By Victoria of Actually Aspling
I often reflect on my childhood, specifically in terms of Autism. I ponder what it would have been like if I’d been diagnosed, would it have made a difference? Every time I come to the same conclusion… Yes. Although things may not have gone drastically differently, I’d have had some understanding, an explanation for things and possibly my mental health at that age would have been better.
Puberty encompasses a whole host of things, but most times emphasis is on the physical aspects; you know growth and especially periods. In school you get the whole sex talk, you learn about your body, but not in an accessible way. No one talks about the psychosocial or emotional dimensions of puberty and how important this actually is.
For me personally puberty was a nightmare; I absolutely hated it. Firstly, my body was changing, and I couldn’t understand why, it confused me. I was always told that “bodies change and develop” but I was never explicitly told it would happen to me, so when it did it was unexpected. I didn’t like the unpredictability of not knowing when my body would change, I was just told it would at ‘some point’.
I didn’t like having breasts and body hair, I remember feeling confused by it all. The worst part for me was wearing a bra and the sensitivity issues that came along with it. In school all my friends were already developed and wearing bras and I wasn’t at that stage yet, but I felt pressured to conform to society’s standards and I bought a bra. The thing with bras is they aren’t designed to be comfortable and finding the right one is a pain; I don’t want lace, frills or glitter, in fact I don’t want to wear one at all. Now as an adult I wear crop tops and sports bras, they are much more comfortable; I just wish I’d discovered them in my teens!
The other focal point of puberty for me was menstruation. I had so many issues with my periods and honestly still do. In my teens I had a particularly heavy flow, intense cramps and sensitivity towards the sanitary products. I would often find myself being sent home from school, where I would lie on the bathroom floor with a hot water bottle and wait for the pain to subside. In my late teens I eventually started the contraceptive pill which helped lightened my periods and helped with the cramps, but I still had issues with products. Sanitary products smell, they are sticky, they don’t fit right, they are just a nightmare (not to mention all the confusion with choosing the right product or brand!). I also found I struggled with irregularity, I didn’t have that predictability in terms of start and end dates, and I found this particularly difficult to cope with.
Luckily, throughout everything I had my mum; she is an absolute legend. She would talk me through everything, even when I’d be stood in car park toilets screaming “It won’t fit in my knickers!”, she had the patience of a saint! I felt able to talk to my mum, she understood me, and I didn’t feel like I could talk to my friends about this stuff; even though they had those sorts of conversations. Puberty talk made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, I would always shy away from the topic when it was brought up; I found it embarrassing. Although, it doesn’t help when school explains it in terms of ‘Sammy sperm’ and ‘Emma egg’ – I didn’t understand that. I much prefer explicit technical language with lots of pictures, not silly stories.
Classes at school were mortifying… to be honest school wasn’t a pleasant experience for me generally. I would spend mornings crying to stay home, I now know these at meltdowns. Things would get so bad that on the odd occasion my mum would let me stay home; if I’m honest I needed the time to rest and process everything, I needed a mental health day and boy did it help. I wasn’t very academic and struggled through school in terms of grades, I ended up choosing GCSE subjects based off my interests and I regret that. I have a standout memory of school, and that was being told by a teacher I was going to fail; more specifically “You aren’t going to pass, would you like me to phone your parents to explain?”. I wasn’t given the support I needed to thrive, I didn’t have a label, I was undiagnosed and struggling.
It was at this point that my mental health took a dip. I hated my school classes; my anxiety had risen, and I started experiencing symptoms of low mood. I was scared to go to school because I was bullied, specifically by people in one of my subject classes. I was the joke, I stood out, I was the weirdo, and people picked me apart and used it to bully me and there was nothing I could do. My teachers were unaware, and I didn’t get support anyway, so I didn’t think telling them would make a difference. I did have one stand out teacher in high school though, Mr Gallagher, my drama teacher, he inspired me to go on to take a-level drama. He was supportive, caring and made me see my own potential. I wish more teachers were like this.
I had very few real friends in school, yet none I could personally relate to, so often I felt loneliness. I spent years camouflaging, trying to fit in, clinging onto my friends and mimicking their social behaviours. I would change my interests to fit in, change my clothes, edit my personality, just so I felt like I belonged, when in reality, I was born to stand out.
At this point my life was a mess, I was struggling and incredibly unhappy. I had so much to contend with; physical changes, making friends, fluctuations in mood; it was a lot. Puberty is a difficult time, and for Autistic individuals it’s made harder by intensified experiences. Heightened sensory sensitivity, communication differences and predispositions to mental health conditions. I often look back on my experiences, wishing I could give my younger self advice, that I could change my path. I wish I could whisper in my ear “my lovely, you are Autistic” because I feel this would have helped me so much.
I survived puberty, scraping through, clinging onto the coping mechanisms I developed. I survived…but barely, and this is the reality for so many.
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