Teenage and twenty-something m was characterised by one driving passion – a need to belong and be accepted by a peer group. As an Autistic school student I had suffered the all-too-common fate of being astoundingly brilliant and hated and bullied to in an equally large manner. I was always the least popular child in school. I thought that what I endured – name-calling, teasing, practical ‘jokes’ at my expense and violence – was the normal experience for a kid. That didn’t mean that I liked the situation very much and as I progressed through school I found myself feeling isolated and needing to belong to a peer group. I didn’t like myself very much and needed others to accept me to feel worthwhile as a person. I soon discovered that the only peer groups which seemed to want me were those with a defined culture: a set of rules, a manifesto, if you like, which determined how they related to others. My first peer group was the revolutionary socialists. It was very easy for me to be accepted by them – they actually did have a very clear set of rules and expectations. All I need to do was rattle off the party line and I was in!
As I finished school and moved out of home, I found myself seeking out the darker side of life – drug use, mental illness, depressing films, crime. All those years of what I imagine was quite severe bullying, plus some sexual abuse I had experienced as a young teen left me with an affinity for the darkness, the murky, death and destruction. I soon found a new peer group – criminals – and then another – drug addicts. This began five years of hell which should by any logic have left me dead or at least broken-spritied and self-destructive. All the negative behaviour I engaged in, all the addictions and self harm were essentially drawn from my need to be accepted. I suffered unnecessary violence and mistreatment at the hands of judicial and psychiatric structures and all because I wanted people in some peer group to accept me.
When I was 25 I decided to bid farewell to the negative peer groups to which I had been a fellow traveller for so long. I sought out positivity and success and I did it alone, at least in the start. I ditched all my criminal and drug-addicted friends. For a year there were four people in my address book – my brother, my parents and one friend I had met in therapy program. I chose a lonely life. I expect you can imagine just how difficult that was for me. Despite being difficult, however, it was liberating in a way. I was going to be Jeanette for the first time. Now Jeanette the socialist or Jeanette the criminal but just Jeanette. After a couple of years there were more people in my address book. I discovered that some pole eluded me for who I was, not just because I agreed with them on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (or whatever).
A couple of years later still and I found myself a published author and Autism advocate. Even more people started to approach me with a view to being friends. I discovered that I tend to get along very well with Autistic people especially women. We often share some experiences and views. I would have conversations with women on the spectrum and realise that we both intuitively understood where the other person was coming from. As a somewhat extroverted Aspie I find myself drawn to other extroverted Aspie women. I have a good number of these fantastic people amongst my friends. So now, instead of four people in my address book, I have thousands of people on social media and a good number of close friends on the spectrum that I spend time with. I love having found my Autistic peer group. After all those years of ‘tacking on’ a set of belief or values in order to be accepted by a group I can now be myself AND have a peer group.
When I meet young people on the spectrum who are isolated I always try to connect them with others. If I had a peer group I actually had some affinity and commonality with when I was younger who knows how different my life could have been? My peer group now includes so many people (and a certain black cat) that I love and care about, I can hardly believe my lick. I was talking with my Mum – another Purkis Aspie – about the fact that I am unlikely to ever have my own children and that my family are geographically distant from me. My Mum said ‘Jeanette you have such a large family. You have children and friends. So many people care about you, you don’t need biological family close-by. You have your own family.’ And she’s 100% right. I hope that others on the spectrum – especially young people – can find their peer group and be as accepted as I have had the great privilege to be.
A Jeanette painting, for some reason. I’m sure it relates….