First Comes Love, Then Comes the Principal’s Office: A tale from the childhood of an undiagnosed autistic

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.

“They’re uh…for…our…w…edding?”

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.

Aren’t You That Girl Who…

This piece is a sequel to The Carnation Story. I recommend reading that first for context.

What is it about seventh grade? It sure seems to break a lot of people.

It broke one of my best friends since kindergarten, who directly contributed to the whole school finding out about my crush on That Particular Boy, and the bullying that ensued. I was the last to know just how far she had gone to sabotage me, but when I found out, my mom made one of the most painful phone calls of her life as a mother–calling my friend’s mother to disinvite her to my thirteenth birthday party. Frenemy moved away at the end of the school year and I never heard from her again–until we were in college and reconciled after finding one another on Facebook–but I spent many days alternating between hating her guts and missing her desperately.

And so, between losing Frenemy and being repeatedly humiliated for a simple crush on a boy, seventh grade also broke me. The excited, trusting, outgoing girl from the beginning of the school year was replaced by a sullen young teenager crushed by the weight of the masks she was expected to wear, falling behind in school with executive dysfunction rearing its ugly head, and too exhausted by the end of each school day to interact with her family.

It would be nearly another decade before I found out that I was autistic, and another decade after that before I could clearly identify my end-of-seventh-grade experience as autistic burnout. I’d picked up a pamphlet on depression from the guidance counselor’s office, and from that, I deduced that I likely had some issues in my brain that couldn’t simply be chalked up to the predictable struggles of puberty. I wrote a long diary entry deliberating about whether or not to tell my parents “I think I might have depression,” and ultimately decided against it because after all, what did I really have to be depressed about? I knew people who were victims of severe abuse, sexual assault, all kinds of things that were objectively worse than anything I had experienced at that point in my life. My only problem was that I was exhausted from overcompensating for my social defects. But since there were no pamphlets about that, I assumed there was nothing anyone else could do. I would just have to grow up and deal with it.

Still, seventh grade wasn’t all bad. I had two other elementary school friends who had witnessed the falling out between me and Frenemy and hugged me when I cried about how our birthday parties would never look the same. I had made a crop of new friends who would turn out to be some of the best people I’ve ever known. Like me, they relied on humor and creativity as coping strategies–we had entire notebooks (and rudimentary DIY web pages) full of inside jokes, preserved for the sole purpose of making ourselves laugh–and, equally importantly, getting comfortable with laughing at ourselves. They taught me that laughter really is the best medicine.

I had also gotten the lead role in the school musical, and that was the first time I realized what hundreds of autistic performing artists have realized before me: I had power onstage that I didn’t have in “real life.” Real life didn’t come with a script, blocking, and choreography. Real life didn’t come with the safety to express big feelings–especially not crushes on boys. Real life didn’t come with bursting into song when the feelings got too big.

And real life didn’t come with applause.

So sure, seventh grade was mostly awful, but I was optimistic anyway. I had things I loved to do, and people I loved to do them with, and eighth grade would be a fresh start to all of it. Now that Frenemy was out of the picture, I assumed that the drama surrounding my Obscenely Audacious Crush on TPB would unceremoniously fizzle out. You know, like middle school drama is supposed to.

Well…um…that didn’t happen.

In fact, it picked up pretty much right where it had left off. There were a few particularly intense weeks in early October when his friends appeared to be trying to convince me to ask him out to the school dance. Even though part of me wanted to believe they were trying in earnest to set us up, I blew them off because my gut told me they just wanted to humiliate me further. But no matter which tactic I tried–politeness, sarcasm, deflection, straight-up ignoring them–they didn’t let up.

For his part, TPB remained as cool as an impossibly neurotypical cucumber. He didn’t do much to de-escalate the situation, but he didn’t make it worse either. I think he was amused by the whole thing and enjoying the attention like any healthily self-assured teenage boy would, but I never got the feeling that he was making fun of me. Had I gone through with asking him out, he likely would have turned me down very politely and not told a soul—or, if he’d said yes, he would have given me an honest chance—but that wasn’t a step I was ready to take, no matter how many social script variations I came up with. And believe me, there were many. It wasn’t so much that I feared him or his rejection. I feared what asking him out would say about me. I had a very real fear of him (and others) thinking I was trying to score a “cool” boyfriend in order to “level up” socially. I didn’t want him to feel used–or even worse, have him feel obligated to date me because he felt sorry for me. My friends insisted I was being illogical. They were right. Whatever else he thought of me, I’m sure he was people-smart enough to know that I wasn’t the “use a boy to climb the social ladder” type. But still. I didn’t really want to find out.

And at any rate, I could barely say two words to him without someone or other making a big deal about it.

Case in point: One day in math class, he asked to borrow my calculator. We had assigned seats right next to each other, so it was obvious he’d just asked me out of convenience. But a group of kids went positively apeshit.

“Ashley, he TOUCHED your CALCULATOR! Are you gonna take it to bed with you tonight? Don’t let anyone else touch it!”

