It is strange how negative words can stay with us for a lifetime and hurt long after they are spoken. Today, I was reminded of a conversation I had way back in middle school. My friends and I were having a conversation about birth order statistics and how the oldest is often the smartest and most responsible in the family – which apparently was the case in all their families.
I mentioned how that hadn’t really happened in my family as I was the youngest and yet I was the one in the gifted program, the one who got straight A’s, and the one who was least likely to break the rules. My sister was very smart in her own ways, but not overly academic or intellectual.
One of my friends (or more likely a frenemy) replied, “Well, maybe your sister is the pretty one then.”
Before I could digest this insult or respond, one of my other friends chimed in assuring the group that my sister was no looker either, which made everyone laugh. I didn’t let on that I felt anything, but inside I was crushed. I felt ugly and I also felt bad that my friends had insulted and made fun of my sister.
To this day, remembering this conversation makes me feel ugly, plain, and rejected. I wish my friends had been more careful with their words.
This post will contain a collection of short journal entries I wrote recently about what it was like emotionally to grow up with autism. These thoughts specifically dealt with bullying and (for me) the most confusing time of adolescence, which was middle school and the beginning of high school. By the last couple years of high school I had figured some things out and learned how to “pretend” to fit in a bit better, even though deep down I still felt like an oddball.
I hated always being the butt of the joke – even among friends. I was naive. I was gullible. I was trusting. Too many times I was set up for humiliation or embarrassment.
In an effort to avoid this embarrassment, I quit trusting anyone. I quit taking anyone at their word. I became suspicious. I struggled to identify sarcasm, so I started assuming ALL was sarcasm unless I knew someone well enough to tell the difference.
Due to this struggle with recognizing sarcasm, how many “mean” comments did I take to heart that were meant in jest? How many cruel words that cut me to the core, were never even meant to be cruel? When boys would say they liked me and I would take it as them mocking me and choose to ignore them or laugh at their “joke”, did I instead end up hurting their feelings in an effort to save my own?
Bullied for my weight during middle school, accused of having a lack of “feeling” or frustrating others who thought I didn’t care about anything because I suffered from selective mutism under stress, constantly feeling reminded that I wasn’t “feminine” enough – this was much of my teenage experience.
The common thread throughout was that I unknowingly made myself a target for abuse. The way I dressed. The way I talked. The way I acted. I was so desperate for acceptance and approval, but I reached for them in ways that were socially unacceptable to those around me and ended up only painting the bulls-eye larger on myself.
*Disclaimer – I want to make sure I state that this blog post was inspired by my own experiences. Not every person with Asperger’s Syndrome or high-functioning autism may feel the same way or experience the same issues, although from what I have read, these issues are not uncommon among females with autism.*
I have had a long, complex relationship with my own femininity. Growing up, I never noticed a huge difference between myself and other girls until I hit middle school. In elementary school I was just a “normal” little girl who was into books, Barbies and ponies. I did have some sensory and social issues, but they weren’t huge red flags back then and were easy to ignore. When I got to sixth grade it seemed like the whole world suddenly changed. Girls became obsessed with makeup, hair and clothing. They also read fashion and relationship magazines so they could learn to draw attention from the guys they liked. I was still into books, Nickelodeon, Disney movies and playing outside. I really couldn’t care less about my looks or guys. I didn’t care all that much about making friends either.
It was at this age I first experienced real bullying. I was made fun of because I didn’t start shaving as soon as the other girls did. I was picked on because I didn’t dress in style, wear makeup or have a “cool” hairstyle. I was picked on because I still liked many of the same things I liked as a little kid. I was called a lesbian or ‘butch” because I was a tomboy who was socially clueless in many ways and had no interest in guys yet. Middle school was hell for me in many ways. I was lucky to have a few friends who were outsiders in their own way, but I often felt very much alone. I was constantly told that I was unfeminine, so I started to believe it and wonder what was wrong with me.
