To an autistic girl

My dear, wonderful girl

You had a feeling you were different. And now you know for sure. Your brain works a little differently from those of many people around you. And at times, you don’t know what to make of that.

Does it change anything, or does it change nothing?

You’ve been given this label. You’re autistic, or you “have autism” (I’m going to use the first of these phrases from now on, but you might have heard it referred to the second way in the past).

Perhaps you’ve known about it for as long as you can remember. Perhaps your family recently told you about it. Or perhaps you’ve just been given your diagnosis firsthand.

But it may not have been the only label you’ve been given.

Childish. Away with the fairies. Lost in her own world. Space cadet. Scatterbrained.

Bookish. Shy. Nerdy. Geeky. Weird. Kooky. Quirky. Eccentric. Odd.

Naughty. Challenging. Difficult. Disruptive. Defiant. Lazy. Stupid.

Exasperating.

Some of these labels you may have given yourself. Some might have been foisted upon you by other people. Some of these labels were upsetting for you to hear. Didn’t they understand? It’s not as if you meant to be way you are. It’s just always seemed harder for you to do what comes naturally to others. Why do they seem to cope so well? How do they make just being look so easy?

I may now be grown-up, but I speak to you as one autistic girl to another. I’m writing to you because I remember, and I understand.

I remember the dread at the start of a new school day. The screaming, roaring noise of the school corridors. The flicker of fluorescent lights. The crowding. The jostling. The shrill, jarring rattle of the school bell. The searing cold of the school playground.

The desire, sometimes, to be completely alone, unbothered and undisturbed, and at other times, to be part of the group and able to talk to others in a way I just couldn’t.

I remember my utter, unbounded fascination at some subjects, and my complete lack of interest in others. I remember my feverish interest in a new idea. I remember my thirst for knowledge and desire to learn that were so much at odds with my desire simply to “fit in”.

I remember the sudden floods of tears. The all-consuming frustration when I felt clever enough to do my homework, but somehow just couldn’t get started. The embarrassment of misunderstandings, of getting something wrong, or reacting to something in a way I “shouldn’t”.

I remember going home every single school day feeling exhausted.

The thing is, back then, I didn’t have the knowledge that you now have. I didn’t realise that I was autistic. It would have explained so much.

It can be shocking to find out that there’s a “medical” reason for why you think and feel so differently from the people around you. But it can also be a useful thing to know. It’s powerful to truly understand why you are the way you are, and why “the way you are” is actually okay.

It’s okay to be different.

Perhaps you don’t agree with me about that right now, but I hope that one day, hopefully soon, you will.

And as one now-grown-up autistic girl to you, an autistic girl with so much life ahead of her, I’d like to share a few things with you.

There’s no one “right” way to be a girl.

Maybe you’re into princesses, ponies, or fairy wings. Maybe dinosaurs, reptiles, or bugs are your thing. Maybe you love sport. Or dancing. Books. Music. Coding. Painting. Writing. Lego. Construction vehicles, trains, or spaceships. Or any combination of any of these things, and much more besides.

Perhaps you love makeup and hair accessories. Sparkly things. Pretty dresses. Perhaps you like baggy trousers and hoodies. Doc Martin boots or trainers. Perhaps you love fashion. Perhaps you aim to dress as alternatively as you possibly can. Or perhaps you just need to be comfortable.

Maybe you like boys. Maybe you like girls. Maybe both. Or neither.

Whoever you are, and whatever you’re into, your version of “being a girl” is just as valid and meaningful as any other girl’s.

There’s no one “right” way to be autistic.

All of us who are autistic have some things in common. But just like any other human beings, we’re all different. We don’t all share the exact same traits, or the exact same strengths and weaknesses. The spectrum isn’t linear; it’s three-dimensional. Autistic is part of who we are, and it’s a big part of who we are. But it’s one part of who we are.

You may not be good at the things autistic people are “supposed” to be good at. You may have powers or skills that defy the stereotypes. You may have some enormous strengths and some enormous struggles. You may find everyday living immensely difficult. Or you may, quite simply, be kind of average and seemingly unremarkable.

But there will always be some good things about you. That is inevitable.

You are here, you are valid, and you are you.

Own your label.

It’s yours. Be proud of it. Be proud of who you are. At times, you way want to shrug it off, deny it, or keep it from others. That’s up to you, and only you.

Don’t think of it as an excuse. It’s an explanation. Some of us autistics are very disabled by the way our autism manifests itself. Some of us feel that our very real disabilities come mainly from living in a world that wasn’t built for us. Others do not think of themselves as disabled at all. But we can still use our label to explain.

That autistic label is still yours. Many of us, myself included, are far happier for seizing hold of that label and really, truly making it ours. I hope you will too.

Life may not always be easy.

You’re living in a world that wasn’t designed for people like you. Maybe school has already been tough, or maybe you’ve been well supported and protected so far. But there will be misunderstandings, confusion, overwhelm, sensory overload, and meltdowns, no matter how much you try to avoid them. There will be people who don’t understand you. People who don’t believe you.

Maybe you’re disabled in other ways besides your autism.

The colour of your skin, your religion (or lack of one), your name, the country you live in, the school you went to, the place you grew up… all these parts of who you are might mean that things are even harder – or even easier – for you.

But stay true to you. It’s easier to be happier if you do.

And know that there are others like you.

Maybe you’ll meet them at school. Maybe in the park. Maybe at a youth group, or maybe at a family gathering, a band rehearsal, a community event or the sports field. Maybe you’ll meet them online.

