My first signs of autism

Having long outgrown my phase of hating talking about my Asperger’s, I have since had many conversations about the topic. And recently, one or two people have asked: how did my parents first know I was autistic? Good question.

I don’t have a problem with people asking, let me get this straight. What I do struggle with is answering. It’s a past-tense version of the even more common question – how does autism affect me? My immediate inner reaction is much the same: how do I explain something that feels completely normal to me? My parents could probably give a 10 hour talk on the subject if you asked them, but somehow, most of the time they aren’t there to answer the question for me.

Besides, I quite like not relying on them to talk for me. So I did a bit of research and dug out my old school reports and other SEN* related documents. Voila, a basic summary of a small, autistic me.

Special interests: I had an in-depth knowledge of animals. My favourite bedtime story at one point was a sealife encyclopaedia, and Mum and I spent many happy evenings reading about different types of sea slug. At a snake exhibition, 5 year old me thought there was nothing strange about announcing to the host: “I had no idea corn snakes were polymorphic!” Years later, my go-to conversation starter was “I know all about cat breeds!” When faced with a task at school that involved pictures of various animals, I pointed to the duck picture, and asked what breed of duck it was. The answer was – a line drawing!

Reactions to sensory stimuli: Apparently I was an unusually placid baby…except when people touched me, then I would scream in their face, an urge I still have to fight if someone I don’t know touches me, haha. During any noisy school activities, I would cover my ears if the other children were being too loud…but failed to notice a fire alarm that went off while I was particularly engrossed in some drawing. I was obsessed with food…but would gag dramatically on foods with certain textures, or pretty much any medicine. Yeah, I was a bundle of contradictions.

Interactions with people: I didn’t pick up on facial expressions, body language, and social expectations, and consequently, kids either got bored of me, or took advantage of my naivety. If someone asked me if I wanted to play with them, I would just give an honest “no”. I struggled with concentration and working memory in lessons, and needed an adult to repeat things to me one-to-one. I would show physical, mental, and emotional signs of exhaustion a few weeks into each school year simply from trying to keep up. Yet when given intelligence tests, with just one adult and no kids for company, I kept declaring how much fun it was!

I could go on for ages, but I think you get the idea. Growing up on the spectrum wasn’t fun, but I did it, and I largely have my parents to thank for that. Besides, I like to look back at these things and laugh. Because when you were as weird as me as a child, you just have to!

 

 

* Special Educational Needs

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My moments of shame

Has anyone ever successfully cracked an egg by tapping it with a spoon without having to mop it off the table, the floor, and their clothes? Asking for a friend.

Most people, at some point, take a moment to wonder exactly how things will be for them by this time in ten years/one year/one week/tomorrow. Sometimes I take a step further, and wonder what cringe-worthy anecdotes have yet to happen? I’ve already got too many to remember, but thankfully, my mother has a memory like an elephant when it comes to things like this, and we decided that some of them were too juicy not to share on the internet. Enjoy! But don’t laugh too much.

For a start, here’s one I’d nearly forgotten about. A few years ago, we were just having our kitchen re-painted when we had a student knock on our door asking a favour. To explain the mess, I may have told him we were “having the painters in.” Not heard that euphemism? Go and look it up…

And that time in my then-violin teacher’s car, aged nine or ten, that I still haven’t lived down. I was with a bunch of her other students, on our way to an exam rehearsal, and I was definitely starting to outgrow travel sickness. So when the car jolted…and swerved…and sped up at random…etc., no way was I going to sink so low as to ask to get out for some air. Then I threw up all over the boy next to me. When I got home, my clothes and the car stinking to high heaven, I tried to tell everyone that “someone was sick.” And let’s face it, I wasn’t lying!

There have also been times when I have actually been a danger to myself. Most notably, during a secondary school residential trip. We were having breakfast in the hotel, and not only did I not see the sign saying not to put croissants in the toaster oven, I also had no idea that pastry is so flammable. The unfortunate toaster and its contents went up in flames, and the last I saw of it as I made myself scarce was my teacher whacking a towel on it.

