All the signs were there, so why was I missed? Part 1
As a child growing up, I displayed all the key signs of autism, yet the school called me “an enigma” and were confounded by my difficulties. I often wonder why I was missed when the autism was glaringly obvious if only people were more observant. Quite simply, I was “hiding in plain sight”.
I decided that I would list the potential reasons behind the autism oversight.
1) I was a happy child
There is no reason why autistics cannot be happy, but when it comes to diagnosis, being happy probably does you no favours. I did not complain or get depressed, and I often smiled. People might not have considered autism because, in their minds, if you’re autistic you would be mentally disturbed as a natural consequence of the difficulties. In my case, I did not question why I was different until much later, and just plodded along without causing major upheaval.
2) I spoke clearly and was very articulate
A common misconception is that all autistic people struggle with speech, stutter, or cannot articulate themselves. Autism is not one condition and every type of autism and individual is different. Asperger’s is a type of autism where verbal skills are often (but by no means always) advanced, and this can mean it is harder for other people to spot a communication impairment. People often focus on speech as the be and end all of communicative ability, when in actual fact, the vast majority of communication is non-verbal.
3) Sometimes I made “good eye contact”
A common myth is that all autistic people actively avoid eye contact. In fact, it is more likely that eye contact is inconsistent. As a child, I sometimes struggled to make eye contact, and this was flagged up by teachers as a cause for concern. Yet, the educational psychologist who assessed me age 9, wrote in the report that I made “good eye contact”. It is likely that it was easier for me to make eye contact during the highly structured one to one atmosphere of a clinical assessment than it was to look the teacher in the eye in a busy and distracting classroom environment. Furthermore, my parents had often told me to look people in the eye, and so I tried hard to do what was expected of me. Yet despite sometimes making good eye contact, appearances were deceptive. I could not, and still cannot, read any meaning in the eyes, and I found it very hard to look and listen at the same time. These days, I try not to force myself to make eye contact, and instead do what is natural for me. Sometimes it looks like I’m making eye contact when in reality I am looking at the nose or mouth, and I often just look in the person’s direction instead of consistently looking at their face.
4) My interests were not “geeky”
I mostly kept quiet about my interests at school instead of talking non stop to my classmates about trains, computers, or maths, which are the interests the general public often assumes that all autistic people are obsessed with. Instead I was interested in food and what every child had to eat in their lunchbox at school, and I would relay this information at every opportunity to my parents and aunty. Later I became obsessed with the actress Kate Winslet, Titanic, and babies. However, only my family were aware of these interests because I only talked non-stop about them at home, which no doubt meant that teachers could overlook the autism.
5) I was not good at maths
Another myth is that all autistic people are good at maths. It’s true that a significant number of autistics are interested in numbers, but an equally significant number of us really struggle in this area. Teachers said they had never seen a child before who struggled to the extent I did with basic numeracy, puzzles and patterns, and this concern overshadowed the other difficulties I experienced. All their attention was focused on trying to work out why I was so poor at maths and spatial awareness.
6) I was a girl
Girls and women are often under diagnosed because of the long standing stereotype that autism is a “male thing”. Girls are assumed to be better at socialising than boys, and any social difficulties they experience are often explained away as a result of other problems.
7) I was simply shy, anxious, and lacked confidence
Primary school teachers noticed that I was often on my own in the playground, and that when I did play with other kids, they were a lot younger than me. However, they just assumed that I was “emotionally immature”, and “confidence boosting” activities were recommended. In fact, I was not shy but instead was chronically confused and felt out of my depth socially and academically.
8) Sometimes I did play with other kids
Although teachers flagged up difficulties with social interaction when I was young as 4, I was not aloof nor in my own world. I actively approached other kids, and sometimes they would let me play skipping games, or I would develop an on/off friendship with just one other girl. Teachers might have thought that all autistic children are completely oblivious to all social contact, and do not seek out friendship. In fact, some autistics do make social overtures, but their autism means they struggle to sustain relationships. More often than not I was a loner at school, but a loner within the crowd instead of being on the periphery.