When I was little, I was extremely shy and quiet. When I did speak, people would say to me “what’s that? I can’t hear you! Speak up!” because I had such a soft voice. I was generally quite different to other girls my age, but very intelligent and picked things up quickly and loved to read – so my differences (like crying, becoming extremely distressed and having meltdowns far beyond what children my age would cry for, very difficult to soothe, becoming incontinent again when there was a change of routine (my nursery school initially refused to take me as a student because I wasn’t as emotionally developed as the other children), being extremely clingy to my mum while other children weren’t, not wanting to be with anyone else, easily startled and terrified of sensory information like noises which didn’t seem to bother other children), weren’t really picked up – until very recently when I had my diagnosis of autism.
When I did go to nursery and reception, I had just one special friend called Thomas. I remember it vividly because I think those were some of my happiest times in my life, because I had found someone who was truly my friend. I used to try to teach him Tamil – and he would sit on the bench and repeat Tamil words after me! And then he would get a bit bored and go off to play football with his other boy friends – but then I’d follow him around the playground and say “Thomas!! Thomas!!” and he would come back and sit down and play with me. Sometimes I would be so sad when he went away that I would start crying, and he would come back to play, even if he didn’t understand why I was so sad. He was my best friend. I always formed (or wanted to form) very intense friendships with people who I thought were my friends, and I think that’s one thing that has upset me so much growing up – i don’t think many “neurotypical” (non-autistic) people think the same way about friendships that I do.
When I was young, I remember finding it very difficult to get on with anyone else except Thomas. The bullying from other girls started almost immediately. Lots of children do get bullied – but I’ve since found out that autistic children are particularly vulnerable to bullying for many reasons that don’t affect non-autistic people: like not being able to read body language of their peers, or properly understand tone of voice, taking things literally, and being very honest and finding it very difficult to understand when other children lie, trick and betray them. These are all true for me. I used to think everyone was my friend, and couldn’t “read” people. I tended to think that everyone who I thought was my friend and who I liked – was actually my friend. And I failed to understand when they didn’t like me back, and instead, a lot of girls used to bully me by saying things to hurt me, or even physically push me. My mum says I used to come home crying every day after school, holding my stomach in pain, because the distress affected me physically as well – asking why girls were making me sad – I didn’t understand why things happened the way they did, why I wasn’t able to interact with or get on with others. I remember some of the girls used to not tell the truth to the teachers about what they had done to me, and I found it very upsetting. For me, one of the most important things was to make friends, but it didn’t work out – it always went the other way. My mum went to the school again and again about the bullying, over a period of a few months, – and each time the school blamed me, saying there was something wrong with me. I’ve now found out this is a common occurrence, because autistic girls tend to come across as different to their peers, many non-autistic teachers and schools, in their ignorance, tend to blame the autistic children.