Missed Signs of Autism in Childhood
At seventeen years old, you could consider me years away from childhood when I received my autism diagnosis. A common misconception about people who receive a late diagnosis is that we avoided the struggles that a lot of autistic people who were diagnosed at a younger age received. I’ve looked back at my own childhood a lot in the last two years, and have experience with other autistic children, so I feel confident in saying this isn’t the case.
Before I get into some of my childhood memories, I want to make it clear that I’m not blaming anyone for receiving such a late diagnosis. There was a lot less understanding about autism and what to look out for when I was younger, and I assume that a lot of the focus was on boys.
One of the first things I remember is struggling to follow the rules. The one memory that sticks out in my mind was when my mum enrolled me in swimming lesson as a young child, and I refused to join in. Instead, I would stand nervously in the corner of the pool while the swimming instructor supported those who did what they were told. My mum ended up removing me from the class in the end, which I don’t blame her for!
Another classic autism trait I remember experiencing was having an intense attachment to certain objects. When I was seven, I used to be obsessed with taking a towel to school to soothe me. I couldn’t leave the house without it, and I remember crying to the point of a meltdown when my teacher tried to take it off me on one occasion. I remember the rest of the class being congratulated when I re-entered the room for not acting like I had been. To me, this confirms my teacher’s hasty decision to brand me a nuisance child without taking the time to think that it could be the indication of something else. This didn’t necessarily mean she was a bad person; it was just how things were back then.
I was also in speech therapy in 2004, when I was six, because I didn’t talk very much. I thought this was for my lisp until recently, when my mum explained it was because I wasn’t very talkative. This was easily explained as me being shy, especially as I wouldn’t (or couldn’t) engage, and I was soon removed for children who needed it more than I did. Part of me wonders if continuing these sessions would have made any difference to my verbal communication problems now, but I can’t be sure.
When I was younger, I also struggled immensely with creating close friendships. I’m not the first kid to be bullied, but even when I had friends, I found it difficult to really get to know them. I got quite used to switching friends on a yearly basis with the change of the school year, quickly loosing contact with people I used to consider close because really, we were barely more than acquaintances.
The final memory I’m going to share is of multiple sensory sensitivities that were brushed off as attempts to cause trouble, or normal childhood things. I used to hate the feeling of sand as a young child, to the point where my parents had to carry me whenever we went to the beach or I would cry hysterically. I’ve always been very selective about foods, too, which would often mean I was labelled a ‘fussy eater’ during fruit taster sessions. There was one occasion when I was five when I asked my mum to tell a teacher I was allergic to oranges, because the teacher had made me sit on the carpet while other children were eating, and I insisted I hated them. I haven’t eaten another orange since!
The main point I wanted to make by reflecting on my own childhood experiences is that people don’t always receive an autism diagnosis when they need it. As is often the case, especially with females, people look towards other, easier solutions before accepting that their behaviour could be the result of something more permanent. It took me a breakdown which ended in a suicide attempt to get taken seriously, which I spoke a little about in last week’s post, and I know I’m not alone. I’ve read about many autistic women with similar stories, with many receiving a diagnosis much later than I did—sometimes by decades.
I think it proves that although we’ve come far with awareness and acceptance campaigns in the last few years, there’s still improvements to be made. And as someone who didn’t have the easiest childhood due to misunderstandings and a lack of vigilance, I can’t wait for the changes that will (hopefully) continue to happen.
Thanks for reading! If you’ve had any similar experiences and are comfortable sharing them, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
Until next time,