Naturally, this became a running joke between me and my friends because…why wouldn’t it? But in that moment, my brain hit a wall and I just could not. So I excused myself to the restroom to get five minutes of peace and quiet.

While I was washing my hands, another girl emerged from a stall, and stood at the end of the row of sinks, eyeing me curiously. When I looked up at her, she said it.

“Aren’t you that girl who likes [TPB]?”

No greeting. No introduction. I had never seen this girl before in my life, and here she was coming right the fuck out of nowhere asking me a question about the very thing I had just escaped to the restroom to avoid.

I don’t remember how I responded. Of course, I had long since accumulated a mental Rolodex of prepared responses to variants of this question, complete with appropriate tone–I had not yet realized that tone wasn’t something most people had to think about and monitor all the goddamn time–and categorized by who was doing the asking and under which circumstances. But I was entirely unprepared to have to answer to a stranger. A stranger who couldn’t even be bothered to address me by my name. I was simply “That Girl Who Likes TPB.”

I would later find out that this girl–let’s call her Sherrie–was another admirer of TPB’s, and a prolific gossip who was keeping tabs on me. You know, as one does. For science.

When she left, the snarky part of my brain said, “Look bitch, you wanted to be a celebrity, right? Well now you know what it’s like. You got your personal life under a microscope 24/7 and you can’t even go to the bathroom in peace. Next time this happens, at least offer them an autograph.

It was true. I fantasized wildly about what it would be like to travel the world singing and dancing in front of sold-out crowds, waving to fans on the red carpet, and–well, I knew it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Britney Spears’ “Lucky” had come out a few months earlier and was a mainstay in my CD player, so I wasn’t unaware of the possibility of things getting weird and lonely sometimes.

But I already knew how to be weird and lonely. Weird and lonely were comfortable and familiar things to be. At least if I were a pop star, I’d be doing what I loved, and what I was good at. I’d have a prepared show with lights and choreography and costumes, and a band to play my songs that I wrote. I could even sing the ones I wrote about TPB, and it wouldn’t even matter, because onstage it would be okay.

If I could figure out how to really excel in the one arena where I knew the bullshit could never touch me, then all those nosy kids would have no choice but to know me as Ashley, That Singer instead of Aren’t You That Girl Who Likes TPB. If I was going to get recognized by a stranger in a restroom, it would be for something unquestionably positive and unquestionably acceptable. Not for being the weird theatre nerd with a crush on the cool, popular soccer player who’s out of her league. Hell, if I got good enough, maybe I’d even be in his league. Wouldn’t that be something.

When Sherrie left the restroom, I took a look in the mirror and made a vow: I’m going to become the best damn singer in this school.

I worked my ass off that year. I got a small ensemble role in the musical, since the roles were chosen at random and not by audition, but when the director finally figured out I could sing and another performer dropped out, I was upgraded to a larger role with a solo. The show itself was pretty terrible, and even the boldest among us were trepidatious to perform it in front of the rest of the school, but we had to embrace that golden rule of performance which is, if you commit to what you’re doing, the audience will go with you. And so we did. We committed 100% to our silly characters and the other kids received us surprisingly well. Even a boy who’d been particularly nasty to me in the days leading up to the show avoided me and sulked through our entire class together, and I found out from a castmate that he had been talking to someone else about how my voice was “phenomenal” and how stupid he felt. For a few glorious days, we were all treated like rock stars. It was working.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. There were more awkward and intense moments around me and TPB before the school year closed out. The details are irrelevant, but one piece of the drama was that Sherrie wanted to be sure I was out of the picture. TPB wasn’t interested in her, and she wasn’t used to boys being uninterested in her, so if she couldn’t have him, she at least wanted to know he’d turned me down too. Or something like that. At least, this is what people told me, unsolicited, as if I cared. The pressure was on. Was I going to make a move? It was now or never.

I chose never.

We were about to enter high school. It could wait until high school. I didn’t know any of these kids well enough to see them over the summer, so by the time we walked through the doors of the new building, we’d be all grown up and over it, right? That’s how it worked on all the TV shows. Our teen drama was headed into season three, and we desperately needed new writers who wouldn’t keep recycling the same tired plot. High school had to be different.

I made it one hour. One hour. Into the first day of high school. Then I passed a bunch of them in the hall.

“Hey [TPB], your girlfriend’s here!”

My heart sank. Really? Still?

I should emphasize, in fairness to people who knew me then who may be reading now, that I don’t want anyone to feel guilty about this. The most tragic part of revisiting this story is not the way I was treated–which really, objectively, wasn’t that bad. There were, as there always are, a few jealous girls like Sherrie who behaved passive-aggressively (and hell, I was probably one of them), but very few people were actively vindictive. I harbor no grudges. We were kids in an unwoke northern Westchester town doing the best we could with what very, very little we knew.

No, the tragedy was that my young, undiagnosed autistic teenage self, absorbed in old black-and-white ways of thinking, internalized the other kids’ hyper-fixation on my crush on TPB as a personal failure. It was my fault for not being able to de-escalate the situation, it was my fault for continually putting TPB into an awkward situation every time I was within ten feet of him, it was my fault he couldn’t even borrow a freaking calculator from me without it becoming A Whole Thing.

