I first heard of autism in year five at primary school.
A new boy came into our class and we were told that he had something called Asperger’s Syndrome, and we might find that he behaved a little differently. I was fascinated – no one in the class had heard of it, and the teacher didn’t seem entirely sure of how to deal with it either, which I thought was pretty cool.
By the end of the day, I hated that boy. Hated him. I wanted to be nowhere near him. I didn’t understand him, or how he got away with making those awful noises, or why he kept talking to me when I had made all the signs that I had carefully learned to make people go away without offending them. My teacher was surprised at how rude I was becoming towards this boy. I was usually very polite in the classroom, so what had happened here?
Looking back, I can see quite clearly that what happened was a clash of strong sensory needs and social strategies. He needed noise, and to make noise (like sudden high-pitched squeaks or loud singing) had learned to simply persist in social interaction given that he lacked the capacity for finesse.
I, on the other hand, needed quiet and an absence of sudden change in my sensory landscape; I had learned to try to avoid negative social engagements by adhering to a list of rules that I had built, largely gleaned from adult interactions. This rigidity was sometimes wildly unsuccessful. I had also learned to try and suppress my ‘odd’ behaviours. This kid seemed perfectly happy and confident with the way he was behaving, although I have no idea if that was truly the case. As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t fair. Sorry, Thomas – you were really nice to me and didn’t deserve my rejection and rudeness.
So, why was Thomas diagnosed and I wasn’t?
There are many answers, most of which can be wrapped up in the gender culture in autism diagnosis, and the culture of silence surrounding the behaviour of ‘smart kids’. I previously said that I was usually polite and quiet, and very well-behaved. I also performed well academically (when I chose to), made jokes, and liked chatting with my teachers. I was chubby and clumsy and bullied. I was simultaneously liked and, I believe, slightly pitied by most of my teachers (who I much preferred talking to over my peers). Also, very importantly, I was a girl.