Aut couture: a sartorial life history

Today I noticed something: the stitching on the cuffs of a top I was wearing was coming loose. The top had been bought from a local charity shop (as are the majority of my clothes – I dislike high street shopping). It had been like new when I purchased it…or so I had thought until I noticed that thing today.

Yes, the stitching was coming undone; but what I noticed was that this was not the original stitching. The thread was the wrong colour. It was actually a little untidy and uneven, once visible. The previous owner of the garment had added stitching, in order to tidy away the rather frilly edges of the sleeves.

And it occurred to me: what was the previous owner’s motivation for doctoring the designer’s intended aesthetic? Did they not like the look of the frills? Or did the frills aggravate the person’s senses in a way that was so uncomfortable as to be unendurable?

Could it be, perchance, that my top’s previous owner was a fellow autistic?

I’ve always been fascinated by fashion. But it’s much more the fascination of the observer – I guess it’s an extension of the fascination I’ve always had with people.

From a very early age, I drew. Never landscapes, still life, or anything other than people. Usually just standing around in groups, interacting. Limited or no background scenery. Just the people. I’d attempt to replicate, in grey pencil, the gestures, expressions, postures and stances of the people I observed in real life. Perhaps it was a method of ‘social interaction analysis’. And the clothes they wore were always a big part of this.

Always a little too serious and ‘meta’ to really be into throwaway pop music as a child, I nevertheless used my pencils to try to reproduce album covers, stills from music videos, and so on (always greyscale; never in colour), and I think it was always the visual aesthetic that most interested me.  I was fascinated by the crown-less ‘hat’ Kylie Minogue wore on the cover of her first album, her mass of permed blonde hair tumbling out and over the brim. Not a clothes thing, but another image that always captured my attention was the silhouette, against a blank, white background, of Morten Harket of a-ha singing into a studio microphone in the ‘Hunting High and Low’ video – another image I’d draw repeatedly from memory. But again, it was the stark, visual aesthetic that got me.

I studied closely. And there were times I adopted the looks of others. When I was ten, everyone was wearing brightly-coloured hooded t-shirts, hi-tops and dungarees. God knows, I struggled enough with friendships, so I wanted to wear the same. I never got the appeal of shell tracksuits (another garment popular at the time), though.

The tie-dyed, hippie/grunge hybrid look of early secondary school was again adopted in response to what everyone else seemed to be doing. We younger kids took our cues from those in the years above us. And all the while, I watched the much older girls. And at home in my room, I drew versions of them, in pencil. Fashionable, conversing, enjoying their interactions. Happy in their social groups.

And there were times when I didn’t ‘get it’. As a much younger child,  I would wear my entire collection of brooches all at once, the motley assortment of metal jewellery covering, weighing down and distorting the shape of my sweater.  Later on, it never occurred to me that wearing a Girl Guides sweatshirt much of the time was unacceptable. It really was a lovely shade of blue. And white socks? Apparently they weren’t cool either. No-one ever told me.

As time went on, I started to branch out. When everyone else got black DM boots,  I asked my parents to get me bottle green ones. Slight variations on the norm really appealed to me. By the time the mid-90s arrived, band tshirts were my thing – always skinny fit; always the less prevalent designs – if lots of people appeared to have a certain band’s tshirt, I’d choose a design from their merchandise range that was a little more unusual. And the further I got through secondary school, the more it became apparent that I was never going to be cool, no matter what I did. And thus, the further I deviated from convention in what I wore.

I continued to read teenage girls’ magazines. Sugar. Just Seventeen. More. But I continued to be ‘meta’ about it; I never really bought into their diktat. I was an alien attempting to learn and adopt the culture of another species. Reading these magazines was more of an anthropological exercise than anything else.

And my fascination with fashion continued, even as I, myself, moved further and further away from it.

