This month is autism awareness month. Did you know that for every four boys diagnosed with autism, only one girl will receive a diagnosis?
Growing up was hard. I was a fussy eater, becoming easily distressed when exposed to certain tastes, textures and smells. I didn’t make friends, and when I started school I was quickly identified by my peers as being different; someone best avoided. My school reports described me as “quiet” and “well behaved”. I was quiet and compliant – a good girl. My earliest memories of school are mixed; I loved the routine and the structure of learning, but I didn’t understand why I got told off that time in assembly when, as the song indicated I stood up and clapped my hands; I didn’t understand why the headmistress wouldn’t let me go and play and forced me to eat fish; I didn’t understand why that fire alarm reduced me to tears.
I got older, I did OK academically, but I didn’t make friends. I was the odd one out, often on my own at play time or in the library with my head buried in a book. How lovely!
Primary school was hard, secondary school was harder still: new routines, new rules, new social situations to attempt to make sense of. I didn’t make friends, or do much of that ‘normal’ teenage stuff. I didn’t really ‘get’ why my siblings got invited to parties and playdates, and I misbehaved. I was a good girl though, quiet and studious. I got decent GCSEs. Happy days.
At Sixth Form, my teachers asked me what I wanted to do with my life. When I said I wanted to teach, they laughed in my face.
After my A-Levels, I moved to Finland as part of the EVS programme where I learned Finnish and worked in a kindergarten. People didn’t think I’d last, but I did. I came back home and went to university, taught in two French high schools. I got my degree.
Fast forward to my twenties. A lifetime of being the odd one out and finding everything so difficult led to my GP putting me on antidepressants. In the midst of all this, I started working in a school as a TA, and suddenly something occurred to me: I wasn’t depressed. The GP would not entertain my concerns that I may be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and it wasn’t until I met a student GP that a referral was made, and in early 2014, I was officially diagnosed with autism. Slowly, I began to understand and make sense of the world around me – there was nothing wrong with meper se, it was just the way my brain is wired.
Without knowing, growing up I devised strategies to help me cope with the demands of what is quite often a pretty tough job. It’s called masking; and is very common in women and girls with autism. Outwardly I don’t appear to struggle, however I can’t cope with certain sounds, textures and smells. Being constantly exposed to uncomfortable stimuli is exhausting. I call it the Coke bottle effect – during the day I keep it all hidden, and the pressure and tension builds until I get home and it all comes out. Throughout my life it has impacted my family. I need a lot of sleep, my social communication skills aren’t great, and often I’ve been described as cold, standoffish and rude.
For years, I have tried to hide my difficulties, but these days you may see me wearing headphones, wearing high heels, walking on my tiptoes or even clicking/flapping my hands. I work in a school, I’ve supported children with autism, written and delivered training sessions about supporting people with autism. However, few people know that I am autistic- I’m the oddball with the bizarre taste in fashion and dark sense of humour. Crap in a crisis, handy on a quiz team.
But now the time has come where I am no longer comfortable hiding it. I am not ashamed. Autism doesn’t define me, but I can define my autism.