My first memory is from about a month before I turned 2. My younger sister, had just been born, and my parents were bringing her home from the hospital. I was trying to say her name, but I couldn’t seem to pronounce it correctly. I got very upset with myself and I felt so stupid.
I’ve heard that autistic folks may have much earlier memories than most, as well as impaired short-term memory. That sounds about right to me. My memories of my early childhood include things like that time riding home from the hospital after my sister was born… episodes in childcare, when I was 4 years old… banging my head on the wall when I was maybe 6 or 7… playing with refrigerator boxes as a young girl. But in between all that are massive gaps, where I might as well have not even been around.
I was a bright and energetic toddler, and according to my mother, I reached my milestones either on time or ahead of my peers. My mother remembers being embarrassed about me being ahead of the other kids in terms of language and walking. I was up and around, ambulating here and there, chattering up a storm, while other toddlers lay on their blankets, looking up at the sky. I was very talkative from the start, even before I could say proper words. Once, while I was babbling on about something while my mother was feeding me, she said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” So, I spit out the mouthful of food I had, and I repeated the long extended line of “babble” I’d just been through – verbatim.
I had two biological siblings – a sister 2 years younger then me, and a brother who was 5 years my junior. My mother had to keep me away from my sister when we were very young, because I would try to hurt my sister – scratching at her. I beat up my brother a lot, perhaps out of jealousy, because boys were favored over girls. Perhaps it was also because he actually was a boy, and I was a girl. It seemed hugely unfair to me that I couldn’t be treated like a boy, because I actually didn’t believe I was a girl. I could detect no evidence that I was a girl, other than my anatomy. I flexed my muscles to show off in front of my parents. I developed a secret boy’s identity, with my own chosen name. And when I was alone, I would pretend I was a boy, doing all the activities nobody would let me do, like climbing trees, exploring the woods, making knives and other tools out of the wood in my father’s wood shop, and daydreaming about rescuing the little girls who lived in my neighborhood.
Ah… the girls… I was always falling in love with one girl or another. And when I grew attached to them, I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone else having anything to do with them. I was always falling in love with someone — the girl who lived across the street, the girl who lived up the block, one of my classmates (who I got in trouble for helping). And when one of my biggest crushes moved away, my mother told me I stopped talking and wouldn’t mention her name. I can’t even remember her. It must have devastated me when she moved.
I was keenly fond of other girls, but I didn’t care about all the “girly” things I was supposed to care about. I didn’t like dolls as regular doll playthings. When I was given one, I usually tried to take her apart to see how her parts were all assembled. One Christmas, my parents spent (what was for them) a lot of money on a special doll with hair that could be extended and then shortened with a knob on her back. I knew they’d spent more money than they could afford on it, and I was crushed that they would waste it on a toy I didn’t like. But then I became fascinated by the mechanisms of the hair lengthening and shortening, and I would spend hours sitting with that doll, pulling its hair out as far as it could go, then winding it back in. Pulling out, winding in… pulling out, winding in… It was actually very soothing for me, so all was not lost. I think my mother once asked me why I didn’t play with it as a doll. Nah, that part didn’t interest me.
I didn’t care for other girls’ toys, either. Dolls, tea sets, kitchen setups, pink-colored whatchamadoozies. No thanks. I actually was obsessed with EZ-Bake Ovens, but only because I couldn’t figure out how they worked. One of the girls I who walked to school with me came from a wealthy family, and she hand an EZ-Bake Oven. She talked about it all the time, but she could never tell me how it worked, no matter how often I asked. I thought my heart was going to leap out of my chest when she invited me over. I was so excited — I would get to see her EZ-Bake Oven! But then she showed me how it worked: just a lightbulb in a compartment with a special baking mix. It all made perfect sense, but I was disappointed, because I was sure it would be more elaborate than that.
Other girls’ toys were lost on me. My aunt gave me a toy vacuum cleaner to play with, but I dismantled it to see how all the parts fit together, and I never “played vacuuming” with it. I took it apart, yes. Used it as it was intended? Never.
