What's an autistic girl to do? / by Alise Hardy

"Alise aged 6 years and 4 months is an attractive, outwardly controlled yet inwardly very intense little girl who exhibits Asperger’s Syndrome which affects the way she relates generally, and also copes with every day pressure.” 

Reading this sentence at the age of 22 was how I found out I am on the Autism Spectrum. I was thrown first by the bottomless compliment sandwich, and then by the gravity of the information I had ‘stumbled across’ while rifling through documents on the top of my parents’ bedroom wardrobe in 2010.

I frantically read and re-read the six-page psychological report, grappling with what it meant and how its contents re-framed my life to that point.

I sat on the life-changing information for three days, which was just the right amount of time to become extremely angry. Anger soon gave way to hurt and that is when I broke my silence. I called everyone; my older brother and younger sister, my best friend, my favourite teacher from high school and my friend who had worked with autistic children while studying psychology at university. But I did not tell my parents I had discovered their secret. I received mixed reactions to the news. My friend who had studied psychology did not think the report could have been correct. My high school teacher claimed to not know and assured me it wasn’t a big deal. My best friend was just as confused as I was. My brother and sister knew and they were added to my hit list, which already included my parents. Ultimately, the main thing I felt was betrayal. 

I began my tumultuous journey to discovering and rediscovering myself by reading Tony Atwood’s book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, which helped me understand the basics of what exactly is meant by Asperger’s. But it did not help me understand ‘me’, a girl on the autistic spectrum. I have spent much of my life knowing that there was something ‘different’ about me. This ‘knowing’ began in early primary school; from the age of about seven I experienced the strong feeling of difference and desire for acceptance usually reserved for adolescence. Throughout my teenage years I read general psychology textbooks that became manuals for self-diagnosis; the diagnosis of depression and borderline personality disorder was vaguely plausible, but I was never entirely confident in any of these conclusions . Now, as an adult, reading literature has still not helped me to change that feeling of difference and distance from everyone around me. The only thing that I can categorically say that I have gained through my exploration of what it means to be on the autistic spectrum is an ability to explore myself and others through creative means.

Last year I spent 12 months living in the United Kingdom and teaching in an inner-city London middle and secondary school. I taught students with a range of learning difficulties and special needs. This was the first time I knowingly met others on the autistic spectrum. Two of my students remain vivid in my memory. The first is a sixteen year old boy who was extremely low-functioning. He needed a high level of support, supervision and care while at school. The second student was a high-functioning seventeen-year-old boy who identified with the label of ‘Aspergers’, rather than ‘autistic’, and who was of above average intelligence.

The first student produced wonderfully humorous and intricate frame-by-frame interpretations of television series in pen line drawings. And in conversations with the second I was often bewildered by his knowledge of mathematics and science and the systematic fashion that he was able to help me understand the concepts he was learning. I was struck by the contrast in their learning styles, interests and expression. Observing these young men brought me to some conclusions about my own learning, interests and ways of expression. 

Visual arts has not always been my focus; it is by no means a ‘special interest’ that has spanned across my life. Playing the piano and singing has been my main vehicle for expressing how I feel, something I have never been able to do verbally. However, creating art works has taught me a great deal about how I learn, and has helped me understand how I interpret and ‘know’ myself, others and the world. 

Creating calms me. I tune in, to tune out. And I am persistent in finding the time to be hyper-focused on my work for an extended period once I begin. I create my artwork in a methodical way. I begin with minute detail and and gradually build a bigger, global ‘scene’ around that details. Most people do the opposite. My persistence and focus is driven by an unexplained desire to be able to analyse, systemise and produce accurate representations of detail, patterns, lines, colour and shapes.

Like my two students, I have found a way to interact and function in my world in a way that is logical and makes sense to my mind. I am able to use the formalities of art elements to communicate my thoughts. Through controlling line, creating colour relationships and emulating the subtlety of natural light an emotional presence becomes embedded my work. It is this intentional placement of these elements and the delicacy of application of the mediums I work with that unveils my emotional and mental state. And it is this unveiling that provokes those who view my work to indirectly connect with me too. I am able to create realms where I feel more real than what my physical reality permits. 

Four years on and I am not angry or hurt anymore. Everything came to a head in an emotionally heated and inappropriately timed blow out with my brother, sister and parents last month. Confessions of embarrassment, admiration and regret surfaced. Afterwards I wondered, is it really so important that I can’t rationally comprehend why my parents didn’t tell me I was on the autistic spectrum? I don't think so anymore. What is important is the journey I have embarked on over the past four years in which I have internalised my thoughts, identity and beliefs, and outwardly expressed those understandings in accessible and creative ways that allow me to be a good kind of different. Without an autistic brain, perhaps none of that would be possible.