CC image courtesy of Shade Ardent, sagebrushMoon Studios.
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Olive” is a pseudonym.
I’ve always been autistic.
Since I was a baby. Vaccinations didn’t do me in and it wasn’t because my breastfeeding mother or I ate too much milk or gluten. From the time I was born, I struggled to cope with things like bright lights, loud sounds, and the feeling of having a body.
I learned early that my sensitivities wouldn’t be tolerated, though, and that in order to get by I needed to let people kiss, hug, and touch me even though it often hurt. Being hungry and tired gave me meltdowns, but my brain couldn’t feel that I was hungry, or tired and so I didn’t know why it was happening or how to stop it and my screaming was often met with threats.
Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.
The threats terrified me, so I taught myself to stop crying and to calm down, which my mother took as proof that I was just being stubborn and strong-willed. If something were really wrong, then I wouldn’t have been able to stop crying on a whim.
I struggled through elementary, but because my school was small and private (and aggressively evangelical), I stayed with the same 10-15 kids from K-6th grades, so there was stability in that and I always knew I’d have friends at school. I had trouble relating to other kids and couldn’t easily make friends outside my built-in friend group, but I didn’t have a lot of reason to anyway. There were plenty of slumber parties and trips to the rollerskating rink as it was.
Then I pretty much failed 6th grade. It wasn’t out of nowhere. I had started having issues in fourth grade with the volume of homework, and my mother wasn’t good at offering support, subscribing wholeheartedly to the idea that kids should learn to be responsible by being left fully responsible for as much as possible. I was blamed for my failures and when my mom took an afternoon off work to come visit my least favorite class with me, it was all over.
I would be homeschooled, she decided.
Some kids just aren’t cut out for school.
A refrain that would be repeated throughout my junior high and high school years. It would cripple me. Completely disempower me. Because I just wasn’t cut out to deserve the things other kids did, or to be allowed to have peers and friends.
So much happened from 7th grade to 12th, but it feels like a dark hole to me. It was an ugly time. When homeschooling didn’t work because I had a single mother and she worked as a nurse for 40 hours a week, she tried to put me in public school in 9th grade. When that didn’t work, she got me a floppy red set of ACE workbooks and told me that if I wanted to learn, then I would finish them. When that didn’t work, she got me Saxon math books and started calling what she was doing “unschooling”, which meant that math was the only subject that really mattered anyway, because I could learn all the rest just from being in the world.
When I made friends online to replace the ones I’d lost in school, she took them away too because I called one of them my boyfriend and we weren’t allowed to have romantic relationships until we were 18.
When I couldn’t provide myself with the structure I needed to complete the ACE curriculum, she got me a job babysitting for 8 hours a day. I bathed, fed, and read to 1, then 2, and eventually 4 little siblings who lived in a small, sticky apartment.
If you aren’t going to complete your school work, then you should at least learn a work ethic.
So, I did.
The anxiety never left. The social anxiety was worst and I wasn’t able to make friends or even talk openly with people I already knew, but I also had anxiety about my future and how I would survive once I turned 18. I wasn’t being given anything that my peers were, and it was all my fault because I’d failed so miserably. There was no school counselor to help me through college applications. There was no one there to tell my mother that what she was doing was hurting me. I thought she was only trying to help.
And since there was no one else to blame, I fully blamed myself.
If only I could have kept it together in 6th grade.
If only I could have stayed at public school in 9th grade.
If only I could have finished the ACE curriculum, or the Saxon math.
I am a failure.
I never studied my schoolwork. It caused too much anxiety. I never finished the ACE curriculum or the math books. I snuck back on the computer to my friends, and studied them instead. They had expansive vocabularies gleaned from philosophy books and collections of novels I’d never heard of because of my conservative upbringing. They gave me book lists ranging from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Ishmael, The Perks of Being a Wallflower to John Grisham novels. I studied our language, the language of kids online in 1999. The way we communicated via acronyms and words couched in asterisks.
At 17, I passed the GED with mostly flying colors except for math, which I almost failed but was too afraid to take again. My mother was calling my “education” unschooling by then. I wasn’t a neglected child, I was an “autodidact” and this had been my choice. After all, I could have finished that ACE curriculum like she’d wanted me to.
And I believed her.
Which was the biggest lie homeschooling/unschooling ever told me.
I had no outside influences to tell me anything different. That I could strive for something greater than an almost-failed GED. That maybe I could be cut out for school if I had the right support. That maybe I could have a future.
The only people speaking into my education were my mother and other homeschooling/unschooling family members. I was young, depressed and broken from years of not having a peer group or any outside support. Listening to them finally tell me that I was a success felt good, and I clung to it.
No matter that I couldn’t carry on conversations, that I felt awkward and out of place no matter where I went, or that I had no friends in real life. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t count back change with any accuracy or that I wasn’t ever taught to say no to anyone, resulting in many bad relationships and a traumatizing sexual assault.
If I had taught myself like I was supposed to, I wouldn’t be in this position.
It was like a poison that ate me alive.
I received no explanation of how to choose a college and was simply driven to the local community college one day by my mother and enrolled. Whether I wanted to go or not was irrelevant. What I wanted was irrelevant, because my mother wanted me to look like I was succeeding.
Through sheer force of will I was able to keep up and get good grades while working full time and going to school full time.
For one semester.
But after that, everything fell apart again and it was like deja vu. It cemented for me over and over that what my mother said was true, I just wasn’t cut out for school.
By the time I finally learned that I was autistic, I had given up on school. I was married, living overseas. More things made sense, but I still believed that I was broken, unfit for education. I’ve been a stay-at-home wife for most of our marriage, although I did try school once and had an awful breakdown halfway through the second semester.
My mother seems to view my stay-at-home status as a success though, because women are meant to be at home.
What else would you have had me do with an autistic child who was failing in school?
She demands to know and I feel at a loss. I don’t know what could have been done in the 90’s for a girl who nobody knew had autism, but I know the answer isn’t: Take them out of school and saddle them with the responsibility of orchestrating their entire education alone.
And I know I wouldn’t do this to any kid I know. Autistic or not.
Today, I’m still a stay-at-home wife. We rent a tiny house with a big back yard where I grow tomatoes and strawberries and our dog chases cats and stray chickens. It took me so long to realize that the lies I’d been told about my education weren’t true, that I’m in my 30’s now and still have no college degree. In picking apart everything that went wrong, I’ve begun to be estranged from my family. I gave up my faith, too, and am now an atheist instead of an evangelical Christian.
The transitions have come all at once, like hitting a wall and removing brick after brick just to get to the other side. I still have meltdowns when I get too hungry, or I’m surprised, or when the weight of all the things feels too much, but I’m learning to be gentler with myself now. The more bricks I pull away from the wall, the more clearly I can see and it turns out that kindness helps a lot more with supporting my autism than tough love ever did. I still struggle to make friends and don’t really have any, but hope that as I get healthier through therapy, I may be able to develop more social skills. And I still don’t know if I’m “cut out” for school, although I hope someday I will be.
I think the one thing I do know now is that autism doesn’t mean I have to hide. If I am struggling with something, I can ask for help doing that thing. I don’t need to have the thing taken away from me. I can get support in being who I am and doing the things I want to do, all at the same time.
And it’s not my fault that I didn’t get the education I deserved.
It never was.