Another Step

Having admitted to myself that I was autistic, and having already approached the doctor to be referred for diagnosis, I knew there was something else important that I had to do. I had to let my family know what I’d discovered, and the obvious place to start with that was to call my mother.

I recorded my feelings about doing this:

Deep deep breaths. That was a biggie. Told my mother.

And then noted some of the things that she had immediately said when I’d told her that I would need information about my early childhood and please could she start thinking whether there were any incidents that occurred in my early life that she could remember, or any ways in which I differed from my brother (who is not autistic) when we were young, and could she possibly just start thinking back to the time of my early childhood and triggering memories because the assessment people would want to know.

And without even a pause for breath, my mother remembered being summoned to my primary school (as I’ve described in Circles) when I was 4 years old. She recalled me learning to read at age 3. She recalled my nursery teacher commenting on my behaviour at nursery. She recalled something about a hearing test at 7 months that went wrong because I didn’t behave like a 7 month old should and the person administering the test telling her off about it. She told me how I didn’t respond to spoken words as a baby, only to singing, and how I hardly slept and constantly fidgeted in my pram.

And all this was instantaneous recall, the moment I asked, with no pause for thought. Memories from over 40 years ago. Little things, none of which seemed significant at the time, and none of which was ever followed up (because it was the 1970s and I seemed healthy as far as anyone could tell and when my mother asked what babies were supposed to do (I was the first child and my parents were young and inexperienced) she was told that all babies develop in their own ways so not to worry about anything), all started to indicate that my development when I was very young was, in fact, rather a long way from what would be considered “normal” by most people.

This first conversation was, it turned out, only the “tip of the iceberg” as far as my childhood was concerned. There were further pieces of information to follow, and I’m still, really, in the process of absorbing them all and trying to go through the questionnaires that we did as part of the assessment process. Maybe I’ll manage to write about it all thoroughly at some point, but that point is not yet.

My instant reaction to these revelations was to make a bunch of hashtags:

#theplotthickens
#wouldseemivebeencausingtroubleforalongtime
#thiswholethingisratherextraordinary
#ialwaysknewiwasabitunusualbutbloominheck

I subsequently went through a phase of finding these discoveries about my early life really rather odd and weird, and in many ways, traumatic. It was strange to think that there were things I’d never have discovered about myself and my early life if I hadn’t been going for an autism diagnosis. My husband and I had started to document my own memories of childhood a couple of weeks earlier, but this phone call to my mother took things to a whole new level, because I started to discover things that weren’t part of my existing life narrative.

Furthermore, since I was never able to have any children, I didn’t know whether the things my mother was telling me about my early life had any resemblance to any sort of “normal” childhood development or not, and I ended up having to do a lot of really triggering research to find out, research that brought back horrible memories of infertility clinics and pain and heartbreak and failure, so it turned out to be a triggering and difficult experience from that point of view too.

And, of course, my own memories of childhood had to be activated. And many of them weren’t that much fun either – I was bullied consistently through school and even when teachers tried to find out why things weren’t as they should have been, they weren’t able to come up with any answers, despite sometimes trying, as I described in Head’s Office.

These things are things I still haven’t yet worked through, things that still upset me, things that I know would have been picked up if I was a child today. I can’t help feeling that had I known that I really was different when I was growing up, not just naughty, that I would have felt less bad, been less self-blaming, and not become the suicidal burnt out adult I now am. I’m still not really in a place where I can consider all the things I want to consider – I have to do it a bit at a time, because it is difficult.

My mother, somewhat comfortingly, said to me a few months after that first conversation, that she wishes she had a time machine. Of course, there are so many factors at play that it’s impossible to say that changing one thing would have produced this result or that result (I KNOW all the stuff about autistic kids being “written off” and told they’d never be able to get anywhere in life – I had exactly the OPPOSITE problem and was consistently told how bright I was and given massive expectations accordingly, expectations that I could never fulfill so I was doomed to failure). However, maybe I’d not have been chastised for meltdowns, not been forced to wear wool polo necks which hurt me and so on, and not have learnt, through my early years, to behave and to internalise everything because I was frightened of the consequences and the punishments.

Furthermore, because I learnt fast and turned out to be academically able, by the time I was at secondary school exam stage nobody worried about me. I was succeeding academically, top grades of my year, therefore I must be happy. What nobody knew is that I hardly bothered revising for my O-levels because I assumed I’d be dead by the time the results came out. I didn’t tell anyone because I’d learnt by then that you just didn’t talk about that sort of thing. You worked hard, you behaved, you churned out the exam results, and everyone was happy. It was all part of the act.

Except that the act had a massive cost for me – the thing that had eventually made me as well-behaved a child as I was able to be, turned me into a mentally ill twentysomething and a burnt out thirtysomething. And nobody really knew why until I was in my mid forties.

Getting an autism diagnosis late in life is a weird thing. It opens all sorts of cans of worms that have been sealed shut for decades. I had long since closed the door on my childhood, and on everything to do with children in general, sealed away in a place in my head marked “Do not open – just move on with life!” but I was forced to reopen the door, to take the cans off the shelves, and to let the worms loose all over the place. It was part of the assessment, and it is part of coming to terms with why my life has turned out as it has. It’s something that needs to be addressed as best I can in order to move on and try to build some sort of future with whatever life I have left. I’m not sure it was something I particularly wanted to be doing at this point in my life – having just moved away from all things child-related after my own failure to have any, the last thing I needed was to go back to my own early life – but it turned out to be necessary, and perhaps going through the painful stuff now means that there will be less of it buried and I’ll eventually be less mentally ill as a result, more at peace with it all, and maybe, possibly, more at peace with my own childlessness and consequent response to children, which is something I still struggle with terribly.

