By Nicky Vere-Compton
CW: bullying, trauma
My account of the legacy of my schooldays begins with an overview of my family. An Autistic child of Autistic parents, none of us knew we were. Our Autism escaped us, but we knew there was something about us, so we settled on unusual. Unusual became code for Autistic, as far as you can have a code when you don’t know the name of what you’re coding. Mum presented as unusual, Dad even more so, and I took after my parents, especially Dad. Learning quickly I was one third of an unusual family on a planet unreceptive towards us, I accepted these as my cards. I learned to play my cards.
I remember those times when school and I were at odds – they became family stories. The time I was four and spent my lunchbreak with the teacher on the naughty table, repeatedly kicking the teacher under the table. The time I was seven, and a different teacher told me in front of the class, there was something wrong with me. I got out of my seat, walked out of the class, walked out of the school, walked home to Mum.
Age ten, I was telling people, I was the most unpopular girl in class. Despite things happening, sending me the message of unpopularity – without doing anything useful, like telling me what I’d done to deserve it – I had enough friends to get by. The only really nasty thing that happened to me, was my friend’s big brother kicked me in the back, presumably because he didn’t want me as his sister’s friend.
On one level, I was blithe and laissez faire, but on another level, I was struggling. I couldn’t help noticing the other kids communicated differently to me, making it hard for us to talk to each other, even though we all shared the same language.
Kids with my communication were impossible to find. I had better luck finding kids who accepted my communication, despite it not being theirs – these kids became my friends.
I had education-obsessed parents. My primary school – my comparatively bully-free nesting place – wasn’t good enough for them. Age ten, they pulled me out of my school, putting me into a prep school – a fee-paying school, a posh school for posh kids, preparing us for public school. In this school, boys outnumbered girls three to one. To avoid bullying, it was important to look and act like a girl.
I wasn’t very good at that – it was obvious. I rationalised the bullying that followed as what happened to girls like me, who didn’t act like girls. I told myself bullying was an inescapable part of childhood, at least if you were the one who stood out, and I always stood out.
The bullying was physical (punches and kicks), and painful, but not so painful, I couldn’t endure it. It was no good telling Mum, because Mum would intervene, making things worse. It was the boys who bullied me – the girls left me alone – and it was worse in choir, where I was the only girl, surrounded by boys, and we were left unsupervised as we got in and out of our cassocks, meaning it was game on, as far as bullying was concerned. I could have solved my bullying problem by leaving choir. It didn’t occur to me – I liked choir.
Far worse than the physical bullying was the ‘communication thing’. It was much harder than in the previous school to find kids accepting of my communication, despite it not being theirs.
I did have one close friend and other sort of friends. However, in my final term, my close friend was got at by enemy agents – burned and turned. She came to me, telling me being my friend, was getting her a hard time. She told me what I was called behind my back (worse than what I was called to my face). I knew I was unpopular, but apparently the situation was worse than I thought. We’ll never know what would have happened had I stayed at that school, because my parents had other plans. In their wisdom, or rather their relentless search for the perfect education, they moved cross-country, changing my school yet again. I was twelve.
My new school, a nice comprehensive in Kent, wasn’t good enough for my parents. They let me know my only purpose being there, was being ‘creamed off’ at the end of the year to the posh school on the other side of town. Obedient to being ‘creamed off,’ I worked hard, finding I liked my new school a lot, despite my parents’ assertion it had no purpose, other than a handy springboard towards jumped-up grammar school glory.
It was at my comprehensive, I first encountered teasing without physical bullying. Teasing was better. Teasing I could get behind – turn to my advantage.
The boys teased me for my mildly posh accent. I assumed that if my accent, which I’d previously been unsure about, was scorned, there must be something to it – it must be valuable. I ramped up my accent, starting to talk like my posh mother, giving every impression I was practically an aristo. The kids thought me fascinating. I liked being fascinating and the centre of attention – it suited me. The boys who teased, noticed teasing me for an unwanted attribute, my accent, just got them more of what they didn’t want – my accent was posher now than before the teasing started! They gave up teasing – it didn’t work. I quietly noted that teasing/bullying could be contained by ramping up, for comic effect, any attribute that got me targeted. I loved comedy, seeking it out in all its forms, so turning teasing into a way of having a laugh with those who teased, wasn’t that much of a stretch for me.
I was toughening up in other ways too. The ‘communication thing’ had followed me to my new school. But before I tell you about that, I should say that in the holidays, prior to starting my comprehensive, I’d gone to summer camp, making a new friend, Anna. And how it was for me, meeting Anna, was I experienced her communication as the same as mine, as if she was unusual in the same way I was. Possibly a bit more under the radar than me (not hard) but in my eyes, unusual like me in that she communicated the same way I did. I wasn’t the only unusual kid on the block – there were others! Anna and I hated our summer camp, bunking off as much as possible. Interestingly, at that camp, I experienced the worst act of physical bullying of my childhood.
