Supported Self-Acceptance: The Difference Between Failure and Extraordinary

There was a time in my life when I was so certain of three things:

  1. I’d never be happy.
  2. I’d never have any friends.
  3. The world was better off without me.

These certainties were ingrained in my brain from the time I was seven years old, which may seem extremely cynical for one so young—yet most seven year olds don’t experience the amount of bullying and ableism that I received on a daily basis.

My life was a waking nightmare: At school each day, other kids would pretend to want to play with me—then would  run off laughing, pushing me over, throwing things at me. They’d steal my stuff, and often called me derogatory names such as freak, weirdo, ugly, and far worse ableist slurs. That this went on until halfway through high school will tell you just how little my teachers did about my abuse.

One teacher even joined in the bullying, as she considered me a “nuisance.” She didn’t believe I was disabled—hidden disabilities weren’t talked about back in the early 2000s—so she treated me as if I was a naughty child. She  would snatch stim toys from my hands, scream at me, and tell me I would never have any friends.

This was a time before Educational and Healthcare plans, involvement from authorities, and one-to one aides for SEN/special education children came about. Parents still told my mum they were sorry that she had an autistic child, or asked if I would “grow out of it.” I felt like a total alien; someone who shouldn’t be on the planet.

Outside school my mental health caused issues within the family unit. I was constantly in distress, developed anorexia, and was self-harming. I would go into crisis at the school gates and make my mum late for work or come home in tears and take all my anger out on my family. I wasn’t old enough to say it, but I just couldn’t cope with life.

When I was thirteen, I decided to run away from home to escape this nightmare, and ended up spending a night on the streets before jumping on the train to Cardiff. Even though that day was the worst for my parents, it was the most freedom I’d ever had. I felt almost joyful picking out books for my journey and buying cakes. Cardiff had been a place I’d been happy and so I thought I’d find happiness again there—only I got picked up halfway and was manhandled by police officers who didn’t know who to deal with an autistic child in crisis. They threatened me with handcuffs, and kept me in a small room for well over five hours, before delivering me home.

I remember finding the police report in my mum’s bedroom. They’d written that I had an unstable sense of reality, choosing to go to Cardiff because I had an obsession with Doctor Who (filmed in Cardiff). The police, through subtext, described me as “out of my mind” instead of writing the truth: I was a child who had been traumatised, and I was trying to escape that trauma.

The only positive was that I was moved schools, though I never really belonged at my new school either. The bullying was reduced to a bit of name calling but the damage had already been done. My grades suffered, and my parents decided it would be best if I got an apprenticeship and came out of education completely.

I had this idea that adult life would be where I’d fit in. Adults always talked about how things were different when you got older, and I took that too literally, believing I’d find groups of friends and become someone likable. In the adult world I would reinvent myself and be invited out to parties, be able to text friends and no one would ever hurt me again. The naivety of my young self still makes me want to weep.

And I would choose the bullying I faced at school over the ten years of hell I faced in the workplace, any day. In my first apprenticeship I was immediately disciplined, as I was far too different from the other workers, labelled as “cocky” and “rude” by the manager because I was blunt, and hadn’t yet learned how to mask. I’d jumped straight from the school system to the workplace without any help or assistance, and hadn’t realised most workplaces didn’t know much about autism back then.

My working life became a self-induction on How to Mask. I began to dress in corporate fashion even though it was sensory hell, I didn’t talk much in case I said the wrong thing, and I tried to mimic how my colleagues presented. I reinvented myself monthly with different fashions, makeup and hobbies just to try to belong—and yet still felt like my seven-year-old self who didn’t want to be there.

What I couldn’t get used to was how cruel adults are. There’s are no repercussions for adult cruelty, especially in the workplace when they have a higher position than you. Comments about how I presented, how I looked and what I ate were a regular thing and because I was masking most of the time I ended up with autistic burnout and would have to quit the job. Job hopping became the norm, so I was always the new girl for the majority of my late teens to mid-twenties.

The lack of advocacy in my life was because I didn’t find the autistic community until I was 23 or 24. I didn’t even know any other autistic people, beyond the stereotypical portrayals on TV, and was regularly told that I didn’t “look autistic” or wasn’t autistic enough by the adults around me. I just thought I needed to try harder to stop being a problem for everyone.