I hated vacuum cleaners, anyway. The sound of the machine hurt my ears, and when my mother later assigned me vacuuming as a Saturday chore, I couldn’t complete it. We had one of those clunky old Electroluxes that made a tremendous growling sound with a massive whooshing of air. My sister and I would sit at the end of it where the air blew out, and feel that on our faces. It felt so neat, to have that rushing air just blowing all through me. I could close my eyes and block everything out, and just focus on the feel of the air. But when it came time to do vacuuming, myself, I couldn’t manage it. It was too loud, too shrill, too grating. I would just turn off the vacuum cleaner and walk away and do something else. Nothing they did would get me to vacuum. It was too hard on my ears.
My hearing was frequently a problem, as a kid. I had trouble distinguishing between certain sounds — “th” and “s” and “f” all sounded the same to me. Same with “b” and “v”. The only difference was, which ones hurt my ears more — or less. “S” hurt my ears because it was sibilant. And “b” hurt my ears, because it was a “hard” sound to me. It hurt my head to say words that started with “b”, just like with “s”. So, I used sounds that were easier to say and hear, myself, and that wouldn’t cause me pain. That led to me both mis-hearing and mis-pronouncing words. But I never knew I’d gotten it wrong, because it all sounded the same to me. I had long, extended arguments about people’s names, because I heard one sound, but someone else told me it was a different one. I was convinced I was right, because I believed my own ears — but what I heard was apparently wrong.
As mistaken as I was about the sounds of words, I was rigid and dogmatic about what I thought was right. I got confused a lot with what people told me to do, but then I did what I thought was the right thing with ferocious conviction. Teachers punished me for doing things “wrong”, when I’d simply misunderstood or taken them literally. I would also miss clues about what I was supposed to do — especially with teachers who used sarcasm or suggestion. Everyone seemed to think I was being oppositional and defiant. I was just confused.
My kindergarten teacher paddled me with a big wooden paddle for “disobeying” her, when I simply didn’t understand. She’d told us not to get up and walk around, and I didn’t realize she meant we weren’t supposed to do that EVER, not only in the few minutes following her instructions. So, I got up and helped my girlfriend (she was my first crush) do something for the teacher. And caught hell for that. I had no idea why I was being hit. I didn’t understand. Another teacher wanted to punish me for getting up and sharpening my pencil, when she told the class to sit. She didn’t tell us to not get up under any and all circumstances, and my pencil needed to be sharpened, so I thought the mitigating circumstances were fine, and I caught hell for disobeying her, just because my pencil point broke and I needed to fix that.
I took everything literally, including lyrics of songs. I couldn’t figure out why the song “Convoy” was about truckers going bear hunting. It made no sense to me. I didn’t realize the song was using trucker slang. Nobody ever told me. My mother used to try to “guide” me to do things differently by using sarcasm or innuendo. That was lost on me. Completely. And then she got mad because I didn’t comply with her indirectly stated wishes.
I was always at odds with my classmates in school. I was either “showing off” how much I knew, or I was too weird to hang out with. I was put in a gifted students class in 3rd or 4th grade, but before long, I became disruptive and could not complete the projects I was given. They expected me to do presentations on subjects I wasn’t keenly interested in, so I didn’t do them… and then the teacher would have to pretty much do my presentation for me, because she wanted the other kids to learn. I couldn’t seem to think broadly or outside the narrow confines of my intense interests, and I’d get focused on one aspect of a topic and forget everything else. I started acting out in classes, distracting the other kids and giving away answers that I could quickly figure out, but the other kids couldn’t. Eventually, they told me I couldn’t participate anymore. So that was that.
I was constantly overwhelmed by everything around me. I was bussed an hour across town for all-day classes from kindergarten to 2nd grade, and it was terrifying for me. All the kids on the bus were so loud and they could get violent. I can still remember instances on the bus when I jumped in terror when one of the boys started yelling about something he saw out the bus window. I was exhausted by the time I got home, each day, and a number of times I fell asleep on the bus, and they found me when they were parking the bus. I can’t remember who gave me a ride home — or if my parents came to get me. But I remember very well, waking up bleary-eyed in the back of the bus, as the driver was shutting everything off and getting ready to lock up.
When I was at home, I was terrified a lot. We lived on a corner of an intersection that had a lot of late-night activity. There was a high school down the street from us, and the kids would come and hang out after dark, making all kinds of noise till all hours. I often hid under my bed, crawling to the very farthest back corner where it was dark and safe. I also curled up in a narrow space between my bed and the wall and “zoned out” in my own world of silent relief. My mother found me there once, and I was unresponsive when she tried to get me to talk. She got really scared because I wasn’t responding, and she tried to pull me out, but my father stopped her, when he saw how upset I was.
