To Be Left Alone: Living with Autism – 1
TO BE LEFT ALONE
‘Thoughtless ignorance cuts her adrift
She stares at the stars and she feels part of it
Aloof to man’s pull from nature
A fool in the eyes of fools
But happy in her isolation.’
– Billy Franks
I have only ever been given discouragement in life, only ever told what not to do or that what I am doing is wrong, or not to do what I am doing. I never knew that I could want anything for myself or have any ambitions, only that I had not been allowed to do anything I ever seemed to enjoy.
When I was 17 someone asked me what I wanted out of life. I had been studying how to be a normal person for a long time so I gave some hastily invented answer that I hoped would be expected of a normal 17-year-old girl but in reality I had no idea what I wanted or even that I was allowed to want anything.
At some point during my forties I finally realised what I wanted out of life – To Be Left Alone. I required nothing more than complete and utter solitude in order to live a happy and fulfilled life. This is the story of how I arrived at this conclusion.
I was always a very strange child and was aware from as early as I can remember that I was different to everyone else. I had a terrible reputation as a troublemaker and was seen as very stubborn, rebellious and disobedient when the truth is that I often did not understand the instructions or requests I had been given.
To be clear, I was not unintelligent – my reading level was far above the other children in my class. I had understood the words but not the way they were used, the extra or different meanings implied by the adults and seemingly understood by the other children. When I tried to defend myself for my ‘disobedience’, saying, ‘But you said…’ I was accused of being cheeky, answering back, being pedantic or purposely obtuse.
Nobody considered for a second that I could have genuinely misunderstood – after all, I was clearly extremely intelligent. I became so wary of ‘answering back’ (as it was called) that I became scared of answering any questions at all and got in trouble for that too.
I remember even as a small child feeling that there was something vitally important that had been told to everyone except me, or that everyone else must have psychic powers and I had been left out. The sense of isolation among a group of people was overwhelming and I was only ever happy when I was on my own.
Unfortunately it is not possible to be alone all the time and school had to be endured. Children have an unerring ability to single out the child who can be mercilessly bullied and wound up, and I used to utterly dread break times and do my best to make myself invisible. This didn’t often work and as a result I was constantly in trouble for fighting in the playground. It is noteworthy that nobody ever got into trouble for fighting with me.
When I went to secondary school everything changed; it was a girls’ school and a ‘good’ school so there was no more physical violence but the mental cruelty continued.
Reading my school reports it is clear that the teachers didn’t know what to make of me – a clearly very intelligent child whose academic abilities were extremely erratic and who showed no effort or interest whatsoever in subjects she didn’t understand or didn’t see the point of, yet able to (seemingly) effortlessly pass exams when she needed to. I was described as ‘aloof’ by one teacher and the underlying theme is that they did not at all understand anything about me.
There are also several disparaging comments about my appearance and the condition of my clothes which were never addressed at the time, to my knowledge.
So it continued, any achievements I made being belittled or dismissed and any faults being blown up out of all proportion. I felt that I was utterly unacceptable and that my personality was being forcibly ground down or squashed out. Gradually I learned to be a pretend-normal person, learned correct responses and reactions but the concentration required to navigate even brief conversations left me constantly exhausted.
To be continued next week…
Emma was born in Brighton at the start of the 1970s, the younger of two daughters, to ‘Victorian-valued’ parents. She spent most of her childhood in a tree, watching the trains pass on the London-Brighton railway line. She loathed school and managed to escape an expensive education at the age of 16 with the bare minimum of qualifications, before embarking on a series of short-term, menial jobs in order to fund her insatiable music habit.
She spent most of her teens and twenties following bands around the UK on an aged and unreliable motorcycle (now deceased). She has been a printed circuit board maker, newspaper deliverer, hotel chambermaid, fish and chip shop assistant, rates office clerk, deeds clerk in a building society, data entry clerk, student audiologist (hearing aid technician), court clerk and admin assistant in the small claims, divorce/family and bankruptcy courts, and pet-sitter, and worked in a mail-order bookshop, and most recently has written and presents an Autism Awareness and Acceptance course, and speaks and writes regularly about her experiences growing up as an undiagnosed autistic person.
She lived a traumatic and tumultuous life for 30 years before moving to Wales for a bit of peace and quiet and ended up spending 12 years living in a tent in the middle of a forest.
She was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 45 when everything suddenly started to make sense, or at least the reasons why nothing made sense started to become clearer. She now lives in Pembrokeshire, working hard to raise awareness, understanding and acceptance of autism.
While being undeniably female, she was slightly surprised to find herself described as a woman in a recent newspaper article, feeling that this label imposes unrealistic expectations on her.
She has an IQ of 155, an almost-photographic memory and no ducks. She enjoys staying at home, knitting, playing the guitar and reading.