I wrote this post for Heidi who is doing great things with Canberra Cooking Circles. Then I thought it might have wider appeal so am blogging it. Enjoy…
When I was a child I didn’t have much concept of gender or the social conventions around what a girl was ‘supposed’ to be like. Whatever it should be I never conformed to it. I remember being quite surprised at the reactions by adults in my world when I was eight and walked home from school on a hot day. The boys took their shirts off. I was vaguely aware that older girls and women had breasts and they shouldn’t really be shown off in public but I was eight and had no breasts at all so I took off my shirt and enjoyed the cool breeze. Apparently this was The Wrong Thing to Do. I was confused.
My confusion continued through my teenage years. I was shy and had few friends. I preferred the library to a party and the characters in books were better friends than most of the flesh and blood people in my life. All my schoolmates were talking about boyfriends and kissing and sex and what they were wearing to the formal. All these things seemed silly to me.
My family went to a rather dogmatic and conservative church which had a bunch of specific rules for female members. From an early age I started to realise that as a woman all I would be allowed do in the church was make the flower arrangement, play the organ or make the cakes and coffee for morning tea. All the interesting roles were taken by men. I knew my mum really wanted to do the Bible readings but she knew that wasn’t ever going to happen. The world was apparently weird and unfair.
As an older teenager I encountered sexual violence and harassment. I couldn’t escape creepy men. There seemed to be a new potential abuser everywhere I went. I didn’t actually feel confident to tell them to go away. I thought I needed an excuse. So I would tell them I had a boyfriend or a girlfriend, that I had to go to work or an endless stream of other reasons not to have them do whatever unpleasant things they wanted to. This tactic only worked some of the time. I wondered whether I had a sign stuck on my face that said ‘bother me. I’m shy and not assertive’.
My life went in some strange and frightening directions. I had a sort of asexual relationship with a man who turned out to be a violent criminal. By the time I worked out how dangerous he was I was too involved to leave him. We did awful, stupid things and went to jail. I went from being unable to say no to anyone to being a violent criminal – albeit an extremely reluctant one. Jail was like a malevolent high school where the bullies might kill you if you get it ‘wrong’. I worked very hard to discover what made criminal women happy, angry and murderous and somehow fitted into that broken universe with my half finished university degree and visitor’s list filled with my awkward socialist friends and fundamentalist family.
While I was a prisoner, amidst writing tragic poetry and having visiting art teachers lament that an art student should be in jail, I met a psychologist. The psychologist was called Vikki and she specialised in working with Autistic women. She asked me questions and got me to do some interesting activities – trying to remember numbers and arrange social comic strips. In return she gave me a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. I didn’t know what this meant. Was it a diagnosis of ‘geek’? Was it just my parents making excuses for all the mistakes I had made in my twenty years on the planet? It seemed a lot to deal wth so I shelved it for a few years.
By the time I picked up my Asperger’s diagnosis again, I had gained a mental illness diagnosis, spent another three years in and out of hospitals and prisons with magistrates not knowing where to put the funny little woman who painted so beautifully and wrote like an angel but who could not stay out of an institutional setting for more than about two weeks. In 2000 I made a choice to change my life and started studying Fine Art at university again. The Asperger’s diagnosis became my friend. She was a little shy and didn’t like to be introduced to too many people, but she grew in confidence. A couple of years later my diagnosis and I collaborated on an autobiography. It was published and I was all of a sudden a rather surprised author.
I still didn’t know where I fitted in all the gendered existence of the world. What was an Autistic woman? Was I doing whatever Autistic women did? I had no idea. In 2009 I was asked to speak at a conference about women and girls on the Autism spectrum. The first day was a conventional conference but the second day was a workshop just for women and girls on the Autism spectrum. I was sitting amongst 100 of my female Autistic peers. That day I knew I had come home. I found my world, my identity, my kindred.
I have never left that moment. It is with me still. But now those 100 Autistic women have turned into tens of thousands on social media, readers of my books, friends, colleagues. I now know the terrain well. No longer wondering how to be female but knowing I am Autistic Woman and she is a good thing to be. My work now involves helping other Autistic women and girls to find their own belonging. If I can help one young woman to avoid the hell I went through then anything else is a bonus. Women on the Autistic spectrum face some specific challenges, many of which I have experienced. So International Women’s Day is meaningful to me because I want other women to have power, to value themselves. For Autistic women – and all women – to have the opportunity to find where they belong and are safe, accepted and valued.