Autistic self care

It’s been a stressful month and in times of stress, I, like many people, don’t function at my best. My working memory (never my strong point even on a good day) takes a nose dive. I experience physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. I get physically tired more easily; in this case, not helped by a recent bout of the virus that has been circulating the globe for the past three years. And annoyingly, it takes its toll on my ability to write.

Burnout can happen to anyone, but is particularly common in autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people. We spend our whole lives trying to suppress our traits and needs to fit neurotypical expectations and that inevitably leads to exhaustion. This is where self care comes in. Self care may sound like a bit of a cliché – you may be thinking of bubble baths, chocolate cake and the like. For me, self care is more about staying healthy and doing things that are good for my mind (although I wouldn’t say no to the occasional piece of chocolate cake). So I thought I’d use this day off work to share my go-to self care tips that get me through burnout:

Plenty of alone time. When I’m alone, I don’t have to keep monitoring another person’s social cues or concentrate extra hard on passing as neurotypical. I can stim* to my heart’s content or indulge in Googling whatever random intense interest I’m currently into. Basically, I can just be.

Talking to people I don’t have to mask around. When I do need to talk to someone, I need to not have to worry about suppressing my traits, needs or struggles, because I feel safe enough to be real and open. Is it any coincidence that some of these people are also autistic?

Rereading/rewatching familiar things. This is a common one for autistic people. Familiar books, TV programmes or films are soothing because I know I like them and can take comfort in knowing what to expect from them when everything else in life feels chaotic and unpredictable.

Going to bed early. This one requires some discipline. These days I aim to be winding down by 9 and in bed by 10. Having sufficient winding down time makes all the difference – I sleep so much better if I first take the time to lie quietly, read/reread a comforting book or do some…

Journalling. It helps me get my feelings out of my system and put them into words without any pressure or reactions from other people.

Drawing. This is something I’ve had less time for since getting a job but have managed to get back into lately. I managed to do some pet portraits in time for Christmas and have been trying to do a bit of drawing most days since. Sometimes it takes a bit of motivation to make myself do it. Once I get past that, however, it calms my mind, makes me feel like I’ve achieved something and generally boosts my morale. Here are some of my latest drawings:

My sister and sister-in-law’s kitten (aka my furry nephew) Elvis.

 

My friend’s rabbits, Hades and Persephone.

 

 

As I’ve got an annual leave day today, I am trying to strike a balance between getting things done and taking things gently while I can. This is often easier said than done, but having a bit more breathing space than usual makes a real difference, and I’m hoping that regularly practicing healthy habits will give me my writing mojo back.

 

*Stim – self-stimulatory repetitive behaviour. For me, that often involves pacing or fidgeting with something soft, especially when over-stimulated.

Autistic experiences and the workplace

It has been nearly four months since I started my job at ActionCOACH, and I have learned a lot in that time. I mean, I now know more about business and marketing strategies than I ever imagined I would! I have also learned a lot about myself. I am very lucky to be in a working environment that has brought out the best in me and helped me strive for personal growth.

However, one thing I have been thinking about is how being in work again has uncovered various learned behaviours and reactions in certain situations. I have had to do a lot of reflection on where they have come from and how they can be a real asset – or potentially hold me back. So I thought I’d explore it here.

For a start, I often find it hard to trust my own judgement. It’s not that I don’t have opinions or can’t make decisions. It’s just that there have been too many times in my life where I have failed to notice or understand things that come naturally to non-autistic people. Of course, it works both waysneurotypicals also miss things that are obvious to autistics. But very often, things autistic people are good at are either dismissed or seen as an abnormality that should be eradicated. So it can feel like our weaknesses stand out and our strengths don’t matter.

Because of this, I panic when I can sense someone expects something from me but I can’t tell what. Unspoken expectations are hard for a lot of autistic people, and we often have to deal with people reacting negatively when we don’t do what they expect. So the moment anyone tries to encourage me to figure something out instead of just giving me an answer, I immediately get caught up in trying to figure out what they want me to say instead of simply trying to solve the problem.

