What is it about being a woman that makes me happy? I don’t know if I can answer that. Being a woman just is. It carries some burdens and some joys.
I’ve spoken about Bras before and how much I loathe them, I’m not sure I’ve really written much about my experience of being an autistic woman, perhaps the time has come.
I grew up wild. A farmer’s daughter with hundreds of acres of mountainside as my playground. I spent my days with muddy knees, riding my bike with a stick as a gun, or hunting through rusty old farm tools to find treasure – metalwork bent into a pleasing shape, a long-abandoned tool, so many treasures.
I would run, surefooted, along high walls, battling pirates and orcs. My writing reflected my play; punctuation had no place in my stories. They stretched on for page after page of blood and battle, nary a comma or full-stop in sight. Breathless and urgent. There was so much to do and say, I had no time to attend to such trifles as “being understood”.
I refused to wear dresses. You can’t climb trees in dresses – well you can, but you skin your knees on the gnarly bark, and they tangle and trap you – they were impractical for the things I wanted to do. My eighties-jeans – ripped by action, not by fashion – were my clothes of choice.
I hated to be hugged. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to play with dolls when they could be fighting the forces of darkness. I was rough and tumble, and free. It was a girlhood from a bygone era, and I loved it.
Puberty brought problems. Menstruation is a combination of practical and autistic issues. Tell a girl that at some point her body will change (When? No one knows), tell her that it will set into cycles of change for decades (How long? No one knows), give her minimal information about what it will be like (How will I feel? No one knows), use euphemistic language and present it all in hushed whispers (Is it natural? It is shameful), and you have a recipe for confusion and fear.
I always prefer honesty. I want a dentist who tells me, “This will hurt”. I want a midwife who is clear in their language. I want to know how bad it could be; not because I’m a pessimist, because I’m a pragmatist. If I don’t know the worst-case scenario, then I won’t be properly prepared.
Puberty didn’t make me feel womanly, it made me feel confused, it made me feel sweaty, it made other people react differently to me, and change is always bad.
I was a slow learner when it came to fashion. Secondary school brought strict clothing rules. I would have to wear skirts for the first time in years. I found a way around it by wearing the thickest tights I could find beneath them. Even in the height of summer, you would find me wearing them. I was already known for my quirks, bullied for my oddness, I didn’t understand the rules, so I forcefully rejected them.
I remember when a group of girls decided to give me a makeover. If I’d been in an American Teen Movie, this would have been the point that the geeky, strange girl, shakes out her hair, puts on some makeup, and everyone swoons at her permanent change.
It didn’t stick. I laughed at my new face and clothes, and crept back to my grungy bagginess. I didn’t know how to play that part, it would need practice. I hated the sensory feel of the clingy clothes, and the new positioning of my hair, and the dangly earrings. It all felt so very strange, and of course, it was change.
What did being a girl mean to me then? It meant strange and illogical rules. Your skirt length was linked to your levels of promiscuity, with no evidence. Your body shape was a subject for boys to discuss and critique, as though it was theirs. You would be ignored by your maths teacher, and you would go from loving it, to bored by the lack of engagement and no longer being pushed to your limits by teachers who brought you more and more work for you to blissfully devour. You would be top of the class, but never have Maths A Level suggested to you.
What kind of teen was I? I was weird, and because I didn’t want to be weird, but couldn’t escape it, I had to pretend that weirdness was my choice.
There’s one thing I’m grateful to my autism for; because I don’t take on social information automatically, I was never as susceptible to gender stereotypes.
Back then the rules of it didn’t seem as strict. Walking through toy shops I don’t ever remember there being a “blue aisle” and a “pink aisle”, the way there often is today. I’m glad no one told me that I shouldn’t like wooden swords, or that I was unladylike.
It didn’t mean I didn’t take on some more conscious messages about my sex. In my day “Girl” was a well-worn insult. “You’re such a girl.” It didn’t specifically mean that you were female, it was code for a weak, squeamish, performative distortion of feminine.
I knew being a “Girl” was a bad thing. I didn’t associate it to my sex, but it did form the basis of my utter rejection of all things pink and frilly.
I would not be a Girl, I would be a girl, I would show how I wasn’t like those “Other Girls”. I would be tough and brave and strong. You need a spider moving? Give me a shout.
I would be just like all the other women in my life, and my friends, a real person, and not a caricature. It didn’t occur to me that I was rejecting something pretend, in reaction to something I couldn’t make logical. I’m glad that the rules around what you are allowed to like, were more flexible when I grew up.
I was never going to get married. I loved boys, I usually had a boyfriend, but I never wanted to fall into the trap of femininity. I would not be a Girl.
I was never interested in babies either. Strange, alien things that people cooed over. Why could they not see that they were just wrinkly blobs? Why did they think them beautiful? What was I missing?
I would never be tied to children, I would be too busy having adventures.
Oh how I laugh now with the benefit of hindsight. Instead of saying “I’m a girl, that’s not being a girl!”, I just agreed that being a Girl was an awful thing to be. I didn’t squeal, or wear makeup or care about fashion.
Imagine my surprise when I met a group of autistic women. Imagine my shock at discovering just how similar we were in Girliness. Or lack of.
I’m not saying that there won’t be many an autistic woman out there, whose special interest is fashion or pink, but as ever, I’m only ever speaking from my own experience. It is all I know.
I got married. I had children. I sometimes even bake cakes, and it makes me really sad that I tried so hard to avoid Girly things, for no logical reason at all. Rejecting it diminished me.
I will never enjoy menstruating (I don’t think you’re supposed to), it’s an inconvenience, something else to think about. I find my sensory issues are heightened when my hormone levels are high, my temperature fluctuates, executive function is needed to be prepared, and I’m terrible at that.
I’m already nervous about the menopause too, but I will cross that bridge when I get to it, and hope more research is done on ageing autistic women in the meantime.
I’m no good at remembering to take hormonal contraceptives, I’m no good at remembering when my period is due, I’m no good at wearing white trousers whilst trampolining – like the women in those old tampon adverts – my Hypermobility combined with my pregnancy put me in a wheelchair for a while, there are lots of womanly things that are hard for me.
There have been many additional challenges for my autistic womanhood, but for all of them, I am so very glad that I am one. This old body of mine has grown whole people, it is a funny old thing. I am just me, quintessentially me. I am the only me I know, and all I know is how to be me. I love my strengths and my weaknesses, my softness and my hardness.
Rules around roles are so dangerous for autistic people, we’re a non-conformist bunch, and that is just fine.
I am reclaiming “Girl”. I am going to be such a Girl today, I’m going to split some logs with my Girly axe, then I’m going to do a Girly run around the garden with my youngest, after that I will excel at some Girly writing and if I managed to fit it in, I’ll be Girlily watching something with Girly fighting in it, and Girlily imagining that I’m still out there battling dragons with my Girly battle-axe.
I might even bake a Girly cake; imagine that.