I’m 5 years old. My favourite things are fairy tales and cats. I line up my Puppy In My Pocket toys when playing schools. During a family wedding, I recite back the Vicar’s speech word for word. By the time I start school, I’m already reading chapter books and the teachers aren’t quite sure what to do with me.
We go on a big family holiday to France. My cousins and I are playing outside. All of a sudden, we see a giant python with a huge bite on its neck. I feel compassion and walk over and give it a pat. I’m curious, bold, fearless. Good intentions, but not the best judgement. Perhaps this sets the tone for the rest of my life.
I’m 15 years old. I’m convinced I’m hideous I hate my tall skinny figure and mousy hair. Everyone in school cares a little too much about how cool they are. I’ve fallen out with the group of friends I was on the edge of. We got tired of being stuck at the bottom of the hierarchy, and I guess I drew the short straw on who to take it out on.
I get the day off school, and my parents drive me to a large house somewhere in London. The woman there asks me questions about school, about my friends. She makes me do puzzles. Scenario questions. What would you do if you are trying to watch a film and your friend is being too loud? What would you do if you borrowed a game from a friend and broke it?
My parents tell me I have “Asperger’s Syndrome”*. I Google it. A page titled “The Geek Syndrome” pops up. Underneath is a picture of a small, nerdy-looking boy in glasses.
Geek was one of the labels I had in school. I had a lot of labels. Ugly. Unpopular. Too Thin. Clever. Labels I wanted to rip off. Replace with labels like Pretty and Popular. Or even just Average. I’d be happy with Average.
I’m not a geek. I’m a pink-loving girlie girl. Not a small, nerdy-looking boy. I decide my parents are just trying to punish me and go into denial for the next decade.
I’m 18 years old. I’m in my first year at university. People don’t like me the way they like everyone else. In conversation, people look over my shoulder for someone cooler to talk to. I’d give my right arm for a relationship, but no-one seems to fancy me. I get harassed in nightclubs; the genuine attention goes to the popular girls. I bleach my hair peroxide blonde and drink so much alcohol it’s a miracle I don’t sustain liver damage.
It’s time to decide on houses for second year. I’m not anyone’s best friend. No-one invites me to live with them. I get shunted in with a group of girls I have little in common with. I spend the summer working on myself and move in come September. They freeze me out. I overhear one tell her friend, “I wish it was just the three of us.” It’s already been decided on that I’m not welcome. I overhear them mocking me to their friends. They spread a false rumour around campus that I’m bulimic. But the wounds that hurt the most in life aren’t those of cruelty, but those of indifference. Unworthiness.
The life expectancy for an autistic person is 16 years lower than that of a neurotypical person. The leading cause of premature death is suicide.
I’m 23 years old. I’ve started my first proper job at a marketing agency in London. But there’s a little thing called executive dysfunction that makes working an office job a minefield. Inability to focus. Poor working memory. Difficulty planning. Similar symptoms to ADHD. In fact, autism and ADHD are cousins and often come as a pair.
It’s my probation meeting.
“We’ve had a mixed bag of feedback,” my manager says. “On the one hand, you’ve done some good quality work. On the other, you just don’t look… focused.” He pauses. ‘And it does matter how you look.”
They extend my probation for a month. I struggle through and pass. But work gets so bad, I get feelings of dread every evening.
After 10 months, I get fired.
“It’s nothing to do with your performance itself,” they say. “It’s just, you know…”
The unemployment rate for the overall population in the UK before COVID-19 was 4.5%. Among autistic adults, only 16% were in full-time paid work.
I’m 29 years old. The outside world has come to a halt; I look inwards. I learn and grow. Alcohol and dating blogs become herbal tea and self-help books. Identity politics becomes nuanced argument. The bleach in my hair has grown out to reveal a glorious shade of walnut. I delve into the part of my identity I kept hidden for so long. I read, I listen, I heal. The lack of information I had as a teenager is no more; a slew of autistic writers, YouTubers and TikTok creators have stormed the internet. I get schooled by Gen Z. I see autistic women working in jobs they thrive in: freelancers, writers, YouTubers, activists. Settled down with long-term partners and children.
For many years, I tried to play it down, block it out. But despite people saying I “seem normal”, autism undeniably shaped the course of my life. The version of me who isn’t autistic does not exist. We are one. Pink, girlie, and autistic. They say to heal from pain, you must use your pain to help others. I’m not a scientist or a savant, but I can use the written word to tell the stories I want to. To tell others that they are worthy, things will get better, and there are spaces they will be valued. I’m not going to sugarcoat it; it’s hard. But no matter how dark it gets, there will always be sunlight. We must live our lives with the compassion and vigour of that 5-year-old girl who touched the snake.
Because being different does not mean less.
Famous women with autism:
Temple Grandin (animal scientist and advocate)
Ann Hegarty (TV personality)
Susan Boyle (singer)
Daryl Hannah (actress)
Heather Kuzmich (fashion model)
Charl Davies (TV personality)
Naoise Dolan (novelist)
Jessica-Jane Applegate (Paralympic swimmer)
Helen Hoang (novelist)
Fern Brady (comedian)
Greta Thunberg (climate change activist)
Jack Monroe (food writer and activist)
If you would like to talk about any of the issues raised in this post, feel free to email or DM at any time.
*Just a quick note: the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” is no longer used; it’s now just all under one umbrella of autistic spectrum disorder.