The autistic community became my saviour. Because  of it, I realised so many things: How so many comments people made about me were ableist, that I was not being supported in the workplace, and that there were accommodations I could ask for. I became educated about autistic lives of different races, different ways of communicating, and how the rest of the world treats autistic people. Even though our community is treated so poorly by the rest of the world, I was happy to not be alone.

Work became a bit better as I became a bit more vocal in advocating for myself, however this only lasted until COVID. The pandemic affected me, as it did a lot of autistic people, and going back into the world after was really hard. My colleagues complained that I’d had six months off, whereas in reality I was having constant panic attacks. I’d been in a contained bubble that was safe, sensory-wise, all that time, and was now expected to go back into the world of sensory hell. I couldn’t adjust and was lateto work daily, and so the attitudes of my colleagues began to change.

Instead of being known as the hard worker and the kind person, I was becoming the nuisance. Some staff were abrupt and dismissive, whereas others commented that I was overthinking things. It broke my heart, because I had wanted to stay in that job for perhaps the rest of my life, but I also felt like I was drowning and was a problem that needed to be removed. I tried asking to work from home, as so many had been allowed to do during the pandemic, going as far as creating a bullet pointed info book on my disabilities and how daily life was for me. The response? I was told I needed to prove I would still be valuable to the company.

Handing in my notice was the worst day of my life, as not only did I feel like I had failed, but the manager responded with “well, we knew this was going to happen.” They had watched me struggle and decided I wasn’t worth saving.

The only job I could get was in an office close to home and that fell apart after six months. I was too burned out to mask and I was isolated for “always being in a mood”. Even explaining that I had emotional regulation difficulties and zero control of my facial expressions didn’t help—my colleagues were adamant that I was the villain in the story.

At that point I didn’t know what to do. I absolutely hated life, myself, and I couldn’t get anything right. I just wanted to be happy in a job, have people like me, and not be discriminated against for a disability that I didn’t ask for. After a particularly awful day I asked my mum why she hadn’t aborted me.

They do say you need to hit rock bottom before you can begin the climb up, although I didn’t see that at the time. In that moment, it was the end of the world—until my mum sent me a job application, explaining how supportive management could be. I told her I would try again, just one last time, making her promise she’d let me stop working all together if it didn’t work out.

A week into my new job, I told my manager I felt like I was in a dream.

I had been given a risk assessment, a weighted blanket and movement breaks. I tentatively explained how my facial expressions were often blank and this annoyed people, to which my manager told me she didn’t mind at all—they knew it was a trait of autism and they fully understood.

I cried that night, but this time they were happy tears.

People were just so kind. I was given space to stim, to be chaotic and release energy, to have meltdowns and then regulate. I was given so much support that for the first couple of months I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I went from being someone who believed they didn’t have a future to someone who realised they were allowed to exist as an autistic person.

With that kindness and equity, I gained confidence to start advocating more for other autistic people and to live truthfully. Unmasking was very hard, but therapy books I’d found by Janina Scarlet were a huge help and I learned to be unapologetic about my reality.

I began publishing articles, creating ways for workplaces to be more neurodivergent-friendly, and every bit of content I post about autism has other autistic people commenting that they feel less alone, more seen, and comforted.

Looking back, I wish I could give young me a huge hug and tell her a few truths. I’d tell her I was an amazing kiddo with huge passions, extremely creative, and fun. I was a booklover from the age of four and could make a game out anything. I was affectionate, curious, and unique. I wish I could tell her to celebrate all those qualities.

The world made me feel like such a failure for so long, but all it took was some kindness and understanding for me to rewrite my list and tell the world that I am quite extraordinary. I am now certain of three things:

1) I do belong.

2) I have so many good qualities and it’s a shame some people don’t appreciate them.

I spend my time helping others and so the world wouldn’t be the same without me.

Illustration with a pink background. A monster is happily roaring along with a white woman who has a black bob and glasses. The woman is waving a hand.
A monster is happily roaring along with a white woman who has a black bob and glasses. Image by DALL-E.

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