Having just outlined the possible reasons why my autism was overlooked in childhood, I will now list the autistic signs I displayed.
- Referring to myself by name instead of saying ”I”
Until the age of 5, I would often use my name to refer to myself instead of saying ‘I”. Recently I listened to an old cassette recording of a conversation between my Granny and I, age 4 and a half. Granny said, ”would Anna like to pick up the post, or shall I do it?”. I replied, when Granny went to pick the post up, ”no, Anna wants to catch the post!!”. I would also repeatedly refer to myself as ”she”. Apparently this communication quirk is common in toddlers, but most children consistently use ”I” to refer to themselves by the time they are three, at the latest. On its own, this trait does not necessarily mean a child is autistic, but it can be an early sign of autism when in the presence of other traits.
2) Tip-toe walking.
Again, this trait is common in young children, but most children outgrow the trait once they leave toddlerhood. Many autistic kids tip toe walk for much longer, and some of them still tip-toe walk in adulthood. I only walked on tip-toe when I was not wearing shoes. It felt uncomfortable to walk with my bare feet flat against the ground, and it was easier to balance and maintain co-ordination if I walked on my toes. Even as an adult, I still often walk on my toes when I’m at home.
3) Poor comprehension
I learnt to read early, but could not follow the plot or understand the character’s intentions. This trait is related to difficulties with communication and social imagination.
4) A spiky or uneven skills profile
It is common for autistic kids and adults (as well as those with other developmental conditions, such as dyspraxia) to be really advanced or ”high functioning” in some areas, while really struggling with certain skills. For example, at the age of 9, my verbal IQ was between 99 and 111, which translates as high average, while my non verbal IQ (which measures, among other things, abstract visual processing and social understanding), was between 58 and 74!. In other words, non verbally I had a significant learning difficulty. My reading age at the age of 10 was 15, yet my reading comprehension was almost two years below my chronological age. Furthermore, I had no number sense, and struggled with certain aspects of fine motor coordination, such as tying shoe laces. Teachers also complained that I was very disorganised because I put everything in one place. I needed a lot of help from my parents to complete homework and to ensure that I took the right items into school for each lesson.
5) Difficulties making friends, and playing with much younger children
I was very often alone in the playground, and when I did play with other kids, they were usually at least two years younger than me, or had similar difficulties themselves. On the rare occasion that I made a peer group friend, I could not maintain the friendship because I was very possessive and clingy. It can be easier for autistics to relate to people who are younger than them because developmentally, their social skills lag behind their chronological age.
6) Sensitivity to noise and sensory fixations
I was easily overwhelmed by loud and sudden noise, such as thunder and fireworks. I also found it hard to sleep if there was any noise, and began to sleep with fingers in my ears from around the age of 9. I found parties and large crowds of people overwhelming, but at the time this was explained away as shyness and a lack of confidence.
My parents were very worried when, at around 2 years old, I kept staring at the lights in a cafe, as if I was in a trance. They took me to the doctor thinking that I might be seriously ill, but they were told I was just fascinated by the lights.
7) Misunderstanding instructions
When I started school, there was a fire alarm practice. The teacher told the class what was going to happen, but I misinterpreted the instructions, and believed that the school was going to burn down. I screamed and refused to go to school until the teacher finally explained to me that nothing bad was going to happen.
There are many examples I could use, but I think this one is illustrative. On my 6th birthday my grandparents treated me to a meal at a hotel. The hotel owner told us that, as the hotel was closing soon, we had better hurry up or he would ”kick” us out. I really believed he was actually going to physically boot us out, so I ran terrified onto the hotel balcony and hid under a table. Suffice to say the hotel owner was only joking.
As a result of taking safety instructions literally, I obsessively washed my hands, and as a teenager I avoided people who were ill.
8) Intense interests and not liking change (this became even more noticeable as a teenager)
I was very interested in food and would talk about this non stop when I was at home. Later I became very interested in the human body. Normally I did not pay attention in lessons, but in year 6, when we studied biology, I focused intensely on what the teacher was saying, and wrote everything down.I also enjoyed the Malory Towers series of books, which I tried to memorise off by heart. Unfortunately this later put me off reading because I became anxious if I could not remember what a character looked like.
When I visited a museum, I had to look at every artifact in great detail, and could not move on until I had read everything, much to the impatience of my younger brother.
As a teenager, I was fixated on the actress Kate Winslet, Titanic, and babies, and found it hard to get interested in any other subject.
9) Disruptive behaviour
Most of the time I was quiet and day day dreamy at school, but sometimes I would disrupt the class by reading out loud in a very fast voice, or I would walk around the classroom when I was supposed to be working. In the playground I would annoy other kids by running straight into their play. An early concern expressed by my nursery school was that I never sat still at reading time – I preferred to bounce on the bean bags.
All kids have tantrums, but most learn how to regulate their emotions as they get older. Autistic kids often continue having tantrums (or meltdowns as they’re often called these days), and some never outgrow them. I never had tantrums at school , but I would scream and cry at home whenever I did not get my way, particularly if it involved an interest. I still had ”toddler like tantrums”, as my mum described them, well into my teens and early 20s. They are a lot less common these days as I have become better at regulating my emotions, and also because I have more of my own space since my dad bought me a flat. My parents found it very hard to manage these outbursts, and I would get told off. Unfortunately, this only served to injure my self -esteem and make me feel that I was to blame and was not a ”good” person. Yet the triggers for the tantrums always involved anxiety. I could not control my behaviour, and this was because of the autism.