Then if I make even the slightest mistake, I am quick to over-apologise, a habit I thought I’d kicked years ago. I still struggle with the mindset that mistakes equal failure, and that people will judge me, reject me, or generally see me as a lesser human being. I am trying to learn to take ownership of my mistakes without letting shame and frustration consume me.

But it’s not all negative. Being on high alert for my own mistakes is a double-sided coin. If channelled in the right direction, it makes me quick to spot areas of improvement so I can keep learning. I try not to let myself get complacent because I want to nip potential problems in the bud and excel in whatever I’m doing.

I also have an ongoing need to prove myself. While this may not always be the right reason for getting something done, it was this trait that helped me write a book during lockdown. It counteracts my tendency to just sit around in my comfort zone because I want to succeed and make a difference.

Lastly, struggling to get by in a neurotypical-dominant society has taught me to problem solve and adapt in a way that not everyone has to. I have learned non-autistic communication as a second language. I have had to find ways of learning skills and information that work for me. I have had to learn how to explain my needs. Now, I don’t want non-autistic people using this as inspiration porn to gush over while making no attempts to remove societal barriers that still exist. But while they exist, I might as well shed light on some of the things I have learned from them and how they are relevant in the workplace.

 

To learn more about what it means to be autistic at work, please buy my book: Approaching Autistic Adulthood: The Road Less Travelled, available via AmazonWaterstones and WH Smith. My social media details are available here. Also keep an eye out for updates on my website: Artistic Autistic Grace.

The double empathy theory

Have you ever struggled to communicate with someone who is fundamentally different to you in some way? Somewhere along the line, different messages are being received at both ends than what were intended. Words and behaviours that mean one thing coming from one side mean something else entirely to the other. As a result, both sides misunderstand and get the wrong impression of each other. 

Now, if two people who speak different languages struggle to hold a conversation, it is not because one of them is defective. They just communicate differently! But when it comes to misunderstandings between autistic and non-autistic people, it is autistic people who are labelled as unempathetic and bad at communicating. It is autistic traits and behaviours that are deemed inappropriate and in need of correcting. The language barrier between the two neurotypes is so often put down to autism, but is it really that one-sided?

This is where the double empathy theory comes in. Over the past decade or so, studies have compared how groups of autistic people and groups of non-autistic people carry out a task. In these scenarios, the autistic people work well together, and the non-autistic people also work well together. Problems only arise when both autistic and non-autistic people are in the same group. From this, people are slowly learning that autistic-neurotypical miscommunication is not solely due to autism, but something that works in both directions.

This is something I am all too familiar with. I have had people falsely infer hidden meanings in things I have said and done. I have had people assume I’m unfriendly because I need a break from socialising. Or uninterested because I don’t always make eye contact. Or unintelligent because I often miss neurotypical social rules and expectations. But then neurotypicals miss autistic communication as well. So, it does work both ways.

Sometimes, people have said that because it works both ways, that makes it even. I would disagree. The double empathy problem does work both ways, but while autistic traits are still described as “symptoms“, “deficits” and “inappropriate”, that does not make it even. Similarly, I find it frustrating when people say I need to communicate with them better as well as expect the same from them. Not because that isn’t true. People of all neurotypes make mistakes, and I am no exception.

The thing is, I already know this. Most of us on the spectrum spend our lives being implicitly and explicitly told we are bad at communicating and understanding people. We have to constantly accommodate and adapt for a whole world of people who function differently to us. However bad we are at understanding neurotypicals, many of us are constantly pushing harder to learn their language. Meanwhile, we still have to deal with them thinking we are bad at communicating, while not trying nearly as hard to understand us.

I should add that I know how lucky I am to know so many people who understand me and accept me. This post is not about them – or anyone individually – but about attitudes towards autism as a whole. If I can make even a little difference to these attitudes in a way that benefits fellow autistics and other neurodivergent people, I will be happy.

