These stories have been gathered from autistic teenagers attending our Child and Family Support Programme. We have not provided pictures or surnames out of respect for their privacy.
The world of making friends was one of the scariest experiences growing up. For somebody who liked to be alone and only enjoyed the company of my family who were safe and understood me, why should I even bother trying to make friends? Outside of school, it was okay: my mum knew me so well she didn’t pressure me to make friends or try and force relationships. She knew I would be drawn to the people who made me feel safe and got how my mind worked.
In school, there are so many pressures and expectations! I was a loud child, I liked to make people laugh and joke around. I also became hyper and didn’t know when to stop. I did not follow fashion trends, or like to sit and chat about going out with friends, or the latest person who everyone fancied. My focus was so much on having some friends that I didn’t think about whether they were good friends or what a good friend looks like. Everyone had friends so that was what I felt I needed to do. I managed to make a few friends who seemed to like me but they did things which I didn’t like. I was so desperate to keep them as my friends that it didn’t matter. I would pretend to like what they were talking about. I would make as many excuses as possible not to see them outside of school but occasionally would have to and join in with things I hated! But that was okay because they were still my friends. I remember the idea of my Debs and wearing a dress and make-up was my worst nightmare, but I did it because that was what I felt I needed to do to fit in.
When I left school, I never spoke to those people again, I was free of having to pretend with them. I made a couple of new friends after school. They were older and I thought they were amazing. I would always try and hide the fact I was Autistic as I didn’t think they would want to be my friend if they knew. These guys very quickly found their uses for me. I would pay for everything I could as I thought that would make them like me more. When I passed my driving test it was only me who drove. I was made to feel guilty if I didn’t provide lifts on nights out even when I was scared at times. I would finish work and refuse to do anything else just in case they text me and invited me out. Sometimes I would sit up until the early hours of the morning waiting for a message. My mum would try and tell me that these were not things that good friends did but it didn’t matter to me. I felt like I would do anything I could to keep them as friends. I finally built up the courage to start thinking for myself and they didn’t like that, so one day they just never spoke to me again. I felt sick with relief in the end that all the pressure of trying to fit in with them had gone.
Fast forward to me now being an adult in my twenties. I have quite a few friends. And they’re so good to me. My favourites are genuinely the ones who know I’m Autistic and accept it. I don’t hide it anymore. They buy ME gifts and always remind me that they’re there for me. They understand a problem I might be having from my perspective and I try to see it from their perspective, but no longer feel that I have to. And a couple of really special ones know there’s something wrong just from the look on my face.
I moved into a large secondary school from a very small country primary school. I was very unprepared for the overwhelm and I felt super anxious, I guess more than others would feel. The school itself definitely didn’t help. I felt trapped. The timetables, moving around and trying to concentrate in class, then moving to another class. Even at breaks I couldn’t relax and was constantly stressing about getting to the next class on time. If they had moved classrooms again, I might be in the wrong room.
After a few days, I didn’t feel I could be in the school. I tried a few lessons per week after the first month, but my anxiety was too much and I really felt I could not ‘learn’ or take in any knowledge or retain information in an environment like that. I went into deep defence mode and didn’t want to engage with anyone. I felt really bad that I couldn’t do something as simple as going to school – what everyone else could do every day. My confidence was very, very low and I didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere.
My Mum made contact with the local Education Welfare Officer (EWO) who visited us at our home. She was just brilliant and ensured me that she was here to support me and my family to ensure that I would get my education, letting us know that other avenues were available to gain an education. Together we applied for a placement with IScoil, a remote learning programme. They do have centres to go to also, but I preferred the online programme delivery. I didn’t get a placement on the first try as places were very limited, however, we received a call a few weeks later that more funding had been made available. I was offered a place to start in Sept 2020 studying Level 3 QQI which is Junior Cert equivalent to the national framework.
