A day in the life of a physics student with autism

A man looking quizzically down at the yellow line on the train platform An instruction such as "do not cross the yellow line" can be confusing for autistic people

Michael Barton, 22, has high-functioning autism and has just finished a degree course. He is currently promoting a new book - his second in three years, entitled A Different Kettle of Fish - A Day in the Life of a Physics Student with Autism.

It documents how he feels travelling from Guildford to London for a day out and the autism-related difficulties along the way.

Barton launched his book at the Manchester Autism Show where he also gave a talk which includes one of his pet subjects - how speaking metaphorically can confuse people on the autistic spectrum as they tend to take things literally.

He spoke to Ouch this week:

Is your book aimed at people with, or without, autism?

I was diagnosed as having high-functioning autism as a child but as an adult I have learnt to develop social skills and can communicate fairly well. Because of this I can relate to both people with autism and those without. I think my new book will give people without the disorder an understanding of what it is like. Autistic people focus on the details, all the little things and it can be much more difficult to understand metaphors and idioms. In my book I write what a journey from Guildford to London for a day out is like for me and the complexities of what people without autism think is a simple journey. So for example waiting at the train station the announcer might say "passengers must remain behind the yellow line", and when the train actually comes it is confusing then to cross the yellow line to board it. I've also published illustrations which show my understanding of phrases like 'you're pulling my leg'.

Michael holding his new book
What was it like having autism and studying physics at university?

I had a really good experience at university. I had more control over my environment so I was much happier there than at school. There was a strict timetable at school but during breaks there was no schedule at all - I didn't know how to deal with that. But at university I could control my own time much more. I liked that I could pursue subjects I enjoy, like physics which is excellent for me and really works with the way I think; it's logical. I didn't have to do subjects, like English which I really didn't like and found confusing. At school I struggled to make friends, you had to just go out there and talk to people and I couldn't really. At university I found it much easier. There are a variety of clubs where socialising is a by-product of the activity. For example I joined the rock climbing club. You didn't have to be particularly sociable when you were rock climbing but I met people and got on with them without it being the primary purpose.

Do you enjoy giving talks?

I really enjoy it actually. I spoke at the Autism Show in London recently and it went well. My talk is called 'how to fit squares into round holes' and I talk about what being autistic is like when a lot of people don't empathise. I like to focus on the positive aspects of being on the autism spectrum and try to teach people something. I really like it when people come away saying "I'd never thought of it like that". If people learn something at my talks then that will just make how they understand and empathise with me and other autistic people. I want people to realise that autistic people have a different way of looking at the world and often we can't automatically work things out. The biggest problem is people's lack of understanding. It's the same with my books, writing them, and having people read them, helps other people understand.

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