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(Not written by me) ‘With Asperger’s you put on a mask to pretend you’re normal’: Daniel Lightwing on how the film of his life helps take the stigma out of autism Londoner Daniel Lightwing was an outsider at school but maths helped him find a job at Google — and love. He talks with Susannah Butter about the film of his life Susannah Butter 19 March 2015 In any conversation about the modern workplace Google is held up as the ideal. But when Daniel Lightwing worked there as a web developer he was not happy. “I have a problem with office culture,” says the 26-year-old, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome — now simply known as an autistic spectrum disorder — marked by difficulties with social interaction and non-verbal communication. “I ate lunch by myself to avoid people talking about things that were not work-related. The more I did stuff like that the more people rejected me.” School was worse. “I didn’t go to lunch because I wouldn’t know where to sit or what to say, so I didn’t eat. I was really skinny and when my dad found out he was furious.” Lightwing’s feelings are expressed in the new film X+Y, which is based on his story. Director Morgan Matthews had the idea when he met Lightwing filming 2007 BBC documentary Beautiful Young Minds, about the International Maths Olympiad (IMO). X+Y’s protagonist, Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield), is lonely and bullied at school. His life changes when he is chosen to represent Great Britain at the IMO in China where he falls in love with a girl who helps him connect with society, and his mother. “I cried the first three times I watched it. It says things I was feeling but could not express,” says Lightwing. He speaks softly, making eye contact occasionally before looking back down at his bitten fingernails. His maths workings on a sheet of paper appear in the film. “My cameo,” he smiles. As in X+Y, he fell in love with a Chinese girl and married her. Yan Zhu has a stake in the film but they are no longer together. “She ran away back to China one day when I was working at Google and I never saw her again. I don’t have a positive impression of her now, what she did was cruel.” He stops. Talking about it hurts his current girlfriend’s feelings. “I live with my new girlfriend, which is why it is awkward.” She is also Chinese. They met “at a Chinese gathering” and live in Baker Street. He orders a hot chocolate, admitting: “I find drink orders awkward. In social situations I’m often thinking about what is going on in that person’s mind. It’s like my brain is overheating.” Lightwing was not diagnosed with Asperger’s until he was 16. He grew up in York, the oldest of six children. “I didn’t have a brilliant childhood. There was an emphasis on being social at school and my parents wanted me to be normal.” In X+Y, Nathan’s father dies when he is a child — Lightwing’s real-life father, who is very much alive, has taken it with good humour. “My Dad was frustrated with me when I was young because he is a GP and his job is about empathising with people. He said: ‘Even if you are not interested you should show that you are. That’s the most important skill in life’. For me that is like teaching university maths to a little child.” Today Lightwing can understand his father’s pain but says “as a child he would ask me to do something simple like buy something from the shop for him and I would panic. I know how to ask but if they say something I don’t expect, what do I say next?” His mother, a science teacher, began to research Asperger’s after reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and took him to a specialist. “Being diagnosed meant I didn’t feel I had to try and change. You just have different strengths.” Competitive maths and a teacher spotting his potential also helped. “Everything got better after the competition. I felt more self-respect and part of a community — there were people like me I could relate to better than those in my school and family.” He read maths at Trinity College, Cambridge, which was “much easier than school, socially. I didn’t feel bullied and was free. One problem was that I lost interest in maths a bit.” After his degree he lived in China, where “they are more respectful to academically talented people”, and would have stayed had Google not offered him a job “building cool things to make people think Google is good” — such as developing the 3D museum viewer for company’s Art Project. Were there others at Google with Asperger’s? “Of course. Asperger’s is more common than you think. There are definitely politicians with it.” He describes his disorder as “an extremely different kind of personality. I wouldn’t call it a disability. When you have Asperger’s you are putting on a mask and trying to pretend you are normal but what you are thinking is not normal. “People with autism have polarised emotions. If it gets too much you withdraw from everything. It is called social hangover. There were times at school where I was overloaded. I’d try to run away. If I couldn’t escape I would explode.” His social struggle at Google and school did not come through a lack of willing. “Sometimes I do want to join in with other people but I’m too shy. Sometimes, though, I don’t know what to say when it is not work-related.” Google eventually “became boring”. Now he uses his programming skills in financial arbitrage and betting but becomes evasive when I ask him about it. Does he work to make it better? “It is less ethical than that. I am part of a betting syndicate. It’s secret.” This job suits him because, “In many companies the only way to make money is to rise in the management. I don’t have the ability to do that.” How should we treat those with Asperger’s? “There is too much emphasis on changing people or helping them fit in.” When he was younger, he admits he was violent, biting or kicking his peers and teachers. “That violence should not be punished because generally we are having strong emotions and there is nothing you can do about it. More should be done to avoid these situations. You can’t treat autistic children as though they’re doing something that’s unreasonable because to them it isn’t.” Medication isn’t a solution. “There was a phase where people thought Asperger’s needed to be cured but people with such a focus on systems and patterns probably came up with most inventions in history.” Alcohol helps: “I stop thinking and can say what I want.” When he wants to “act normal” he thinks about “if I have been in a similar situation before and know what to say or how I should act.” If he could wake up one morning and not have Asperger’s, would he want to? “No. I would feel really sad. I might not be good at what I enjoy.” When he is older he would like to have children. “If they had Asperger’s I’d know what to do. I don’t think I’d mind either way, it is just a different way of seeing the world, but I’d want to diagnose it early. It’s not nice going through 15 years of prison.” The maths competition crew still meet up to play poker. Lightwing is happiest doing “computer things and China things”. Going out is, “OK. I used to be afraid but now I have friends who are not Asperger’s and I’m able to.” X+Y is a milestone because, he says, “it is about how there are lots of different kinds of people, how they are valuable, can do great things and be part of society. It shows Asperger’s in a good light but there are comedy elements that make it a film for everyone to enjoy.” Source: Evening Standard