Portrait of the Autist as a young child – but don’t forget the bliss

picture of a child looking out over a body of water with sunset in the distance
I had my own world, and it was wonderful. Other people didn’t understand. That didn’t matter to me. I just didn’t care. My world was… my world.

I wrote before about what it was like being a young kid (under the age of 10-ish), and I talked a lot about my difficulties. There was a lot of discomfort and pain and isolation that went along with being different. The thing is, it wasn’t a non-stop horror show. And in fact, so many of my traits and tendencies were encouraged in my household, not viewed as weird or different, and so much about my upbringing was actually very Aspie-friendly, that the suffering was mitigated by other contributing factors. And when I was left to my own devices, I did extremely well.

For all the bad memories, I have many wonderful ones, as well. The tents my sister and I made out of blankets and chairs in the dining room. We rarely used the dining room, except when we had company. We ate in our big, yellow kitchen, where the black radio was always playing on the counter beside the sink. My mother had to always have the radio on, blaring — she often does, to this day — so I didn’t spend a lot of time in there with her. My mom is very sensory-seeking. She likes lots of noise and activity and a lot of mess. I did not. But I wanted to spend time with her, so I would try to block out the noise, the disarray, the flour and sugar and Crisco coating everything, and join here in the kitchen when I could.

My mom loved to bake, and she taught me how to do it. I was skeptical about the objective value of baking, because it was women’s work, and in the world we inhabited, women’s work was not nearly as important as men’s. But when she explained that baking in particular required a lot of precision, and it was very much like chemistry, the way all the ingredients combined, I was sold on it. She showed me how to measure flour in the measuring cup, carefully tapping across the top with flat edge of a butter knife, and then swiping the knife across it, flat-wise, to take off the extra flour. I thought that was the most magical thing in the whole world! The rough, lumpy pile of flour transformed in a single stroke into a clean, smooth surface — the flour precisely measured — gave me a tangible thrill. I still get chills, when I think about it. And although I don’t often bake now, sometimes I’ll throw something together and do that tap-tap-tap-tap-tap–swipe motion that gives me a thrill and a chill. Just looking at the clean, neatly packed flour… Sheer momentary bliss.

Imaginary play was such a joy for me, too. My sister was a compliant playmate, for the most part, which was good, because I had very specific ideas about how things should be done. Fortunately, I was often right — about how best to arrange the chairs to make a tent… how to weight down the blankets… what we should be “hunting”. We pretended to be on hunting trips, like our dad was every autumn. And we pretended to be adventurers… explorers. We dressed in our dad’s hunting gear, donning his caps and jackets and bright orange safety vests. We took turns wearing the vest that had the holder for his deer hunting license, and we turned off the overhead lights to have just natural light, so it was more like being outdoors.

We played outside a fair amount, too, though mostly in the summertime when it was hot and we had our little plastic pool filled with cool water. The pool didn’t seem small to me — I was very small for my age, and my younger sister was usually about my same size. I remember so well the sight and sound of the green garden hose snaking from the side of the house to the pool, the cool water just pouring out of it. I loved to drink from the hose, feeling the silky cool liquid bubbling from the smooth, brown metal coupling at the end. I loved to watch the water — the sunlight making special patterns on it as it gushed out and around us in the pool.

Our back yard was fenced in — that was one of the first things my dad did, when we moved in. I was a “runner”. I would just take off and end up in other people’s houses. So, my dad put up a chain link fence. That angered the neighbors, who just wanted open space between all the back yards, but my parents weren’t going to have me running everywhere and getting lost. My mother planted roses in one spot, and she cared for them meticulously. I steered clear of them, because they had thorns. They hurt. And my mom would get mad if I got too close to them. She planted morning glories along the fence, as well, and before long, there was a thriving mass of flowered vines weaving their way through all the links in the fence. I spent much of my time in the back yard just studying the morning glories, trying to understand them. They would close at night and open in the morning, and I tried to get them to close by cupping my hands and putting them in shadow. I could have sworn I almost succeeded in getting one flower to close, but I can’t remember exactly. Most of all, I was fascinated by the colors and details how they varied from one flower to the other. They were all the same flower. How could they be so different, one from the others? It was fascinating and frustrating to me, how much variety there was — in the same kind of flower.