And, as I have read in so many places and am experiencing for myself, getting an autism diagnosis late in life is not only about the future, and learning how to live from now on, but also about reframing past experiences, reviewing all of life that has gone before, looking back at so many times when things have gone wrong, or been inexplicable, and looking at them from an autistic perspective. It’s part of the process of making sense of life, and, of course, the later the diagnosis, the more of life there is to go through.

And in my case, it’s not just me who is reframing past events. Many of my friends have now made sense of experiences they’ve had with me over the years. My husband now understands things that have long been slight oddities in our marriage. And my family are trying to understand the whole thing.

I made the first phone call to my mother a year ago today. It had taken nearly 45 years for her to find out why her non-sleeping fidgety baby had messed up a hearing test at 7 months old. As soon as I asked the right questions and explained what I’d recently discovered, it became obvious.

I didn’t even know I’d had a hearing test at 7 months until I started gathering information for an autism assessment!

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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!

Head’s Office

09-2016-12-15-16-03-53I was in trouble. Yet again I was in the Headmaster’s office. I can’t remember what I’d done, but it must have been something pretty bad because I was fairly certain I would be caned.

My misdemeanours usually came in two forms. The first – violent outbursts, hitting out, swearing, getting into altercations with other children. The second – failure to complete work, to present work sufficiently neatly, to do what I was supposed to be doing. I don’t know what I’d done on this particular occasion, but after weeks on report I was fairly certain I’d reached the end of the line and I stood there in my grey uniform with the chewed tie, waiting for the worst.

The Headmaster started to question me, which I found confusing. He asked me whether I had breakfast at home and what I’d had to eat this morning. I always had breakfast – my parents wouldn’t allow me to go to school without it – and it would have been cereal and toast, because it was always cereal and toast on a school morning. I told him this. He then went on to ask if I had my own bedroom at home. I told him I did. And he asked me what time I went to bed. I can’t remember what time it was, but I told him my bedtime, which was the same every night, and his response, which I can still hear in my head, was “That’s good and early.”

Then he started to question me about my parents. Were they good to me? I said they were OK, though they always made me go to bed earlier than I wanted. Did they ever hit me? I told him that they didn’t, but when I’d been naughty they lectured me on why what I’d done was naughty. Did they ever do anything that made me uncomfortable? I couldn’t think of anything. Did they ever touch me anywhere that felt wrong? I assured him that they didn’t.

I can’t remember much more than that (it was over 36 years ago after all), but I remember answering these slightly odd questions, wondering why he was asking me all these strange things and not just getting on with the caning thing. I remember eyeing the cane in the corner of the room, wondering whether it would hurt more or less than the ruler that another teacher had recently hit me with as a punishment for untidy work. I remember wondering how the cane worked and whether it would be on my hand, like the ruler had been, my bare legs, or through my skirt on my bottom.

I never found out. The caning never came. The Headmaster looked at me and said to me, very very seriously, that if there was anything, anything at all, that upset me at home, that I should come and tell him. And that it would be OK. And I could tell him anything. I was still very confused about this, because I couldn’t think of anything that I needed to tell him apart from some stuff about having to eat vegetables and I didn’t think he’d be interested in that. I assured him that I would tell him the minute anything bad happened. With this assurance, he dismissed me from his office and sent me back to the classroom.

I have never forgotten this incident. All my life I’ve known that I was very very naughty at primary school, constantly on report, and that I sailed so close to the wind that I was nearly caned and had this bizarre interview about my home circumstances. I put the naughtiness down to boredom, to being bullied, and to the general wilfulness that characterised my early school career. I realised that the Headmaster knew that there was something not quite right and, as I grew into adulthood, it became apparent to me that he was trying to discover the cause of my behaviour and was investigating the possibility that I was being neglected or abused at home.

But he never caned me. And he never did get to the bottom of my extreme behaviour or my problems in the classroom. But he tried. And he recognised that I was in considerable distress and knew that there was something going on. And, to his credit, he did his best to find out what.

At the end of the 1970s, an ordinary primary school headmaster in the north of England would never have guessed that the usually chatty wilful little girl who did well at tests, but whose behaviour was often challenging, was autistic. He’d never have known that she was constantly overloaded by the noise of small children surrounding her. He’d never have known that she didn’t complete projects because she didn’t really know what to do or how to go about it.

And the irony is that the little girl didn’t know these things either. She wasn’t making much effort to learn sums or spellings while at school because those things came naturally to her, but she was making an absolutely huge effort to try to keep the bullying at bay, to make a few friends, to work out how she was supposed to behave to fit in. She was processing massive amounts of information, building a mask that would cover her condition for decades to come, and working out what she had to do to survive in a confusing world. But she was only a small girl, and she didn’t know any of this. She just assumed it was the same for everybody because that was all she knew.

But now, decades later, she has finally discovered what was going on. And she’s thought of the Headmaster and how he knew there was something, but couldn’t work out what. And he tried, but, like her, he had no chance of finding the answer back then, because girls like her weren’t given labels or support and their difficulties weren’t recognised.

But he never did cane her. For which she was very grateful.

He did, however, make her stand up in assembly a few months later – so the whole school could applaud her for having the highest grade in the school on a musical instrument.

She must have been one of his more confusing and baffling pupils!