Looking back through autism-tinted spectacles
It’s inevitable that going through the process of self-awareness and the discovery of our own autism means we have to return to our past. This revisiting can be both illuminating and unsettling. As we pick apart our own lives in the context of autism we learn more about ourselves and our past behaviours, choices and errors. In this post I want to talk through some of my remembering and explain how by applying an autism filter things start to make more sense. This post covers the period from my early childhood to my late teens, largely focused on my school years. It has been hard to write as those were not the best years of my life, but the process of thinking and writing helps me understand and contextualise my own experiences.
I have few memories from before starting school. I do remember that I attended several nurseries and never settled. I have memories of feeling confused and crying a lot. I know I was an early talker and a late walker. I have been told I was stridently independent from little, making sandwiches and learning to sew (with a proper needle) at around 2 years old. I can remember my Noddy wallpaper being painted over and being upset that I could still see the bells on all the Noddy hats when nobody else could see them. I have been told that I knew all the words to Genesis’s ‘Foxtrot’ album when I was 4 years old. I could read, dress and tie shoelaces when I started school. I could only sleep in complete darkness and silence (a problem which continues to this day). I collected Matchbox cars.
Looking back there were early signs of social difficulties, not fitting in, struggling to engage with my peers. My early language and ability to watch, learn and copy laid the foundations for later masking. I had good fine motor skills but struggled with bike riding, climbing and using playground equipment. My balance has always been poor and I have always been clumsy. There may have been some echolalia, and there were definitely sensory processing difficulties.
Primary school years
I started primary school late. I don’t know why I was held back, I suspect I wasn’t emotionally or socially ready. I was certainly academically ready. I attended 3 primary schools. The first closed and was merged with another, creating a huge primary school. I struggled there and was moved to a smaller school with vast grounds and a kindly head teacher. My school reports from that time describe me as a ‘pleasant child’ but that I was reserved and needed to speak up more. I struggled with PE.
At primary school I did not fit in, was routinely bullied and was never part of a friendship group. I never had a best friend and I can’t recall the name of a single friend from that time. I was a ‘tomboy’ but too quiet and dull to play with the boys, too shy and odd to play with the girls. At home when I wasn’t reading (I re-read the same familiar books again and again), I sewed clothes, accessories and set up room scenes for my collection of Sindy and Pippa dolls. My obsession with sewing led to me cutting up my own clothes! I often played with a younger neighbour and could be quite bossy. I can remember having time off school with pains and stomach aches. I wouldn’t use the toilet at school because of the smell. Parties and ‘play dates’ were dreadful, I wanted to go and I wanted to have them but I would become silently overwhelmed with not knowing what to do. I continued to cry a lot but not be able to explain why.
When I had my assessment I was asked about school and playtimes. I was, and still am, unable to remember specifics. My memory is of how I felt, a sense of confusion and fear. I didn’t know what to do. I would be told ‘go and play’, but had no idea how to put that into practice. Other children didn’t want to play with me. I continued to watch and try to copy, but it’s hard to pull off when you don’t understand. When you try to imitate without any real understanding the other children see it, they can tell, it just makes you come across as more weird, more different, more ‘other’.
Secondary school and beyond
It’s often at secondary school where able verbal autistic girls start to fall apart. The increased social demands and the apparent complexity of teen friendships presents a myriad of opportunities to falter and fail. I did not enjoy secondary at all. I attended 3 secondary schools, with 2 years at the first, less than a term at the second, and a move to the other side of the country resulted in a third school where I stayed until partway through sixth form. The first 2 years were reasonable and I managed to find a friend for a short while which helped. I was quiet and compliant, well-behaved in class, but struggled to organise homework. I continued to experience low-level bullying and have time off for stomach aches and pains.
The school I spent most time at was the least successful. It was a large comprehensive and I was an outsider with a strange accent who had no use for the social language and conventions I had worked so hard to learn in my previous schools. As well as being new and shy I had a whole new version of teen-speak and teen-culture to learn and new tribes to navigate. I was introduced to another new girl and we remained friends for a couple of years. We had little in common apart from being ‘new’ and ‘outsiders’, and some shared music interests, but it was good to have a friend who I could see in and out of school. I never felt part of things but desperately wanted to be included.
Bullying continued, I had no idea why. I never provoked or goaded and just wanted to be left alone. I suspect it was because I was an easy target. I was different, weird and unable to benefit from the safety in numbers which protected other girls. I didn’t have the skills to deal with it and just took it. I can’t recall any serious violence, more a drip drip drip of pushing, verbal comments and being talked about. I can’t remember ever explicitly telling anyone what was going on. This seems to be fairly typical for autistic girls, an inability to find the right time or the right words to tell someone. I see it in my son now, unless he is asked explicit questions he can’t verbalise what’s bothering him. Having good spoken language is not a good measure of how well someone can communicate. I still find communicating my emotional needs almost impossible.
Music became my interest, my escape and a way to connect with other misfits. Like my son and his aversion to anything popular, I rejected pop music and obsessed over the indie charts, listened to John Peel and started to develop my own indie-punk persona. My lifelong special interest in crafts meant I could make and adapt clothes, whilst I experimented with hair styles and dyes. I started to get into trouble for my appearance. I became politicised and (irritatingly) vocal about my beliefs. By my last year at school I was doing very little work but was being noticed and I started to make friends with other less conventional peers. I failed most of my O Levels, somehow scraping through to enter the sixth form, but my poor attendance and lack of work meant I risked expulsion, so I left before I was asked to leave.
For several years after leaving school I maintained my ‘wild’ persona. Alcohol (and drugs at times) gave me confidence and scaffolded my social life. There was an illusion of normality among my chaos. The ‘teen rebel’ is an accepted social role in our culture. I could make arrangements, meet up, drink and join in. I could be part of a crowd. Then I would go home and crash. From my early teens I had spent a lot of time alone, either in my bedroom or out walking in the wilds of the moors. I was secretly self-harming by superficial cutting, hair-pulling and skin-picking (I still do this). I had many thoughts of suicide and wavered between feeling fearless and suffering huge anxiety. I verbalised none of this. Just after my seventeenth birthday I was away and was told not to return home. For the next few years I moved many times, became transient, impulsive and reckless. I maintained employment throughout, but my time off was spent either socialising to excess or hiding away and sleeping. I was capable and competent at work, but a chaotic mess the rest of the time. I was hopeless at managing money and looking after myself. At 21 I was burnt out and returned to my ‘home’ area where I had a year of doing very little before venturing into a more settled period of adulthood.
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