I felt excited as I approached my teenage years. I began to take an interest in fashion and my appearance, and I thought that when I started my new school, I would make friends and become a different, more confident person. It felt as though I was starting afresh, and that I would be able to forge a completely new identity. No-one would know about my previous inappropriate behaviour and strange ways, and I would be able to blend in with the other kids. Or at least this is what I thought.
When I started secondary school I decided to play the part of the ‘good girl’. I did not want to stand out like a sore thumb, I wanted to be liked and accepted. The ‘good girl’ persona was not completely new; I had perfected the role for quite a few years. The ‘good girl’ role came into play whenever I needed to keep a low profile, whenever I felt anxious and lacking in confidence. The ‘good girl’ was meek and coy. She smiled and spoke softly, and did as she was told. At secondary school I was going to need her more than ever.
Life at my new school got off to a good start. I befriended a girl straight away, and it felt as though I was leaving my socially isolated past behind. However, things rapidly deteriorated. I wanted just one close friend, an arm buddy, who I could rely on. But my friend tried to introduce me to another girl during an IT lesson. I felt threatened and uncomfortable – this was my friend, why was she talking to this other girl? I felt even more tense and apprehensive during preparations for the year 7 residential trip to the Isle of Wight. I wanted to share a room with my new ‘best’ friend, but she ended up sharing with another girl. I had to share a room with two girls that I hardly knew. To make matters worse, during the trip, my friend became increasingly pally with her room-mate. On the coach and boat, I had no-one to sit with, and I felt very alone and isolated. Then, towards the end of the trip, I noticed my friend walking arm in arm with the other girl. As I looked out of the hostel window and saw the two girls walking round the park land, I started to cry. I felt really upset. Shortly after arriving back at school, the girl approached me to say that she no longer wanted to be friends with me anymore because I was too clingy. She did not like the way I followed her everywhere, and that I did not give her any space.
Eventually another girl decided to look after me. I think she thought that I needed protecting because I came across as very shy and quiet. This girl kept on asking me if I was alright, and she made sure that I did not over exert myself or work too hard during lessons. The girl told me that I could join her group of friends at break time because she did not want me to be left out. But I did not know how to talk to her friendship group, and so I just stood on the periphery, feeling as though I did not belong.
One day I was standing all by myself at lunch time by a vending machine, when a girl approached me and said that she would like to be my friend. A couple of days later she gave me some letters and cards, which told me that we were best friends! I was so happy. The girl invited me to her house, and talked to me at break times. But her mum phoned my mum up to say that, while she thought I was a lovely girl, I was very quiet because I hardly spoke. I asked my mum what I was supposed to talk about when I was at school, and I was told that you just ‘know’ what to say, and that there are no exact rules. But these rules completely eluded me. A couple of days later the girl approached me to say that she was very sorry but she did not want to be friends with me anymore because she preferred girls who could maintain a conversation. I was now completely alone.
The above forays into the world of friendship all occurred within the space of a couple of months. I therefore had no friends for practically the whole of secondary school. The ‘good’ girl act had clearly not worked. I now decided to switch personalities according to the lesson and subject matter. In some lessons I continued to be nice and quiet. In other lessons, which included maths and physics, I would take on the role of the class clown. I sang and talked when I was supposed to be working, or I made silly faces. This rather inappropriate behaviour made the other children laugh, and I felt pleased – at least they were noticing me. Two popular girls repeatedly said, ”we are not laughing with you, we are laughing at you”. I had no idea what they meant until quite a while later.
Over time I began to feel increasingly different from the other children. I was also a very small child. I did not show any physical signs of turning into a teenager, and I still felt like a little girl. Feeling both physically and emotionally small, my self esteem and confidence plummeted. Thankfully my special interests (more about this later!) provided me with a sense of security and routine, but when I was at school, I wondered why I could not make friends. What is wrong with me, I thought. Maybe I was not brought up properly, maybe I am a horrible person. Why do I need so much support with school work? Why do I need learning support? Am I not very clever? At every lesson, I sat all by myself, and I felt as though I was in my own bubble. Ignored. Unnoticed.
My dad, who was a teacher, first found out about Asperger’s while he was at work, in the year 2000. He immediately noticed that I had many of the traits he was hearing about. At home he would joke that I was showing signs of what he called ”Asparagus syndrome”. I did not think that this ‘joke’ was remotely funny. Of course the only thing I knew about autism was what I had read about in parenting magazines (babies were a special interest of mine). I thought that all autistic kids had learning disabilities and struggled to speak. I did not know anything about the many different types of autism. I certainly did not know anything about Asperger’s.
I wanted to believe that all my problems would be gone by the time I was 20. I would then be able to find new friends and get a good job. I could not wait to turn 20, and I eagerly wished time away. I do not think that I really experienced what it was like to be a teenager, and this still affects me today.