It amazes me now to think how much I’ve compromised over the years – especially when it comes to comfort. Vintage polyester was scratchy, unbreatheable, quick to snag. For a long time I was convinced that my ‘pear-shaped’ figure  dictated that I should never wear trousers. So I have often endured skirts with tights, even though the feel of tights, at times, makes my skin crawl to the extent that I actually want to vomit, especially on very hot or very cold days. For a long time, I loved the semi-tailored, androgynous look of slim, long-sleeved shirts and skinny ties, despite how much I detested the feel of full-length fitted sleeves against my forearms (although loose sleeves are fine), and despite how impractical, in sweat terms, shirts are when one’s main mode of transport is brisk walking. The underarms were always the first part of the garment to suffer.

Fashion is often impractical. Beautiful at times, astoundingly so sometimes; but comfort isn’t fashion’s main raison d’être. It still fascinates me, however. Fabrics fascinate. Patterns fascinate. Colour combinations fascinate. Shapes and outlines fascinate. And the ways clothes are worn, by real people, fascinates.

But recently, I’ve found myself returning to high street shops. Perhaps it’s nostalgia – many of the ‘looks’ from my teenage years – my formative years – are fashionable once again. And some of them are actually comfortable. Skinny jeans, whilst tight, have a heaviness, and exert a certain degree of pleasant pressure on the skin, that leggings and tights do not. They look good with DM boots – another item that, to me, look amazing whilst also providing a wonderful amount of positive sensory input to my feet and ankles, hugging them tightly as I walk. There are tops of interesting, unusual shapes, many of which are loose under the arms. Practical. I still hate shopping. I always will. Shopping as a preferred pastime is baffling to me. But I’ve managed recently to find things that I like, and that fit.

And then I’m out of the shop and away.

And all of this combines well with heavy eye makeup. I have never been keen on full-face makeup. Foundation cloys, clogs and stifles my skin. Powder dries it. I can never escape the acute awareness that I have additional layers of matter on my skin. And I hate it. I want to claw it all off.

But eye makeup. I love it. I wore elaborate winged eyeliner throughout my teens and early 20s. For a while I gave up – the time, the effort, didn’t seem worth it. But now I feel like I have come home. Eyeliner – and lots of it – is part of how I express who I am.

These days, I am probably shopping ‘below my age’. Because I no longer care. I will wear what works for me. But I will no longer sacrifice comfort. Maybe my top’s previous owner wasn’t autistic. But maybe they were. Perhaps, just as I cut out clothing labels to remove the potential for that excruciating scratching feeling at the base of my neck, that person was adapting a garment to make it work for them. Make comfortable what was stylish.

This subject matter may seem frivolous and vacuous compared to that of other recent posts. But clothes are part of our identity; they’re part of how we express who we are to the rest of the world.

For some – especially women, and other marginalised groups – clothing can be intensely political. I don’t know, perhaps it is, instinctively, for me. But I don’t think I’m making a statement. I’m just wearing what I want to wear.

With a recent formal autism diagnosis, I wish to live authentically. And part of living authentically is dressing in a way that feels authentic to who I am.

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Autistics Share: Professionals Miss the Mark in Recognizing Autism in Women

As a late-diagnosed autistic woman (ASD/ASC, synonymous with Aspergers), and one whose traits were described by my clinical psychologist as ‘atypical’, I actually feel very lucky to have been diagnosed at all. Lucky that I had both a GP and assessor who ‘got it’. I believe there are many autistic women and girls who present as I do.

Reading many of these comments breaks my heart. And some of the comments from professionals beggar belief.

I urge others to share this far and wide.

Everyday Aspie

I recently asked 60-plus readers from across the globe, who believe they are autistic/Aspie or have been diagnosed with autism/Aspergers, this question:

“What has a professional told you when you were seeking out an autism and/or Aspergers diagnosis?”

Here are their responses:

  1. The first psychologist diagnosed me with Bipolar-II after speaking with me for only ten minutes. He based his entire diagnosis on anxiety, depression, and the fact that one night, out of 365, I couldn’t sleep and had restless non-stop thoughts. He didn’t say I met most of the criteria for the condition, but recommended medication anyhow. It wasn’t until about twenty years later that I figured out, after my child’s diagnosis, that I was likely autistic.
  1. I was told: “You write exceptionally well…and have two diplomas, how can you have Autism?. It’s just depression.” It took me six months of begging to get my doctor to agree to…

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An open letter to everyone who has ever known me.