And of course, among Mum’s personal favourites, childhood stories. I feel like she hasn’t got over every supermarket trip in which I loudly asked things like “Are we going to shoplift? Is it wrong to steal? How do people shoplift?” Or told any shop assistant we spoke to – in detail – about my parents’ recent divorce. Our supermarket, by the way, had a large sign above the door: “Thank you for shopping. County.” Always a precocious child, I pronounced the last word as “country.” But without the “r” sound…

Apparently, I’m to blame for whenever Mum embarrasses me; after all, it’s only payback for every time I pulled my knickers down in front of people as a toddler. Or insisted on going out with string around my neck so I could be a dog on a lead. But worst of all was when she and John were engaged. Being little, I had no qualms about enquiring about her personal life. And so in my mind, it was perfectly acceptable to ask – in public – “Is John going to s*x you when you’re married, Mummy?”

These days whenever that story comes up, my parents invariably joke about John determining Mum’s gender on their wedding day. In response, I remind myself that embarrassment is to be ridden out like any other emotional discomfort, hold my head high, and carry on with my life. Because why give them the satisfaction of succumbing to shame and being unable to laugh at myself?

What scares me?

My childhood, as some of you know, got off to an interesting start. But there is one early memory that spooked me deeply. It left me a quivering wreck, and has stayed with me to this day. It was a scene of carnage and destruction. It was the day Thomas the Tank Engine crashed through someone’s house. On TV. Yeah.

As you can see, I had a sensitive disposition as a child, which, in many ways, hasn’t fully left me. I’ve had several irrational fears throughout my life. Weirdly, Halloween has never been among them. I’ve never been an avid fan of it – my family as a whole are not interested – but it has inspired me to reflect on the things that have scared me at some point. Before you read any further, don’t judge me.

After Thomas, my next fear was anything that made a loud bang. Balloons, party poppers, and I think at one point even Christmas crackers. My mum wonders if it has anything to do with arriving at a party – still shaken after a nasty, pre-divorce fight between my parents – at the precise moment everyone in the room let off a load of party poppers.

My most intense fear – mercifully no longer the case – was probably fireworks. I remember being about six, and attending some kind of outdoor entertainment. Without warning, the sky exploded with hundreds of the damn things, and I remember screaming, trying to run, and spending the rest of the evening buried under a blanket, crying. Mum remembers a similar occasion when there was an unexpected display during some late night shopping we were doing. I panicked, fled, ran across the road, ran into the nearby supermarket, and was completely unreachable.

At first, even being indoors didn’t help, and it was with Mum’s patience that I slowly became more able to watch fireworks out of the window, and later, step outside the flat with them going off in the distance.

Another weird thing I struggled with as a kid was escalators. In my defence, why would I trust a surface that moves beneath my feet? Similarly, I was also afraid of walking on anything slippery – and still am, if I’m honest. This is most likely my dyspraxia manifesting itself, but I sometimes put it down to trying rollerblading, falling over, and sinking my teeth into my bottom lip. Yowzers.

I like to think that as a young adult, I’ve become less fearful. I mean, I’m less scared of spiders than I used to be. I can tolerate the occasional small/thin legged one in the same room. But there are spiders, and then there are the huge, hairy tarantula clones that randomly appear in the bath, come summer and autumn. Not my cup of tea in the slightest.

Lastly, one that I’m not proud of: vomiting. As a child, I was terrified of illness in general. If someone at school started feeling sick, I’d have an anxiety attack. I wouldn’t eat food that was even slightly old, or at risk of exposure to germs. Ironically, I would get so worried about getting ill, I would start feeling ill. Which then worried me sick. Pun intended.

