It’s International Women’s Day, and I haven’t done anything to prepare for it. I haven’t made any wishes or baked a cake… there’s a chance I don’t know the etiquette.
Perhaps instead I shall talk about autistic women and celebrate them.
I’ll begin with one of the reasons I started this blog (mainly so you’ll know who to blame): There is a fantastic woman called Sarah Hendrickx, she’s an autistic, autism expert and speaker. She writes beautifully, understands intimately, and is an all round good egg.
Last year someone recommended I watch one of her talks on YouTube. It was inspiring, so I did some googling and the fates were apparently with me.
I live in a sleepy town in Wales where nothing happens ever. Sarah lives far, far away. But according to her talk schedule, not only was she coming to the area, she would be arriving imminently.
I’m not great at spontaneous when it comes from an outside source, but I am great at focus on an interest. I hunted down the organiser (metaphorically) and fired off an email asking about availability on the day.
The day was for professionals, families and Autistics. I got a response telling me it was full. My heart sank.
You know when they say “your heart sank”? I love that description. It’s so right. I literally hunch over and breathe out, and my chest lowers. It does sink.
But there at the bottom of the email was an extra bit. Something along the lines of “but if you are a close family member or an autistic, then we will make space for you” they even added that I didn’t have to disclose which I was if I didn’t want to.
That was the first time I had said “I am autistic” to anyone who wasn’t immediate family.
It seemed like a badge of honour.
My husband took the day off work. There’s no way I could have attended alone, all that stress, and all those people.
I’m not going to lie, it was a really difficult day. People assumed I was a professional and leaned into me and over me, and touched me. My husband kept having to pretend he was moving to make a space around me. Everything inside said “run!”
I didn’t run. I wanted to hear Sarah speak.
There were the introductions (small talk, it’s all small talk even when it’s on a stage… make it stop!), then they began talking about last year’s responses to questionnaires about making the space accessible.
Which was great. It was great that they did that, and that they were trying, but then there was something said about the brightness of the lights, and could they dim them. Five minutes were spent switching switches and changing the room from one thing to another.
And that little voice that said, “Run”, started to scream. Instead I did a little smile, and squeezed my husband’s hand, hard, with my sweaty paws, so that he would squeeze back.
I did what I always do when the floor is filled with faces, I looked up at the ceiling. I pointed out where the old building had made way for new technology to my husband. It soothed me. That expanse of white. That pattern and detail.
Someone kept looking over their shoulder at me. Again and again. I smiled, but they looked confused. I realised they were trying to reassure the autistic teen girl behind me. Another professional invading my space.
No one’s fault. All from a good place.
“RUN!” Screamed the voice.
But I didn’t. Because finally the small talk was over and Sarah was speaking.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard someone talk about their own life and just been astonished by the similarities. I laughed at her jokes, I wept at one point (and I never do that in public).
It was the first moment that it really clicked that I wasn’t alone. I’d been talking to people online, some of them were like me, some of them seemed very different, but it wasn’t the same as that human contact.
A social worker next to me whispered to someone, “It’s true, women are really under-diagnosed” and they both nodded. I felt like a secret, even in that room, even there.
I wanted to speak to Sarah. I usually want to run away and hide, but I wanted that connection with that person so like me. I didn’t want to miss that chance.
In the break I walked up to the old library. Now empty of books. Creaking and groaning with its unfulfilledness. It had longing, that room. The windows were salt stained, and they smudged the sea outside.
I stood on tiptoes to see the waves. Like a small child. I needed to see them move.
The door opened. Someone else was coming in to my empty, echoey space. I hid around a corner and pulled my husband with me. I didn’t want eyes on me.
Like a bird trapped in a room I looked for escape without being noticed.
The best thing about that day… there were two best things, but this one was my husband’s response to everything I did. He told me I could leave if I needed to. He reminded me that I wanted to speak to Sarah, when I tried to shrug it off as too hard. He was my rock. I tied myself to him, so that I could flit about as I needed to, knowing he could draw me back at any time.
Finally it was lunch, and I managed to steal a moment with the speaker. It was warm and easy, we laughed. She asked if I blogged about autism… or something like that. Chances are she mentioned blogs in passing and I took it as an instruction. Who knows.
Either way I began this place – and it is a place for me. It’s my space to talk about this side of me, to let myself out. It’s my free therapy session. I can’t begin to express how much good it’s done me.
That very first blog post, those words that poured out of me in one long flow, Sarah shared it. And that led to other people finding me, and suddenly I didn’t just have one person to learn from, I had a whole group to rely on.
A human soup, from every walk of life. All brilliant in their own ways. All of them. We don’t all agree all the time, because… why would we? We’re just people after all. Flawed and talented and individual. We just all process the world through that filter of autism, and that’s not a huge thing to have in common, it’s just a shared angle for experience.
On International Women’s Day my hope for the future is that women will be able to seek diagnosis and be understood; that we will no longer be turned away when we don’t present as an autistic stereotype; that support circles are created or expanded for subjects like motherhood or relationships or where to find bearable bras for those with sensory issues.
Because one person can make a difference. They can make the world a better place. They can make someone feel good about themselves. They can make one day that little bit easier. Because it matters.