Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A Book to Read When You Have Asperger Syndrome: Author Interview: Dr Stuart Neilson

Posted By Daisy
DR STUART NEILSON dislikes tying his shoelaces, walking through crowded streets, and refuses to take off his jumper on sweltering sun holidays because he hates the feeling of air on his bare skin. Every time he goes shopping, he rehearses the infinite number of ways in which the shopkeeper may interact with him, and he prefers predictable daily events, like having a daily holiday schedule of activities and checking out unknown destinations on Google Streetview before he leaves the house.

Neilson also has a PhD in Statistics, and lectures in Disability Studies module in University College Cork, Ireland. When he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome four years ago, he felt nothing but relief.

‘All my life I felt odd in some way. There was nothing at all negative for me about being diagnosed. It was such a revelation and I found it very helpful,’’ says Neilson.

Labelled a troublemaker in school, Neilson had difficulties with learning to read, and was sent and kicked out of remedial classes. He absorbed himself in building complex Lego structures, and had a lengthy obsession with Egypt, learning how to write people’s names in hieroglyphics.

Unable to understand the subtle nuances of everyday social interaction, and often failing to read body language cues, he was unpopular during secondary school. Before completing his A Levels, a teacher said ‘I really hate you Neilson, you’ll get an A in Chemistry, and you’ll do it to spite me.’

In adulthood, Neilson received psychiatric care for depression and anxiety, and was once commandeered by two security guards in a hospital because he reacted aggressively to a doctor’s unexpected touch.

‘Having an over-emotional response to something trivial is embarrassing, ’he says.

When he arrived home after an occupational therapy consultation with a bundle of leaflets about Asperger Syndrome, Neilson says his wife wasn’t surprised. He now attends regular occupational therapy, where he learns about social interaction, language and relationship building.

‘Being diagnosed has made life easier,’ says Neilson, who has just published a book ‘Living With AS and Autism in Ireland’ with his co-author, Diarmuid Heffernan, a keyworker supporting adults on the autistic spectrum.


The book is a fascinating, part first-person account of what it feels like to have autism or AS, and how to deal with the issues that may arise as a result of this.

Neilson describes how he feels nauseous after attending a buffet, because he had undergone a surfeit of ‘social calories’ – the effort of making social contact with so many unfamiliar people in such a short time, and eating unfamiliar food, made him feel sick.

He also warns that people with ASD who have difficulties with their visual sense may feel overwhelmed in the lead-up to Christmas, as there are simply more flashing and flickering lights around. He advises sticking to the old-fashioned non-flickering lights, or to confine lights to one area/room of the house.

Both practical and theoretical, the book discusses relationships, school, college and work, how to plan to achieve goals, how to achieve success in daily activities, and barriers to participation in daily life.

For example, he advises if a person is sensitive to the feeling of air on their skin, then it is more socially acceptable to wear a few thin layers on the body, rather than one thick winter coat which ‘may look like you are about to leave, or don’t want to stay.’
"I have Asperger syndrome. I notice little details that other people don't pay much attention to, which makes me good at managing statistical data. But I am not just good with numbers - I also have an interest in photography and take images that pick out beautiful little details in life, like these dew drops on our cabbages..."
When I asked Stuart to name his favourite books, he sent an email, beginning rather humorously with:

‘Dear Daisy, you probably *would* believe that I keep a log of the books I read, in alphabetical order of author.’
He continues:

I read everything by Iain M Banks and was captivated by both the escapism of “Surface Detail” (which has the most amazingly courageous female lead) and his appropriately cynical final novel, “Hydrogen Sonata”, in which mediocrity and momentum triumph over the best of intentions.

Hugh Howey's “Wool” series is a credible portrayal of the near future of humanity, again portraying betrayal through the momentum of political ambition and expediency - warning each us of how important it is to be politically and scientifically informed about the world we share.

My current read is “Year Zero” by Rob Reid and it is, so far, a riotously funny exposé of the very serious issues of copyright, the remuneration of content creators for their intellectual works and the imbalance of power between the people who create and the corporations that hold the rights over their productions.