It might take a while.

But there are others like you. And they’ll welcome you. They’ll understand you, support you, and celebrate the fact that you are you.

When I discovered who I was, and found others like me, I was welcomed too.

And I welcome you.

From the bottom of my heart.


[Featured image credit: “heart bokeh2” by sure2talk. Featured image shows a large number of small, monochrome, love hearts of various hues of grey, on a black background.]

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Why?

It’s my belief that I was depressed pretty much continuously from late primary school right up until some point in my mid-to-late 20s. Anecdotal evidence (…Twitter…) suggests that this is pretty typical among late-diagnosed autistics.

Don’t get me wrong. Aside from occasional episodes of self-injurious stimming, I rarely self-harmed. I usually managed to get out of bed. I still achieved academically for the most part, albeit with substantial inner difficulty at times. This was not a two-decades-long, unbroken, shouting, screaming cacophony of suicidal thoughts or pounding feelings of impending doom, but simply a low-volume, sustained drone of low-level despair, with occasional crescendos and discordant incidental crashes for dramatic effect.

My consistent teenage response, every time I encountered that saying that “your school days are the best days of your life” (what bastard thought that one up? Not an autistic bastard, at any rate, I’ll hypothesise), was to reason that if this were the case, my life must be pretty much over. Why continue, when life after school was going to be even worse?

My school years were soundtracked by an inner voice suggesting to me that something wasn’t quite right. I lived for weekends and school holidays, and I would wake up every weekday morning during term-time with a sense of dread.

What, or who, was going to make me cry today?

What was I going to say today that would be wrong? In what way would I embarrass myself, or the people I was with?

What tasks were going to be required of me that I would agonise over and put off performing, despite being clever enough to perform them?

What academic achievement – impressive, and coming naturally to me, but never something I could truly celebrate – would cause me to be singled out, exposed to view, yet again?

How was I going to cope with the noise, crowding, and encroachment in the corridors, or those cold breaktimes outside in the playground, when all I wanted to do was to be indoors, safe from interactions I didn’t want to have, protected from being taunted and teased for wanting to enjoy my own company?

Of course, the ennui was punctuated by happy events and activities, and things that I enjoyed. I still had friends, although the groupings shifted from time to time (meltdowns and misunderstandings have that effect). But all through that time, I never understood why.

Why couldn’t I just get on with stuff sometimes?

Why did I break down in tears so often, and always at the smallest thing?

Why did simply being feel like the performance of a role? And why did that role feel so difficult to play?

Why was this the way things were?

And I wish so hard that someone could have explained to me why.

Depression in my final years of school was mundane. Mundane, but present.

I calmly observed that whilst I myself did not especially want to go through the rigmarole of killing myself, I could entirely understand why some might want, and try, to do so. I was constantly tired. A perpetual greyness hung in the air.

But I assumed that this was just how life was. Everyone felt like this, right?

I went to university. I met people with interests like mine. And I tried to be like them. I feigned far deeper knowledge of obscure musical genres than I ever actually held. I laughed at jokes I didn’t get. I sought comfort and intimacy in the wrong places, with the wrong people. I drank so much I erased entire evenings from my memory banks.

All those years of pretence, the years of dread, the years of wondering why. And then, at the end of my second year, a failed relationship (my first ever. Two months. Not long. But significant). A flat, despondent summer. Abject fear at the prospect of all the demands of my final year. Studies. Too many extracurricular responsibilities that I’d placed upon myself. The Future. Everything came crashing down. In the first week of my third year, I collapsed. Crippling depression. The single biggest “episode” I have ever had. And it lasted that entire year.

I still made it through. I achieved a 2:1. But the fallout was massive.

On finishing my course, I fell prey to a parasitic boyfriend who took advantage of my mental state, emotionally and financially abusing me, gaslighting me, and blaming me for being “emotionally frail”.

Another break-up, and another breakdown, less than eighteen months later.

A succession of temporary jobs. Meltdown after meltdown, struggling to handle the everyday pressures of existing in a world not attuned to my needs, all the while not realising that I even had such needs.

My experience is far from unique. And it’s far from extreme. Far from the worst.

Things got better.

I’d always been surrounded by loving, beautiful friends and family, who picked me up and helped me through. I played in bands, meeting my future husband along the way. I got into running. And when my wayward body meant I couldn’t run, I found other ways to keep active.

I struggled through jobs I hated. But eventually I found my niche – something that I now love doing, and get paid enough to do.

My husband and I started a family, and although they exhaust me and overwhelm me at times, I love them dearly and I love the joy they bring to my life.

I’ve had help from time to time with organising my work, or organising my life. I’ve learned practical strategies for managing my mood, keeping the bad thoughts at bay, and looking after myself better. I’ve been taking antidepressants for years now, and they help; they buoy me up just enough to allow me the energy to take care of myself.

(I just wish they didn’t interact with other meds, and that I could take something stronger than paracetamol for those bloody migraines. But such is life).

And I can honestly say that haven’t been depressed now for a few years. In recent times, what I’ve often thought was depression was probably autistic burnout, or simple, common-or-garden stress. But mostly, my life is good.

But knowing now that I am autistic explains so much. And I think to myself, What if?

What if I’d known as a child that I was different, but that this was okay?

That I was not broken or faulty?

That my reactions and responses were the result of having a brain that worked differently from those of people around me?

That I didn’t need to try to be something, or someone, I was not?

I wish, when I was younger, that someone had been able to explain to me why.