Let me set the stage for you.
My boyfriend at the time—let’s call him Jeremy—and I were wandering through the city in around 2016 or so when I spotted a sign for a hobby shop. I made a beeline for it, dragging Jeremy behind me, and went straight upstairs to the plane floor. It’s not a floor just for planes, of course, there’s other stuff there, but did I ever pay attention to it? Fuck no. Planes is what I went there for and planes is what I was going to see, damn it.
I stood in front of the huge glass cabinets stuffed to the brim of die-cast planes of all scales and grinned, my chest filled with an indescribable joy that radiated through my eyes and my pores. I loved this shop.
A quick segue, for context: I’m a plane nerd. Always have been. Civilian aircraft are my jam, military not so much, but I can hold my own with most air force guys. This special interest runs in the family—my paternal grandfather worked at an airline as an engineer, and my father loves planes and is in the air force—but I’m the only girl in the family to have it. Since I was little I’ve been obsessed with planes; it seems that, much like with horses, I came out of the womb loving them. I used to beg my dad to take me plane spotting. In year four, as part of holiday care at my school, we got a special ‘behind-the-scenes’ tour of the airport in a little bus. I was so excited to be on the tarmac—the actual runway!—I could barely contain myself. The tour guide/airport worker was highly impressed by the fact that I, a ten year old girl, could name every single plane we saw. He was quizzing me at the end, playing along not with malice but with genuine awe, and I loved every second of it.
Back to the hobby store. I flattened myself against the glass, gasping with excitement. “Look, that’s a Qantas 747! And—oh! An A380! That’s my favourite plane, you know! And check this out, it’s the special livery on the 737—”
“You fucking autist,” Jeremy sniggered.
(I can’t remember the actual comment. It might have been “are you autistic or something?”, or even, “you fucking autistic,” or, “haha, autist”. But the sentiment is the same.)
I stopped dead, turning to him. We had been together for two years at this point and although we fought, he was never outright cruel. This comment was on another level. He must have seen the hurt in my eyes and flinched, embarrassment turning to outright concern when I started crying, right there in the hobby shop as the other patrons (not that there were that many) inched away from us.
He apologised profusely, over and over, and hugged me as I cried. “It was a joke,” he said, stroking my back. “I’m so sorry.”
He felt so guilty for making me cry that he bought me a $350 model of one of my favourite planes, a model I still have (I’m staring at it right now as I write this), and I left the store beaming from ear to ear. When I tell this story these days, I play it off, parroting his comment flippantly and telling people I won because I got an expensive metal plane out of it all. And I did. But that doesn’t change the piercing, sharp hurt that slid into me when he called me autistic, a betrayal.
Once, at my first high school, I mentioned to someone in science class that the word ‘quiche’ made me feel gross inside. It doesn’t now—you’ll see why in a moment—but at the time just hearing or thinking of the word made my whole body cringe in a toe-curling, spine-tingling way. That makes it sound pleasant; it wasn’t. It was just a fucking word, for god’s sake, but it made me feel like white noise in my head and chest, roiling in my stomach. That’s the only way I know how to describe it.
Someone overheard. The girls who made it their life lesson to make me miserable got wind of this, and for the next few weeks, I couldn’t go anywhere at school without hearing ‘quiche’, an echo of the worst kind, a malicious shadow winding its way into me. Girls would whisper it to me in the stairwells, shout it across the quad, find me in the library to say it to my face—all to watch me squirm. They liked watching my discomfort. It made them feel good to bully me in this way.
At the time I had no idea why this word made me feel like this—and thanks to my good ol’ pal exposure therapy, the word no longer has the effect on me, and instead I just wrinkle my nose at buried memories—but now it’s pretty clear that it was a sensory issue, albeit a weird one. These girls had no idea I was autistic (I think), and were just using low-hanging fruit to get to me. But it was the first time my autism was used as a weapon against me.
It certainly was not the last.
Years later again. I’m nineteen, maybe twenty. Laughing with my friends on the sofa. A plane flies overhead. I pull up my flight tracking app on my phone to see what it is and where it’s going. “Autistic,” laughs my friend, and I bite the inside of my cheek.