If you want to learn more about autistic communication, please buy my book: Approaching Autistic Adulthood: The Road Less Travelled, available via Amazon and any UK bookshop such as Waterstones and WH Smith. Meanwhile, for public speaking updates, podcast episodes and pet portraits, please visit my website: Artistic Autistic Grace.

ZOOM TALK ANNOUNCEMENT

On Monday 13th June at 2pm, I will be doing a live talk on Zoom for One-to-One, an autism charity in Enfield! They are doing an online conference focusing on the lived experiences of autistic women and LGBT+ people. I will be sharing my story about growing up biracial, autistic and a lesbian. Please sign up and have a listen! To find out more, please visit http://www.one-to-one-enfield.co.uk/spectrum or contact mail@one-to-one-enfield.co.uk.

The puzzle piece problem

CW: Autism Speaks, ableism, ABA and other “treatments”.

The puzzle piece is arguably the most recognised symbol associated with autism, and has been around for decades. It is also a highly controversial topic in the autism community*, and is becoming increasingly unpopular with autistic people. I touched upon it here a few weeks ago. It has been promoted by many neurotypical-led autism organisations that have shared various questionable interpretations of it, namely:

  • Autistic people suffer from a “puzzling” condition (we don’t; we suffer from ableism and lack of support)
  • Finding a treatment/cure is a puzzle that needs to be solved
  • The pieces of an autistic person’s brain do not fit

Sometimes the puzzle piece will be blue, based on the misconception that autism is a boys’ condition. This is largely associated with Autism Speaks, the leading autism organisation in America – more on that in a bit. Sometimes a symbol will show several brightly coloured puzzle pieces, with the bright colours representing “hope” – for cures and eradication, not support and understanding. Sometimes it will show several interlocked puzzle pieces with one askew or missing altogether. Sometimes the puzzle piece will be on the same ribbon symbol that is used for raising awareness of cancer and other illnesses. 

There are still plenty of people – mainly neurotypical, but also autistic – who like the puzzle piece and try to interpret it positively. They might argue that it represents how connected the autism community* is, or how puzzling life can be as an autistic person. Some go as far as to complain about how easily offended its naysayers are. Neurotypicals: please don’t speak over us on issues like this!

Now if its aesthetic appeal or personal interpretation were the only issues at stake, I might be more neutral on it. The issue for me is the ableist history it represents. As I mentioned previously, it is used as a logo for many harmful organisations, namely Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks is widely loathed by the autistic community* for many reasons. Firstly, it is notorious for demonising autism and using scare tactics and pathologising language when describing it to parents. Second, only a small percentage of its funds goes towards supporting autistic people. Third, it has only included one autistic person on its team, and that person left because they were not comfortable with its ethics. Fourth, it has promoted harmful cures, such as bleach and Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA).

To clarify, ABA is a behavioural therapy that aims to eradicate autistic traits in children by rewarding compliance and neurotypical behaviour and punishing resistance and autistic behaviour. Punishments can include anything from withdrawal of attention, food or toys to electric shocks, squirting hot sauce in the eyes and general physical abuse. Needless to say, many people who went through it as children have developed PTSD and other mental illnesses.

I hope it goes without saying that I think we shouldn’t be promoting a symbol that is associated with abuse and discrimination. For a better alternative, there is the neurodiversity infinity symbol – gold for autism, rainbow for neurodiversity as a whole. The concept of neurodiversity is that there are many different brains that are all a part of natural human diversity, and all are equally valid. There is also the gold “Au” symbol, which is shorthand for autism, as well as the symbol for Gold in the periodic table. Either way, we are not missing a piece, nor do we need to be fixed. Save the “cure” mindset for conditions that actually cause suffering, and focus on dismantling systemic ableism instead.

 

 

 

*Autism community = anyone with a connection to autism. Autistic community = autistic people.

Note that this post was partly inspired by an article on intheloopaboutneurodiversity.com, which can be found here.

All images are from Canva.com.

To understand more about autism from the inside, please buy my book: Approaching Autistic Adulthood: The Road Less Travelled. You can find it on Amazon or any UK bookshops such as WH Smiths or Waterstones. Don’t forget to leave a review on Amazon to boost the book’s online visibility. Meanwhile, to find out more about me and my work, please visit my website: Artistic Autistic Grace.