I spent much of my playtime alone, however. I preferred it that way, because I could sense that other kids didn’t “take” to me being as controlling as my younger sister. They wouldn’t do what I wanted, and anyway, they wanted to play games that didn’t interest me — playing house or war or something very basic and un-imaginative. There were a lot of other kids in the neighborhood, and they were pretty outgoing. But they scared me. They were loud and boisterous, and they all wanted to meet me and play. I was confused by their talk and their mannerisms, and I either held back, or I tried to join in, only to fall out of sync with their games.

I rarely felt like I fit in with my peer group. In childcare, when I was probably four years old (it was before I entered kindergarten, and I believe my sister was there with me), I got into trouble by straying outside my age group. I hated being around the other kids my age, because their games seemed so boring and so simple. I wanted to talk about science. I wanted to have real discussions about ideas. I wanted to run around and have a fun time, not play quietly like a good little girl.

The kids in the house were separated into little kids downstairs and older kids upstairs. I wanted to be upstairs with the older kids, but I wasn’t allowed. Then, one day, one of the older kids invited me upstairs, and he distracted our carer while I ran up the big wooden stairs with the heavy wooden railing. All the older kids were running around and jumping, just like I wanted to do! It was wonderful! They set up a chair to stand on, and we could “fly” down to a pile of pillows. I wanted to fly, too! So, they helped me up on the chair, and I leaped in to the air…! Freedom!!! Then clunk. I don’t remember anything after that. The next thing I remember, was our carer — a very large black woman who scared me with how loud and outgoing she was — standing over me with a bunch of older kids gathered around, yelling at the boy who’d snuck me upstairs. There was a lot of yelling, and I didn’t know what was going on. All I knew was, I’d been able to fly!

When my mother picked me up at the end of the day, the carer told her about my “fall”, and she said she’d keep an eye on me. After that, my appetite to fly was whetted, and I kept trying to sneak upstairs. But the carer always had an eye on me, and she kept me from escaping to “my people” upstairs.

Standard-issue activities for a little “girl” had no appeal for me. Why would anyone be interested in all that stuff, anyway? I needed my own world, my own space, built to my own specifications. So, I took myself off to the big field behind our house,  beyond the line of garages that were available to rent by residents or nearby businesses. The Field was a little bigger than a football field. At the far end, a large hill of chalky soft stone rose up to the back of a distant neighborhood. On our end, it sloped down sharply, covered in high growth of grasses and sumacs and ended at a chain-link fence atop a stone wall.

The Field was one of my favorite places to be. It was the closest thing to wilderness that I had near home, and I could go there and play anytime I liked. This was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before all the fear about child-snatchings had taken over. My parents let me roam as I pleased, so long as I stayed in the Field and didn’t wander into surrounding neighborhoods. That was fine with me. There were strange people in other neighborhoods, and I never felt comfortable interacting with them. They talked too loud. They said things I didn’t understand. And I didn’t know if they were friendly or not. I collected “chalk” at the hill, gathering the soft light brown stones to bring home and draw on our front sidewalk. My sister and I drew hopscotch squares on the front sidewalk, as well as other designs.

When I became absorbed in my Native American studies, I started grinding up the chalky stones to make face paint. I painted my face often, with the stripes and spots I’d seen in pictures of “Indians”, and I dressed as much like a “brave” as I could. I was a boy, not a girl, I was convinced. And I needed to look the part. I had a headband I wore, and I put feathers I found in the headband. I crept stealthily around our house and yard, looking for chances to “count coup” on someone — touching them gently, then disappearing before they knew what was going on.

I loved that world I invented — it made sense to me.  Living like an “Indian”, I felt more connected with nature, less obliged to interact with others, and involved in a way of life that was far simpler than the urban world we inhabited. My parents were big into camping, and they took us on camping trips whenever they could. I think perhaps they realized I did better when I was in the woods, in nature. They did, too, I think. We could all just relax into the basics of camping — setting up tents, hiking, canoeing, cooking over the campfire, and spending the evening just watching the fire and talking. I could sit for hours, just watching the flames leap up, letting my thoughts wander. A number of times, my parents remarked at the ideas I came up with — I was a “philospher” in those moments. I wasn’t an awkward little kid who struggled with just keeping my head on straight. I was in my element. I could just be.

