You’re 16. Diagnosis is like suddenly being allowed to try to free yourself from a straitjacket

Fighting Words 2021: An account by M North, a student at Mount Temple school, in Dublin

Being autistic isn’t like being in a straitjacket; being autistic in an aggressively neurotypical society is. Photograph: Sergi Nunez/iStock/Getty

Being autistic isn’t like being in a straitjacket; being autistic in an aggressively neurotypical society is. Photograph: Sergi Nunez/iStock/Getty

 

You’re one year old. The food your mother is trying to feed you is all wrong, and she must bribe you with stalks of broccoli.

You’re 2½ years old. You want to read. You ask your parents to teach you, and you begin to learn. It makes sense. You like it.

You’re four years old. You accidentally touch the Velcro strap of one shoe. It looks darker without really looking darker. You touch the same strap on the other shoe so it will have the same amount of Touch. It looks darker than the first. You spend 10 minutes trying to give both shoes the same amount of Touch.

You’re five years old. Your mother has given you some food to eat, but she is having problems convincing you it isn’t too spicy.

You’re 10 years old. You’ve learned to control when you get the urge to scream and cry and thrash around. You’re praised for being better behaved, but something’s aching inside your chest and begging to be released

You’re six years old. Your ears ring when the sun is bright. They always have.

You’re seven years old. You’re staring, stock still, at a shell on the beach, and you’ve been in the same, slightly lopsided, position for 10 minutes. Your father tells you it’s not musical statues.

You’re nine years old. You didn’t complete a task properly, because you did what you were told to do. Your father is asking if you need to be told everything: “Breathe in, breathe out”! You’re crying into your hands because you know to breathe, and you know what will happen if you don’t, so of course you don’t need to be told to breathe. You’ve had enough time to figure out how to breathe. You try to explain this, but you’re just being “insolent”.

You’re 10 years old. You’ve been buying every book, poster and other item connected with The Beatles that you can get your hands on. You just told someone an incredibly interesting fact about the 1960s boy band in question. They look blankly at you and share a look with everyone else there. You’re told that you’re “always spouting random factoids”.

You’re 10 years old. You’ve learned to control when you get the urge to scream and cry and thrash around even though there’s nothing else to do and everything’s so distressing and you can’t really help it. You’re praised for being better behaved, but something’s aching inside your chest and begging to be released.

You’re 10 years old. Your socks are crinkling down in your wellies and you can’t think about anything else. You stop to adjust them every two minutes or so. The others shout at you that it’s the same for everyone, they manage fine, and you’re being selfish.

You’re 12 years old. You’re at your first sleepover. You say you like the atmosphere. The other girls look at each other and laugh. The next day you check their Instagrams and realise they’ve been having sleepovers without you

You’re 11 years old. You have to do a group project in school, and you’re dreading it. Nobody ever does it right, if they even do it at all. You end up doing the whole project because nobody else agrees to do anything other than copy and paste a single paragraph each from Wikipedia, without even changing the formatting to make it look like they didn’t do that. You do a nice project. Everyone gets cross with you for being a control freak.

You’re 12 years old. You’re at your first sleepover. You say you like the atmosphere. The other girls look at each other and laugh. None of them say anything like that so explicitly. They all just know. The next day you check their Instagrams and realise they’ve been having sleepovers without you.

You’re 12 years old. A boy in your class said “see yous” to your Gaeltacht house, and now you can’t stop saying “yous” for the plural form of “you”.

You’re 12 years old. You listen to Monty Python’s Brave Sir Robin song on repeat for three hours.

M North
M North

You’re 12 years old. You learn 37 digits of pi off by heart. It becomes known that you’re the kid who knows some long number off by heart. People do ask you to recite it, but they ask it while looking at each other. One time, when your class has a competition to learn the most of it for Pi Day, you win; of course you do. Everyone laughs, but you don’t. You can’t see what’s funny.

You’re 13 years old. A kid at school calls you “weird”. You laugh. You know you’re weird. You’ve been told it enough times, and you don’t know why people think it’s news … or an insult, for that matter. Well. You know it’s because it’s “uncool” or whatever. But you don’t care.

You’re 13 years old. Your family are eating a meal that seems to be 95 per cent artichoke. You’ve not eaten artichoke before that you can remember. You try it. Your entire body recoils in revulsion, your gag reflex kicks in, your brain hurts, your head hurts, your mouth hurts, your ears hurt from the sound of it in your mouth. You want to scrunch your shoulders up and give in to that feeling at the back of your throat. It’s the first time you’ve ever flat out refused to finish a meal. You can’t. It’ll make you sick.

You’re 14 years old. You mess with your hair. Your friend says, “Oh, you’re a hair twirler.” You frown, confused. It’s not something you do for a purpose. It just feels wrong, it feels so bloody wrong, when you don’t.

You’re 14 years old. You listen to the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays on repeat for four hours.

Being autistic isn’t like being in a straitjacket; being autistic in an aggressively neurotypical society is. Autism isn’t inherently disabling. Autistic traits don’t pose any issue when only around other autistic people

You’re 15 years old. You’ve been sitting on your own in history class since the year started. There’s a test. It would be very helpful for an individual to have a good rote memory. Suddenly three separate people ask to sit beside you.

You’re 15 years old. You just referred to your philtrum – the little dip in one’s upper lip – because it was incredibly sore after weeks of being rubbed with a tissue (you have a cold). Your sister calls it a “nosy-lip thing”. Your family laughs at the word you used. You haven’t tried to correct your sister. You simply used the first word, the word that occurred to you first, yourself.

You’re 16 years old. You’re diagnosed autistic.

Being diagnosed with ASD after 16 years is like suddenly feeling you’re allowed to try to free yourself from a straitjacket everyone else has been insisting you’re not in in the first place. Some people will still refuse to believe you’re not just someone who’s selfishly refusing to use their hands to get on with all the everyday tasks, and then you get in trouble for not doing the tasks, but at least now you know you’re in the straitjacket. Others may not accept it for a reason, but you know in yourself that you’re not just being selfish. And that does help.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Being autistic isn’t like being in a straitjacket; being autistic in an aggressively neurotypical society is. Autism isn’t inherently disabling. Autistic traits don’t pose any issue when only around other autistic people, and before today’s capitalist society came along, being autistic was an advantage.

Food for thought.

Fighting Words is an Irish charity that helps children and adults to develop their creative writing skills. This is part of their annual publication with The Irish Times