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 psychologist, 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.]

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17 Responses to On Being an Autistic 3-year-old

  1. sarah says:

    I’ve started to realize it’s very possible that I have Asperger’s or HFA and reading this made me immediately start crying. In my pre-k class picture, I’m in my teacher’s lap with my head buried in her shoulder crying (I became very attached to teachers when I was young). I was terrified and didn’t know why. I refused to take the individual picture after that and thankfully they didn’t make me. But I didn’t smile in school pictures until I was in 6th or 7th grade.

  2. god is good says:

    Did u ever have speech delay and if so at what age did you really start talking!

    • Leigh Forbes says:

      No, I didn’t have any speech delay. I believe that is a defining feature amongst those diagnosed with High Functioning Autism (HFA) rather than those with Asperger’s syndrome.

  3. Beth says:

    See, I think it’s quite mean even to a ‘normal’ child to shove them in a chair when they’d rather be playing to take a photo of them. We did family photos recently and if J had been that unhappy, I would never have forced the issue.
    Add in being an Aspie and it’s just so much worse. I am so glad that things are starting to change. You look so sad on that photo. I’m glad you can see it as a source of strength these days :)

    • Leigh Forbes says:

      I agree. It is mean :o(
      The best thing is the comparison between this photo, and my on aspie girl in her playgroup photo. She looks so happy and confident :o)

  4. Leigh Forbes says:

    I think I would have wailed even more if they’d tried a jingling clown on me! Please, post the photo if you find it :o)

  5. Paul Hassing says:

    Hellfire! I recall a damn puppet in my kindergarten photo shoot too! The photographer and his assistant waved it till they were blue in the face. It was a clown (bad) abstract (worse) with bells (even more disconcerting). Though I was a very young child I could sense their frustration with me. What a memory you’ve summoned! I must dig up that photo; I don’t think it’s a very happy snap. With best regards and many thanks for your kind contribution to my blog. P. :)

  6. Lauren says:

    My daughter is almost two and a half and will be starting nursery soon a couple afternoons a week. She is autistic but I’m purposefully sending her early to learn integration and socialisation away from the home. She will be in a very small group and will get special assistance. How times have changed eh? I totally recognise the look on your face though, my daughter is endlessly photographed but this vacant, confusion is her standard look (unless ticked lol.)

    • Leigh Forbes says:

      There are times I feel resentful that I didn’t receive this level of understanding as a child, but am hugely grateful that future generations will not have to suffer in the same ways. You cannot imagine how glad I am to hear of the care to be extended to your daughter at nursery. I hope she loves it!

  7. Excellent piece! Me too, I have always felt different and I knew very early on that being ‘difficult’ wasn’t appreciated. Thus the trying to fit in began and lasted almost 30 years. So glad I finally figured out that I’m only different and I can stop trying to be normal.

    • Leigh Forbes says:

      This was one of the biggest reliefs for me too – realising that trying to be normal is never going to work, and at last feeling like I could back off it. I still do my best to “be agreeable”, but I steer well clear of people who are never going to like me, and who only make me feel bad about myself!

  8. Stacha says:

    So very interesting. I am currently a graduate student studying Autism and I am particulary drawn to young women – older adults with Asperger’s. What do you find to be most challenging? I know there are several ways to look at Asperger’s. Do you see it as a label, or rather just a summary definition of different characteristics that you possess? Would love to hear from you..

  9. I’ve known I’ve been different since very very early childhood too. And there are pictures of me with that same exact expression on my face that you have. And I also remember so many occasions when I was forced to do something and wondering, “Why are they making me do this? Why can’t they mind their own business and just leave me alone? What is the point of all of this?” I still find myself asking those same questions as an adult sometimes too.

    • Leigh Forbes says:

      That’s interesting that you have similar pictures. Yes, I could never work out why I had to do things, and when you’re little, no one thinks you deserve an explanation :o(

  10. I have photographs of my son from Kindergarten picture day with tears streaming down his face. This is touching. I couldn’t understand at the time why he would cry or why the photographer would take his picture like that. I am a photographer so he was used to me taking his photos at home and all around. He is different as well so we recently learned as he has Asperger’s. I love him with all that I am and can appreciate this story and know that he is not alone. Thank you for sharing!

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