The best way to describe what it feels like to have Asperger Syndrome is that it's like turning on a radio and trying to switch stations, but not ever being able to get a clear signal. The autism spectrum is huge, so to treat all diagnoses as the same is inaccurate, but to broadly explain Asperger Syndrome: it can be difficult picking up on the subtle nuances of social interaction, so uses of sarcasm, for instance, can fly straight over your head. Expressing emotions doesn't come easily, meaning that people often think you're aloof or introverted, relationships can be a challenge, and you're frequently left feeling deeply misunderstood. The world seems increasingly overwhelming, and you feel as if you're very far away from the people around you. I personally have had to physically train myself to look more approachable and less uptight, by making conscious adjustments to my body language.
Strangely, in childhood, these facets of my character always made me stand out from my peers – they weren't a problem. My grades were always top of the class, so my awkwardness didn't feel like an issue. But as I got older and started secondary school, things changed. I began to feel like an outsider, and started to experience serious forms of bullying, which left me feeling depressed and anxious. I'm not ashamed to say that suicide crossed my mind at a young age, provoked by thoughts of feeling worthless, unwanted and outcast from those around me. Going to and from school each day for about two years felt like hell on earth. But then, during that dark cloud of confusion, I finally got a diagnosis at the age of fourteen. It was almost by accident, when I was rummaging through some letters in my parent's bedroom and found out that my counselor suspected I had Asperger Syndrome. At that moment, it all seemed to click into place. It felt as though a light switched on as I was walking alone in the dark, and I could suddenly see what direction to go in.
One thing you excel at when you have Asperger Syndrome is your individual passions. Some people get well into cars, others become film boffs, space experts or mathematicians. For me, it was all about music. I used to sit up for hours watching Top Of The Pops when I was four, learned how to play guitar from age seven, and started to meticulously collect records from the age of twelve. Music became an obsession of mine from the get go, and all I wanted was a life that would revolve around it constantly.
When I finally left school to study financial computing at university, I thought it would be my fresh start. Finally, things would start to look up; I would experience a newfound freedom and live away from home. It was 2002, so parallel to that, indie music was kicking off. The Strokes and The White Stripes were on my speakers on a constant loop, and I spent every single night in London going to gigs, back when venues like the Astoria and nights like Club NME at KOKO still reigned supreme. Before long, I began prioritising my music obsession over my degree, and soon enough I stopped turning up for lectures entirely. At the end of that first year, with the blessing of my then-tutor, I made a break for it – I decided to take an initial year sabbatical and see where I was at the end of it. That financial computing degree could shove it; I was determined to get a job in music no matter what.
Within a couple of months, I found my first internship at an indie label. While the guy guiding me was pretty cool during his cigarette breaks, and often on hand to give me advice on how to make it in the industry, I began to feel very uncomfortable in my own skin; as if my presence was a nuisance. On one occasion, all the interns were given a list of things to do for the day on paper in full view of the everyone that worked there. Under my name it said "Don't sit down doing nothing! Find something to do!" It made me feel undervalued compared to my colleagues, but worse still, I felt as if my hard work wasn't translating the way I had intended, and the fact I couldn't communicate my enthusiasm in the workplace felt frustrating – all the more so because it was familiar.
I quickly learned that I didn't work well with big egos. People who make it all about them didn't rub well with me because I was the type of person that often needed encouraging, empowering and just an arm around the shoulder every now and then, especially during times of difficulty. Sadly, that wasn't so forthcoming. Perhaps the music industry is a place where the loudest and biggest voice in the room gets all the praise. It's all about networking, keeping up appearances and being seen at gigs or parties. Doing that when you can barely keep eye contact with people at the best of times makes it doubly hard.
Nonetheless, I remained resolute in my quest for that elusive job. And then, one day, an old friend from university asked if I'd be interested in forming a record label with him. Because of my prior experiences, I was very reluctant to get involved with it, but he convinced me that this would be different. I slowly came round to the idea as it meant I could work from the comfort of my computer without interacting with people in an office. And from then on, I put my heart and soul into it. As I mentioned earlier, people with Asperger's tend to put 110% into a project they're passionate about. We eat, sleep and drink that particular obsession. Shortly after starting the label, we put out a mini-album and two seven-inch singles. I began to realise that I wasn't useless after all; I just needed to have some autonomy, and do things on my own terms.
To keep myself busy in between, I forced myself to gigs. Whenever I walked into a venue – no matter the size – I would always feel overwhelmed by the people in attendance, almost intimidated, often paranoid about whether they were looking at that weird guy alone without a drink standing by the stage. Having Asperger Syndrome at a gig, or in a similarly large crowd of people, is like being stuck inside a bubble, trying to reach out for some form of interaction, but the bubble refuses to burst. Living in my own head and constantly over-thinking led me to spells of paranoia, too self-conscious to mosh even though I was usually watching a hardcore band. I wondered to myself if I could ever have a good time at a gig, but I eventually overcame it by finding a small, select group of friends who were non-judgemental, knew about my condition and most importantly, they genuinely wanted to be around me.
I began reviewing shows for one or two websites, and then tried my hand at DJing. With the amount of records I owned, it made sense, plus I could earn some money on the side. Through that, I was able to DJ at shows all over the South, and eventually became a gig promoter in 2008 with a promotions company. It definitely helped with getting me out of my comfort zone in terms of meeting people. I could DJ, book shows, watch the bands I liked and make some money from it.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when things changed, or how. But just like most humans on earth, as I've gotten older I've started to care less and less what people think of me – which is surprisingly more fun than feeling crippled with self-consciousness. You know that awkward feeling you get at an office Christmas party when you're stuck with Janet from accounts and have shit all to say to her apart from "I like your blouse"? I feel like that every day, at all times, around pretty much everybody except my close friends and family. But instead of caring, somehow I've learnt to embrace it.
As for working in the music industry, I don't regret it. But if I could go back I'd probably change a few things. For starters, I'd have taught the people around me what Asperger's Syndrome actually is, and to not be too hasty with me in meeting tight deadlines or absolutely having to attend a gig to see a hot new band. I also wouldn't bottle my emotions, and I'd have let my colleagues know how I really feel without fearing I'd not be taken seriously or fired from my job. I definitely don't want to discourage people with Asperger's from having a career in the music business, but just like all other mental health conditions, much more can be done in the music industry to understand what it's like to have Asperger's.
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(Lead illustration by Dave Watt. All other photographs courtesy of the author)
If you want know more about Asperger Syndome, click here to get in touch with the National Autistic Society.