Autism “Awareness” Month – what you really need to be “aware” of

For those of you who don’t know, April is officially Autism Awareness Month. You may have seen pictures on social media of buildings “lighting it up blue” for Autism Awareness. Or #autismawareness as a trending hashtag. Or well-meaning but patronising poems about autistic children. Or inspirational stories about an autistic person and the struggles they face, or what a neurotypical person has learned from them. Very often, April just sees the same old pathologising language, inspiration porn, stereotypes and ableist agenda spreading with renewed intensity. Then it passes, and nothing actually changes.

When you put it like that, it may come as no surprise that Autism Awareness Month can actually be a very uncomfortable time for autistic people. So I thought I’d write a quick post about what neurotypicals really need to be aware of in April – and it’s not autism.

For a start, please don’t support ableist organisations or resources. Some examples would be Autism Speaks (responsible for the “Light It Up Blue” movement), Turn Autism Around, Autism Hope Alliance, The Autism Community in Action and American Autism Association. To the untrained eye, I understand it might not be easy to distinguish between the reputable and less reputable ones. So if in any doubt, please consider the following:

  • Do they focus on causes and treatments, or support and acceptance?
  • Are they run purely by and for neurotypical people, or do they include and promote autistic voices? Neurotypical-led media only give an outside perspective on autism at best, and at worst, increase autism stigma.
  • Do they use pathologising, ableist language that makes autism sound like a tragedy or an illness, or do they use neurodiversity-affirming language (that is, promoting the idea that there are many different types of brain and that they are all equally valid)?
  • Do they use the puzzle piece symbol or the neurodiversity infinity symbol? The puzzle piece symbol is used by Autism Speaks, which is notorious for promoting harmful treatments, using only a small percentage of its money for helping autistic people and not including or supporting autistic voices.
  • Do they use exclusively person-first language (as preferred by many neurotypical “experts”) or do they use identity-first language (as preferred by many autistic people)?
  • Do they promote Applied Behavioural Analysis? ABA is a common behavioural therapy for autistic children, especially in the US, that aims to train autistic children to act more neurotypical by punishing resistance and autistic behaviour and rewarding compliance and masking. Autistic kids are put through this for 20-40 hours a week – the equivalent of a part-time to full-time job – and become susceptible to abuse, depression, anxiety and PTSD later in life.

With that in mind, be careful about raising money for any autism-related cause. Don’t do it for treatments, ABA, cures or scientific research. Do it for understanding, acceptance, better support and promoting autistic voices. Don’t pity “those affected by autism”. I am not “affected by autism”. I am an autistic person who is affected by neurotypical ignorance and lack of accommodation.

Take the time to learn from autistic people and to amplify what we are saying. Learn about autistic experiences – from younger and older autistic people, those with low and high support needs, those who speak, those who communicate in any other way, those of different races and cultures and those of all gender identities and sexualities. There are plenty of autistic advocates, groups and resources out there. I will include some links below.

Finally, don’t support the autistic community just to look or feel good. Do it because we need more understanding and accommodation. There are too many neurotypicals out there who won’t listen because some of us are deemed too “high functioning” to really count as autistic, while others are deemed too “low functioning” to be taken seriously. We have enough “awareness”. Let’s make April “Autism Acceptance Month”.

 

https://artistic-autistic.co.uk/ (my website)

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Approaching-Autistic-Adulthood-Road-Travelled/dp/1784529575/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_pl_foot_top?ie=UTF8 (my book)

https://neuroclastic.com/

https://neurodivergentrebel.com/

https://chrisbonnello.com/

https://autisticinclusivemeets.org/

https://ellemcnicoll.com/

https://mysilentvoice.blog/category/autism/

https://queerlyautistic.com/

https://autismandrace.com/

http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/

https://awnnetwork.org/

The medical vs social model of disability

The use of the words “disability” and “disabled”, and if and when they are appropriate, is still widely debated. Many typically-abled people see them as dirty words and a taboo subject. They prefer phrases like “differently abled” instead. Meanwhile, many people with disabilities see this as rather patronising, and are trying to reclaim the word “disabled” in order to shake off the stigma. They feel there is no shame in accepting their disability as part of their identity, and to shy away from it is to shy away from the realities they face.