And so, from there, it wasn’t a big jump to if I’d never had a crush on him in the first place, none of this would have happened, therefore my feelings are the problem. I genuinely believed that my completely normal human feelings had leaked out of my soul and were poisoning everything. That there was something I was doing wrong, something fundamentally wrong with me because I had a crush on a boy and I couldn’t control it, couldn’t act on it, and–worst of all–couldn’t hide it.

I taught myself to be the one who calls the shots
Something about you makes me everything I’m not
My body’s gone robotic since my human heart you stole
Incurable, untreatable, it’s out of my control

“Automatoronic” by Ashley Wool
(yeah, maybe this is a shameless plug, what of it?)

But. I could give them something else to know me for.

We had a school talent show coming up and my mom was nudging me towards singing “On My Own” from Les Miserables, which I had been practicing and getting good at. (By the way, I’m exceptionally good at it now. Hi, Tara Rubin.) But singing the most iconic unrequited love ballad in the musical theatre canon? In front of the whole school? Hard pass.

“Too depressing,” I wrote in my diary. “Too revealing of the wrong kind of feelings.”

The wrong kind of feelings.

But the rule was, anything else I wanted to perform, I had to run by my mom first. Some parents don’t care if their kids are good or bad as long as they’re having fun. My parents were not like that. They were cautiously supportive, but they were not going to allow me to get out there and suck.

When I decided I wanted to perform “Reflection”–the Christina Aguilera version–they were concerned. It was too big, too hard, and I still had no formal training.

But it was a song about identity. Identity independent of boys, independent of expectations, independent of masking. It was the song I needed to sing. I insisted.

Now I see, if I wear a mask
I can fool the world
But I cannot fool my heart.

-“Reflection” as performed by Christina Aguilera from Disney’s Mulan (David Zippel/Matthew Wilder)

My mother’s yes was conditional on my going to one voice lesson with a family friend who taught pop singing and who knew me and my voice quite well. Obviously, I agreed. I had been begging for voice lessons for years.

I spent two hours with her, tweaking some bad habits, getting more comfortable in my body, and letting the truth of the song propel me. I more or less aped Christina’s riffs note for note, but after that lesson, it felt organic rather than forced.

“She’s ready,” my teacher-friend said to my mom. “She can do it.”

I did the damn thing.

It wasn’t perfect, obviously. But it was good enough that people took notice. More importantly, it was authentic.

My friend Rose–who’d known me since kindergarten and was always the “mom” of our friend group and very protective of me in particular–came up to me after the show with tears in her eyes.

“You did it, Ash. They see it now. They see the real you.”

Sherrie from the restroom was also there.

“Ashley!” she exclaimed. “Oh my god, that was amazing!”

And it was genuine. There was no vindictive gleam in her eye. No mention of TPB. Not one person dropped his name that night.

From then on, I had strangers approaching me in restrooms, in the hallways, at the pizza place across the street, saying, “hey, aren’t you Ashley, that singer?”

And it didn’t go away. I got invited to sing other places. Talent shows, karaoke contests, sports games–I sang so many “Star-Spangled Banners” that the coaches started calling me “the voice of Lakeland High.” I enrolled in regular voice lessons and my technique improved dramatically.

And I thought, well, son of a bitch. It actually worked. Sure, I still have The Wrong Kind Of Feelings, and sure, I still know that Having Feelings makes me inherently defective, but now, more people know me for singing than for That Other Thing. This is my identity now.

All I had to do was keep it up.

For the rest of my life.

The Carnation Story, or: Why Valentine’s Day Reminds Me of Sickle-Cell Anemia

Originally published to Facebook on February 16, 2020.

For the last 20 years, I’ve associated Valentine’s Day with sickle-cell anemia.

I know that this association, on the surface, makes absolutely no sense. A common neurotypical impression of autistic people is that we are free-associators subject to speaking in non-sequiturs. You might be talking about one thing, and I might respond with a story about something that you think is completely unrelated, or spout out a song lyric based on one word you said.

And then you’re like, “Ashley, what the fuck does ‘MMMBop’ have to do with anything,” and I’m like, “What, isn’t it obvious? You mentioned homophobic slurs, which made me think of ‘pansy,’ which made me think of the pansy from the ‘MMMBop’ video, which made me–oh. I guess it…wasn’t obvious.”

When I took my first improv class at Upright Citizens Brigade, I learned that there’s actually a name for this–A to C thinking. Neurotypicals do it too, but they’re generally better at gauging whether or not other people will follow their thought processes instead of assuming that everyone is always on the same page as they are. (They also, of course, have the privilege of going through life being able to assume that most of the time, everyone is on the same page as they are. But I digress.)

Like many other autistic traits, A to C thinking seems super weird in day-to-day social situations, but when applied purposefully, it can be a terrific asset to creative pursuits.