Camping wasn’t always a piece of cake, though. My parents were always on the move, always active, always on the prowl for the next adventure, the next encounter. It was an exhausting way for me to grow up, to tell the truth. I was often exhausted when we got to the camp in the evening. And once I just melted down and wailed at the top of my lungs for what seemed (to everyone else) like forever. People from other campsites came over to see if they could help. They offered me candy, they tried to soothe me. I pulled away from their painful contact and continued to wail at the top of my lungs, until I just ran out of steam. That was one of many times I can remember being an intense embarrassment to my parents — and being helpless to stop. My mother still talks about that day with a mix of dismay and annoyance.

So, camping was a mixed blessing/curse. The places I actually felt reasonably safe, were the hidden spaces in my house — under my bed at the very darkest back corner, the narrow space between my bed and the wall, the inside of our big wooden toy box, and the canning pantry in the basement. In the back of our house, beside the metal bulkhead, there was a pantry-like space with a wooden door and wooden shelves. It was cool there, and that’s where my mom kept all her canning when she was done preparing our winter’s food stores. My parents canned and froze a lot of food, which they grew themselves in our big garden. The basement pantry was cool and quiet and dark, with a high window at ground level that was usually dirty and only let in a little light. It was delightful in that room, and I would retreat there sometimes, to think and talk to myself.

I talked to myself a lot. Constantly, really. I had no one else to talk to. My parents were… my parents. They had other things to do, and they were usually overwhelmed with something. My grandfather was great to talk to — he was a scientist, a botanist and biologist, who was as knowledgeable as he was gregarious. He loved to teach, and he taught me so much. Our interactions were always about learning something. Much of what he believed personally was conservative and religious and very rigid, so there wasn’t a lot of room for questioning what he believed. But he was a fount of scientific knowledge, and that fed me and my hungry mind like nothing else. Our long hikes in the forest were extended lessons in … everything. And since I was also very religious when I was little, the talks about the right ways to live life didn’t bother me at all. If anything, I was happy to hear from him how I was supposed to be.

Because I didn’t know, exactly.

Grandpa wasn’t always around, though, so I had to make do on my own. I had countless discussions with myself, dialog-ing out loud over points that came to mind, issues I was considering, or just whatever came to mind. I had so many failed interactions with people, and that bothered me so much, those discussions with myself were essential to keep me from imploding. First, I could actually have a conversation with someone who understood me.  I didn’t have to constantly clarify my position, explain the words I was using or why I was using them. I could just talk, respond, raise points, offer counterpoints, and have a successful interaction in the privacy of my own mind and space.

I could also practice my pacing, my prosody. That was so important, because I felt like I couldn’t talk in ways that others could understand. I knew I had trouble pronouncing words, and others had trouble understanding me. On my first day of kindergarten, I couldn’t find the bus I was supposed to ride home, and none of the teachers or adults could understand what I was saying, so the bus went off without me. My mother was waiting for me at the bus stop — but there was no sign of me. I was nowhere to be found. I hadn’t gotten off at the wrong stop. I had never even gotten on the bus. The school phoned her and said they’d be bringing me home, and that solved that. But I never got over the fact that I’d caused my mother pain and panic because I couldn’t talk right.

I had to fix that. I had to fix it.

So, I talked to myself. I practiced my pronunciation. I was in speech therapy at school for a while, but they couldn’t seem to help me, so they just cut me loose and let me go on my way. I had to fix it myself. So, I did. I practiced and practiced and practiced, emulating others I saw who were more successful than I, and behaving in ways that I saw were effective in working with others. My speech became highly precise, my enunciation impeccable, to the point where people asked where I’d gone to “finishing school” and made fun of me because I spoke so precisely and clearly. They didn’t know that it was my way of just making myself understood, period. If I just talked the way my mouth wanted to go, nobody would understand me. I had to try. I had to put in effort. And that’s what I did.

I have to say, those conversations were the high point of my life. They were heaven. Just wonderful. Wonderful. I could converse with “someone” who knew what I was talking about. They didn’t make fun of me, they didn’t look at me strangely, and I didn’t sense any discomfort from “them” when I was talking. I could go on at extensive length about any topic I chose, and nobody would stop me, nobody would interrupt me, but I could challenge my own thinking in a constructive way, that was confrontational in a positive sense. I could push myself and my thinking to places I could never reach when I was talking with “real” people who just didn’t get it. At all.