For a long time, I was unsure of where I stood, as an autistic person with low support needs. I can manage basic adult life skills and have made it through mainstream education and work. Autism counts as a disability, yet for me, at least, many of my struggles have come from me simply being different to my peers and them not understanding my differences.

Then I learned about the medical model and social model of disability. The medical model of disability portrays a disabled person as being disabled by their physical or neurological differences. These differences are seen as defects that need to be treated or removed in order for the person to be accepted, or have a good quality of life. If the disability is a neurological one, the person is praised when they are able to suppress their natural traits and needs and appear neurotypical. When disabled people are seen through the medical model lens, they are often pitied and patronised.

The social model, on the other hand, portrays a disabled person as being disabled by a lack of understanding and accommodation by society. Their differences are only disabling when they are in the wrong environment. In order for the person to have a good quality of life, they need the right physical and social accommodations. When disabilities are viewed through the social model lens, they are seen as yet another natural variant in human diversity.

This sums up my experience. I am only disabled when in the wrong place or with the wrong people. When people explain things to me in a clear, step-by-step manner, I am not disabled. Nor when people understand that I listen better without eye contact. Nor when I don’t have to be in a busy, noisy place, or in a situation that requires physical co-ordination. Nor when I am interacting with fellow autistic people, or neurotypicals who understand me. Nor when I am allowed time to myself after sensory or social overload.

But according to the medical model, my natural abilities and traits are nothing more that a set of “symptoms” and “deficits” that need to be removed*. My natural tenacity – and any resistance I show when pressured to act more neurotypical – are seen as inflexibility. When I was a child, my unusual interests and ways of playing would have been seen as inappropriate. My tendency to say what I mean with no hidden expectations is seen as an inability to deal with other people not doing so. I am depicted as having poor social skills just because my social skills are different to neurotypicals’.

Basically, I am “differently abled”, and in a neurotypical world, that can be very disabling. To conclude, I thought I would paraphrase a quote** that I came across on Facebook recently: People think of autism as being a tear in the fabric that makes autistic people who we are. What they don’t understand is that autism is the fabric.

 

 

*I realise some autistic people with high support needs have co-occurring conditions that many people think should be treated. For my thoughts on that, please go here.

**unfortunately I can’t find the source.

 

To understand more about the autistic experience from the inside, please buy my book: Approaching Autistic Adulthood: The Road Less Travelled. Don’t forget to leave an Amazon review to boost the book’s online visibility!

My website: https://artistic-autistic.co.uk/

“High/low functioning” labels, and why they don’t work

If you are well familiar with autism, you may have heard the phrase: “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person”. In other words, no two autistic people are completely alike. While most of us do share certain traits that we are less likely to share with neurotypicals, the above phrase is accurate overall. We all have different interests and abilities. We all have different sensory needs and struggles. We don’t all communicate in the same way. Some of us speak, some sign, some use technology and some use any combination. Some of us are very expressive, others struggle to externalise our emotions. Overall, we’re a pretty diverse bunch.

You may have also heard the phrases “high functioning” and “low functioning”. These labels were coined to summarise how an autistic person comes across. People often say “high functioning” to mean “able to speak, live independently and mask as neurotypical”, and “low functioning” to mean “non-speaking and needing full time support due to co-occurring disabilities.” But more and more autistic people are turning away from “functioning” labels. Why? I’ll explore the main reasons below.

I’ll start with an uncomfortable truth: these labels were originally used to convey how useful any autistic person is to neurotypicals. “High functioning” people are seen as similar to neurotypicals and therefore useful to society. “Low functioning” people, on the other hand, are deemed too different to neurotypicals to be of any use at all.