[Trigger warning: mental illness]

To everyone who has ever known me,

Recently, I’ve discovered something about myself. And what I’d long wondered about, and convinced myself of, was officially confirmed for me. I am autistic.

To some, it will come as no surprise at all. Others may not have seen this coming. And to others still, this may shock or alarm. But to everyone, regardless of your reaction, I would like to make something clear.

I am still the same person.

I’m still the little girl who criticised your drawing for its inaccuracy. Who denied the existence of anything she couldn’t understand or hadn’t previously encountered firsthand. The little girl who was reading books recommended for children way older than she. The little girl who told on other children. I had, and still have, a strong sense of justice and fairness. You had done something wrong. You hurt me. A grownup had to know. They had to do something about it.

I’m still the kid who cried at everything. Who cried at ‘nothing’. Still the kid you teased for the big words she used. I’m still the kid who cringed with embarrassment at yet another certificate handed out in school assembly for a record number of ‘merits’ achieved. And yet, despite that embarrassment, saw nothing wrong in wearing white socks, or a Girl Guides sweatshirt outside of weekly Guides meetings. It was a nice sweatshirt. I liked it. Why not?

I’m still the child who got all the interesting character parts in school plays at primary school, but was relegated to being little more than an ‘extra’ in secondary school drama productions. I’m the girl who found solace in creating endless pencil drawings of people in her bedroom at home, and in playing music with others – a way of interacting that suited her.

I’m still the teenager who was called a ‘swot’. Still the teenager who decided to give up on getting my homework done early. Still the teenager who decided to make a ‘thing’ of drinking alcohol, kissing boys, and trying to appear ‘other’ than what she was. The teenager who had meltdowns at the ends of nights out and holidays; the teenager who embarrassed you all with her inability to control her emotions. Still the teenager who didn’t exactly want to kill herself, but could nevertheless understand the logic behind the decisions of those who did choose to do so. I’m sorry I embarrassed you. But I was mortified when my behaviour, and your reaction to it, led to the breakdown of our friendship. Time and time again.

I’m still the girl who repeatedly reinvented herself. Tie-dyed leggings-wearing hippie chick. Indie kid with coloured hairslides in bobbed hair, vintage sportswear and plastic children’s jewellery. Clichéd punk with pillarbox red spikey hair and a safety pin through her ear. Staring-eyed, shirt-and-skinny-tie-wearing androgyne. Chic Européenne with neat long hair and chiffon scarf knotted round her neck.

I’m still the student who sought physical closeness, love, and affection in the wrong places. The student who fell asleep in lectures, handwriting trailing to a spidercobweb trace across the page; not just from the hangovers, but also from the sheer effort required to concentrate on the onslaught of verbal information. The student who spent her final year swamped by depression, terrified of the all-consuming despair, fear and emptiness eating her from the inside while she lay awake in bed at night. Of course, I still got that 2:1. I still ran student societies, played music, socialised, interacted.

I’m still the woman who was gaslighted, emotionally and financially abused. I was in love.  You recognised how impressionable, suggestible, and vulnerable I was, and you took advantage of this.  But I am better than you. I am strong, I am resilient, and I got over it. I am happy in my marriage. I deserved something, someone better, and I now have that.

I’m still the woman who repeatedly broke down in the office; screaming, shouting, flapping her arms. Tears streaming down her face. The woman dismissed from a temping job without notice. The woman given verbal warnings for swearing in front of students on a college open day. The woman whose colleagues complained about the disruption she was causing. It still pains me to think of how much noise, irritation and chaos I brought to your workplace. I care about what others think of me, and I don’t like to upset you.

But…

I’m still the little girl who lived in an exciting world full of stories. Whose drawings captured the essence of the people depicted therein. I’m still the girl who had enormous fun experimenting with her appearance. The musician able to lose herself utterly in the all-encompassing moment of a performance. The woman with a thirst for knowledge, and a love of learning.

I’m still the friend who experienced sheer unadulterated joy spending time with you at concerts and festivals. Who sat in your living room, eating, drinking, talking and laughing with you.