“Ok Ashley,” you may say, “so Valentine’s Day is A, and sickle-cell anemia is C. Are you going to tell us what B is?”

Well, it all started my first day of seventh grade when I first laid eyes on This Particular Boy.

It was my first day of middle school, a place where the student body of each grade was five times the size of what it had been in elementary school. I was nervous, but also excited, because starting at a new school meant meeting dozens of new people who had no idea what an enormous fucking weirdo I was in elementary school. All I had to do was…well…not act like an enormous fucking weirdo. I didn’t really know how to do that, but I had, through trial and error, accumulated a decent amount of knowledge about what not to do.

Like most autistic kids, I had no intuitive concept of how to take control of social situations, and the concept of code-switching was beyond me. Most of the time, I simply watched my social life happen TO me, and experimented with different reactions that I imagined might possibly be appropriate, hoping to randomly stumble upon the ones that resulted in, if not praise, simply the least amount of ridicule. And whenever I was lucky enough to stumble upon the “right” or “least terrible” reactions, I filed them away as little miniature scripts in my mental Rolodex and replicated them in other situations, hoping (but never knowing for sure) that they would be equally effective (or at least equally benign) no matter who I was talking to. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In no instance was this process more apparent, more prolonged, or more painful than the epic saga that was my crush on This Particular Boy–or more accurately, everyone else’s reaction to my crush on This Particular Boy.

TPB–his name isn’t a secret, but I’m rescinding it anyway because we’re still Facebook friends and I don’t wanna make it weird–sat across from me in science class, and on that first day of class, I locked eyes with him. Of course, like most autistic kids, sustained eye contact was never my forte and made me profoundly uncomfortable, but TPB had the most stunningly blue eyes I had ever seen (a trait I associated heavily with my first love) and I could not look away.

My first thought was, Wow, he’s super cute.

My second thought was My second thought was don’t be ridiculous, Ashley, boys who are that cute never give you the time of day. Even if they did, he definitely won’t now that you’ve already overstayed your welcome in this eye-lock by at least three seconds. For fuck’s sake, stop staring at him before you make an even bigger ass of yourself.

The very next day, I did in fact make an even bigger ass of myself when I dropped all my books in the crowded hallway between classes. But while other kids snickered or averted their eyes and jostled past me, TPB stopped and helped me. He didn’t say a word, didn’t turn it into a grand gesture of chivalry, he just gathered my books together, handed them back to me, and moved on with his day without even waiting for a “thank you,” which I may or may not have managed to squeak out through my haze of gobsmacked shock. For a moment I couldn’t even move, I just stood there staring blankly ahead, waiting for the catch, for the punchline that I didn’t even realize I was used to.

Even as a kid who was presumably bad at reading social cues, I had already experienced and internalized enough misogyny to not trust boys, as a general rule. Combining that deep distrust with the classic autistic black-and-white thinking, influenced only by my limited life experience and teen TV tropes, it simply did not compute that it was possible for a boy, especially an attractive boy, to just be nice to me with no ulterior motive beyond basic human decency.

In TPB’s case, I had no reason to worry. He was a genuinely nice guy who was good at making other people feel seen, included, and appreciated. In a sea of untethered prepubescent hormones, he was an anomaly of quiet maturity, which was impressive in and of itself, and downright mind-blowing to a kid like me, who had to overthink every social interaction just to survive. His effortlessly cool get-along-with-everyone energy embodied of all the things my 12-year-old self desperately wished she could be.

In addition to being super cute and super nice, he was also a top student and a precocious athlete–so naturally, I was far from his only admirer. But when word got out that I liked him, I quickly became the most famous one.

“But Ashley,” you may ask, “how did everyone find out? And why,” you may ask, “did anyone care?” Excellent questions. Let’s dig in.

Since exchanging more than half a word with TPB invariably transformed me into a stammering, catatonic tomato, I’m sure he figured out pretty quickly on his own that I had a thing for him. But if there was any doubt, it was certainly erased after someone I thought I could trust—let’s call her Frenemy—went behind my back and gave him an embarrassing song I’d written about him. I think she expected him to spread it around. But when I ran into him shortly after, and tried to sputter out some kind of explanation/apology for it, he just said, “Oh, don’t worry, I threw it away. Nobody else saw it.”

I found out later that this wasn’t entirely true–another friend of his had seen it over his shoulder–but being the cool guy that he was, he most likely wanted to spare my feelings, and diffuse the situation to spare himself further embarrassment as well. But between the additional actions of this vindictive Frenemy and the casual telephone game of middle school gossip, it trickled out bit by bit, and pretty soon, everybody knew.

Which brings me to Valentine’s Day, when it reached its (first) fever pitch.

There was a school fundraiser selling red and pink carnations, and, well…I’ll let 12-year-old Ashley’s diary tell it.

Friday, February 11, 2000

My day was perfectly normal up until lunch. Kaitlyn [my friend whose locker was next to TPB’s] came up to me.

“Ashley,” she said, “I was just at my locker and TPB has a red carnation in his locker. I wanted to know if it was your doing.”