Nowadays, I’ve come to accept that illness is inevitable, an unlikely occurrence, and usually short-lived. Regarding specifically vomiting related illnesses, I’ve been working on that over the years. But I will say this for myself: it was my fear of stomach bugs that motivated me to aim for five fruits and veggies a day, to give my immune system a good fighting chance. Wouldn’t you call it a blessing in disguise?

To Mum: surprise!

You know that awkward moment when you’re struggling to write a surprise blog post, but the person you usually ask for advice is the central character of said post? Yeah. It’s hard, isn’t it? So without further ado, let me introduce…you guessed it, my mother!

For starters, my mum has many names to choose from, the most common ones being Helen, Hez, Hezza, and, according to her Sainsbury’s reward cards, Melen* (my personal favourite). She spent her teen years at ballet school, then worked for several more years in Taiwan, where she met my father. Now back in England and married to my stepdad, she teaches Pilates and is training to be a counsellor. Long story short.

One of Mum’s many achievements in life is to produce two children who look nothing like her. Given this fact, and my father’s shenanigans with other women, I have asked her if she’s sure I’m not some other woman’s child. For some reason, she keeps insisting I’m hers, and refuses to believe otherwise. Almost as if my logic is flawed…

She also never tires of talking about what a huge baby I was, often completely at random. Having recently had my 24th birthday, this subject has been particularly high on the agenda. But given that I’d forget if it was mentioned on anything less than a daily basis, this is probably character building for me.

To this day, Mum still has a collection of letters I posted under her door as a small child. Such as “Dear Mummy, are you sorry that I hurt my knee?” And “Dear Mummy, I am sorry that the book got broken. Maybe we can fix it somehow.” And this classic from Year 1 at school: “My mummy is nice and kind and pretty and firm when me and my sister are bad. Sometimes my sister is bad, but I am good most of the time.” I always was destined to be a writer…

Apparently one of the perks of being a mother is the thrill of embarrassing your children. Personally I don’t buy the excuse that it’s revenge for every time your kids publicly embarrass you. But then her favourite weapon is stories of all those times. She also likes trying to be cool with words like “lol”, “lmao”, “grooveh” and “in with da kids”. Which she does to drive my sister crazy “just for the lolz.”

But for all her eccentricities, my mum fits all the important mum criteria. Throughout divorce, living on benefits, school struggles, Grannie dying, and the trials and tribulations of growing up, she has been there. Loved me and my sister. Fed us properly. Given us a good life. And never let us down. Well, unless you count the time she wasn’t sorry I hurt my knee.

Melen Mum, I will just say this for you. I love you. Oh, and happy Mother’s Day.

 

 

 

*Whoever created those cards must have looked at her signature, wondered to themselves whether the first letter was an H or an M, and decided that “Melen” was the most likely option.

I remember…

Among writers, it is a pretty well known fact that one of the best ways to beat writer’s block is by doing a writing prompt. You know, a little exercise that gets you writing about something. Anything. So tell me this: how is it that, while writing this post, I spend about an hour deciding how best to write the beginning?

Well, enough of that, and on to a simple exercise I learned during my first year at uni. If you’re trying to get your writing brain in gear, or even just bored, set yourself a time limit and begin with:

I remember…

Having a boy at secondary school call me a “ch*nky”, most likely to impress his mates. I don’t know if he was hoping to get lucky, but strangely, I don’t find casual racism to be much of a turn on.

Not understanding why Mum was being so violently sick in the months before my sister was born.

My grandparents’ cats coming back from the vet and me not knowing why the female was shaved on one side and the male under his tail.

Visiting the Nottingham Christmas Market with my secondary school as a reward for good behaviour, and one of the boys getting caught shoplifting.

Calling potato wedges “wedgies”.

My thirteenth birthday party, in which I must have eaten a ton of chocolate, party food, pancakes and birthday cake. Not surprisingly, the party ended with me feeling a little peaky.