I am a fan of forensic crime fiction, particularly Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs and Val McDermid - the cross-over between reality and fiction of Val McDermid's character Vance in “The Wire in the Blood” (based on Jimmy Savile) is spine-chilling, without any hyperbole. The depth and breadth of Savile’s offending - in plain sight - has had a life-long impact on his victims that few works of fiction could hope to parallel, and yet so many statistical indicators (the SAVI Report, or HSE and Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s annual reports) tell us that he is just one of very many sexual offenders.

The biggest theme of the year has been the extent of state scrutiny of our personal lives and communications, which lead me to read some of the classic fiction on surveillance (“Memoirs Found in a Bathtub” by Stanislaw Lem, “Spew” by Neal Stephenson, “Super-Cannes” by JG Ballard, “The Shockwave Rider” by John Brunner, “Watchbird” by Robert Sheckley and “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin) of which “Spew” was the most immediate - forget law(ful) enforcement, because the big corporations drive the entire agenda of modern electronic surveillance, to maximise our potentials as consumers.

Non-fiction fills more of my time than fiction, and is sometimes more emotionally intense and transformative.

The “Speeches on the Late Very Interesting State Trials” by Dublin judge John Philpott Curran (in 1808) is the origin of the grossly-misused maxim that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”, but in fact said that “It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt.”

My final praise goes to Naoki Higashida for writing “The Reason I Jump”, in which he explains so eloquently how assistive technology allows him to “anchor my words, words that would otherwise flutter off as soon as I tried to speak them.”

‘Living with Asperger Syndrome and Autism in Ireland’ by Stuart Neilson and Diarmuid Heffernan is available from Amazon in both print form (€12) and as an e-book for Kindle (€6).

For more information, please see the Facebook page LivingWithASandAutismInIreland.
'This is Autism' flashblog is an interesting look into what autism means to a variety of people  thisisautismflashblog.blogspot.ie/

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Lovely London Things #3

'Take Courage' sign on a disused pub, North Road, Islington
I FIND this sign quite inspiring on my morning trudge to work, on a fairly grim road bounded by two huge council estates, a clothing factory, a theatre, a pub and a hot-seating office block for creative types.

Initially I thought it was a keep-calm-and-carry-on type relic from the war era (my history is shoddy). However (and disappointingly), I discovered that it's just a beer slogan (used between the 1950's to the 1980's) for the Courage Brewery!

An ad for the 226-year-old beer was banned in 2009 for implying that the beer would give the man enough confidence to tell the woman the truth- what do you think?

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Book to Read in Krakow

Posted By Daisy

I went to Krakow last year on a city break. I loved the city, but couldn't sleep for a week after visiting the horrors at Auschwitz. When we got home, I donated the white painted vintage suitcase under my coffee table to a friend, and got rid of a picture of silver-hued trees in my bedroom, as it reminded me too much of the woods behind Birkenhau. I wrote this for a travel feature published last year.

A YOUNG man with a prosthetic leg and a walking cane drinks beer with his girlfriend in a café on the main square. Two tiny ladies study a city map on a pavement hoarding before taking their seats and ordering espressos and some water. A homeless woman in a raincoat does a moonwalk shuffle past the first layer of café chairs. She stops beside a girl in a Day-Glo green visor who swiftly extracts some coins from her purse.

Pigeons scatter as a long-haired man holding a ‘Free Walking Tour’ placard ambles about followed by a group of tourists. People point upwards outside St Mary’s Basilica, listening to the hourly trumpet call coming from the steeple. In the Cloth Hall, permanent stalls peddle carved chess sets, fridge magnets and wooden children’s toys. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop through the square, following the Royal route towards the Wawel castle.

Mention a city-break in Krakow and people remember three things. The Square, Auschwitz and the Salt Mines.


