Before I start this topic, I want to make clear I am not an expert in teaching, nor do I have any desire to be such. These are some of my experiences growing up in the public school system in the 80’s and early 90’s. I have close friends that are very good teachers that care immensely about their students and this entry does not reflect on my opinion of teachers today.
I hated school. It was boring; I never understood teachers and what they were trying to teach me. By the time I was in the 5th grade I was certain everyone thought I was just stupid, including myself. Reading and comprehension work was nearly impossible because, well, all those words on the page were supposed to mean something, but to me it meant confusion and frustration because my brain has significant trouble turning words into pictures I can understand.
My dad tried helping me study once in the fifth grade when I was failing history. I don’t remember much except I think he got frustrated with the whole thing too because let’s face it, history to me was not something that was real. History was just facts in a book that didn’t apply to me in any way.
There was the occasional art class that I LOVED because I was able to express myself through my hands. Although those did not happen very often in school, which was too bad. School was always focused on reading and writing, and it was awful. Every single class was focused around reading a textbook then answering questions about or interpreting what we had read. Short answers were easy enough because typically they would just restate a sentence within the text; I just had to hunt for those specific words to complete the sentence. Other questions, however, required critical thinking about what I read. Those types of questions were most difficult because my comprehension and critical thinking capabilities were not properly developed and caused a lot of frustration. My brain is not a word brain. It’s a picture brain. Show me a picture of something and I will remember it forever.
Memorizing poems was the worst! Metaphor after meaningless metaphor, stacking words up and trying to memorize them in the correct order was incredibly stressful. I was always baffled how my classmates could study a poem for a few minutes and have it ingrained in their brains. My senior year of high school we had to memorize a poem by Chaucer. I spent several hours one evening studying this poem and ended up in tears because I still could not remember even the first line. I decided it wasn’t worth the stress of memorizing the poem and I would prefer to receive an “F” on that assignment then spend another frustrating moment on it.
This is just the academic side. Now let’s talk about the people side.
Kids are not nice to other kids that are different. I was bullied while growing up and I hated going to school. On some days I would pretend to be sick and beg my mom to let me stay home from school because I could not handle the stress and pressure of being in a classroom with all the other students.
Then there were the teachers. I cannot remember a single teacher who reached out to help me in any way. To be fair, they had a lot of other students in their classes to focus on, but still. But someone must have noticed because I do recall around the fourth or fifth grade I was taken out of class and given some tests by someone who wasn’t a teacher. The results of these tests were never explained to me. I still remember some of the tests because they had pictures. Those were fun. I have no idea what came of the tests but at some point, I was put in remedial math and English – which was fine with me because I got to skip science and history.
My worst teacher was Mr. Dose (name changed to protect his identity) in the 5th grade. I think I could technically call him a bully. One time he made me kneel on the hard floor for several days while I was in his class because I liked to tip my chair back. I couldn’t help it, it helped me focus to try to balance in my chair. So, to punish me I had to kneel on the floor in front of my desk and pay attention. After about an hour of this my knees really started aching. Finally, one day I had the bright idea of bringing a pillow to school so my knees wouldn’t hurt so much. My dad asked what I was doing bringing a pillow to school and when I told him what the teacher was having me do, he got PISSED. He wrote a letter to Mr. Dose, and to this day I have no idea what it said. But after that day, I never had to kneel on the ground again.
Another time I was held after school for something and had to write 100 sentences. Being the poor speller I was, I spelled a word wrong so I had to rewrite the entire thing again. I kind of wonder now looking back if it wasn’t just Mr. Dose taking his frustration out on me.
Growing up, I seemed to find myself in trouble for things that were never quite clear to me. Once I got grounded because a parent of my mother’s daycare drove past me while I was standing at the bus stop waiting for my ride to school. Apparently, I glared at her when she waved but I never even noticed her drive by. I knew better than to be rude or mean, it just quite often came across that way because I was usually wrapped up in my own internal world and oblivious of what was happening around me.
I was afraid of my peers. I was weird. I didn’t understand them and I didn’t have any friends. I would sit up next to the school building during recess and just watch the other kids play. The teachers who supervised the playground activities always stood huddled, chatting away with each other. Only one time in seventh grade, did someone ever ask why I didn’t play with the other kids. I didn’t know what to say so I just shrugged my shoulders. I was never asked that question again.