“No,” I said. “I didn’t do it.” At first I was glad that I hadn’t done it and didn’t end up in one of my unfortunate “flirting mistakes.” But then reality punched me in the gut. SOMEONE ELSE HAD DONE IT. And everyone was going to think it was me.

I ate ravioli and a Snapple for lunch. But I had to ask Kaitlyn to get me a fork from the utensil bins (located next to TPB’s table). I was feverish again. My heart was jumping and my head was spinning.

When lunch was ending, I raced through the hallways before anyone else. When I reached the Blue Team hall, I saw clearly the blood-red flower, stuck hastily through the vents of his locker. I was so pissed off I slammed my books on the floor next to my locker. “Fuck whoever did this!” I shouted through clenched teeth. [Editor’s note: no one was there. I was already a huge fan of the f-word, but I knew better than to use it anywhere a teacher could reprimand me for it.]

I just realized that I could have taken the carnation out and thrown it away before anyone saw. Well, could, woulda, shoulda. Anyway, TPB came down the hall WAY too soon. I practically stuffed my head inside my 5 1/2”-wide locker. With a strange, sickening curiosity, I watched his reaction in my locker mirror. A large group of kids gathered around, so I didn’t actually see him take it out. But I could hear him reading the tag on it: “From your secret admirer.” At least five kids, TPB included, said, “Ashley Wool.”

Now, diary, you and I both know that I would never give any documents to TPB signed “Your secret admirer.” First of all, I would not stick a carnation in his locker. That’s just lame. Second, I am his anything-but-secret admirer, so I may have signed it “pal of the girl whose locker is next to yours,” or something like that. Thirdly, Kait had read the tag, and said it wasn’t even close to my handwriting.

Since TPB doesn’t know any of these things, he has every reason to believe that I did it. I want to talk to him on Monday. But since I can barely squeeze out the words I want to say when I talk to him, I’m finally going to play it safe and write a script to memorize over the weekend.

It’s obvious now that the decision to literally compose a behavioral script for myself was just about the most autistic shit ever. But back then, all I knew was that it was the only way I could take any kind of control over a social situation. I’d been doing it pretty much my whole life. Nobody ever told me to do it, and I’d long since figured out that most people didn’t have to do it, so I harbored an internalized belief that I was socially broken. My only chance at survival was to hide that brokenness by overcompensating with the things I knew I was good at–writing, memorizing, rehearsing, and performing.

The script took up two pages of the college-ruled ledger I used as my diary, and included detailed evidence about my school schedule, samples of my handwriting, and names of witnesses to corroborate my alibis about where I was when the alleged carnation-drop occurred. I knew I likely wouldn’t end up using that script, at least not all of it, but writing it out and having it in the back of my mind made me feel more prepared to deal with the onslaught of awkwardness I knew was coming on Monday.

And come it did. Valentine’s Day 2000. TPB and I were assigned to the same group project in science class, and we were putting together a presentation on–here it comes–sickle-cell anemia. It was the least romantic thing that two human beings could possibly be doing together, on Valentine’s Day, or any other day. But because it was TPB, and me, and Valentine’s Day, and our teacher decided to hand out conversation hearts–I could feel the other kids’ eyes and snickers burning my very skin.

At one point, inevitably, another group member brought up the carnation. That was my cue.

“Huh? Oh, that?” I said, as offhandedly and coolly as I had rehearsed it, but loud enough for the kids at neighboring tables to hear. “You guys know that wasn’t me, right?”

Before they could protest their skepticism, I said, “Well, it couldn’t have been. Think about it. The carnation wasn’t there before we all left for orchestra, and that’s all the way on the other side of the school. Lauren, you never saw me leave orchestra, right? So when would I have had the time to buy a carnation and then run all the way back across the school to stick it in his locker?”

I watched their expressions change as they realized that as much as they wanted to make fun of me, I’d come with Science on my side. They couldn’t argue with Cold Hard Facts.

“It’s okay, Ash,” TPB said, no doubt fully aware that the other kids were looking to him, as the Cooler Person, to gauge whether or not to react further. “I know it wasn’t you.”

Smug and satisfied that I had won, I said, “Good. Thank you. Anyway. We were talking about the genetic differences between sickle-cell and Huntington’s chorea.”

And so, for a shining moment, I was the one in control. My social brokenness had been successfully sidestepped for another day. And after we finished our presentation, TPB passed me a conversation heart that said “Kiss Me.” I had to roll my eyes good-naturedly and pretend that that didn’t, like, totally make my life.

At this point you may be wondering if it had ever occurred to me that maybe, in fact, TPB didn’t view the alleged carnation drop, or my crush on him in general, as some Unthinkably Audacious Crime I had to deny at all costs. Wasn’t it perfectly likely he might have even enjoyed it a little, even if he didn’t reciprocate?

It had occurred to me, and I wanted to believe it, but my world couldn’t accept it. Given the history of my social life and the aforementioned black-and-white thinking, I habitually gaslit myself into believing, in spite of all logical evidence to the contrary, that it was against the very laws of physics for any crush I had to be tolerated by the recipient, let alone reciprocated.

