I grew up without a diagnosis. Consequently I had no explanation for why I struggled with making friends, doing my school work, knowing how to behave, and why life was so confusing.
I began life with a strong desire to connect with others. I was social and gregarious. Indeed I would walk up to complete strangers and attempt to talk to them. I was myself, free and uninhibited. However unfortunately at school, I did not know how to make friends. Frustrated by this inability, I reacted by poking my tongue out at kids, or I would disrupt their play. Not surprisingly the other kids reacted by not wanting to play with me. I also struggled academically. Although I could read really well I had no understanding of what I was reading. I could not participate in PE because group sports were too overwhelming. I spent most lessons in a world of my own because the work was too confusing.
Despite these problems, which were compounded by the growth of phobias and nervous compulsions, I was a happy, energetic, and generally content little girl. It only began to dawn on me that I was ineffably different to the other kids when I was about 9 years old when my parents told me that I had a disability that affected my learning.
I thought that secondary school would be a new start for me. I looked forward to making friends and was so happy when I made a friend on my first day. The friendship, though, only lasted a couple of weeks. My friend told me I was too clingy. Everywhere she went, I went as well. I had no understanding of personal space and when it is appropriate to follow someone or leave them alone. More friendship failures followed, until I was completely alone. I began to understand that I was the ‘weird’ kid that no-one wanted to be around: unfashionable, un-cool, a strange loner, a complete outcast. I was this tiny kid (I was very small physically), disorganised and scatty, completely overwhelmed by school life. I spent lunch-times locked away in the toilets or hiding in an empty classroom. My obsession with the actress Kate Winslet was the only thing that kept me sane during the teen years. Increasingly I began to believe that my parents were to blame; that they had failed to socialise me enough. I had been called a ‘problem child’, and I internalised this label. Frustrated by my social difficulties I built up a bad reputation at school by behaving in very inappropriate ways. For example, I called one girl a ‘fat pig’. This angered her, and she then ran after me, but I found it hilariously funny because I did not understand that she had feelings. I now look back at this behaviour with regret. I realise now that people have feelings, even if they baffle me, and I am full of self loathing because of my previous horrid behaviour.
If I do begin to think of myself in a positive way, I feel bad for doing so because it could be a sign of self obsession, and I would then not be a nice person.
My parents supported me academically. Without their help with writing essays, understanding abstract concepts in English, and remembering what equipment to bring to school, I would not have got the grades needed to go to University. When I was at school I thought I was stupid because it took me a long time to understand certain concepts, and I struggled to organise my work. I was not only a loner but a slow learner as well. I now realise that I can learn, and that I am quite intelligent, but that the school environment did not cater to my needs as an autistic person. However, the legacy of feeling stupid has left its mark, and it is still hard for me to really believe that I am intelligent, which has affected my confidence, notwithstanding the fact that I achieved a 2:1 History Degree almost entirely on my own.
Because of these bad experiences it is hard for me to see anything good about myself. If I do begin to think of myself in a positive way, I feel bad for doing so because it could be a sign of self obsession, and I would then not be a nice person. I want to be a nice person. I want to connect with others. But I worry that they won’t like the real me. In order to protect myself I have constructed a social façade. I have picked up the mannerisms of other people by watching their behaviour, or by reading books. I try and act in socially acceptable ways, but it is very tiring because none of it comes naturally to me. However, thankfully I now have an explanation for why certain things are so difficult: Asperger’s syndrome. I received the diagnosis at a time when I was really worrying that I might be the only person in the world with my difficulties. I now feel that bit less alone than when I was 20 years old, but I still struggle with ongoing feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing. All of these additional problems originated during my school years and it has taken me the last ten years to try and restore my confidence, even though I still have a long way to go. Talking about my Asperger’s and educating others about the condition has helped to restore some confidence, and I hope that I can start to feel more comfortable in my own skin without fear of ridicule.