Circles

Amazingly, this is my 100th post on this blog. When I first posted to it, last December, I didn’t know whether it would ever get beyond The Discovery, and it was really just a convenient way to let people know that I had discovered I was autistic. In the last four months the blog has seemed to acquire a life of its own, and, from time to time, a few people seem to read it. I can hardly believe that it’s only around eight months since the idea of my being autistic was even suggested – in that time I’ve learnt so much about myself and my life and just how much being autistic has influenced me during the last 45 years.

One of the criteria for receiving a formal diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder” under the current system is that autistic traits and behaviours need to have been present throughout life (because autism is a lifelong condition). Consequently, the diagnostic process involves a lot of looking back through life and, particularly, back to early childhood. I’m fortunate enough to have a mother with a good memory who is still alive and was able to supply me with lots of information about my early life (I’ll write more on that another time), and it has been interesting to discover what she remembers about my childhood and how it relates to my own memories and experiences.

I’d like to indulge, if I may, in a little imaginary time travel, back through my life, to what, for me, has become an important point as far as my life as an autistic person is concerned. I start from now, 2017, when I am 45 years old, newly diagnosed, and slowly recovering from an episode of burnout. As I go back through my life I think about the 39-year-old receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the 36-year-old who still couldn’t cook a meal, the 33-year-old who got randomly ill on holidays, the 29-year-old who spent nights bashing their head against the wall and drank bottles of whisky and ate packets of pills and hoped never to wake up again, the 26-year-old who sat at their desk trying to write their doctoral thesis while feeling like they were in a bubble and the world was unreachable, the 23-year-old who graduated top of their class but who ate the same thing for dinner every night and drank alcohol before breakfast every morning, the 19-year-old who couldn’t learn from lectures and dropped out of their first degree, the 16-year-old who was still being bullied at school and whose best friend was a cat, the 13-year-old who was routinely pinned down on the floor of the toilets by the other kids, the 9-year-old whose headmaster thought they were being abused at home, and, eventually, my time travel stops in a primary school in Bradford in 1975, where a little girl sits on the steps of a temporary classroom, crying.

The little girl is crying because it is playtime and she hates playtimes. She hates small children. They are noisy and they run around all over the place in a disorganized manner, and some of them step on the cracks in the pavements which means that very bad things will happen, and they are mean to her and some of them eat sweets in the morning which is against the rules, and so she cries, and she waits, desperately, for playtime to finish, so that she can retreat to the safety of the classroom where there is a teacher who might protect her, and where the children sit down and where it is quieter.

I know these things about the little girl, and have always known them, because I remember them. I remember many things about being 4 years old, but, as I started to question my mother, I discovered that there were things about my 4-year-old self that I didn’t know. One of these was that my teacher summoned my parents to school because she was concerned about me. I didn’t interact with the other children, and, most particularly, I wasn’t learning to write. I just sat and made my pencil go round and round in circles, filling page after page with scribbled circular patterns. The teacher said she’d never encountered a child like me and didn’t know what to do.

Finding out about this “circle drawing” was the first of many rather surreal discoveries about myself that I’d never have made if I hadn’t started asking questions because I was gathering information for an autism assessment. It shocked me somewhat, and I felt a huge sadness for that frightened stressed little kid, trying to withdraw from the world into something comforting, trying to survive in what felt like a very hostile environment. I cried many tears for her, because I couldn’t go back in time and help her, and I knew what she would have to go through before she finally understood why life was so tough. Just after diagnosis I wrote the letter below (complete with muddled tenses) to her, and during the information-gathering stage I went to a shop and bought pens and paper and drew circles and coloured them in. Because that was all I could do.

You will now realise why the “profile picture” on this blog and on the facebook page is what it is, and why I chose that particular picture for the post in which I revealed publicly that I am autistic. Today’s picture is from a similar, but different, drawing of circles.

The most important question I had for my autism assessor during my follow-up appointment was something like this: “If I had been 40 years younger, would I have still been receiving an autism diagnosis at this point in time, i.e. in 2017?” Her answer was that I would have. And she went on to say that, with the knowledge of the present day, the point at which I would have been identified as autistic would have been the point at which I went to school and sat on my own drawing circles and my teacher was concerned about my behaviour to the extent that she summoned my parents in to discuss it. That coupled with things we know about my behaviour at nursery the previous year, and various other things during my early development, would have triggered a diagnosis.

For some reason, knowing that, if I were 4 years old today I would be being diagnosed autistic, as a 4-year-old, is important to me. I have tried to think about why that is, and I came to the conclusion that the diagnosis my 45-year-old self received in February, although it covers my entire life, is a diagnosis for the future, for planning, for strategies, for rebuilding my life. The “diagnosis” my 4-year-old self received, retrospectively, in the follow-up appointment yesterday is, for me, the diagnosis that starts the process of making peace with my past – it feels like some kind of justice for that distressed little girl, crying on the steps of the classroom.