I also banged my head on the wall to get relief from the overwhelm, but that scared my mother, too, so I stopped doing it when she kept grabbing me to make me stop. It hurt more for her to grab me, than for me to be in sensory distress. Touch was very painful to me, although I couldn’t always tell when I’d bruised myself or hurt myself. Hugs were a nightmare, as were interactions with people who liked to reach out and touch me. I didn’t get much relief, really. But I had a few favorite “permitted” ways to self-soothe: watching dust specks floating in the sunbeams, and rubbing the satin edge of my sleeping blanket. I rubbed it so much, I wore holes in the trim. I wanted to get a new one with nice satin trim, but my parents didn’t have the money for it.
When I was able to read, I found a lot of solace with my intense interests. I was pretty fascinated by certain things — counting the pennies in my bank, organizing them in stacks of the same dates as well as the locations where they were minted. I spent hours in my room, consumed with sorting and organizing my pennies. I didn’t care about nickels or dimes or quarters — just pennies. I collected keys, keeping them on a key ring I had hidden in my closet. I also collected small parts from ball-point pens and clocks. I still have the little jar I kept them in. Whenever a small appliance broke, I would ask if I could have it, and I’d take it apart to see how it was constructed. I never managed to put them back together again. I also collected the strange little pieces from them that caught my fancy, especially springs.
Other interests were: my own “chemistry set” which I put together from various leftover samples of perfume, cologne, and baking ingredients. I kept a chemistry notebook where I marked down all my observations. Some of my discoveries fascinated me, but it was mostly just the different ways the ingredients cracked and formed when they dried out.
When I could read, I was consumed by the Chronicles of Narnia, Treasure Island, Captains Courageous… basically any fiction or science fiction that involved travel, sailing, maps or getting away from the rest of the world. I drew my own maps, and I’m still fascinated by maps to this day. I drafted my own layouts of ships, both sailing and spaceships. I would immerse myself in books, and then I’d create my own imaginary world, populated by imaginary characters who I knew could be my friends, and I spent hours by myself, acting out scenes from my own internal fiction.
My deepest and most profound interest was in American Indians of the Northeastern US — Leni Lenape in the state of Delaware, as well as the Iroquois Confederacy in upstate New York. I lost myself in those studies, checking out the same book from the local library over and over again, reading and re-reading the several books of my own that I had, spending hours and hours in the woods, pretending I was a young Native American (male) warrior, and making “Indian” items that I could use — especially in ceremonies. I had several knives, a reflector for signaling over long distances, and ceremonial beads and a pipe. To say I was “interested” in Native American cultures would be an understatement.
I don’t recall ever feeling 100% comfortable with other kids. At school, I was always an outsider — perhaps partly because I was a little white kid in a predominantly Black school. But even the white kids I didn’t really click with. I just wanted to read, to be left alone. Or I wanted to run things. I was a bit of an instigator, I have to admit, and I did lead a minor “rebellion” in the lunch room one day, when a bunch of us were playing traffic jam with our lunchboxes, and we refused to stop when the lunch monitor told us to. I got disciplined for that, but to me it was worth it. For once, I got to do MY thing, no matter what any adults said.
I went through a brief period of stealing in 1st or 2nd grade. Other kids had nice things. I didn’t have nice things. I wanted to know what it felt like to have the nice things they had. I would steal from them, when no one was looking, and nobody guessed that I’d done it, because I was such a good, quiet kid. I really hurt some of the kids whose things I stole, and I felt bad about it. But I couldn’t admit what I’d done. So, I buried my “take” in the big field behind our house.
I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten over the shame of that.
Life wasn’t easy, but I doubt anyone knew just how hard it was for me. The times when I would cry and cry and cry and wouldn’t stop… the times when I talked like a baby for months on end for no apparent reason… the time when I wet myself in Brownies because I didn’t realize I had to go, then I couldn’t figure out how to ask to go to the outhouse… all the times when I messed something up and my dad called me names… the meltdowns, the freak-outs… as far as anyone was concerned, that’s just how kids were. It was supposedly normal, I guess.
Anyway, it didn’t matter. I was just some kid, just some girl. What did I matter?