It was an all-girl camp, with dormitories. I was in one dormitory, with another girl, Trudy, when bullying occurred. How the story goes, was Trudy was bullying me in front of witnesses. Her bullying was neither clever, nor well done, and it was surprising it was done at all, considering words bounced off me, used as I was, to violence. I asked Trudy which of her two brain cells she was using – in hindsight, a mistake. She took my head and banged it hard against the dormitory wall. In this way, I learned not to backchat a bully within easy reach of a wall.
Back to me, age twelve, at my new school, experiencing my usual problem with the ‘communication thing’, I was learning I was not without resources. One resource was grading everyone I met according to their receptivity towards me. The ‘highly receptive’ were likely to accept my unpopular communication, despite not sharing it. Unfortunately, they were very rare. Those whose receptivity was ‘low’ or ‘very low’ were best avoided. The ‘very highly receptive’ were likely to share my communication, even though they flew under the radar better. They were impossible to find. Those whose receptivity was ‘medium high’ were worth a look. Those whose receptivity was ‘medium’ or ‘medium low’ were just there as filler.
I also learned the joy of flipping ‘judge not, lest thou be judged’ on its head, preferring the bad girl attitude of ‘judge silently, judge hard, and get in first’. I learned a set of judgemental words, to prepare me for my new role as judge, secretly using these words to dismiss anyone whose receptivity fell below ‘medium high’ (pretty much everyone). My go to words were ‘conforming’, ‘conventional’, ‘pedestrian’, ‘bland’, ‘uninteresting’, and (my all-time favourite) ‘boring’.
My experience of school bullying/teasing was over before I turned fourteen – I had too much attitude. I was unknowingly full of attitude. Everyone knew, but me.
Age thirteen, I was ‘creamed off’ to the local selective, free to day pupils, voluntarily aided school – a jumped-up grammar school, masquerading as a public school. My two best friends from the comprehensive followed me there, luckily. In addition, I made a new friend. These three friends, and only these three friends, sustained me for five years.
I was lonely. The first year was difficult – my friends from the comprehensive were in other classes, while I only saw my new friend in Latin. No-one in my class had receptivity above ‘medium’, and all my being around them did, was set off my quietly contemplative inner judge.
I was stuck with these kids, listening to them chat away, being ‘conventional’, as I called it. As far as I was concerned, their popular (or social) communication might as well have been a foreign language – it was English words, used in a way I didn’t understand. It was as if they were on a different wavelength to me. It was no-one’s fault, but I wanted to talk to kids who shared my wavelength or were at least receptive to it.
A song I liked at the time, had the line, ‘The meaning doesn’t matter, if it’s only idle chatter’. It seemed this ‘meaning doesn’t matter, idle chatter’ social communication that everyone had, but me, made the planet spin. Whatever assets I had (and I did have assets) counted for nothing, if I didn’t do the ‘social communication thing’, choosing to go around being the school equivalent of clubbable. I wasn’t clubbable. I was with Groucho Marx – ‘I don’t want to belong to any club that accepts me as a member.’ I couldn’t bring myself to learn the ‘social communication thing’.
If the ‘social communication thing’ was all the rage, then mine could have been described as the ‘alternative communication thing’. In the same way that in the 80s, alternative comedy was described by its detractors as ‘not funny’, so my alternative communication could be described as ‘not social’. I learned at school that to be truly social, you had to stop being meaningful, and to be truly meaningful, you had to stop being social. Regardless of whether I was too serious to be funny or too funny to be serious, my conversation was always meaningful – I needed a base level of depth in order to talk. Without that depth, I stopped talking, and just sat there, while other kids talked around me.
It’s as if the other kids, though speaking my language, were on a different frequency that as an unknowingly Autistic girl, I didn’t have. In hindsight, I could have taught myself that frequency – copied what the ‘meaning doesn’t matter, idle chatterers’ were doing. Except I’d already decided that surviving on the planet was best achieved by focusing on those whose receptivity to my unusualness (if that’s what it was) was ‘medium high’ or above, letting those whose receptivity was ‘medium’ or below, get on with it. In other words, I couldn’t be bothered to shapeshift into something I wasn’t, to get on with kids who’d only accept me, if I became like them. It took me decades to understand how radical that was.
Today, this would be called ‘the double empathy problem’ – neurotypicals (or NTs) very often don’t relate to Autistics beyond a certain point, because in any environ where NT social communication is supreme (pretty much all environs), we Autistics, unless we mask, can spoil NT social communication, just by turning up. In the same way, our confidence and enjoyment in our Autistic communication, can be spoiled by NT systematic and relentless condemnation of it, starting when we’re children.