And this was before the food hangover…

Going to my Friday night Year 10+ youth club, and the evening coming to an unceremonious halt when a boy’s arm went straight through a window. His arm was shredded and spurting blood, and he was definitely crying.

Overhearing him at school some time later bragging to other kids about how it was just a scratch and how he’d laughed throughout the whole thing.

Recovering from the trauma of my (then five year old) sister being rushed to hospital with a broken arm when I realised I could watch any video I wanted without negotiation.

Saying goodbye to Mum after hers and my stepdad’s wedding reception, and trying not to show how much I was going to miss her.

Mum and I moving from Taiwan to England when I was just four, and not understanding how final this was after so many holidays with my (English) grandparents.

That “first day of school” feeling on my first day at university.

Learning about the Black Death at school and being afraid to sleep with my lamp off that night.

The first time I had pizza when I was little, and thinking it was the best thing I’d ever tasted.

 

So there you go. Besides getting you writing, this is also a pretty entertaining group activity. Just get your heads down, write down as many random memories as possible, and exchange. How weird does it get? Why not have a go and get back to me?

 

 

Autistic childhood stories

Over the years, I have discovered that nothing keeps a conversation going like a nice long recollection of childhood stories. Unfortunately this is rarely due to choice on my part, as it is apparently the most effective method for parents to get revenge for all the times you embarrass them as a small child. These days, it’s pretty much common knowledge that I had an odd fascination with theft as a small child, and would loudly ask Mum “Is it wrong to shoplift, Mummy?” in the middle of a busy supermarket. Not a Christmas will go by without the rest of my family having a good old chortle at the nativity book I wrote and illustrated in year two. I don’t know why I forgot to give the shepherds any clothes, or why I thought that everyone celebrated King Herod’s death by having a “party with cookies”. But hey ho, that’s childhood stories for you.

Autistic childhood stories can be a different kettle of fish. After much digging around in the loft yesterday, my mum found two whole boxfiles of stuff that had been written by my parents to teachers, and vice versa, trying to make sense of my eccentricities.

Even before I read it all, I realise that I may have come across as slightly strange the day my kindergarten teacher taught the rest of my class how to make clay pots. Not such an oddity in itself, except being the creative soul I was, I decided to make penguin feet instead. I don’t think my family will let me forget about the “Ascension” picture I did at Sunday school, where the disciples were pointing excitedly at a big fish I’d drawn in Lake Galilee, and not looking at the figure of Jesus stuck in a far corner of the page. Nor will I ever be allowed to forget the time I decided that a snowman would be the perfect illustration for an African bag I’d decorated during “Africa week” in year one.

Having a read through my old school reports, special needs reports, letters to and from school, etc put an end to any doubts about what a weird child I was. Some of it came flooding back to me, some of it I knew nothing about, some of it was too embarrassing for me to dwell on. It wasn’t until I started school that I let people call me “Grace” and not “Robert” (spelt “Robt”). Having intense autistic interests meant that telling people “I know all about cat breeds” was a perfectly logical way of introducing myself. In my mind, there was nothing strange about announcing “I had no idea corn snakes were polymorphic!” at a reptile exhibition, and the fact that I was only five was neither here nor there.

I was also a slightly obsessive loner, as shown by how I answered questions such as “what makes you happy?” with “I love anything to do with being alone”. One report recounts how my hearing was so sensitive I would cover my ears when too many people were talking, but not so sensitive that a fire alarm would evoke any reaction from me when I was engrossed in my work. In retrospect, I can almost understand why my earlier primary school teachers described me during teacher-parent meetings as “odd” and “strange”.

I guess one of the good things about being on the autistic spectrum is that, if your parents do tell such childhood stories to anyone who will listen, you can be fairly sure that at least yours won’t be anything like the sort you would hear about any normal child. I will have to try and remember this next time I get reminded that all my soft toys still had names, personalities and detailed family histories when I was nine. At the end of the day, it is what comes of being “special”…