I didn’t know how to play with others. The other kids played things I didn’t like – tag and kick ball. The girls usually huddled together and talked about things I did not understand nor cared about. There was no one like me and I didn’t know what to do about it.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I had been diagnosed in my mid 20’s with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Looking back at this diagnosis, with the undiagnosed autism, created a very difficult situation for me. One of the main traits of DID is compartmentalizing experiences and hiding them from myself so I can function “normally” in society. It overlaps with the concept of how women with autism mask their symptoms to fit in. The masking was very natural to me and something I did without even thinking about. I will explore more of this in a later blog. I think around that time I developed a lot of bad coping habits that seem to be typical among females with undiagnosed autism.
One time, while riding on the bus to school, I had suddenly realized I was in the seventh grade, not the eighth and I had another year of torture ahead of me. What a depressing realization! Don’t ask me why I thought I was in the eighth grade. I got confused a lot when I was that age.
Self-harming by way of cutting became a way to express feelings that were too big and overwhelming to handle. I felt that I didn’t have emotional support at home, and I was completely alone in my world. It would be almost a trance-like experience to cut my arm. There was never pain. Just relief. Then, of course, following the relief was always the shame that went with it.
I tried experimenting with the eating disorder thing around this time too. I knew exactly what I was doing. I was an obsessive fan of Karen Carpenter and idolized her anorexia. I thought I was a chubby girl growing up because my body type is curvy, so I have larger hips and a bigger bust. I somehow got the message that I was fat and therefore that was the reason why people didn’t like me. Karen Carpenter was an inspiration because if I could be like her, then other people would like me better. Most mornings I committed myself to not eating for the day and usually started off strong but by the time dinner came around I was hungry and would get mad that I could not follow through and stop eating. The longest time I went without consuming food was one week at a summer camp. It became a game to me to see how long I could go without eating before anyone noticed. I felt amazing. I had so much energy and felt like I could go for ever. After you don’t eat for that long it becomes much easier to stay the course.
Guess what. No one ever noticed. Except my mom when I came home, as I had dropped a ton of weight in that one week. She told me I should go to camp more often; I assume she meant because I would lose more weight. I don’t know if my parents ever noticed my disordered eating. My dad worked hard and traveled a lot with his job. Once he went to Europe for two weeks and I didn’t notice he was gone until after a week went by and I realized I had not seen him. I finally asked my mom where he was. That wasn’t unusual in our home. My dad traveled a lot for his job, and it was typical for him to be gone for 3-4 days at a time.
I’m sure my dad would have preferred to spend more time with us kids, but society compels us to work endlessly. My mom was busy with her own daycare business. I can’t imagine how stressful it was for her. She raised a lot of children in her lifetime. Putting myself in her shoes I probably would have been completely burned out by the end of the day and could see how something like my hidden eating disorder would have easily been missed. I typically spent all my free time in my room, including dinner and other mealtimes. In my mind, I never considered it a real eating disorder because I felt like my motives were different from what other people with “real” eating disorders.
Internally my world was such a mess. Life was so confusing, and school was a complete disaster. My only outlet were my obsessions that I would focus on when I was at home – The Carpenters or Beverly Hills 90210.
Reflecting on these experiences now causes me to have a lot more compassion for the entire situation. Growing up I think my parents never quite knew what to think of me and the idea of autism didn’t really exist except in extreme, non-verbal cases. Now, at the very least, I would have an IEP (Individualized Educational Program) or at least a diagnosis of autism.
My point is I am not the only female with these experiences. There are probably thousands more women out there with similar stories as mine, but they don’t have an explanation as I do. They fell through the cracks of the public-school system, and perhaps they didn’t have the support at home as I did. They never fit into anything and could never figure out why. There is an increased risk of suicide among people with autism. More studies need to be done to figure out why this is, but here is one study that shows how statistically significant this is.
I personally feel like my experiences growing up with the idea that somehow, I was different, or less than, made me prone to depression and suicidal thinking. It can wear on a persons psychological state when constantly being reminded they are lacking or not good enough, and never told why. It’s no wonder autistic people struggle with these issues.
Until next time….