Man’s lone fight to deal with Asperger’s Syndrome during NS

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Private Ganesh failed. Luckily I survived.

The Tekong sun fired the world in all-consuming white. Boots dug into unyielding asphalt in imperfect synchrony, becoming demolition crews swinging hammers and hoes in my head. My skin crackled into coarse yellow sandpaper, tearing at muscles and nerves.

Men hollered orders, their voices registering as bitter iridescent streams of brown and black and violet, intermingling with the other coloured textured noises rippling through me. Pressure built up in my skull and ballooned outwards, threatening to burst.

And burst it did. Whiteout.

My legs jellied. My arms trembled. My heart erupted in frenzied beats. My foot landed awkwardly and threw me forward.

I caught myself with my other foot and bumped into the man in front of me and my skin eroded the last of my insides and my body threatened to collapse but I had to keep moving or be crushed underfoot by everybody behind me and the world was nothing but white, white, white.

It was a meltdown. The worst I had experienced in all my eighteen years.

I had been experiencing meltdowns every day since I entered Basic Military Training. Every day I felt like a rubber band stretched to the breaking point. Now, I felt I was one newton away from snapping.

During my scheduled platoon commander interview, I described my experience. I thought I would finally get some help. I was wrong.

A state of uncertainty

Since childhood I was the last to understand the dynamics of a social situation, if at all.

I had a single-minded focus on facts and logic and shunned messy emotions and speculation. I spoke strange words in a stranger accent that was completely natural to me but never to my peers. Every so often I found new ways to tangle my body in unnatural postures.

At 17 I thought I found the words to describe myself. Asperger’s Syndrome. Classified as an autism spectrum disorder, AS is marked by significant difficulties in social interaction and non-verbal communication, intense interests, repetitive behaviour, and usually clumsiness and idiosyncratic language use. Unlike classic autism, there are no serious delays in linguistic or cognitive development. Sensory overloads and meltdowns occurred regularly, sometimes daily, in school.

I spoke to my counsellor and civics tutor, trying to navigate the murky waters of  late teenage life.

At Pathlight School I discussed my situation with a social worker, and she felt I might have AS. I devoured books about AS, studying coping skills the way my peers studied for examinations. But I did not get a diagnosis.

My mother was afraid that being diagnosed would curse my future career prospects. A clinic assured her that when I was called up for National Service I would be diagnosed anyway, so my parents gave up on getting me diagnosed.

The clinic was wrong.

The military medical machine

When I entered BMT, I explained my situation to my commanders. They told me not to worry, to focus on my training, and I would soon get over them.

I soldiered on, enduring daily, sometimes hourly, meltdowns. That did not work. The day after my near-collapse I consulted a Medical Officer. I explained my suspicions and described my symptoms.

He excused me from loud noises and firearms for two weeks. On my next visit, I talked to a different MO, who consulted Wikipedia in front of me. He felt I did not have AS, but extended the medical status. After more visits to more MOs, I was referred to a counsellor at the Military Medical Institute. The counsellor was sympathetic, but he could not diagnose me.

I was referred to other specialists. For the rest of my service I bounced between so many names and faces blurred in my mind. A psychiatrist diagnosed me as schizoid, but did not tell me in person; the counsellor had to read the diagnosis to me. A psychologist thought I simply had stunted emotional development.

Once I was referred to an orthopaedist, even though my situation had nothing to do with my bones. None found agreement.

Only the counsellor helped, by listening to my concerns, and helping me understand people and develop social skills. The others seemed more concerned with fitting me into a box and pushing me back to work.

An evaluation of Asperger’s required psychomotor skills evaluations, cognitive and linguistic tests, life and social skills assessment, and more. I experienced none of this.

Embracing the suck

To me, a diagnosis was merely a means to gain access to expertise and skill training. Since the military closed one door, I made one of my own. I was posted out as a clerk, and I learned my new vocation.

In my unit, I did not receive any special attention or treatment, nor asked for any. I survived, regardless.

Whenever I interacted with people, I practised what my counsellor and my books taught. I took every weekend duty I could, where I could be left in peace. After work I kept to quiet places and stayed away from people as often as I could, recovering from social demands. Meltdowns became a fortnightly, then monthly event. When they occurred, I embraced the suck and rode them out.

The military mental health system as I had experienced it tried to sort people into neatly defined categories.

For people like me, with symptoms that defy easy classification, the system failed. Five years on saw no improvement.

The suicide of Private Ganesh Pillay Magindren revealed a lack of communication between units about servicemen with psychological issues.

Frontline personnel made first contact with such soldiers lacked the proper training or qualifications, and yet the system relies on them to refer people with issues to specialists. The system has to reorient its attention on the individual.

Military medical professionals should strive for a holistic, multidisciplinary approach that involves collaboration between a soldier’s superiors and healthcare providers. They need to fully investigate a patient’s condition and talk to each other, aiming to bring the patient to as high a standard of health as possible while still enabling him to carry out his duties. Until then, soldiers will continue to fall through the cracks.

I survived. Private Ganesh did not. We have to be the last to fall.