Personal Stories, Autism, Challenges

Developing my masks

In my last post I said that to understand why I am the way I am in the present, I needed to look back to my past. I will share some of the things from my childhood which should have been red flags to my being #ActuallyAutistic but were never picked up.

My Early Childhood Years

I was an only child and I grew up in the company of adults, although I did have a handful of second cousins. My Uncle, my Dad’s brother, was a carpenter and built my parents a large playpen which they set up in the lounge. My Mum said that even before I was a year old whenever the adverts came on if she had ITV on, I would immediately focus on those to the exclusion of everything else.

I can recall many of those adverts from the 1970’s in meticulous detail. “A finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat”, “everyone’s a fruit and nutcase”, “naughty…but nice”, “oh its chips its chips, we hope its chips its chips”, and “do the shake and vac and put the freshness back”.

I loved books and writing and having a pen and paper to write on made me happy. I wasn’t interested in toys and every week my Mum would buy me a book from the Ladybird “Read it Yourself” series, and I would pick one every night. When my Mum finished reading it to me I would say “again”, and she would have to read the same book several times over.

My Mum was a huge fan of the rock band Queen. When my Dad was at work she would play their albums and I was hooked on them and all other kinds of rock and heavy metal music. Before I even got to school I knew all the bands, singles, albums, lyrics to all the songs, names of the band members, tour dates – everything. Some of the bands I was crazy about aside from Queen included Status Quo, The Eagles, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

I knew I was different even as a toddler. It is very difficult to explain, but it was a feeling that I didn’t belong and that I wasn’t meant to be on this earth. I didn’t understand this feeling, and even at that young age questions went through my head of “who am I?” and “why am I here?”

My School Years

When I started school I couldn’t relate to the other children at all. I had been allowed to play with some of the other children who lived in our street and of course I had few second cousins to play with, but I felt like a big outsider looking in.

This was the start of my masking my true feelings and the way I was, and I lived for the end of the school day right up until the day I left school when I was 16. I excelled in English and all subjects that involved words and writing such as History, Geography, Religious Education, Drama and General Studies, so I just got my head down and “got on with it” because I had to and “because this is the way it is.”

Conversely, I struggled with numbers and hated Maths. I chose to do Human Biology for my science GCSE option because it was the one that involved more writing and less numbers. I scraped a C grade for my GCSE Maths, and I haven’t touched the subject ever since.

I was once told off in class because I couldn’t stop singing the song “Flash” by Queen. Every song or album I liked I had to listen to repeatedly. I couldn’t stop.

I hated being put into a “timed” or “controlled” environment and being told to complete a task in a set amount of time. Consequently, I simply “rushed” anything I had to do at school in this way. “All written work is rushed” wrote one teacher on my report card.

“Slow down, it is not a race,” my parents would say to me. I had to get those kinds of tasks that had to be done in a specific time over and done with as quickly as possible, otherwise I would panic and have internal meltdowns.

I was bullied mercilessly throughout my school years, and that bullying also continued into my adulthood. I put it down to the fact I was overweight as a child and had to wear glasses, but now I suspect that the other children could sense that I was different. To cope with the bullying, I would go straight to my room as soon as I got home from school and I would write and write and write.

I wrote reams of poems, short stories and even full-length novels. I created characters and fantasy worlds that I wished I could be a part of instead of living the life I did have. I went through tons of A4 pads of paper and I carefully and meticulously filed and stored all my pieces of writing in ring binders, carefully ordered.

I also took solace in the fantasy world of American soap operas such as Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and Knots Landing and would watch these for hours. I was also a huge sci-fi fan and loved Dr Who, Star Trek and Babylon 5. I dissected and analysed the character and plots and had to know everything there was to know about them.

I repeated a lot of what I said, which drove my parents mad and I would say the same things over again.  I hated making eye contact with anyone, I struggled socially and although I did make one close friend when I was at junior school, she moved to Derby when her parents relocated before we started secondary school.

I remember one day my class was taken into the main hall and made to watch a BBC film called “Threads”, which depicted a nuclear bomb going off over Sheffield and the aftermath of a nuclear war in the UK. I was transfixed when I saw this film, and so affected by it, that a strong interest in all things to do with nuclear war manifested itself in me. can reel off all sorts of things about nuclear bombs, splitting the atom, fission, fusion and the exact rad dosages of radiation that a person needs to be exposed to that will cause radiation sickness and death. “Protect and Survive” was my bible, and I also have a rare copy of a book called “London After the Bomb: What A Nuclear Attack Really Means”. I have read this book from cover to cover hundreds of times.

By some miracle I managed to somehow get through my GCSE’s and passed them all with grade c or above. I then went to college to undertake A-levels, and English was top of my subject list.

Being at college was like a breath of fresh air as I had much more flexibility and freedom to be my own person. But still the feeling that I was different was there, and I struggled to connect with the other students and my subject tutors. I learnt best when left to my own devices, so I was often found in the college library on my own. I hated taking part in debates and tried to steer clear of anything that involved my having to speak or speak up.

Starting work

I decided I wanted to be a journalist, but that meant having to move to London. Hard as it is to believe now, there was no email, internet, websites or social media. I didn’t want to leave Worcester, as the thought of being anywhere else terrified me, so I decided not to pursue this.

I then got my first job while at college as a till operator at my local Sainsburys supermarket, where I combined working with my A-level studies. I hated having to “clock in and out” and being in front of customers. I had to put on a big mask as talking to people, making eye contact and being pleasant to them didn’t come naturally to me.

Neurodiversity as a concept wasn’t even thought of in the workplace when I got my first job at Sainsbury’s, and I hated being a small cog in a large wheel, not making a difference and doing the same thing every shift I had there. There was no way I could have gone to the customer services manager and ask if adjustments could have been made for me, I would have been laughed at to kingdom come. You were expected to turn up, clock in, do your job to the best of your ability (or scan a certain number of items per minute in my case, and risk disciplinary action if I didn’t) and clock out. I hated that existence.

I felt like I was swimming against an endless tide, with waves that kept battering me and battering me with no end to them in sight. I was lost and trying to make sense of a world that I just didn’t understand, yet I still had to live in that world, despite knowing I didn’t fit into it.  

The masks I created were always there, and I used them to I cover up how I really was inside. It became like a fine art, and I was the master of disguise. It wasn't until I was finally diagnosed as autistic some 23 years later that I was able to let go of the masks, and everything finally made sense.

If you are Neurodivergent (autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic, bipolar, Tourettes, OCD, ADHD, ADD, or other) and are interested in becoming a contributor to Me.Decoded then please get in touch.

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About Rosemarie Simmons

Rosemarie Simmons was diagnosed as autistic in 2018 at the age of 44. Neurodivergent & proud, she uses her experiences to raise awareness of autism & living in a world that is set up for neurotypicals