Today we take Pru to Blenheim Palace. It is her first trip to a place we visit often. Our girls learned to ride their bikes at Blenheim. We hope Pru will learn to walk with us and not bark at the entire world while doing so! It’s a sunny and still February day. Pru starts barking before we finish parking the car. There are so many people and dogs that she’s not sure which direction to bark in. We walk our five-month-old dachshund puppy down to the lake where our girls like to climb in the trees. Pru runs through the grass and is completely delighted. She sees ducks, swans and geese for the first time. She sees a lake for the first time. On the other side of the lake is Blenheim Palace’s iconic Grand Bridge. The winter light is just right, and the lake reflects the bridge in the water like a sparkling mirror image.
I think about reflections, mirrors and lakes as our girls climb in the trees. When the light is just right, we can see our own reflection on the surface of the lake and the little fish swimming just below the surface of our reflection. Standing at the water’s edge I am reminded of my kindergarten report from nearly forty years ago. In the report my kindergarten teacher described me as an ‘accommodating’ little girl. I remember finding and reading this report a year ago and feeling angry. What a lack of imagination and understanding to describe a five-year-old as accommodating. Could she not have chosen another word? I felt irritated that my teacher couldn’t be bothered to see me as anything other than ‘accommodating.’ I felt confused because the teacher was a friend of my parents and a member of our church. Someone who knew me well. I remember her as a kind and creative person. A year ago, I chose to blame her shallow choice of words on the fact that I came from a happy but humble home. Maybe her low expectations were due to our lower income.
A year after absorbing my report I begin reading academic articles about girls with “high functioning” autism. The articles use words like masking and camouflaging. But I think of mirrors and reflections. These girls can go undetected in classrooms compared to their male counterparts. Some introverted “high functioning” girls can go unseen because they are extraordinarily good at observing behaviours and then mirroring them. Young girls with high functioning autism are good at blending in, just like chameleons. They mirror the behaviours and mannerisms that they are praised for. Behaviours that allow them to blend in and disappear in plain sight. This is trauma not a choice. These girls do this without consciously choosing to. They are simply trying to survive.
It can be exhausting to be constantly keeping yourself hidden in whatever environment you find yourself in. These chameleon girls scan the room and take in information that will feed back to them how they should behave. Everyone does this a little, but introverted autistic girls are doing this in neon. It can feel a like it does when we travel to a foreign place. All the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and expectations are new. We collapse into the hotel bed, not only exhausted by all the walking we’ve done that day, but by all the things we have observed and absorbed. At home in familiar environments, we tune out the details of familiar places. The drive to work is almost automatic. We know how our workplace looks, smells and sounds. We tune our senses out in familiar places. But when you are an autistic person tuning out the classroom feels impossible.
At school there are few places to take a break or hide. I would raise my hand and ask to go to the bathroom frequently, not because I needed the toilet but because I needed a break. The quiet plain grey bathroom stall offered a sanctuary of silence. I was alone in the stall. There was no one else to have to mirror. I could be myself for a few minutes. Before leaving the girls bathroom, I would check that there was no lent on my school uniform or that my hair was out of place. I was checking to ensure there wasn’t anything out of place, anything that would draw attention to me. I wanted to be perfectly plain.
We finally get home from our long walk at Blenheim Palace. Pru is curled up on my lap snoring by the fire, she growls in her sleep. I look up the meaning of the word my teacher used all those years ago. Accommodate means to fit in with the wishes or needs of others…to adapt.The allegorical figure of Prudence enters my mind. She holds a mirror up to herself that reflects her past and present as they truly are, in order to make better decisions for the future. What happens when you spend most of your life unconsciously mirroring other people to survive and hide? What happens when you’re a chameleon in your classroom and the wider world? My kindergarten teacher wasn’t being lazy, mean or shallow forty years ago when she described me as ‘accommodating’. She was accurately describing exactly what she saw but didn’t have the right words to express. She was correctly identifying my behaviour in her classroom. We do the best we can with the light we have to see by. She looked at me and saw a reflection and something she couldn’t quite make out just under the surface. A little girl hiding in plain sight.