How I Learned to Stop Trying to Fit In

October 3, 2019

My name is Eloise and I am many things at once: I am a graduate student at the University of Oxford; I am a tutor, a rower, a feminist, a granddaughter, a daughter, a sister, a stepsister, a friend. I am also autistic.

I was diagnosed several years ago, aged 27. But, looking back, the signs were always there. I have always harboured intense ‘special interests’ that form something between a passion and an obsession. For instance, as a child, I was obsessed with collecting Barbie dolls, not to play with, but to create the ‘perfect’ Barbie doll home, complete with furniture made from cardboard cereal boxes and copious amounts of glue and glitter.

Most neurotypical people have favourite interests, but theirs are more akin to hobbies, which they can put on hold if life is busy. For autistic individuals such as me, the opposite is true. We often need these special interests to stay sane in a world that can be so bafflingly complex – such interests can provide predictability, focus and great reward.

My interest in plastic people has since morphed into a deep fascination with understanding real people. Today I feel fortunate to study psychology as part of my PhD. Another of my special interests is literary fiction. Since I was small, I’ve read voraciously. What I found most enticing about literature was the possibility of learning social rules, expectations, how to cope with challenges and much more, all from the comfort of my armchair without the risk of saying the wrong thing or making a mistake.

Again, this is typical for many autistic people, particularly women but also many men, who learn about the social world explicitly through pursuits such as literature, but also soap operas, films and closely watching significant others. We then use what we have learnt in social situations, to ‘camouflage’ our lack of social instinct, and behave according to the social rules of the specific situation.

Unfortunately, immersing myself in literature did not equip me with all the understanding and skills I needed to cope with the complex social rules of teenage life. When I turned 13 and moved to senior school, that’s when things went wrong for me. I didn’t understand the social rules in the enormous concrete monolith that became my hell, and I began to be badly bullied. For instance, a girl once spat at me in the corridor, at which point I informed her that spitting on someone is considered an offence of common assault under the Criminal Justice Act.

This prompted a lot of laughter from the girl and her friends, only escalating the situation. I thought it would deter them at the time, but looking back I didn’t understand how to ‘keep my head down’ and stay out of harm’s way.

The bullying left me highly anxious, constantly feeling as if the bullies were about to burst out of my wardrobe. I wouldn’t go out in public if I could help it, and nightmares plagued my sleep.

The American author Paul Collins, whose son is autistic, wrote in Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism (2004) that: ‘Autists are the ultimate square pegs, and the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you’re destroying the peg.’ I can say from my own experience that the social pressure of growing up can be a toxic environment for us autists as we are forced to conform to the norms or stand out and risk bullying and trauma.

With hindsight, the next warning sign that I was autistic was my first experience of university, at a place I’d like to forget, to study English literature. I arrived with a car-full of books, and was shocked at the person who parked next to us unloading crates of alcohol. I struggled immensely with the social side of university including the loud bars and clubs, which assaulted my senses and left my ears ringing for days afterwards. I left after two terms.

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