric assessment because of his obsessive personality. There, he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome – an autism spectrum disorder.
In some ways he felt a sense of relief, but he believes there are many other people out there – perhaps older than him – who are still not diagnosed but suffering from the disorder. As a result, he has decided to make people aware of the condition. Last month, he spoke at a major international conference on autism about his story, and he is seeking a publisher for a book he has written about it and has set up a website to tell of his experiences – lifebeyondlabels.com.
Laurence can recall an incident at his primary school when he was called to the head teacher's study. Fearful and not knowing what it was about, he asked: "Are you going to cane me?" "He was 6ft 6in and massive so I was worried," he said. The headmaster referred to the incident next day in assembly, saying: "I was visited by a very, very timid boy yesterday who asked, 'Are you going to cane me?' He should have known we don't do that sort of thing here." Laurence felt ridiculed.
As a result of that experience and others, he tried not to draw attention to himself in school. "If I did well in the class, I tried to make sure I didn't do too well," he says. At age nine, anxious at his inability to relate to other children and make friends, his parents sent him to a child psychiatrist. But they were told he would probably grow out of his problems.
"When I was 14 or 15 my parents tried to pull me out of my comprehensive and send me to a private school. They thought I would get better treatment, but that didn't happen."
He left school at the age of 17 with just one CSE and his problems dogged him as he moved into the world of employment. "I had a Sunday job at Tesco's but it lasted about three hours," he says. "One of the things I couldn't understand was saying to a customer, 'how can I help you and what of my stock is of interest to you?'." As far as Laurence was concerned, it was not his stock – it was his employer's.
That experience goes to the heart of the problem Laurence has – a common theme is taking things literally. Laurence's partner, Yvette, refers to an incident where she asked him for some coat hangers and he went to the wardrobe and removed her clothes from their coat hangers, dumping them on the floor. Someone who did not have Asperger's Syndrome would either look for some that were not in use or say: "We don't have any coat hangers to spare."
Laurence's saving grace, in those younger days, was an interest in stamps, which he developed into a business. He then moved into the antiques trade. At one stage, he was earning around £300,000 a year and constantly jetting to the United States on business.
He was dogged, though, by an inability to form relationships. "I didn't lose my virginity until I was 25," he says. He cites the fact he was ill for two years from 11 to 13 and missed out on sex education lessons. He was off school because of a congenital malfunction of the bones in his arms.
He married and had three children, but his wife suffered from bi-polar illness. Their marriage ended when she tragically committed suicide seven years ago as a result of depression.
He recalls how warmth had been lacking in their relationship, and he sought the company of masseuses. "I didn't see them as prostitutes," he says. "I just wanted the warmth of a relationship." He did not understand they felt no warmth for him – thinking that they must do because of what they were doing.
It took some 20 years of seeing a range of specialists and doctors to try and find out why he was behaving the way he was before he was finally diagnosed. His late wife saw a documentary on Asperger's on television and suggested that might be what he had.
"My wife said, 'I wouldn't be surprised if you'd got Asperger's Syndrome'," he says. Of course, It turned out he had.
Laurence says, though, that – despite autism being talked about much more nowadays – he is not sure whether the situation is any better for those at school who have an autism disorder today. That is why he feels a sense of mission in trying to draw attention to their plight. He is a firm believer in the power of mentoring for such children – a philosophy he outlined when he addressed the Autism Show last month.
His next task, though, will be to find a publisher for his book. It has been a labour of love, which has taxed him in recent years. "Everything that went on in my life – I felt I had to get it in," he says. "When I first read it, I realised it was 1,800 pages long." That was as a result of him literally wanting to tell his life story. "I managed to get it down to 674 pages two years ago," he says. Now, after further pruning, it is down to a more manageable 270 pages.
Laurence, who now runs an antiques shop in Camden Passage, Islington, with Yvette, sums up his life. "Throughout my life, I have known that I was different," he says. "I was very lonely. I needed company but I had difficulty in forming relationships."
The main reason he has set up his website and gives talks at international conferences is to show those with a similar condition that there is help out there.
One of the features of his condition is an almost obsessive attitude towards anything he takes on. For that reason, having got the bit between his teeth towards helping those in a similar position to him, he will not give up on them.
Asperger's is a lifelong developmental disability that impacts on how a person communicates and relates to other people. Asperger's Syndrome is part of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which is formed of three different types of autism: high-functioning, low-functioning and Asperger's syndrome.
Those with Asperger's syndrome are usually of average or above-average intelligence. Although they struggle with social communication, social interaction and "social imagination", the condition is often described as a hidden disability as there are no obvious signs of impairment.
The term ASD is more commonly used to refer to all types of autism, whether it be Asperger's or low-functioning autism; the reasoning behind this is to enforce the idea that autism is a spectral condition which has a broad range of implications for a variety of different people.
The average age for diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome is six years and seven months, but people live with ASD their entire lives without getting a formal diagnosis. Early diagnosis means people with Asperger's can gain the support that can enable them to reduce the impact that ASD has on their lives.
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