I remember the countless medical appointments of my youth, there was the paediatrician, the audiologist, the physiotherapist, the speech therapist, the child psychologist and the geneticist, each one had a different role and a different part in my development. One by one, they all agreed that I would be able to live a full and independent life but one thing was abundantly clear; I was different.
As a toddler, noise and taste intolerances were an issue. I avoided loud parties or people in costumes and any time an aeroplane flew over, I would throw myself face down on the floor and cover my ears. Helicopters were the same, in fact, even now I get anxiety that I might be being watched.
In preschool, I wasn’t interested in the other children. Whilst my classmates wanted to play House our run around the playground and bark like badgers and foxes, I was more interested in reading books, playing with water or playing with the wooden beads on a wire. When it came to playing with my peers, I simply didn’t want to know.
“That man’s silly, Mummy. He doesn’t know it’s pretend food”, my younger self still amuses me now. The child psychologist was apparently flummoxed by my analysis of the situation and, as he pretended to cook food and observed my willingness (or lack thereof) to play pretend, I’d busied myself elsewhere and analysed him. He was, according to me, seemingly immature for his age.
The more I played alone, the more a label of autism was called upon. Water play was my favourite, I loved creating anything that it could be and any way that it could be poured, served, dripped or otherwise used. Before too long, my own imagination was limitless and I lost myself, fully immersed and living in the moment. It wasn’t just water, it could be anything. I played differently, instead of playing with playsets, I made my own scenes and scenarios. I fixated, I imagined and I created.
“What are you doing? Helen, stop that. Go and find something else to do”. I looked at Nan and she was mad at me. I’d been instantly pulled back into the room and the duck-shaped pencil sharpener in my hand was no longer a duck on a pond. I felt shamefully embarrassed and sought about something else to do. All I wanted to do, though, was to return to my imaginary pond.
I was fascinated with horses and all things horse-shaped. Owing to my horse riding classes every weekend, horses were all I really cared about. I loved horses, I lived and I dreamed about my equine friends. If I heard the clip-clopping of the hooves at the end of my street, I would hurry my mother to take me outside so that we could see it. If I had two dining chairs, I’d tie a length of string to the back of one so that I could practice holding the reins. In all things, horses were at the core of all that I did. They were, if you will, an obsession.
By now, you might be thinking that all of these sound like the symptoms of autism. Certainly, for my mother, that was something that was raised a lot, but as I aged, the autism label slowly went away. What was once an “autistic child” label became “bright”, “gifted” and “engaging”. The more Mum fought for autism to be diagnosed, the more people repelled it and one even labelled her “neurotic”. In all of this, though, I was still playing alone and still struggling to make friends at school.
At home, I had friends to play with. I had my younger brother, I had my Mum’s friend’s daughters, I had my neighbour’s grandaughters and my other neighbour’s son. We’d play soldiers and spies, we’d play cops and robbers, doctors and nurses or any other game that we could come up with. In all of it, I was creative and imaginative in my role.
But at school, I still wasn’t really playing with my classmates.
I had two on/off female friends called Abbie and Vicky and two male friends, Luke and Tom. Abbie and Vicky often wanted to play House, and I didn’t. I wouldn’t want to have a pretend baby, I wanted to have a pretend war and when that idea fell flat, I’d wander off to bug my younger brother instead. When I was pulled away from my brother to play my own gender-appropriate games, I became depressed. What, I wanted to know, was wrong with me playing Power Rangers?
In my later years of junior school, I became ‘statemented’. If you’re not familiar with the term, to have a ‘statement’ in the UK means that a child has special educational needs and requires support. For me, I was accessed as needing someone with me to help me carry my belongings and not be pushed around in the playground. At the same time, it was also decided that I needed a group of peers to join an offside cookery class and become my new ‘friends’. The condition of attending said class was that if you attended the class, you involved me in your game at recess, too.
We all know how that ended. More isolation for me, and half of my classmates on an afternoon sugar high.
Still desperate for me to find friends, my parents used to host Halloween parties for my brother and me, with a few of their friends and their children attending, too. A few of our classmates would also be invited and once our classmates realised how cool our parties were they’d want to attend every year. Unfortunately, more often than not they’d also be over me by Guy Fawkes Night and so I’d return to kicking stones around the school playground and largely keeping to myself to myself.
It wasn’t until I met Kelly and Keri through Girl Guides that I really came out of my shell. I was reluctant to join the Girl Guides, but I was almost forced to give it a go. I was attached to my mother and, with her willingness to become a Guide leader, I was eventually willing to stick around. I made friends who liked to have water fights and I met girls who liked to laugh. I made friends who were up for outdoor pursuits and I met girls who like to get dirty. I met girls who like to chase one another and girls who liked to play rough. Finally and at last, I was with my own kind.