On a similar note, people labelled “high functioning” often have their struggles dismissed. People only see them managing life skills and acting neurotypical, without seeing the very real sensory overload, masking, communication mismatch, burnout and so on. They are seen as too “weird” or “stupid” to be fully accepted, but not disabled enough to be accommodated. And people labelled “low functioning”, often have their abilities dismissed. People see how different they are to neurotypicals, or how much support they need, and assume they have no potential. Instead, they are seen as eternal children.

Also, being autistic isn’t as black and white as the “functioning” labels imply. Someone might be non-speaking and very talented in some areas, or fully speaking yet unable to live independently, or intelligent and sociable but prone to bad meltdowns. And most autistic people find that how well they function varies depending on their situation, or even their stage of life.

What are the alternatives? One is to say “low/high support needs”, which summarises how much support a person needs, rather than how they are perceived by society. While these labels may still seem black and white, there is no reason why the person has to use the same one at all times. Another alternative is to simply describe each individual’s needs and abilities as they are, without categorising them at all. That way, you are painting an accurate picture of that person while reducing the leeway for assumptions.

Which alternative do you think works best? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

 

To understand more about the autistic experience from the inside, please buy my book: Approaching Autistic Adulthood: The Road Less Travelled. Don’t forget to leave an Amazon review to boost the book’s online visibility!

My website: https://artistic-autistic.co.uk/

Letting down my hair

Here’s another short story. This one summarises how I and many autistic people often feel at social gatherings. Note that the people in this story are entirely fictional.

“Your hair’s coming loose already, let me just fix it,”

I stiffen as my friend Georgia reaches over and adjusts one of the grips in my hair. I try not to grimace too visibly at the sensation.

“Thanks,” I reply, conscious of the grip pinching tighter at my hair, now unnaturally straight and smooth. “This is why I don’t really do much with it. It’s kind of hard to hold it down for long before it goes wavy.”

“You should really do more with it,” she says. “It looks so good straightened and styled. You want to look your best at a party.”

We have just spent the past couple of hours at Georgia’s house. She was desperate to do my hair and makeup, and because this is a special occasion, I agreed. I gritted my teeth through the sensation of the straighteners slowly pulling my hair. I tried not to flinch when she did my makeup. I was going to have to look my best and like it.

Now I look around me at all the people in the room, mingling in small groups. I can hear snippets of conversation from all angles. The music in the background is pulsating in my head. The zip on my dress feels scratchy and my shoes are rubbing. There is so much to see and hear and feel all at once, too much to filter out so I can just focus…

“You ok?” One of the other guests is looking at me.”

“Sorry, yeah,” I reply, remembering just in time to make eye contact. “Just got distracted.”

Next to me, Georgia is shaking her head at me slightly, chuckling.

“Sorry,” I say to her quietly. “I did say I’ve never really been much of a party person.”

“Of course you are!” she says brightly. “You just need to be more confident. Talk to people a bit more, make more effort with your appearance, that sort of thing.”

I make a non-committal noise. I don’t tell her that talking to people isn’t as simple as it sounds. That all the confidence in the world won’t help me navigate unspoken social expectations, like when to talk and what to say. That looking my best does nothing for me except pull at my scalp all evening, make my face feel sticky or rub at my skin for hours.

Instead, I strike up a conversation with one of the girls opposite me. I force myself to make eye contact, watch for social cues and focus on saying the right things. Nice top! Where did you get it? Ah cool. Do you enjoy shopping? Then Georgia chimes in about where we went for our latest shopping trip. I try to stay in the loop, but now my hair grips are rubbing uncomfortably behind my ears. A sudden chorus of laughter erupts from a cluster of people near by and I jump out of my skin. The noise is getting unbearable. I turn back to Georgia and the others, but they are chatting away now, barely looking at me.

