I was completely mainstreamed in school, with minimal supports aside from the occasional social skills workshops I was pulled out of class for*. I was also completely unaware of my Autism, and really rather oblivious to a large number of things socially.
When I was in 6th grade, there was a girl in my homeroom. Let’s call her “Kathleen” (NOT her real name). She was very friendly and always smiled and waved at me when I walked into the room.
Every morning for the first month or so of school, she would say “Hi! My name’s Kathleen, what’s your name?” and I would smile and say “Hi Kathleen, my name’s E.” Sometimes I got another phrase out, like “how are you today?” or “It’s Wednesday* today”. I liked days of the week. (*Wednesday is a generic day of the week.)
Sometimes she would respond “Hi E, my name is Kathleen. How are you today?” and I would say “I’m fine, how are you today, Kathleen?” And then the conversation would usually end.
I never knew how to continue the conversation. Usually when I talk to people, unless it’s about my special interests, I just listen to them talk. And I had long-since learned never to say a word about my special interests.
After the first month, the conversation changed. When I walked into class, I was greeted with “Hi E! I’m Kathleen. Today is Wednesday*! How are you today?” and our morning’s ritual conversation would continue.
I was the only person who responded when she said hi.
Kathleen was Autistic.
I didn’t know. It never occurred to me. I was completely unaware of my own Autism, and definitely didn’t know how to recognize it in others. Sure, she had an aide, and she was only in homeroom with us. She definitely had (minimal) scripted speech and she rocked and stimmed, and did everything else my mother and teachers had spent my whole life stopping me from doing. I had difficulty interacting with her. My social scripts didn’t account for someone else with Autism. Once we got past the scripted “how are you” “I am fine”, neither of us knew what to do.
But it was ok. We acknowledged each other’s existence in a way that very few others had. Sometimes our conversations were ended by the homeroom teacher, but all too often, it was ended by a classmate, interrupting us with a nasty sounding comment about how I shouldn’t be talking with Kathleen. As if she was somewhat less than human. I always hated those comments, but I could never defend her. When I’m bullied or accused, I shut down, and I lose my words.
Kathleen taught me a lot when I interacted with her. In some ways, our little scripted conversations at the beginning of each day were a call: you are not alone. We were almost always put together in field trip groups, the group with 2 or 3 adults: her mother, her aide, and sometimes a teacher, so I got to see her when we weren’t in classes. I was always afraid to be with Kathleen, because I didn’t want to do something wrong. Not from her point of view, but from the point of view of the ever-present adults. I wonder now if they knew, or at least suspected that I, too, was Autistic.
Autism awareness starts young, and I was unaware. If I’d been more aware, I might’ve actually become better friends with Kathleen. But instead I was wary. Wary of someone who had the differences everyone else in my world was trying to beat, bully, and abuse out of me. Wary of someone who communicated differently from all of my peers and who had an aide with her all day. Wary of someone who was incredibly kind and nice and interacted with me of her own accord.
I wish that I had known then what I know now. I wish I had been aware of how Autism manifested itself both similarly and differently in Kathleen and I, how we really weren’t that different. I wish I had had the words to defend her and tell her that she was kind and worthwhile and that I didn’t believe a word those other girls said. But I didn’t and I couldn’t. And because I was scared of the consequences of standing up for Kathleen would have for me from the other students. I was scared that I was like Kathleen and that my mother definitely hate me even more if she found out.
Because I was unaware of Autism.
*I grew up without an acknowledged diagnosis or a label. My mother refused to let anyone label me. Although I do think I did pretty well for myself, and I might not have been had some of the opportunities I did if I had been “officially” labeled, I think I would’ve benefited in a number of ways from knowing about myself and Autism. The amount I’ve grown in terms of self-awareness and ability to function has increased exponentially since I became aware of my diagnosis, and I think this is the case for many people who become aware of their place on the spectrum later in life.