This story is sponsored by Chas Swedberg. I am grateful for his generous support of The Orbit through our Kickstarter campaign.
Until my 30’s I didn’t know I was autistic. Like many autistic adults I was not diagnosed as a kid because the criteria for diagnosis, and the cultural expectations around autism, meant that no one could put the correct name to who I am. I was perceived as an intelligent and highly verbal little girl – not at all what teachers, therapists, and my parents thought of when they heard the word “autism.”
Without correct language to describe me a lot of other labels were put onto me instead. I struggled enormously socially, and since I was awkward and weird the blame for the bullying I received was put on me. As I entered middle school I was seriously socially delayed and tried everything I could think of to make or keep friends.
Assuming people didn’t like me because I wasn’t interesting enough, I lied dramatically in an attempt to seem interesting. Unsurprisingly, the stories I created didn’t actually work to attract friends, but they did manage to harm my family, and eventually caused my social situation in school to become so bad that my parents switched my school to another.
These lies were a big deal, and broke down trust between myself and my parents completely. I was already struggling with emotional development, academic achievement, and pretty much every other facet of my life. The destruction of any trust in my family lead to many years of fighting, struggle, and broken relationships. In my own mind, and in the ways in which my parents and every institution around me responded, I was a Bad Kid.
Being a Bad Kid is incredibly hard to recover from. Everyone around you sees you through that lens. Once a kid is seen as “troubled” or “delinquent” or anything similar it is almost impossible to get back to being normal, or having anyone see you as a success. This view of me, by myself and others, eventually lead to me being institutionalized, and then eventually kicked out of that institution as I approached my 18th birthday.
Only in my early 30’s did what happened during those years become clear to me. As soon as the word “autism” was applied to me I began to see the whole experience in a new light.
I was not a bad kid. I was an autistic kid in a system that could not recognize me as such, and did not support me in any of the ways I needed to be supported. In place of accommodations and understanding I was given blame.
It wasn’t my fault.
My relationship with my parents is quite good now. In part this is because we worked hard to repair things between us in my 20’s, but a large part of it is also that we now have the language to talk about how things were when I was a kid. Finding the language to describe my difficulties was nearly as healing for my mother as it was for me. As I learned that my failures were not my fault, she also learned that they were mostly not hers either.
I try to remember this when dealing with other people. I know now that bad information at a critical stage can lead to a cascade of impacts that seriously harm someone’s life. It’s not always easy to avoid assuming the worst about someone who does something harmful, like telling elaborate lies that hurt those around them, but I try.