My first school photograph sits on the bookcase in my study. I say “school”, but it was nursery school and I was just a few weeks past my third birthday. “Awww,” you might have said, or maybe “ahhh.” How cute! But you’re not saying that, are you? Because you can see the picture, rather than just imagine it. You’re probably saying, “Oh…”
I’m often asked, ‘at what age did you first know you were different?’ and I’ve always said, ‘about three’ but without knowing how I knew that. But – looking at this photo – I now know how I knew: that occasion is the first time I can remember not ‘fitting in’.
It’s not my earliest memory, but it’s a very clear one: each child was summoned in turn to the photographer’s chair, handed the puppet, told to smile, and had his or her picture taken – no doubt for the pleasure of our parents, and the profit of everyone else involved. I can clearly remember watching the other children go, knowing I didn’t want to. And not understanding why I had to.
Barring two snapshots of me as a baby (taken by a family friend), this photograph is also the earliest picture of me, so this occasion was the first time I’d been aware of being photographed. I’d never seen the man before, or his strange equipment, or the bright light, or the flash screen, or the flash… When I say “I couldn’t see why I had to have my photo taken” I wasn’t being stubborn; I was scared. But as a toddler, I couldn’t have begun to explain how I felt. All I knew was, regardless of how simple the situation seemed to my teachers, I DIDN’T WANT TO DO IT. As I write this, nearly forty years later, the memory of that fear and anxiety brings tears to my eyes. But they didn’t understand why I should be scared, and so my fear was considered irrational. Invalid.
They tried cajoling and persuading me, but I wouldn’t go. They left me until last, because I was being so “difficult”, and in the end they forced me. I was carried to the chair, sat upon it, and with the toy thrust into my arms… click.
The expression on my face says it all.
Afterwards, I cried. I bawled and wailed. I remember nothing else, except being firmly restrained. Why? What was the point of it all?
So, I knew I was different at a very young age – when I didn’t go to the photographer’s chair like the other children. And, no, I didn’t just want attention. I wanted them to leave me the hell alone.
I’m proud of that picture now; I still feel like that sometimes, but it shows me how far I have come – the years of struggle learning to cope as best I can. It also represents a lifetime of being told I was Difficult (amongst other things) when really I was just Different. It took another thirty-seven years, and a chartered clinical psychologist, to prove I was different; but I’ve known for a long time… yeah, even when I was three.
[A earlier version of this article was first published as a guest post on autismmumsdads in March 2012.]