I wish I could say the carnation incident was the end of it, but there would be dozens more scenarios like it surrounding me and TPB for the next three years, very few of which I handled gracefully. And three years was a stupidly long time. While I had just enough self-awareness (or perhaps self-deprecation) to appreciate that the trope of “quirky theatre girl crushing on the cool, popular soccer player” was kind of amusing, I never understood why I was singled out the way I was, for as long as I was. Surely, I thought, they’d get sick of it eventually.

But looking back, it’s clear that the culture of the time was drenched in unchecked sexism, toxic monogamy, toxic heteronormativity, and a systemic intolerance for the terminally weird–not to mention the brain chemistry upheaval that all middle schoolers experience. All these elements culminated in a perfect storm for which I was an obscenely easy target.

True, I was weird, but I was also pretty enough to have a few other boys vying for my attention. Plus, they had to admit, I could sing and act, and had the guts to get up onstage and do it in front of a crowd. Which was, ya know, almost cool. But not cool enough that they’d admit wanting to date me out in the open. Nobody had ever taught these boys how to navigate their feelings towards girls in a healthy way, so why would they have bothered to try, when teasing me and living vicariously through TPB was so much easier?

Equally importantly, I was pretty enough for TPB’s other female admirers not to rule me out as potential competition, but I was socially awkward enough that they figured I could simply be bullied into submission. And they weren’t wrong.

Towards the end of that school year, TPB began dating an eighth grade girl who was a textbook Alpha Bitch. She had never met me, but she knew of me, and sent her posse of minions to my lunch table every day for a couple weeks instructing me to “stay the fuck away” from TPB and threatening that if I went near him she would “kick my ass.” I mostly just sat there and took it, with a halfhearted “yeah, whatever” quip at best, until finally one of my mouthier friends said something like, “How about you leave her alone? She hasn’t done anything to you or your friends, and it’s none of your business which boys she talks to.”

They left, and I thanked her, but she said, “No, don’t thank me. We’ll always stick up for you, but you need to learn how to not be afraid to stick up for yourself too. What they’re doing is wrong and you shouldn’t let them just get away with it.” My other friends voiced their agreement, and I knew they were right. I had to do something, if only for their sake, because they were sick of being bothered at lunch every day too.

But my mouthier friend, for all her compassionate wisdom, had misdiagnosed the problem.

It was not that I was afraid to stand up for myself. It was that I knew I was bad at thinking on my feet in social situations, and I was so exhausted from an entire school year of masking and censoring my weirdness as best as I could that I simply didn’t have the spoons to put together yet another behavioral script to deal with these bullies.

But explaining this to my friends would have been impossible. After all, I was masking for them as much as I was for anyone else.

So I decided to try what I thought was the next best thing: throwing the bullies off their game by denying my own existence and pretending to be someone else entirely.

“How about I go by a different name?” I said. “You guys can just call me Jackie Maxwell from now on. Just act like that was always my name. That way whenever anyone talks to Alpha Bitch and her posse about ‘Ashley Wool, the girl who likes TPB,’ they won’t be able to prove that it’s me. You can be like, “Ashley Wool? No, you’ve got the wrong girl. This is Jackie. I’ve never heard of an Ashley Wool.” They’ll be totally confused, and then before we know it, the school year will be over and by the time we come back in the fall, everyone will have forgotten about it.”

This plan made perfect sense in my head. I don’t know for sure whether or not my friends actually realized that I was serious, but in the moment, they played along.

“Ok, Jackie. Today you change your name, tomorrow you leave the country.”

Incidentally, I came down with a stomach virus the next day and stayed home from school. Before my mom stopped by the school to pick up my homework, I told her that if she saw my friends, to please tell them I didn’t actually leave the country. She ran into two of my friends, and relayed the message, but admitted “I have no idea why she said that, do you?”

Well, they told my mom everything that was going on, and that they’d reported it to the guidance counselor because they were sick of seeing me getting harassed. They wanted my mom to talk to me about it and make me talk to the counselor myself.

I wasn’t mad at them, I was grateful that they were looking out for me, but I wished they had just stuck to the completely brilliant and absolutely airtight Jackie Maxwell plan and saved me the headache of telling the whole dumb story to the guidance counselor and potentially risking more repercussions from Alpha Bitch.

My mom brought me to school early the next day and walked me right into the guidance counselor’s office. Begrudgingly, I told him everything that had happened. I don’t remember much about the conversation, but I do remember begging him not to call TPB in for questioning “because none of this is his fault and I’ve put him through enough as it is.”

Those were the exact words I used. “I’ve put him through enough.” And Mr. Keating–an intense, wise, Albus Dumbledore-type man who had that magical guidance-counselor gift of calling people on their bullshit with the perfect combination of directness and compassion–looked at me rather bemusedly.

“Why do you say that? What did you do?”