I get up and slip off towards the bathroom. I look at myself in the mirror. My hair is trying to curl, pushing the grips out of place. I don’t have the know-how to fix it, nor the energy to sit through someone fiddling with it again. I get my phone out of my handbag and scroll until I find the Uber app. Select time, select pick-up spot…

***

Home at last, I kick off my shoes and head upstairs to my room, glad I can walk without further chafing my ankles. The silence feels like a shock to my system, but with my mind still buzzing with sensory overload, I embrace it. Once in my room, I take off my dress and tights, and pull on some tracksuit trousers, fluffy socks and my favourite nightshirt, relishing the contrast. The trousers and socks feel soft and not too clingy. The shirt smells warm and comforting. I reach for a makeup wipe and rub away at my face until it feels nothing but clean and fresh.

Finally, I free my hair from the hair grips and let it fall back into place. I carefully undo the little plait at the side. I gently run a brush through it until it is back to its own comfortable shape. Then I lie down on my bed, feeling comforted by the softness. Now I can let my hair down. Now I can just…be.

The swan

Here is another prose piece, my personal spin on The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. I got the idea when I briefly mentioned that story here. This piece is for anyone who has ever struggled with being different and finding their place.

The sun slowly rises above the hills. Nestled safely beneath the willow tree, you blink several times, adjusting to the light. You rise to your feet and stretch out your wings, giving them a quick shake. You look ahead of you to see that the lake is no longer frozen. As you wade through the reeds, you glance around carefully, feeling that familiar sense of foreboding. Who might be waiting unseen, ready to drive you out? Not a creature in sight so far. For the moment, you are safe.

But then you hear the sound of beating wings approaching from far across the sky, one of many sounds you have learned to dread. You look up to see a group of huge white birds with long necks descending towards you. It is too late to hide. They have seen you, and you know that they are not going to like what they see. Maybe they will ask questions. Why are you so strange? Why aren’t you like other ducks? Maybe they will laugh, beat you, chase you away. You lower your head and turn back towards the willow, bracing yourself for the inevitable.

“Why are you trying to hide?”

You feel a gentle touch on your wing, and you tentatively look over your shoulder to see one of the great white birds leaning towards you, head slightly cocked. They are surrounding you, standing tall and graceful, their white feathers glossy in the sunlight. Now you feel smaller than ever, and your voice shakes a little as you reply:

“Because you might hurt me, or drive me away.”

“Why would we drive away one of us?” ask the bird who has spoken.

“I’m sorry,” you say. “but I can’t be one of you. I am too ugly.”

The birds look at each other. Surely now they have realised their mistake? But then the leading bird speaks again.

“Look into the water”

With the white birds at your side, you reluctantly walk back towards the lake. Memories flash through your mind of the other ducks laughing at your too-grey feathers, your too-big head, your too-loud voice, until you learned to stay quiet and avoid your reflection. Then you look.

In the water, you see the tall white birds with their slender curved necks. They are elegant and majestic, and their wings are strong and powerful. And the one in the centre is you.

For a few moments you are completely stunned. When you find your voice again, you manage to say, “I never thought a duck like me could turn out like this”.

“A duck?” says another bird. “You are no duck, nor are you ugly. You are a swan, like us, and you are truly beautiful. You really are one of us.” The others echo their agreement, and for the first time you can remember, you begin to feel hopeful.

“We came to ask whether you would like to join our group,” says the first swan. “You won’t have to be alone, and we will do everything we can to help you belong”.

In a daze, you accept, and you follow the swans as they glide across the lake. You are happier than you have ever been, and yet your joy is tainted by grief for all the seasons lost to humiliation and self loathing and never knowing anything else. Underneath your new-found beauty, you are still the same little ugly duckling, and you wonder if you will ever be free of that feeling.

Then the swans beat their wings and rise into the air, and you join them, relishing the wind ruffling your feathers. Has flying always felt so wonderful? You think about the ducks and all the other farm animals, and you can’t help wishing they could see you now. You wish they could understand the constant fear and shame they instilled in you while you were growing up. You have to accept that they probably never will.

But then you put on a burst of speed so that you are at the centre of the group. And as you gaze at the greenery flashing by below, you wonder: would being among your true family feel so good if you had never known the opposite?