Everywhere I went that term followed me, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. I wasn’t autistic. I would know if I was autistic. That was for boys like Gary from primary school, who had hardcore in-depth knowledge of all the bugs that lived in the park and would sometimes eat them. Aspergers, too; I knew of that, but that was for my friends like Tom, who just seemed a little eccentric and almost too good at computers—he somehow hacked his way into the admin account and installed a first person shooter on all the machines in the library. Autism was those boys I spent my formative years with, not for me.
Looking back now, I can see that my merry little gang of misfits, the only friends I had in primary school, were all almost certainly autistic in some way. We kept to ourselves and played pokemon cards. Most of us avoided eye contact. It wasn’t strange, it was just the way we were. There was a quiet understanding between us ‘weird’ kids, a sense of camaraderie that even if the outside world didn’t get us, we got each other.
But I lost that when I moved schools for high school. I was flung into a world I was unprepared for, even though I begged my mother not to make me go. And it was every bit as hellish as I knew it would be. Even at eleven I was aware of the fact that I was different from the other kids; I was weird. I knew that weirdness would be picked on and it was.
By my second high school I had learnt to mimic effectively. I was bubbly, loud, too loud. I was a parody of what I thought people liked. I was the joker, the clown, the one making everyone laugh—either with me or at me, didn’t matter. I had boyfriends, I had friends, but it was all very precarious. I felt like I was living behind a mask. I slipped it on every day as I walked through the doors of school and took it off the moment I got home. It wasn’t too different from the real me, it was just me… amplified.
I settled slightly at my third high school. I was able to tone down the mask. I was still ridiculous, but it wasn’t grating (well, too grating). I masked well enough to pass as normal, if a little eccentric once you got to know me. I made friends, real friends, friends I still talk to to this day, and managed to get out of school with my sanity somewhat intact.
Through it all, through every single move, through every single part of my childhood and adolescence, I was so, so aware of the fact I was different. I flipped through personalities like I was changing clothes; all of them were inauthentic copies of someone else, the only way I knew how to socialise. For a while there, Borderline Personality Disorder was thrown around. I was never officially diagnosed with it. I did a lot of DBT, which helped, and it was forgotten about. (Fun fact for you! Autistic women are often misdiagnosed with BPD.) But I knew something was different. I was on the outside looking in. Everyone else just seemed to get it, instinctively, and I did not.
As a young adult, I settled, somewhat. My mental health recovered from my teenage years. I got a part-time job, and started university. I was doing well.
Then my sister told me she thought we were autistic, I moved to Korea, had a mental breakdown, and moved back. And now I’m here.
This post is long and rambly, and I’m sure it’s made little sense. What I’m trying to get at is that self-acceptance is so, so fucking hard. For years I was made to feel ashamed of my autistic traits, repress them, push them away, be ‘normal’. Now that I know that my normal is different to neurotypical normal—and that that’s okay—I can embrace those parts of myself that I denied for so long. But fuck, it’s hard. Whispers of autist and jeers about planes and quiches and trains float through my mind, following me everywhere. They have been proved right.
I don’t speak to Jeremy anymore. Our breakup was messy and drawn-out and, if I’m honest, about a year overdue. He has since moved overseas, and when a mutual friend asked if he was going to catch up with me when he was in town, he grimaced and said ‘fuck no’, so I guess the friendship boat has sailed (not that I’m too broken up about that. Or broken up at all). But I wonder. What would he say if I told him I’m autistic? That he was right? Would he laugh? Would he apologise again? Would he feel guilty?
I guess if there’s a motto to get out of this blog post, it’s to not use autism as an insult. It’s all too common to see this, especially online (think of memes like ‘reeeeee’ and ‘autistic screeching’), and it’s really, really shit. Even my friends, who are good people and who would never intentionally hurt me, have called me autistic as an joke (insult?) before. It’s not funny and while I may have been able to laugh about it before, I’m not really laughing now.
Autism isn’t a joke. It’s not a meme or something used as a punchline. It’s how I see and experience the world, how I interact with others, and it’s not bad; it’s wonderful.
Or at least, that’s what I try and tell myself.
Hopefully one day I will believe it.