I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when I was 41 years old. A very late diagnosis.
The truth is, that females represent differently than males. Their interests may appear to be quieter. Or more in line with expectations for gender. Or their social skills may appear sharply contrasted with those of autistic boys, so they fall under the radar, unnoticed. In “Understanding the Gender Gap: Autistic Women and Girls”, author Cynthia Kim writes that “Autistic boys tend to have “odd” special interests like outhouses or stop signs. The unusualness of their interests sends up a red flag. In contrast, many girls develop a special interest that is similar to the interests of their peers: dolls, music groups, horses, books. However, the intensity or depth of an autistic girl’s interest is different from the way her peers engage with the same subject. An autistic girl may be more interested in collecting or cataloging information about her passion, she may develop an unusual depth of knowledge for her age, or she may spend an unusual amount of time pursuing one interest, to the exclusion of other activities.”
I’m not writing today to recapitulate information about autism in women. As an autistic woman, I’m here to provide my own personal perspective. Blogging about being a late-diagnosed autistic woman. So I thought I would share with you some of the many special interests I’ve had in my life. I’m always interested to know what experiences other autistic women had as children. I have actually blocked out a great deal of my childhood. I simply don’t remember it. What I do remember, I recall in exquisite detail.
As a child, I was not interested in the things that other girls were interested in. I was a “tomboy” and once I was old enough to put up a fuss over the frilly and girly things my Mother dressed me in as a toddler, I asserted myself. I most often played by myself when I was younger. I will write in greater detail about my childhood in a future post, but for the purpose of this, I will be mostly listing my special interests and how they manifested.
• Fishing. I was obsessed with it. My Grandfather owned a hunting/fishing shop, took me fishing, taught me to catch/clean/cook fish. I developed a keen interest in lures. I collected them, organizing them by color, type and size in what eventually became a massive fishing box. One of my favorite lures was the “jitterbug”, which came in more color combinations than I could collect. My Grandfather let me have the first pick of every shipment. I had over 100 jitterbugs in my tackle box. I loved how they looked. The colors, the glitter, the shiny parts. I loved the warbling sound they made in the water. I would cast my lure into the water over and over and over again, listening to that sound. Watching the glittery parts glint in the setting sun. I never caught a single Bass with a jitterbug.
• Astronomy. From as early as I can remember, I would wake up in the night, and look out my window, looking for the hunter chasing the tiny cluster of stars, The Pleiades. I remember when my issue of National Geographic World magazine arrived and it had a fold-out, glow in the dark star chart inside of it. My Father gave me his binoculars, and from that point on, I was entranced. I would spend hours on clear nights, laying out in the yard on top of the picnic table, staring up into the sky. I memorized the night sky. I could name all of the constellations, and the stars in them. What I could spot with the binoculars, I did. Oddly enough, I never became one of those children who wants to become an astronaut. I just wanted to lie on the picnic table and stare up into the sky and identify/catalog things. In the winter, I took a sleeping bag out with me. I remember how upset it made me when I was called back inside at night. I could have stayed out there forever, it seemed.
• The Bible. I was raised in a very strict Baptist household. From an early age, I remember being in church many times a week. When I was about 8, I was enrolled in a weekly youth group called “Awana”, where you basically memorized Bible verses and recited them, in order to get a signature in your guide, then move on. You also played games, had snacks, etc. I didn’t care about that stuff. I wanted to memorize as much as possible, get signatures, and little award charms and gems added to the small metal bars and emblems that I wore on my grey and red Awana shirt. I didn’t find meaning in the verses I memorized and later recited. They were just patterns of words to me. I have always had an incredible capacity for memorization, and I was so good at it, that I became the only child to completely finish the entire Awana program. I was so good at it that they accused me of cheating. I promptly proved them wrong, by reciting back verses at will, from long previous passages. I eventually recovered and began to read the Bible for content. I was fascinated with the characters and their relation to each other. Their family trees. How it all fit together. I became a detective, finding numerous incidences of things that didn’t quite match up, or flow cohesively. I had Bibles in different versions and compared them. King James, American Standard… I loved the smell of them, their delicately translucent paper, the way the pages ruffled, the ones with gold trim on the pages, or red trim. Or purple. The thing I never actually did, however- was believe anything I read in the Bible.
• Cemeteries. My first childhood memory is of sitting on the cement steps behind out house, looking out over the cemetery. The steps were smooth concrete, with sharp little ridges molded into them, which stuck into my legs. I was sitting there with a red barley sugar lollipop in the shape of a rooster, and a purple plastic cup of water. I didn’t eat lollipops like most kids. I dipped the pop into the water, and then into my mouth. I would often walk through the cemetery, I was fascinated with the textured stone, the engraving, the little statues. When I was five, we moved to a different house. What was right next to it? An old cemetery, overgrown and surrounded by a rough stone wall. I played in there all the time. I made grave rubbings of every gravestone I could. I tried to imagine the people buried there. I was horrified when I found a child’s grave. I could often be found clearing brush and overgrowth off the graves, or balancing on the stone wall, walking around the perimeter, making sure all of the stones were in place. My imagination was vivid. I fantasized that each gravestone was a portal into the underworld, and that there were steps underneath them, which led down, down, down. Other children wouldn’t come into the graveyard and play with me. That was fine with me, I really preferred to play alone. Later in life, we lived near another large cemetery, where I often went for walks, and photographed the angel statues. This upset my Mother, who thought I was “morbid”. When I lived in Rochester, NY, I lived near Mt. Hope Cemetery, which is one of the most magnificent places that I have walked my dog on a daily basis.