Rows of travel agencies on Grodzka Street pedal day trips and before I have time to think, a day-trip to Auschwitz is booked with on-bus educational video and picnic lunch included. Outside the camp, the sign, ‘Work Sets You Free’ glints in the daytime sun as crowds of teenage school tours and middle-aged couples surge forward at the ticket barrier. A nearby shop sells flower garlands and candles in stained glass holders, which visitors lay at the Death Wall inside, or the iron hanging hooks situated on the side of one of the streets in side. The tour guide is solemn and rarely smiles during the three-hour tour.

We visit the site of Auschwitz 1 first where two-storey red bricked houses are laid out in neat rows surrounded by barbed-wire fences. Now a series of museums, this area once served as an administrative centre, medical experimentation centre and torture centre. The first exhibit shows huge photographs of prisoners arriving in Auschwitz, smiling and unaware of their fate. Deeper into the tour are the rooms full of the prisoners’ possessions taken by the Nazis and stored in huge warehouses which were known as ‘Canada, the Land of the Plenty.’ Everything was taken, from hair which was made into fabric, to gold-teeth which were extracted from the bodies by fellow inmates in a room next to the gas chambers.

The rooms of possessions are next. In one there are thousands of gravestone-like battered suitcases with names and addresses beautifully painted on them, some bearing the handwritten label ‘child’. Next is the Room of Hair where hundreds of chopped-off plaits sit casually atop mounds of hair. It may as well be bodies. Other rooms contain huge piles of shoes, baby clothes, prosthetic limbs, shaving brushes and eyeglasses. Walls of black-and-white photographs of men and women in striped pyjamas surround the prisoners living quarters. There is a flower atop one of these photographs, perhaps left by a relative.

We take a bus to the extermination camp at Birkenhau, ten minutes away. Its red-bricked train station is instantly recognisable. An original wooden train carriage still stands at the platform where exhausted people were divided into those who could work and those who could not. I had previously seen a photo on-line of a young dwarf-sized man sitting on a chair on this platform, looking bewildered at the crowds around him, totally unaware that his stature sealed his fate. Once chosen, women, children and the elderly and sick walked 1 ½ kilometres up the platform to the gas chambers, reassured by the soldiers that they would be having dinner after a shower. The four gas chambers are gone now, destroyed by the fleeing Germans, and never rebuilt, out of respect to the 8000 people per day who were murdered there. But pieces of wall remain in the rubble and plaques from every nation adorn a walkway.

After Auschwitz, I have no interest in visiting Oskar Schindler’s factory, or the Galicia Jewish Museum, or the Pharmacy Museum which details the plight of the Jewish ghetto victims. It’s simply too much suffering to bear. The Square of the Ghetto victims has a permanent installation of 70 large wooden chairs to remember the Jewish people who were moved into the walled ghetto after the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany.


We head to the beautiful Jewish quarter of Kazimiertz. At the Ariel café (frequented by Stephen Spielberg and his crew during the filming of Schindler’s List), there is a large family having a lively dinner served by elderly waiters. I drink hot chocolate at a polished tiled table filled with gold grout and study the paintings of Jewish elders lining the walls. ‘Once Upon A Time in Kazimiertz’ is an interesting. Consisting of a row of original shops amalgamated into one restaurant, the shop fronts still bear the Jewish names of the carpenter, the grocer, the tailor and the general store. The menu offers chopped chicken livers with eggs in truffle sauce, veal jelly with quail egg and green peas.

At the nearby Remuh Synagogue and cemetery, there is a wall of plaques dedicated to the victims of the holocaust. One is donated by Henry and Lola Tenenbaum, New York. Later, I discover that Krakovian expatriate, Lola, watched her mother being transported to Auschwitz on Mother’s Day, 1944. Another family plaque remembers the 88 members of the Ferber family who were killed during the Holocaust.

The Museum of Ethnography in the former Kazimiertz town hall, provides a welcome break from the all-pervasive sadness and I have an interesting ramble through Polish life past and present, with costumes, farming implements, childrens’ toys and a recreation of a rural classroom all on display.