The highlight of my first year at the jumped-up grammar school was my German teacher asking us to write something autobiographical. I wrote, ‘Mein Vater möchte ein fliegende Untertasse bauen.’ The fact my dad wanted to build a flying saucer went right round the school! I’m very grateful for having a flying-saucer-loving dad. I was unlikely ever to get sucked into society’s idea of normal with that kind of start.
What it was like at that school – not that life has changed much since – was being the single surviving member of a vanished community. In place of my community – people with my alternative communication, who’d been displaced, scattered across the world, as if in a diaspora – were a swarm of intruders who treated my planet as theirs, me as subordinate, and my communication as a non-asset. Except that wasn’t true – the planet wasn’t theirs, I wasn’t subordinate, my communication was an asset.
Leaving school, replacing school with university, and university with work, making my way in the world – as far as that’s possible, with me being who I am and doing as I do – I noticed more and more the intruders were everywhere, while my community had vanished. I noticed that while the intruders tolerated me all the time I looked like I was doing the ‘social communication thing’ – with ‘looked like’ being the operative words – things deteriorated when I stubbornly stuck to my own communication.
Quentin Crisp, the gay pioneer, once said: ‘Don’t keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level – it’s cheaper.’
I told myself: ‘Spend as little time doing the “social communication thing” as possible. Get the swarm of intruders adopting your communication – it’s easier.’
Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, once said: ‘The art of taxation consists in plucking the goose so as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the smallest amount of hissing.’
I told myself: ‘The art of being the surviving member of a displaced community consists in relating to the intruders so as to obtain as much time possible using my own communication, with the smallest amount of hissing.’
By 2014, it was clear my ploy of convincing the intruders (or NTs) of the delights of my unpopular (or autistic) communication, wasn’t doing very well. The intruder hissing drowned my capacity to think, let alone work. Worn to a frazzle by years of bullying in the workplace, and on professional training, perhaps avoidable had I adopted the intruders’ social communication, dropping my own, I took time out, to rethink.
I reflected, the intruders really don’t want my mind, do they? My mind’s not an asset.
Learning a year later my unpopular communication had a name (Autism) and there was a whole community sharing my neurotype (Autistics) whose difficulty with the intruders (or NTs) matched my own, was like the expansion of the universe! I learned NTs aren’t normal, just common.
I learned Autistics find our own ways of communicating, because the accepted ways don’t work. I always knew that’s how it was for me, but somehow having the word ‘Autistic’ made all the difference – like someone taking a light down into darkness, showing me who I was, also showing me I was just fine as I was.
And now it’s 2020. Five years on from recognising myself as Autistic, self-identifying ever since, I notice my difficult school experience might have been avoided by copying what the intruders were doing, rather than standing out. The story could have gone that way, but didn’t. I stubbornly went to where the bullies were, because I enjoyed the activity (choir). I ramped up the thing that got me teased (my accent). I gave those who teased more of what they didn’t want, and my inner confidence and sense of humour, inherited from my flying-saucer-loving dad, warded off the bullying and teasing, sending it away.
In that sense, I was lucky. In other ways, not so much. Home was deeply dysfunctional. Neither parent met the Winnicott standard of ‘good enough’ parent. But where my mum and dad were outstanding, was they put no obstacles in the way of me being an unusual (or Autistic) child, because they were unusual (or Autistic) parents.
My unpopular ‘meaning does matter’ communication, so different from the ‘meaning doesn’t matter’ social communication, prized at school, and every environ I’ve been in since school – was the Autistic communication inherited from my parents. What was good enough for them, was good enough for me. When enemy agents came calling, trying to punch and kick my Autistic communication out of me, later trying to tease it out of me, intent on replacing it with something less valuable, because it wasn’t mine, I resisted.
Learning to resist the intruders’ attempts to normalise me, as a child, taught me to resist worse attempts to normalise me, as an adult. And thus, any attempt to normalise me has been an epic fail.
Autistic self-advocates – and anyone Autistic with the sense of being part of a larger community, is a self-advocate – have said, over and over again, our experiences at school put trauma into us. I’m no exception.
By the time I was twelve and had left the school where I’d been punched and kicked for being the girl described by her headmaster as someone who ‘if she behaved less like a middle-aged spinster, might be more successful socially’, I was traumatised. I didn’t know it, but I was. And my response to trauma was to find within myself a quietly contemplative inner judge who valued my unpopular communication more than the meatheads trying to take it from me. And thus no-one took my Autistic communication from me – I got to keep it.