• My Dollhouse. Actually, no “dolls” ever lived in it. It was a mouse house. I had these little mice, which were actually actual tiny mice which had been crafted from mouse hide/fur. This never grossed me out, oddly. My Grandfather was an avid hunter and my Grandparent’s house was full of animals which my Grandfather was extremely proud of. There were two huge black bearskin rugs in the TV room, hanging on the wall. They were on a thick red scalloped felt, and they looked alive to me. Their glossy teeth, the prickly texture of their tongues, their felted ears. Walking upstairs, the entire wall was covered with smaller creatures, mounted as if they were standing at attention in the wild. I am not sure what creatures these were. They were all sorts of mink-like rodents. I imagined that they came to life at night when I was asleep. They ran like shadows out of the house and gathered in the forest, where they ran and frolicked. Much like my tiny little mice did, when I was sleeping. Or when I left my bedroom. I carefully crafted the interior of my dollhouse, wallpapering it, sewing curtains, assembling intricate furniture from kits. I even crocheted tiny little rugs for the rooms. My mice had a beautiful home, and I spent hours lost in the details of it. Once, my cat got into it and shredded my mice. Apparently, they smelled a little too much like prey to him. Another time, another predator broke into my room and destroyed my dollhouse, trashing the rooms, furniture and careful arrangements I crafted. That predator was my Brother. I got a lock on my bedroom door after that.
• Antiques. My Father had an antique store, one of his many professions and ventures. I loved going to the store with him, where I would dust and wax furniture, watch him lovingly upholster new cushions onto them, and arrange the settees in his showroom area. On the weekends, we would drive to auctions or estate sales. I soon garnered a collection of antique hats, antique brooches, antique hat pins, antique linens, old records, and carnival glass. I could identify the style of furniture. Queen Anne, Chippendale, etc. I learned about different types of wood used in furniture, and how to identify it by the grain. But I was completely taken by the carnival glass. The colors, the patterns and the iridescence! To this day, I still search for authentic carnival glass. At flea markets, tag sales, roadside sales, and antique shops.
• Books/Libraries. A trip to the library meant books. Books meant the smell of books, the delicate fragrance of knowledge and adventure mingling. The sound of pages turning, the slight indentation of the letters on the pages. I would check out piles of books from the library each week. I would consume them, quickly. Not just their words, but the sensation of holding them. I remember the day that I came across a neat row of tiny, leather-bound books with the thinnest paper and golden edging. Every work of Shakespeare, in a row. I checked out every single one, and I read every single one. I contemplated telling the library that they had been lost, or stolen, or anything to explain them disappearing and making a permanent home in my room. But I couldn’t do that. I returned them, but visited often. Checking them out over and over and over again. A trip to a new library was equally exciting- the same books, but in a different physical form. Books hold secrets for me. Just yesterday I went to the flea market and bought two old books- a volume of chemistry, and Latin. I would often check books out of the library because of their smell, or the feel of their pages, or the texture/pattern/design of their covers. The inside content did not necessarily matter- it was usually a second thought. I discovered many things through this, that I otherwise might not have stumbled upon.
These are some of my main, obsessive interests as a child. They don’t represent all of my interests, but mainly the ones that I remember the most. I had many obsessions, and loved to be outdoors, exploring. I loved to climb trees, follow streams, fly kites, catch salamanders/frogs/lightning bugs/caterpillars. My imagination was so vivid that I didn’t need friends with me on my explorations. Usually, they got in my way and dampened my experience.
I often wonder how it is that my parents didn’t notice that I was so very different. Actually, I think they did, at least sometimes. My Mother was not happy that I did not play with other girls, and that I was more often than not, disheveled, dirty, and dressed like a boy. I vividly remember one incident, where I came home very muddy, and was promptly put into the tub, dressed in white shorts and a pink shirt, and forced to go up the street to play with two girls named Ellen and Kathleen. It was traumatic for me, to be forced out of my natural habitat, and into an uncomfortable social situation. To play with dolls. Dolls! Sure, I had dolls when I was a child, but my dolls didn’t do boring things like have tea together and talk about being princesses. My dolls were savage and raw women, whether they were pretending to be Native American medicine women, or untamed Goddesses. They were never “Barbie- Ken’s girlfriend”, or anything of that sort. Most of the time, I chopped off their hair, or colored it in with black markers. My dolls had war paint. They were fearsome. They weren’t stupid, frilly dolls in pink corvettes and dream houses. This all offended me. These girls offended me. The pink shirt offended me. I just wanted to scream, kick and run out of that house. I wanted to be alone in the forest, or up in a tree. Just me, the birds, and whatever book I had chosen to carefully wrap in plastic and tuck into the tree branches, so that I could read it and keep it safe from the rain.
Are you an autistic woman? What were some of your narrowly focused interests, as a child? I am eager to hear about yours. I will write soon, this time about my interests as an adult.
Thank you for reading!