Of course, the other reason that age 4 is so significant for me as far as being autistic is concerned is that, as I started school and had to work out how to survive, it was the time I started to mask. It was the time that I started to learn what to do by watching other people, teaching myself to interact with other human beings. The social codes that came so naturally and intuitively to most others, who sought out human contact, were things that I had to learn through a cognitive process. I’m only just beginning to understand this, and how it has impacted my life. Being undiagnosed protected me from being “written off” or “cured” or whatever, but it meant that I worked fearsomely hard to try to make the world work for me and expectations were made of my abilities that I simply couldn’t fulfil. I believe the damage to my mental health started around that time – as an undiagnosed 4-year-old trying to fit in, learning to sit still, learning to socialize, and to do as I was told to avoid punishment, I was storing up the trauma that would eventually result in decades of mental illness and suicidal ideation (which switched to active attempts to end my life in my late 20s).

I’m certain I’ve mentioned it before, but one of the things that is so interesting about an autism diagnosis later in life is that it not only suggests strategies for coping with life better in the future, it also makes sense of the past. I cannot change the past, obviously, but getting the “diagnosis” for my 4-year-old self is another step in accepting it and understanding it.

Dear Four-Year-Old,

I was talking about you recently, to some nice people.

I was remembering what it was like for you at playtime at school. I was telling the people about the three big girls who used to be mean to you, and how noisy it always was at playtimes, and how much you wanted to get back to the safety of the classroom where there was a teacher who might protect you from the other children, who were frightening and who you didn’t want to be with.

I was also talking to your mother recently. She was telling me how she and your father were summoned to school to talk to your teacher, because there was a problem. In fact, there were a few problems.

I know you could already read very well before you went to school, and the teacher wasn’t very pleased about that, because she was supposed to teach you to read but you already could. She wasn’t very happy with your parents, who had supplied the books.

I found out from your mother that your teacher was concerned because you weren’t learning to write, like the other children were. Instead of writing you just sat and made circles in your writing book, using up all the paper, and any other paper available. Your teacher said that she had never met a child like you, and she didn’t really know what to do. Your parents didn’t know what to do either, so it was decided that you would not be allowed any more books so you didn’t damage them or use up the paper by drawing circles on it.

I know where you lived. I remember the street. I also remember that some kids from the street let your Space Hopper down and you were really unhappy about that because you loved bouncing up and down the street on it. And even though there was a man who worked at the garage and took it to blow it up again it wasn’t quite as bouncy as it had been before, which was sad.

I could send this to your address, which I still remember well, even though you only lived there briefly. But it would never reach you, because the mail can only go forwards in time, normally a few days or weeks. It cannot go backwards 41 years, which it would need to to reach you.

Neither can I come back in time myself, because there is no time machine. But if I could, I’d talk to your parents and teacher. And I’d try to explain that you are a bit different from most other children, and I’d give them a list of things they might look out for, and I’d work out what they could do to try to help make your life a bit easier, because I know that your life turned out to be very very hard in so many ways.

I’m not sure how convincing I’d be. A crazy person from the future, nearly as old as your granny is in your time. And, of course, there would be so many problems anyway because most of the information I have now is from books that will not be written until decades after the time you live in. I have a magic machine that allows me to read lots and lots of information about kids like you, but it won’t work in your time, because it relies on things that haven’t been invented yet.

If I could come and see you I’d try to protect you. I feel sad that you had to go through what you did, and I feel sad that your life was so hard and nobody knew how hard it was. I’d like to tell you that it got better soon, but I can’t, because you have many years of really hard stuff still to go through and many many tough times ahead. Life will be harder than you can even imagine right now. I’m sorry I can’t do anything about that, but you will find a way through, and eventually you will find out why it is like that.

But I would pick you up and hold you tight and tell you that you will, sometimes by strength, sometimes by accident, find a way to keep going through it all for at least another 41 years. There will be things that will help – your parents will not really understand you and they will not know for a long time that you really need extra help and support, but some of the things they do will help anyway. They will continue to supply books, which will help. They will get you a friend who is more comforting than any school friend could ever be, who will have soft fur and will purr for you. And they will let you do some of the things that make life feel better to you.

You know that recorder? The one you chew (yes, I know about that – I’ve still got it somewhere, and your teeth marks are still on the mouthpiece), keep playing it, and the other musical instruments you will learn in the future, because they will be really important to you. Keep reading and keep learning all the other stuff too – being interested in things and learning things is going to be one of the ways you survive in the world.

I will never be able to tell you this, but in 41 years time I will find out about the circle drawing, and I will draw some circles for you, because that is the best I can do for you. Because I am grown up now I can buy lots of really nice paper, and loads of books, and felt pens, and I can draw neat circles now and make patterns and colour them in – you’d have loved that!

When I finally tell the nice people all this, and I tell them about you and about all the other things your mother has recently told me, they will finally understand. And they will tell me some information that will explain why your life didn’t work out the way it was supposed to.

I can’t come back in time to care for you, or to explain. I wish I could.

But I will eventually find out why it all happened as it did and I will discover what makes life so hard for us. There is a word that describes people like us, even though nobody will apply that word to you in 1975. We are autistic.

The nice people listened, and heard all about you, and about the person you became, and they told me that my discovery was correct. You had a different sort of head. I have a different sort of head. We were never designed to fit into the world in the ordinary sort of way.

Stay strong little person. You will survive, and in 41 years you will understand. And you will finally be listened to and believed. And it will make life feel better and you can start to work out how to make an easier future.

See you in 41 years’ time!

A Forty-Five-Year-Old from the future

P.S. In 10 years’ time some girls at school will tell you that you’re too ugly to get a boyfriend. They are lying. You find someone who understands you perfectly and you will have a wedding with really nice cake!

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