I’m still the bandmate who shared laughs and camaraderie with you in the rehearsal room, the exhilaration of a good gig, the crushing disappointment of a bad one. The life and soul of weddings, conference dinners, and family get-togethers, coaxing you onto the dance floor to throw caution to the wind and move, before anyone else in the room had the guts to do so.

I’m still a friend to you. I’ll still support you with information and advice. I’m especially good at doing so online, using the written word, but the fact that I might then be awkward the next time we see each other face-to-face doesn’t negate the extent to which I care about you, and want the best for you.

I’m still the passionate educator, fascinated by how people learn, always keen to hone my skills and teach better, and better, and better. I’m still the employee who cares about the people she works with, and the people she works for. And goddamnit, I work so, so hard to keep those meltdowns at bay when I’m in the office. And usually it works. But sometimes, it all comes crashing down when I arrive home. And that’s hard. Hard on my husband, hard on my children, and hard on me.

Because I’m still the woman who loves her family endlessly. Who would do anything for them. Would die for them.

I was all these things, and I still am. Because you are only ever who you are. You cannot be anything else. It’s just that, for a long time, who I really was, inside, was invisible – to me, and to all of you.

I have always been autistic. I only know it now. It is one part of me, but it is intrinsic. I’m still the same person.

But here’s the thing. Now I know this about myself, things have to change. In order to be the best wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, teacher, and colleague, I have to do some things to look after myself. To protect myself.

Not much will be different. I won’t turn my back on you, just because I’ve realised your world is not ideally set up for me. I love you too much for that. I love this world, no matter how imperfectly attuned I am to it. And when we talk, I’ll still interact – I’ve been doing it so long that there’s only a split-second difference between conscious thought and automatic, instinctive response. But that split-second difference still exists.

You’ll probably notice, next time you see me, that I’m more relaxed. Happier. But, probably, a little flappier. A little more liberated in my movements, in a way that might seem odd to you at first. But don’t worry, I’m just me. And now I feel liberated to be more myself. Please allow me this freedom. I’ve been denied it for so long.

And I’ll be more upfront. Sometimes I’ll go along with your need for small talk; at other times, I will smile, greet you quickly, and we’ll both get on with our days. I’m no longer going to pretend to laugh at jokes I don’t understand. I’ll make it clear that I like prior warning if you want to visit my house. If I’m tired and want to go home, I might just be a little more honest about it.

Because I’m trusting you with this new knowledge you have about me. And if you ever need me to explain, I’m always happy to do so. I can help you understand, as much as I am able to.

Things are clearer now. Truer now. I’m still the same person, but things have changed. For the better.

Sincerely yours, but always and forever myself,

Me.

Sharing: What the Social Model Doesn’t Say

Couldn’t agree more with this post. There’s no getting away from the medical implications of disability, but the social model really doesn’t ignore these. True inclusivity is better for everyone.

Misandry Angie

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I’ve written before a little bit about the social model of disability. The social model is not an attractive, bubbly disabled cat walker showcasing the latest fashions, though they do exist. It’s a framework for thinking about disability that recognizes the capacity for human created obstacles to disable. This contrasts with the medical model, which conceives of disability as originating from flawed bodies.

When I refer to the social model around people who aren’t involved in a disability community, they often think it says a lot of things it really doesn’t. So today I want to address those common misconceptions.

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Sharing: If the world was built for me

This is just so, so perfect. True inclusivity would be better for everyone. Let’s join together and be hopeful.

Autism and Expectations

If the world was built for me. There would be nothing wrong with me. I would be happy and safe and certain and successful.

If the world was built for me, when I met people there would be no expectation of physical contact or small talk. We may ignore each other, with a socially acceptable nod, or throw ourselves into a deep and meaningful conversation.

If the world was built for me, then we would all sit next to each other, not opposite. Things would be based on literal words, not guessed expressions and gestures.

If the world was built for me, there would be a compulsory day off for everyone after any social event. Just so we could all take the time to recharge and process things.

If the world was built for me, work would be about working and nothing else. There wouldn’t be the necessary interaction that…

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