Updated: Jun 8
The purpose of this blog is to share some of my challenges from my early days, in the hopes of helping parents of girls or teenagers on the spectrum understand their own daughters better. As you may already know, girls are not easily diagnosable since they learn at a very young age to camouflage differences by simply copying other girls around them. I was no different.
My question is where do I begin? Like one of my favorite songs from Sound of Music goes, “Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start.” Sounds good as a song but I really don’t remember a lot about my childhood. Memory is definitely an issue for me. Numbers, I can remember but when it comes to events, faces, names, it’s a completely different story.
Listening to Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen (a clinical psychologist and researcher on Autism, www.autismresearchcenter.com) recently, I heard about how the brain is different in an Autistic person versus a neurotypical(NT). Besides the structural differences of the brain, functional differences were also noted. In a scan of two people, one Autistic and the other NT, they found that when looking at someone’s face, there was no activity in the pre-frontal cortex in the former versus the latter. I wonder if that could account for inability to read facial expressions… He also mentions that there is no reason to think of this as a disorder but more a difference. That should be the view people should have.
In the following paragraphs I am choosing to highlight some of my challenges since that is the purpose of this blog, to serve as a guide to others who can relate.
Looking back, I remember bits and pieces of my childhood. Most people would probably agree with that. Although I don’t remember specific incidents, some things that stand out in my mind are, how I spent most of my days, and how I felt inside, like it happened yesterday. I can go back to my young self to have the exact same experience of happiness or joy. That’s great when it is positive. The flip side, however, is not so great. Just as vividly as I can recall that feeling, I can recall my sadness, anxiety and fear that I faced. My stranger anxiety, even when I was 10 years old, was tremendous. Often people would drop by unannounced, which was customary in my country but that would send me running to my room upstairs, where I would hide behind closed doors. My mother would call out for me, to introduce the guest and I would be forced to come down and talk to them. The worst part was that they would try to hold on to me since I was a kid and my whole body would cringe. That often sent the message that I was asocial and in my mother’s words, “She doesn’t like people.” I would feel so guilty about that, but could not find the words to vocalize my anxiety. I literally froze and could not say anything, although all along I knew that wasn’t it. I did like people, just did not feel comfortable around new people, especially since they asked too many questions and hugged me or pinched my cheeks. If it was someone, I was familiar with, I would embrace the opportunity to be with them, to the point of clinging to them and hogging all their attention. I also took instant like or dislike to the person. Are these typical of Aspies growing up? I don’t know. But people misunderstood my intentions time and time again.
My favorite activity as a kid besides art, was to sit in front of my house watching people go by, constantly studying mannerisms and how they interacted with each other. My mom would keep urging me to go out and meet other kids in the neighborhood because she thought I was lonely. Quite the opposite, I enjoyed my own company. I was content with a notebook and pencil to spend hours on end, drawing pictures copied from books and magazines. This was a habit I inherited from my father, since he did the same thing. He was out of town, most of the time for work. When he did return my first question was always, how long he was staying in town. I wanted him to stay so badly, since he was the only one who understood my odd behaviors and didn’t criticize me for it. I could be myself around him without feeling guilty. Usually he stayed only for a couple of days but occasionally he stayed longer, for a week, and that made me ecstatic. Now thinking back, I don’t know why I never told him to stay longer or question why he had to go back. I never mentioned my anxiety within. My mother being older and not the nurturing type, had issues of her own, so I never felt grounded when my father left.
School life was difficult as well, although as far as grades were concerned I did fairly well. We had the ranking system in those days and I remember getting 25th rank in 2nd grade. I was pretty thrilled until my father expressed his disappointment. So, I promised to get 100th rank the next time. What does that really tell you about my intelligence at that time? I was clueless, but I did improve over the years and now I have an MBA, and have my own business. So, there is hope even if we start off slow.
My favorite subject was Art and my favorite teacher was my Art teacher. No surprise there. She was herself a little quirky (could she be an undiagnosed Aspie, who knows…) compared to other teachers, too outspoken and not appreciated by everyone. I was one of the few she liked and would call me by my full name, which most people didn’t even know. I don’t like to shorten peoples’ names either. However, I felt a connection to her more than anyone else. Making friends was difficult in an all-girls catholic school. I was often bullied and tried to hide from my bullies. Chorus was the other class that I really enjoyed. Music is always soothing for me. We had handwriting practice in third grade, writing cursive, and I used to struggle with some letters but worked at it a lot, for fear of being punished. Did I mention strict catholic school? In an effort to get better, during summer vacation I would buy a notebook when I visited my grandfather in his village and practiced every day to get it right. Can’t say too many kids would have that kind of motivation. But fear and anxiety were always part of my being, which propelled me to fit in, so I don’t stand out.
Physical training class (PT as it was called) was a stressful time for me. I was not able to run very fast and when we were timed on our sprints, I failed miserably. My body just did not co-operate. Imagine my frustration and inability to voice my lack of co-ordination. I could not tackle the monkey bars or go down a slide like the other kids. I could not co-ordinate my hands and legs during March past and that did not go well with my Group leaders. Fear and anxiety pretty much governed my childhood in every aspect. Unfortunately, I never shared anything with my parents. I suffered in silence, pretending to be normal and trying to fit in. My mother would not have understood anyway, since she neither went to school nor did she know English. It was exhausting to say the least. My stress relief was drawing or listening to movie songs on the radio.
After 7th grade I came to the US to live with my brother, 20 years older than me and practically a stranger, since I had seen him once when I was 7. Flying 13000 miles from home to stay in a foreign land was both intriguing and nerve wrecking at the same time. My health issues brought me to the US seeking better care. At that time, it seemed like an opportunity to get away from all the stress I was feeling with my mom and school. Little did I know that I was walking into the lion’s den. My next chapter in a foreign land to follow.