I did have one friend who could keep up with me. He was the oldest son of a couple my parents were friends with. There were a lot of parallels between us — our fathers were both theologians, our mothers were both active homemakers who did a lot of community outreach. There were two boys in that family who were about the same ages as my sister and me (I think there was always the secret hope we’d all get married, oneday, but that never materialized — those boys were too much like our brothers to be marrying material). The oldest boy and I were both heady little things — it wouldn’t surprise me if he were an Aspie, as well. And we would spend hours in philosophical discussions that were like a breath of fresh air for both of us.

Unfortunately, my friend liked to fight more than he liked to explore. He seemed to always be trying to dominate the discussion and pick a conceptual fight he could then try to win. I wasn’t interested in fighting. I wanted to explore and push the envelope on what we knew — or thought we knew. He didn’t have my same focus, and by the time we were approaching our teens, we’d drifted apart. And I wouldn’t engage with him, anymore. It wasn’t a good use of my time.

A better use of my time was reading fantasy, and writing stories. I wrote a series of short stories, when I was eight, about a pebble and his friends, who had adventures in a stream where they all lived. That was the most wonderful world… there was a frog, a pebble, and some other characters, and they were all friends who did fun things together. I lost myself in that little world. I wrote other stories, too, about an inchworm, a mouse, and a gang of alley cats. I still have my notebook with all the stories in them. I’m considering doing some artwork and publishing them. I’ve wanted to do that for years, and I had asked one of my nieces to do artwork for them, about 15 years ago. But I hit a rough patch in my life and I couldn’t maintain the connection with her. It was disappointing for her, because she really wanted to do the artwork. But my executive functioning completely crapped out on me, so that never materialized.

Anyway, there’s so much more wonderful stuff about my early childhood. The fascination with King Arthur and his knights… getting absorbed in books and stories, and then transporting myself into those worlds when I was by myself and could act out scenes with characters I brought to life in my own mind, and actually experienced as real in the privacy of my own self-created play. I inhabited a world of wonder and bliss. Literally. I would sit and watch dust specks float on the sunbeams, and I’d be transported into worlds of fascination, feeling waves of bliss wash over me. I’d lie on the living room floor, examining the individual tufts of carpet, comparing one to another, and “bliss out” with the focus and fascination. Details and patterns drew me in like nothing else. And of course, the feel of pencil moving across paper was delicious, as well.

Pencils and paper were precious, too. We didn’t have the money to buy new supplies anytime, so we used – and used – and used what we had, and re-used what we could. The blank backs of the early drafts of my dad’s sermons provided the paper for us to draw on. We had crayons, but the sharpener in the back of the box was a sacrilege — it was a waste of crayon, to carve it off into a neat point. We scribbled on the sharp edges of our blunted crayons… more delicious sensation.

And my “race cars”… My race cars. I occasionally was given a Matchbox car by someone. My grandmother would sometimes buy us one, when we went shopping with her. And I got them for Christmas, too. I had a little collection of race cars that I loved to line up neatly and just look at. We had a big board that we lay down on the living room and rolled our cars around on it. The feel of the wheels on the particleboard was entrancing. I would sometimes just roll a car back and forth, back and forth, to feel that particular sensation.

We also made ramps out of our blocks and launched our cars into the air at top speed. The sound of the wheels whizzing on the particle board and then going silent when they were airborne was soo cooollll!

So, see, it wasn’t all bad being a little Aspie in a neurotypical world. There was so much that was absolutely wonderful — and no one else could see it or understand. That was fine, though. I was fine being by myself. I was fine being in my own world. It’s when the rest of the world tried to intrude and “understand” (invade) my reveries, that I got into trouble. In my own space, in my own created world, I was safe. Entering the world of others, without rhyme or reason, and trying to participate in their ways — leaping from chairs or striking up conversations — was another story. Entirely.

Spectrum Sunday
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6 thoughts on “Portrait of the Autist as a young child – but don’t forget the bliss

  1. This is a great post I love posts that are written from personal perspectives. I can completely relate, I’ve never been diagnosed, apart from Bi Polar but my daughter is currently going through assessment. My parents said if I was at school now, that something would have been noticed, it’s taken me 32 years to accept myself for who I am. I am a sensory avoider and my 4 year old is a seeker so we do sometimes clash! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Portrait of the Autist as a teenager – Under Your Radar

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