My hotel recommends a trip to the ski-resort of  Zacopane and the Tatras National Park, a two-hour drive from Krakow. Lionel Richie and Roxette play on the radio as we zoom up the motorway, spying bleak countryside, and unattractive bungalows with dormer windows and smoking chimneys and piles of chopped firewood stacked against lean-tos.

Many Polish taxi drivers remain silent until you speak to them. Once encouraged, they love to chat. One man tells us all about his Scottish cousin who’s embroiled in a bitter family feud. This taxi driver guide speaks no English and deposits me at the ski lift at the ski resort of Zacopane, smiling and signalling that he will wait. With the ski season over, it’s deserted at the top, with piles of slush, and some empty cafes. An old woman sells the ubiquitous pierogis (dumplings stuffed with potato or cheese) on top of an upturned bucket. I speak no Polish and nobody can tell us how to get the entrance of the National Park.

We trudge through the slush in the deserted ski resort, and head down to check out the pretty log-cabin lined town of Zacopane. At €120, it’s an expensive and disappointing day trip.

My advice is to learn some Polish before you go. Plenty of Krakovians speak perfect English. But many do not. And buy a guidebook. And carry a pocketful of zloty coins wherever you go. Toilet-trips cost 1 zloty everywhere. Sometimes even in a café where you’ve already bought a beer.


A three-hour guided tour around the Wielicska Salt mines is interesting. On the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites (along with the site at Auschwitz and  Krakow’s Historic town centre), we walk hundreds of steps down to the mines, seeing chandeliers, statues and a church all made of salt, before whooshing up to ground level in a shaky metal lift.


Back in Krakow’s old town, we eat steak smothered in blue-cheese sauce in Scandale Royal, and  drink vodka in the uber-cool communist-like bar, Antycafe, with a silent movie projector showing grainy cartoons on a wall, with ‘What’s Next’ daubed in red paint beside it. The Jazz Rock club beneath the bar is cavernous, with scary black-clad, pierced and tattooed goths grunging to a surprisingly mainstream selection of Linkin Park and Nirvana classics.

Krakow fizzes with history, beautiful architecture, and a quiet sense of cool. The perfect spot for a winter city break.
Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking
I first read this book during my J1 working summer in Seattle. In 2001. And managed to give up for a year. Since then, I’ve given up many, many times but always gave in eventually. Who knew it was simply a change of scenery that would finally persuade me to renounce the dirty things for once and for all?
Stephen King once said (before he gave up) that he thought smoking improved his writing as it helped the synapses in the brain. I’ve written a few features since giving up smoking, and they worked out fine. However, I did almost miss a deadline recently for the first time in 7 years – can I blame the lack of nicotine?
This time, I was surprised that I actually found it easy enough to give up. I was staying with my sister and her family - she hates smoking and usually wafts a hand in front of her nose whenever I came inside after having a cigarette. And it felt horrible hugging the babies after a cigarette. It was almost easier to give up than face the criticism on a daily basis. I also knew I didn't want to get into the habit of smoking in London, or to associate London with smoking at all.
I fully expect to gain at least half a stone, and I no longer wear my red or light blue skinny jeans, as they are simply too tight now. I eat cakes from the next-door deli every day for lunch, and they’ve christened me ‘The Feeder’ in the office as I try daily to press my calorific stash upon my workmates. Thank God for all the walking I do in London.
(Btw, my friends were visiting last weekend and I smoked outside a bar at 2 a.m.  - but I've allowed myself one little slip up....oops)



Lovely London Things #2: A Sunday (!) Photo of the Weird and Wonderful Things I See

Du Cane Court, Balham High Road: My friend lives near this Art Deco 1930's apartment block, at one time the largest privately-owned block of apartments under one roof in Europe.
The interesting thing about it is that it was one of the few buildings in the vicinity to survive the German bombings during World War 2. It has been suggested that Hitler planned to use this building as his future headquarters, and also that the Luftwaffe used it as a navigational aid when flying over London.
It has hosted a variety of famous theatre and musical personalities over the years, with the most famous resident currently Arthur Smith and Christopher Luscombe.
It's possible to rent a one-bedroom flat here for a mere £1560 per month.