I wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until I was 20. But the first compelling and lingering evidence of my social weirdness came in second grade, when I was briefly engaged to a boy in my class.
Lawrence (not his real name) was taller than most of us, but had a cherubic baby face with big, round, dark brown puppy-dog eyes, an unassuming little smile, and a perpetual flush on his pale cheeks. He had a shy, sweet voice, and a slight speech impediment, which he grew out of as we got older, but at the time, I thought it made him sound vaguely British, which was heckin’ adorable.
Lawrence lived only a few streets away from me, so we met on the bus one day, when two charming little shitheads were making fun of him because he had been playing with Barbie dolls. This was the first time I remember recognizing concretely that, not only did people (for some weird reason) think there were “girl things” and “boy things,” but they also thought (for some weird reason), that you couldn’t cross the gender lines of toys, or else you were…well, they never said what specifically, but Something Bad.
I had been around long enough to have a vague awareness of a gender binary, but not long enough to appreciate the rules that came with this binary, or the implications made about people who don’t instinctively know those rules and consistently conform to them. My parents deserve some credit for this—particularly my mom, the only married woman I knew who had kept her (hyphenated) maiden name, and who still talks about the relief she felt when her rural upstate NY public school finally started allowing girls to wear pants. But I also suspect that my neurology played a bigger role than anyone realized at the time.
A significant portion of autistic folks identify as transgender, agender, genderfluid, or nonbinary, and a good deal more cisgendered autistics like me simply don’t develop the capacity to conform to (or, more accurately, choose not to cultivate the energy to care about) gender binary norms until much later than their peers, if at all. Research on this topic, as you can probably imagine, is rife with ableism and transphobia, often with one prejudice pathetically positioned as a concern-trolling smokescreen for the other. (Looking at you, JK Rowling.)
But on the bus that day, I had no context for why Lawrence “couldn’t” play with Barbies just because he was a boy. Sure, I had observed that usually it seemed girls liked Barbies more than boys did, but I also knew Lawrence had an older sister, and figured she probably had Barbies. Since my little sister wanted to play with all my toys, I reasoned that Lawrence probably just played with Barbies because his sister did.
And besides, I thought, toys are toys, so like, who cares?
So I went and plopped down on the seat next to Lawrence and said I would play Barbies with him, but not before turning to those other patriarchlings (that’s what you call baby misogynists; now you know) and saying, “I’m concerned about the way you’re projecting your insecurities on Lawrence through your aggressive, arbitrary gendering of inanimate objects, and I think you need to engage in a conscious examination of your toxic masculinity and internalized homophobia and transphobia.”
Of course, I was seven, so it probably came out sounding more like, “why don’t you wipe the snot off your face and mind your own stupid stinking beeswax, Joey.” But, you know. Same general concept.
And so, Lawrence and I became instant friends. Soon after, in another outrageously grand defiance of gender norms, I asked Lawrence to marry me, and to my delight, he said yes. We began planning our wedding, which was to take place at the public park down the street from his house, with the playground on one side and the quaint, babbling brook on the other. Romantic af.
Naturally, this made the other kids freak out. The teasing wasn’t bad at first; mostly just kids being kids, arguing over who got to be in the wedding party, and asking questions like, “so does this mean Ashley is going to change her name?” No, I was not, thank you very much, and my very progressive fiancé supported me in this decision. “Your name just sounds more like you,” he said. (I know. Can you even?)
And of course there was the classic, “are you guys going to KISS?!” The answer to that was a firm and immediate “no way, José. Kissing is gross.” We were going to high-five at the altar after saying our vows. Seriously. We planned this. We wanted the officiant to say, “I now pronounce you husband and wife—you may high-five the bride.” I specifically remember discussing this decision with Lawrence over lunch, making sure to sit at our own table so other kids wouldn’t overhear and chime in. There we were, at seven years old, having straightforward, unprompted discussions about boundaries and consent. I don’t know why so many full-grown adults seem to find that so damn difficult. But I digress.
Of course, as these things often go, the news of our budding romance snowballed into kiddie chaos, and one day we got in trouble for being “disruptive” after a massive horde of kids—I mean, seriously around 70 kids—started chasing us World War Z-style across the field at recess. Why? Because we were sitting on the edge of the playground cutting out construction-paper flowers for our wedding decorations.
Well, the monitors promptly confiscated the construction paper and scissors, and Lawrence and I were sent to the principal’s office to explain ourselves. But since the principal probably had real problems to concern herself with, the two tiny lovebirds were delegated (or relegated) to the assistant principal, who definitely thought he was too important to be dealing with us. So there we sat in the imposing silence of Mr. Lowell, a dull, joyless man with burnt sienna skin, bushy tufts of cauliflower growing around his ears, and a voice like a bored mosquito.
“Can you please tell me what happened?” he asked.
“We were making flowers and then a bunch of kids started chasing us,” I said. I’m pretty sure I did most of the talking.
Mr. Lowell stared at our crumpled, sweat-dampened construction paper creations on his desk for a long, awkward moment, apparently trying and failing to determine what the hell was so perversely intriguing about these paper flowers to incite the frenzied enthusiasm (or wrath, no one was really sure) of a mob of second-graders. When he addressed us again, he made nary an attempt to hide his skepticism.