Things got a bit better when I reached about 16 or 17. By then I had learned to “fake it” to fit in better. I still didn’t wear makeup or jewelry but I did try to look enough like everyone else to fly under the radar. I started wearing jeans and cute little t-shirts like everyone else (even though I really don’t like the feel of jeans). I adopted a hairstyle that was simple but not “weird”. However, flying under the radar didn’t always work and I started having different issues. As I matured, some guys started to find me attractive and hit on me. This made me want to run & hide. I was uncomfortable being an object of physical appreciation. I didn’t want to be called names like before, but I didn’t want to be seen as a sexual object either.
During this time I actually started to find it easier to relate to guys than girls…as long as the guys didn’t see me as more than a platonic friend. I did start to develop real feelings for certain guys around 17 but was still terribly shy and uncomfortable with the whole ‘dating’ thing. I never really dated until a couple years later when I met my husband, who I got to know online before we ever met in person. Even when we met in person we were friends for a while before we started anything romantic.
As an adult I have developed a better relationship with my femininity, but I still face judgment sometimes. When I got engaged I received real disdain from some women because I didn’t wear my engagement ring all the time (sensory issues). I often feel bored or left out when women talk endlessly about shopping, parties, clothes, weight, guys or gossip. I still don’t care that much about looks. My hairstyle is wash and dry, my clothes are simple and comfy and I haven’t worn makeup since my wedding day. Occasionally I still get a comment about how much I am “like a man” or something along those lines.
Because of these experiences, I somewhat look forward to growing older even though most women seem to dread it. I have hope that as we all age, looks and other superficial things will start to matter less and less to my peers. I don’t want to be invisible anymore like I once did, but I still don’t want to be judged by appearances. When others think of me I hope they think of intelligence and kindness. I hope they think of someone who is creative and passionate. To me, those qualities are what make someone a “real” woman anyway.
I almost never became an artist. When I was in elementary school I hated art. I was convinced I was the worst artist in the world and in a report card of all A’s, art was often my only B and once I even got a C. So why was elementary art so awful? Simple, because of my teacher.
I won’t say that my art teacher was a horrible person, she was just not encouraging, at least to me. She often yelled at me because I wanted to “copy” things rather than come up with my own ideas. She thought that we should all just dream up a picture and put it on paper. I couldn’t do that very well. Perhaps because of my Asperger’s Syndrome (which I didn’t know I had at the time). In fact, I still can’t normally create art just from the imagination (with the exception of some abstract work). The way I work is to see something that grabs my eye – a picture, a person, a scene – and then I take that idea and I draw it the way I see it. It always turns out far different than the original idea, but I do need that original seed of an idea to start with.
I remember clearly one time when we were supposed to be freely drawing from our imagination in class. I sat there stumped as usual, with no idea what to draw. Then I looked at a friend next to me who was drawing a picture of two girls on top of the world. I liked the idea, so with my friend’s permission I did my own version of it. When class was over and we turned in our pictures, the girl and I both had to stay after class because the teacher wanted to know who “cheated” off whom. I remember thinking, “Cheated?! Who cheated?”. She scolded us both and told us to never do it again.
This teacher also often commented how I was “not the great artist your older sister is!” One time she even told me that and made me stand in the corner because I wasn’t “trying hard enough”. Craft time was hell too because I didn’t have the best coordination and my crafts often looked a mess. Again, I would either get yelled at or just get a big disappointed sigh. I got the message loud and clear, again and again. I was no good. I had no talent.
So how did I finally rediscover my artistic side? Well, that I owe to another teacher, someone entirely different. When I got to middle school, my art teacher encouraged me. She showed me how to draw certain things if I didn’t know how. She helped me come up with ideas if I was stumped. She told me how good things looked and encouraged me to try new things without yelling at me if they turned out poorly. In her class I never got a B or a C – all A’s. And I’ve enjoyed art ever since.