The iScoil remote programme is designed and tailored to my interests. It is delivered through multimedia content online via a software programme called Moodle, which I really enjoy. I log into my subjects every day, I have online tutors for each subject who set the tasks. In addition, I have an assigned Mentor, who I talk with once a week via Video, they oversee and bring together everything each day. Subjects are very hands-on and practical approaches – learning life skills. My parents then receive an update from my mentor each week on my weekly progress. The instructional online content combined with individual mentoring and tutoring support offers me guidance ‘every day’.
I complete each module which is graded and goes towards the final certificate for each subject which leads to QQI accreditation. I love the fact that IScoil is very flexible and adaptable. I set my own timetable and work at my own pace, from home which is my safe place. So, what’s next? I am one of the lucky students to be selected to study a pilot course with IScoil ‘Level 4 QQI’ which I am returning to complete this year. On completion, I would like to study Level 5 at the local Youth Reach and gain entry to a PLC Course then onto Degree level. For anyone who is autistic, who is experiencing anxiety and overwhelm at school in addition to that feeling of being lost in a system – I hope sharing my own journey will help you and assure you that there might be an alternative pathway and options available to you.
Even though I identify as Male, I still dress similarly to the way I used to, just with more freedom. I have always loved colour. While I don’t necessarily shop for ‘Women’s’ or ‘Mens’ clothes, you’ll find my wardrobe is mostly ‘Women’s’ since I’m drawn to colour like a moth to a flame. I never really understood gendering clothes until someone mentioned that clothes were tailored for the body types of men and women. To better describe this, we call it gender expression. A boy can wear a dress and that doesn’t make them a girl since they identify as a boy, it just makes them a boy who is wearing something tailored for girls. Hence he would have a more ‘feminine’ gender expression.
Gender identity and gender expression are two different things. A tip from me: if the border between the Men and Women’s sections in the store is too daunting to cross, try buying second hand. The borders there at most will have a little laminated sign that is easy to ignore. Just in case it’s still too daunting, online shopping can give you all the privacy you require. I’ve found people have actually applauded me more when I wear what I want. Including elderly conservatives who live in the countryside. A wise person also once told me, “Everyone is too selfish to care about what you’re doing.” So start exploring who you are, and feel comfortable in the wild of uncertainty, for there’s nothing wrong with questioning it.
I have friends who are ‘Questioning’ their gender identity, and only realised recently that it’s a label you can use just like ‘Transgender’. Identifying as ‘Questioning’ takes the pressure off yourself to figure things out, and stick with an identity you’re not comfortable with until you do. Using they/them pronouns are gender neutral for example, and you can use them exclusively or with other forms of pronouns. Someone’s pronouns could be he/they, meaning they use both he/him and they/them pronouns. A top tip for telling someone your pronouns if you’re too shy, is to ask them what their pronouns are like ‘Before I forget to ask, I was wondering what your pronouns are?’ This way you can find out their pronouns which usually leads to them asking you your pronouns in return. Pronouns correlate with your gender identity, and as we’re coming into more inclusive times you can see people showing their Pronouns in their Internet bio more and more. Everyone putting their own Pronouns helps normalise and include the Transgender community online and in real life.
This also prevents misgendering from happening in the future. When it comes to misgendering, I’m the King since I don’t work considerably hard to ‘pass’. ‘Passing’ means being perceived as a gender that you weren’t assigned at birth. For example, Mulan ‘passed’ as a boy when joining the army. I take being misgendered with a grain of salt. I correct people who I’m close to, and I don’t feel the need to correct strangers or associates. If I ever need to correct a new friend I might tell them when the time is right. It can be daunting correcting someone in a group or crowd, so I try to do so alone or over text. Never feel bad for correcting people for your gender or pronouns, if they’re a real friend they should understand.
I still remember the first time someone asked me for my Pronouns, I was still ‘in the closet’ and was so shocked I couldn’t say anything. It was the first time in my life it felt like someone truly cared who I wanted to be and not just what everyone expected. They continued by telling me it’s okay if I ‘didn’t have any’, implying it was okay if I was ‘Questioning’. And at the time I suppose I was. Now whenever I make friends, it’s my mission to be that person for someone else, because everyone deserves to have that someone who cares about who you really are. Getting to write this, I hope I can help people without even physically being there!