Which brings me back to the objective truth that my black-and-white victim-blaming brain couldn’t seem to wrap itself around: I hadn’t done a damn thing. I had a completely benign crush on a boy. That was it. I wasn’t harassing him or his girlfriend; I barely even spoke to the guy outside of class, because the pressure of “acting normal” while conversing with him about sickle-cell anemia was overwhelming enough.

It’s highly unlikely TPB’s memories of these interactions are anything like mine–if he remembers them at all–but at the time, I was certain that my struggle to interact with him was something he could feel, and my only chance at him even accepting me as a human being would be limiting our conversations to genetic diseases, quadratic equations, or other predictable, academic, thoroughly unromantic topics centered on Cold Hard Facts.

But actually asking him directly how he felt about anything? Pursuing him as a boyfriend, or even just a regular friend, with the prepubescent paparazzi breathing down our necks at every turn?

I wanted to do that. I wanted it more than anything. But I didn’t have a script.

I don’t know if the guidance counselor ever called TPB into his office, but I do know that Alpha Bitch and her posse got at least a week of detention–and then she dumped him, publicly. Whether the dissolution of their relationship had anything to do with me or the disciplinary actions taken against her, I’m not sure, but I was glad to be rid of her.

Apparently, his friends were too. Because the next day, his locker was elaborately decorated with leopard-print wrapping paper, glittery bows, and a banner that read, “YOU GOT DUMPED!”

My first thought upon seeing the locker decorations was, really? That’s just rude. Who does that?

And my second thought, which I made a point of nurturing from that moment on, was, wow, maybe I’m not the most embarrassing person in his life after all.

Anyway, that’s why Valentine’s Day reminds me of sickle-cell anemia.

Here’s the sequel: “Aren’t You That Girl Who…”

The (first) one where she talks about autism

Originally published to Facebook on January 25, 2020.

Sup, world. I’m Ashley and I’m #actuallyautistic.

Please understand that, while this is something I’ve wanted to write about for years, it’s really, terribly difficult for me. And it’s difficult to admit that it’s difficult. I’ve always prided myself on being the kind of person who can admit her own weaknesses and challenge her own prejudices, but for some reason it’s a whole lot harder when it comes to challenging my prejudices about this very basic fact of my existence.

Every time I decide I’m going to discuss it, I’m seized with fear driven by the self-consciousness I’ve been trained–brainwashed, really–into living with. I make excuses like “I don’t want to be a poster child, I don’t want to be inspiration porn, I don’t want people to think I’m playing the diversity card or the disability card just so I can get cast/get a job/get a “pass” on being a jerk to someone/get attention for attention’s sake, it’s not like people need to know.”

And in a perfect world, no, they wouldn’t need to know.

But I can no longer run away from the reality of living as a neurodivergent person in an imperfect neurotypical world. Not just because running away from an integral part of your identity is always ultimately futile, but because hiding and censoring and excusing away who I am only serves to perpetuate harmful, dangerous, life-threatening stereotypes and myths about what autism is and is not, and what autistic people can and cannot be.

Every day I don’t self-identify, I’m turning a blind eye to the autistic children, teens, and adults who are abused, bullied, abandoned or even murdered by their family members and caretakers–and given a pass by law enforcement and the media, because, well, autism is such a challenge, it would drive anyone to murder, amirite?

Every day I don’t self-identify, I’m implicitly condoning the deadly myths of anti-vaccination culture and the many, many problems with applied behavioral analysis as well as the bogus science and blatant discrimination that leads to autistic people being denied lifesaving medical care.

Every day I don’t self-identify, I’m buying into the toxic idea that I’m somehow separate from/better than/smarter than/harder-working than people on the spectrum who are far more marginalized and less supported than I am–essentially becoming the autism community’s equivalent of an Uncle Tom.

That’s not something I’m willing to do anymore. Not just because I care about other people, but also because, all things considered, I’m pretty proud of who I am, and, as I’m going to point out many thousands more times, who I am necessarily includes being autistic.

So let’s start by talking about functioning labels.

Just gonna be real: I hate them. I’ve hated them since the moment I, as a 20-year-old college junior, got my “diagnosis” (another word that I hate when it’s used in this context) but at the time, I had too much internalized stigma and too little self-respect to dig into the why. Here is why:

Labelling a person low-functioning dismisses our abilities and labelling us high-functioning dismisses our struggles.

I don’t “have mild autism” or “high-functioning autism.” I am autistic.

It’s not something I have, it’s something I am.

Read that again. (And click on the link to read an extensive breakdown of why “person-first” language came about but is now being rejected. It’s really, really important.)

Being autistic is the lens through which my entire existence, my entire experience of the world, has been filtered since the day I was born. I have never been any other way, and I never will be, and it’s awfully discriminatory to imply that my “true” identity is, or should be, separate from my neurology’s deviations from whatever you think “typical” is. It isn’t. It never can be.

And while autism is a spectrum, it’s important to note that a spectrum is not a scale. I may have higher skill levels in some areas than some autistics, and they may have higher skill levels in other areas, but no autistic person is “more” or “less” autistic than another. All autistic people, just like all non-autistic people, have things they struggle with (some more so than others) and things they excel at (some more so than others).