At secondary school, I was set for A* grades. My report card was exemplary and my attendance record was almost second to none. I started to interact more but even then I preferred talking to the boys instead of the girls. Science was my love, and when I discovered what a heartthrob my tutor (and science teacher) was, I booked myself in for an extra helping at Science Club after school. When he kept performing the hydrogen test and laughing because I didn’t like the ‘squeak pop’, I left.
Frustrated with me not socialising again, Mum encouraged me to attend Drama Club with my brother. I attended for a while but found that I didn’t really want to engage. I could talk to people and contribute some great ideas, but as soon as it came to the acting, I wanted to be backstage. I wasn’t interested in acting, I liked working in props, costumes and lighting, but there was no place for me and so again I quit.
As time went on, Mum became more and more frustrated with me. I refused social clubs and I refused after school clubs, too. I didn’t want to be around hordes of people, I preferred one or two people. I was fine in clusters, but useless in groups, Why wasn’t I anything like my peers?
Each time autism was mentioned in our family home, Mum and I would end up in a bitter feud. She was so sure that, because of my lack of friends and preoccupation with certain topics, I had to be autistic and for my part, I’d refute it. the last time it was raised, it ended in me leaving home temporarily.
“And how do you feel?” the doctor asked me.
“I personally don’t think I’m autistic” I said calmly, “I have friends, a boyfriend and I like to go clubbing..”. That was enough for my mother to storm out of the room.
“I don’t think you are, either! He exclaimed, “look at you! You smile, you make eye contact, you use pitch and tone.. you’re perfect!”
But Mum was sure, and so sure was she, that we’d just go private for the diagnosis. I was angry, I didn’t want a label, all I wanted was to be loved and accepted, for me.
Since then, I’ve spent several years painstakingly analysing myself. I’ve looked at the things I did, I’ve looked at the way I behaved, and more than anything, I’ve looked at who I am today.
I still don’t have many friends, and I still don’t like loud noises, either. I still can’t stand certain foods (peas, broccoli, mushrooms) and I still don’t understand trends and fashions. I still don’t like the things that a lot of my peers like and I still prefer doing my own thing. What’s more, in all of this, I now understand that it’s perfectly okay.
Since the last push for a diagnosis, I became aware of Highly Sensitive People. I read through some of the questions and found myself agreeing with so many. Once I discovered Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Person Test, I realised exactly what I was. It explained my detest for smells and textures and my ‘shy’ and sensitive nature. Finally, finally, my detest for so much of the world around me made sense. I scored 11 out of 50 on the Autism Quotient (no autism or few autistic traits) and 25 out of a possible 27 on the Highly Sensitive Test. I’ve also taken a second look at photographs of myself in my youth and noticed that I was making eye contact, I was engaging with people and I was conveying emotion, too. It would be hard to say that I was anything but normal.
But I wasn’t done there.
With time, I’ve come to understand that introverts, ambiverts and extroverts exist. I’ve come to understand how many people hated being told to smile and that ‘helicopter parenting’ is a problem. I came to understand that my parents didn’t hate me, they loved me, but their anxiety was leading them into believing things that weren’t really there. I come to realise that I wasn’t the problem, they were. Rather, not them, but their anxiety.
So you know what I did?
I forgave them for all of the stresses and struggles they put me through. I forgave them for all of the ills and the arguments that they inflicted upon me and the insecurities that they burdened me with. They didn’t come from a place of anger or hatred, they came from a place of love, care, and anxiety. This wasn’t my problem, it was their problem, and I forgive them for that, completely.
Today, my mother and I couldn’t be closer. She’s become my best friend and we laugh and joke regularly. I’ve educated her on what it means to be Highly Sensitive and she’s come to realise that she might be one, too. In spite of the past, today I’m the one who normally gives my family the kick up the butt they sometimes need. Moreover, I’ve discovered that there are many other Highly Sensitive People out there, and over time, I found more and more people who think and feel like me.
With time, I’ve found people who appreciate fine wine and good food. I’ve found wonderfully empathic friends who also have complex inner lives and I’ve found friends who like to laugh and have fun. It turns out, in spite of my quiet and introverted nature as a child, I would grow up to be a perfectly normal, perfectly capable and perfectly functioning human. What’s more, even in spite of never being able to make and hold onto friends in my youth, there are still plenty of people who want to be around me now, without any preconditions being involved.
I’ll conclude this story by saying that I have no issue with people who are on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASD is a real condition and can be a real problem for some people, and as such, those who require the diagnosis and support should be able to receive it with ease. With that being said, not every introverted child is autistic and I urge you to use your judgement carefully in seeking a diagnosis. If your child is introverted, please accept them and love them unconditionally anyway. The playground is unforgiving enough without a label being prescribed to them on top. Allow your child to be and to explore the world at his or her own pace. He or she might grow up to be quirky and sarcastic at times, but I promise you, your child will grow up to do just fine.