Glimpses of unseen autism

Looking through some family photos I found one of me as a little girl, smiling as I created two lines of plastic animals. Lining up toys is one of those famous signs of autism, but I doubt my parents knew that. The ways I’m autistic are subtle and easy to dismiss, but I’ve realised that the signs were always there for me, even if nobody recognised them.

At school, when I was ten, I wanted to do my project on cheetahs but the teacher told me I should do it on the Botanical Gardens because I went there most weekends. Whenever our task was to write about what we did at the weekend I would wrote about going to the Botanics for a few hours to feed the squirrels. I didn’t write that in the rest of my free time I was reading about cheetahs and other cats, pretending to be a cat, and sitting by the radiator to watch my own cat. These things were unremarkable and not worth mentioning. I’d been doing them every day for as long as I could remember.

Another thing I’d always done was spinning. I became an expert at pushing with the balls of my feet to spin on my heels as fast as I could go. I’d hold out my arms to feel the tugging at my fingertips, or pull my arms across my chest against the force pulling them outwards. When I wasn’t spinning my hands never stopped moving. I squeezed my fingers, rolled up the edge of my t-shirt, and fiddled with my hair till it got tangled so often my mum told the hairdresser to cut my hair short like a boy’s to make me break the habit. But I also picked at my fingers, my lips, and the rest of my face.

I slept badly most of the time and none of the advice I was given helped much. In the evening the radio and my parents’ voices kept me awake and I was woken early in the morning by the sound of the central heating coming on. The sound of my brother bouncing a ball in the garden messed with my brain in ways I didn’t understand, but my parents said it was doing no harm. In the school playground it sounded like every child was screaming.

I was scared of the children and terrified of the teachers and did everything I could to avoid making them angry. But at home my frustration and anxiety surfaced. I acted out and melted down. The psychologist said I was fine, and put me on a reward system that fixed my behaviour but did nothing for my emotions.

I always had friends at school but nobody else saw the teasing. But being teased was better than being alone and risking worse bullying or other children’s pity. I was desperate to make other friends but I couldn’t manage it. When I could bring myself to admit this I was told it was due to my low self-esteem. My best friends were my cats.

I was shy. ‘She’s very shy’ was the explanation for every failed attempt at social interaction.

Home and school made a predictable routine that I was rarely forced out of.

I did my best to be a normal girl so people would like me and so they wouldn’t see the ways I was different from everyone I knew.

Normal girls from my background went away to university, but once I was there I couldn’t pretend any more. I couldn’t cope with bars and clubs, or understand other students’ social interactions, and without my family or school friends I was more alone than I’d ever been. The noise in my flat gave me panic attacks and depression took away the energy I used to act normal and compensate for everything that assaulted my senses.

I had to drop out, but a year later the GP treating my depression noticed my autisticness. Once I’d got over my disbelief I realised, this explains everything.

I’ve felt sad and angry that I wasn’t diagnosed as a child and had no support and no understanding of who I was. But I wonder now if support at that time would have meant being made to appear even more normal and my understanding would have been that I was disordered. Now I’m an adult I can choose not to accept these things.

But it’s comforting to look back and understand my life in the light of autism, and to see that autism has always been a part of me, because it feels like I know who I really am.

This is my post for Autistics Speaking Day 2014.

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