When one sets aside the myriad co-occurring physical, intellectual and emotional disabilities that can often present alongside autism (but are not autism), I don’t believe I “function” significantly higher or lower than anyone else on the spectrum. I’ve just spent my entire life working my ass off so that your experience of my quirks and your impression of my functionality is mild and unobtrusive to your life compared to what you think autism is.

And it’s “what you think autism is” that gives me pause. When someone tells me, “I couldn’t tell you were autistic,” or “but you’re so high-functioning,” it’s the equivalent in my mind of hearing a man try to compliment me by saying “you’re not like other girls.” I do not appreciate being complimented by implicitly insulting or diminishing other people like me, and I do not appreciate having my own struggles minimized just because you cannot readily perceive them–or, more specifically, because they happen to not be an inconvenience to you at this particular moment.

Because fibromyalgia flares that last for days at a time sure don’t make me feel all that “functional.” Spending months at a time experimenting with anti-depressants doesn’t make me feel functional. The decades-ingrained insecurity I have at dance calls and dance rehearsals due to my proprioception deficit doesn’t make me feel functional. The constant changing of plans and canceling on people because I don’t have the spoons to interact with anyone other than my cats, to whom I know I’ll never say the wrong thing, does not make me feel functional. Being a highly intelligent, educated, multi-talented woman in my 30s applying for jobs way below my skill level because I’m afraid they’re all I can handle–and being told that all the things I love, and am actually good at doing on a professional level, are impossible to make a living wage doing on a professional level–doesn’t make me feel functional.

“But you don’t seem disabled and you don’t talk about autism like it’s a disability.”

Is autism a disability? Yes and no. When it comes to myself, I prefer to think of it as me working with a different operating system than most other people. Like I’m Windows software in a world full of predominantly Mac users–it’s perfectly good software, it just needs a different operating system to function optimally. But if the majority of the world consisted of Windows software and Windows users, would I still be considered disabled?

If we lived in a world of predominantly heteronormative people, would gay and trans people be considered disabled?

Oh wait, that’s right…we do, and they were. And sadly still are.

If you don’t think that’s a fair comparison, consider the fact that psychologist Ole Ivar Løvaas, widely renowned as the “founding father” of applied behavioral analysis, was also heavily involved in the Feminine Boy Project–a precursor to gay conversion therapy that used many of the same problematic techniques still employed in ABA, including electroshock therapy–and played a prominent role in at least one suicide. Løvaas’ web site has expunged any mention of his tie-ins with gay conversion therapy, yet he’s still painted as a heroic pioneer for doing the exact same things to autistic children for the exact same reasons–to force them to behave in ways that never don’t feel unnatural to them, and praise them for “passing” as something they are not.

State by state here in America, we are campaigning to ban conversion therapy, and of course it’s never covered by insurance–yet ABA for autistic children was covered by insurance in most states before birth control was.

If you look at that list of states that cover ABA, you may also notice how most states only cover ABA for minors. That’s because the push for ABA insurance coverage didn’t come from autistic people–that is, the ones legally old enough to consent to their own medical treatment–but from their parents. On the other hand, there were two times I had to apply for private health insurance before the Affordable Care Act was enacted, and I didn’t disclose my autism on the application because if I had, they would have declined me. The takeaway from this is that, while the medical community at large gives a whole lot of support to neurotypical people’s decisions about what they think autistic people need, they routinely fail to actually listen and respond to what autistic people say we need. They don’t trust us to know what our struggles are–and equally importantly, what they are not.

The fact that I’m autistic, in and of itself, is no more disabling than the fact that I’m not totally heteronormative. Even if it was, I wouldn’t know, because I’ve only ever been me, and I wouldn’t particularly care–because, as we’ve discussed, it’s not possible to separate exactly which parts of my brain are definitively “autistic” and which are not. That’s simply not how you brain.

What makes autism disabling, though, is the effort I’ve been exerting to mask it–and coping with the reactions from the neurotypical world when the mask inevitably slips. It’s caused periods of burnout that have only gotten more severe as I’ve gotten older.

An astute Twitter user described it thus: described it thus: “Being autistic is like working in customer service and never being able to stop.”

What’s disabling is the fibromyalgia, the depression, the anxiety, the ADHD-like focus issues that are only exacerbated when I’m feeling extra pressure to fit in somewhere. What’s disabling is constantly reminding myself to put all of my brain’s documents in Compatibility Mode so that the Mac users can access them, knowing full well that I will always be the one going through the extra steps, not them.

What’s disabling is not explaining it until I’m too burned out to explain it.

So this is me explaining it. This is me wanting to talk about it. This is me opening up the floor to questions. Of course, I speak only for myself and my interpretation of something might not align with someone else’s in the autistic community (because, surprise! we’re diverse!) but I think I have a lot to contribute to the conversation and I’m finally ready to jump into it.

You can DM me if you’d rather not comment publicly. And don’t be afraid of asking a potentially offensive, sensitive, or inappropriate question because…do you know me?

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