“So…you were making paper flowers?”
Tiny Ashley and tiny Lawrence nodded yes.
“What are they for?” Mr. Lowell asked.
I had just enough self-awareness to realize how ridiculous that must have sounded to a grown man, but what was I supposed to do? Lie? (Autistic kids are rarely known for their prowess at lying.)
You could tell Mr. Lowell thought that certainly there had to be more to this situation, so he prodded us a little more. But when he finally figured out that yes, his Very Important Professional day really was interrupted just to talk with two seven-year-olds trying to plan their playground wedding in peace, he didn’t even try to humor us.
“You can’t get married. It’s inappropriate. You’re kids.”
“I know. We’re just pretending,” Lawrence insisted. I felt a pang of disappointment hearing him say that out loud. Truthfully, we took our engagement quite seriously, but we didn’t expect adults to understand it (when do they ever?) so contextualizing it as “just pretending” was important. Besides, what was so inappropriate about it? It wasn’t like we were gonna kiss or anything.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “It’s just pretend.”
“Well, stop pretending,” Mr. Lowell said. “It’s distracting the other kids.”
For our salacious crime of being children playing pretend, we were let off with a warning, but he notified our parents and recommended appointments with the school psychologist. Thankfully, Dr. S. knew what she was doing. She didn’t talk down to us, and she never engaged in victim-blaming. Dr. S. remained a steadfast ally of mine throughout my elementary school years.
After the mob incident, though, there was a marked shift in the way the other kids behaved towards Lawrence and me. It was assumed that, since we had been called into The (assistant) Principal’s Office, we must have done something Really Inappropriate—the likes of which second graders could only guess at, but the older kids didn’t hesitate in telling them which nasty words to use. The teasing went from good-natured to vitriolic. Ignoring it didn’t work, and our teachers and playground monitors didn’t care very much to stop it. Dr. S., bless her, was the only one who seemed to believe that the way we were being treated was not our fault, but it was too late. We had already internalized that it was.
And finally, one day as we were walking to the bus together, Lawrence did not want to hold my hand anymore. He said, “Ashley, there isn’t going to be a wedding. Or a date. I still like you, but just as a friend.” After a beat, he said, “You know who I’m gonna marry? Julie.”
I must have said “oh,” or something, but I was stunned. My whole little world had shattered around me, and I spent that bus ride home hiding behind my backpack and staring out the window, tears silently rolling down my cheeks, praying nobody noticed lest they make it even worse.
In the weeks that followed, I was a tepid clutterling (that’s what you call a baby hot mess; now you know.) I would go home every afternoon, stare out my bedroom window, and warble along to Mariah Carey’s “Can’t Let Go.”
There you are, holding her hand
I am lost, dying to understand
Didn’t I cherish you right?
Don’t you know, you were my life?
Seeing Lawrence now sitting with Julie at lunch, and playing with Julie at recess, positively gutted me. Mind you, I had nothing against Julie. In fact, I liked her a lot. She was a very sweet and very cute girl whose bright green eyes, porcelain-doll skin and smattering of freckles made her look like she’d just stepped off the page of a Gap Kids catalogue. Lots of boys had crushes on her, so it made perfect sense that Lawrence would be one of them. Truthfully, in the compatibility web of childhood, her gentle personality was a more natural match for him than my unabashed zaniness. But still, it hurt. Wasn’t I sweet and cute too? And besides, Lawrence and I had a history. I had stuck up for him every single time somebody made fun of him, or us. Julie didn’t do that.
But then I noticed—Julie didn’t have to. Because nobody bothered Lawrence and Julie. Not Mr. Lowell, not the mobs at recess, not even the little shitheads on the bus. And yet, kids still made fun of me for getting dumped, even long after I’d gotten over it.
The realization was a slow burn, but it was crystal clear: no, what had happened to me and Lawrence wasn’t our fault.
It was mine.
It all got better for Lawrence. Lawrence assimilated. He had a cool girlfriend now, so the boys accepted him more easily. I think he genuinely meant it when he said he wanted to still be friends with me, but now that I was established as the class weirdo, it became clear that friendship wasn’t going to be an option either. I’m not saying he turned on me, but he distanced himself. He got a little bit meaner, a little more guarded, and a lot more…well, let’s just say I never saw him playing with Barbies again.
By the time third grade came around, I had racked up many hours of practice using humor as a coping mechanism, so I was eventually able to laugh about it with anybody who brought it up. But Lawrence never mentioned our playground romance again. On the rare occasion someone else mentioned it, even years after the fact, even if their intent was obviously benign and playful, he would shut them down with daggers in his eyes. For whatever reason, he had more lingering resentment than I did. Sometimes I wondered what, or whom, that resentment was for. But I never asked him about it. Maybe I was afraid of the answer. Maybe part of me still is.
Because it turned out that Lawrence was only the first in a long pattern of boys, and eventually men, who liked me, and wanted to date me, as long as they didn’t have to do it in front of other people.
But nobody’s ready for that conversation.