On Being an Autistic 3-year-old

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 psychiatrist, to prove I was different; but I’ve known for a long time… yeah, even when I was three.

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[A earlier version of this article was first published as a guest post on autismmumsdads in March 2012.]

The Naming of Toys

               The Naming of Cats
               The naming of cats is a difficult matter.
               It isn’t just one of those holiday games.
               You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter,
               When I tell you a cat must have three different names.

                                                                                  –T. S. Eliot

When I was a kid, my mother bred siamese cats. The queens were given classical Greek names, like Electra, Athene and Antigone. When Athene was done over by the local tom cat, and seven little black kittens appeared soon after, it was decided I could keep one. You might think I’d wanted to call her Blacky, but no. Too abstract. This particular kitten had a habit of sleeping in a tray full of germinating delphinium seeds on top of the night storage heater in the kitchen, and I knew exactly what I wanted to call her. I can still remember my upset when my chosen name, Seed Tray, was rejected by my mother (who probably wanted Persephone or Hestia), and we eventually settled on Delphinium.

My naming of toys was similarly pragmatic, but as no one ever needed to call for them in the garden late at night, I was given a free rein. Forever remembering the rejection of Seed Tray, I have always felt my children should also have a free rein in this matter (leading to a small rodent with the grand title of Edward Guinea Guinea-Pig), and their toys have names like Big Baby, Big Bee (we also have Bee and Little Bee) Dog, Blue Dog, Rabbit and Pink Rabbit. You might think some imagination had come into play when my daughter introduces you to Lolly, until you realise she couldn’t say dolly when she was two.

The small boy does have some slight variations on this theme. He also has Flappy (a pteranodon), Hoppy (a grasshopper) and the unfortunately named Horny (a triceratops). But I cannot think of a single toy in our house with a totally abstract name.

By contrast, my father had a rabbit called Honeybunch, and my sister’s toys had names like Crazy (a bear she thought looked a bit mad) or Barney (a knitted bear with no connection to the name Barney). Her dolls had sensible girls’ names like Susan and Rebecca. I was so jealous of her thinking up the name Barney, that I called my version (who had blue knitted dungarees instead of green), Berney. That’s as abstract as I got.

So herewith a gallery of toys from my childhood: back row – Horsey, Crazy (my sister’s mad-looking bear), Berny, White Dog and Rabbit. Front row – Bluey, Pinky, Penguin and Mousey. What did you call your toys?

The Ten Stages of a Forgotten Cup of Tea

You decide to have a cup of tea, but later on you find…
1. You forgot to fill the kettle.
2. You filled the kettle, but forgot to switch it on.
3. You remembered to switch it on, but it was still unplugged from the last time.
4. You managed to boil the kettle (twice), but forgot to get the cup or tea bag out.
5. You reboiled the kettle (three times), remembered the cup, and a tea bag, but didn’t get as far as actually adding any water.
6. You remembered to put the water in, but forgot to take the tea bag out.
7. You remembered to take the tea bag out, but forgot to put the milk in.
8. You remembered to put the milk in, but forgot to drink the tea.
9. You drank half a cup, but forgot the rest.
10. You find half a cup of cold tea in the microwave three days later…

How far do you get?

A-Z of Autism

A is for Autism, Asperger’s, Aspies, Ability, Attwood, Acceptance.
B is for Bullying.
C is for Clumsiness, Communication, Colour, Crowds, Confusion, Claustrophobia.
D is for Detail, Diagnosis, Doctors, Depression, Disability, Distress.
E is for Education, Employment.
F is for Focus, Fascination, Friends.
G is for Genetics.
H is for Humiliation, Honesty, Headphones, Humour.
I is for Ignorance, Intelligence, Interest, Input, Isolation.
J is for Judgement.
K is for Karma.
L is for Light, Loss.
M is for Meltdowns, Misunderstanding.
N is for Noise, Nightmares, Neurotypical, Normal.
O is for Oops, Organisation, Obsession.
P is for People, Pretending, Planning, Processing.
Q is for Qualifications.
R is for Rejection, Routine.
S is for Spectrum, Synesthesia, Stimming, Stress, Solitude, Silence.
T is for Teasing, Texture, Taste, Touch.
U is for Understanding
V is for Validation.
W is for Weird, Wiring.
X is for xx
Y is for Yabbering.
Z is for Zero

I’ve tried to avoid using words that mean the same thing, or represent the same concepts, and have stuck to those that mean the most to me. I’d be interested to know what words best represent your own experiences of autism, either directly or indirectly.