Reclaiming the Playground
Illustration Manon de Jong
When I was a child, people called me a bubbly stand-offish tomboy. I remember the playground, wrestling with others, climbing trees, and being muddy head to toe. I remember someone telling me that this ‘wasn’t for girls’. I remember my honest response, and I remember the follow-up exclamation, that talking like that was also ‘not for girls’.
Okay, lesson learned, there are things only boys can do, and there are things only boys can say. In other situations, I learned the things girls are supposed to do and say. Many people share my fate of gender socialisation, I’m sure.
Fast forward more than two decades and I get a diagnosis: ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder’. A shock at first and a journey of self-discovery thereafter. The intersection of gender and neurodiversity is a fabulous place of speculations, assumptions, and misunderstandings – if put nicely – and of rejection, pain, and accusation in reality.
Surely, I can’t be autistic because it’s assumed to mainly affect the ‘male’ population and manifests in stereotypical behaviour (I refuse to repeat this cliché here!). Surely, I can’t be autistic because I show a lot of love and care, empathy and understanding. Surely, I can’t be autistic because people around me would have noticed that something wasn’t ‘right’ with me. Ouch! For many, my diagnosis is not ‘real’ because it contradicts what they assume to know about the ‘disorder’ and about ‘me’.
All my life, I struggled and hid the symptoms of my ‘disorder’. All the suppressed honesty in favour of politeness, the unexpressed passion that is 'too much' for everybody, the accumulated anxiety because of not understanding the rules of a game everyone else seems to naturally get. All this in order to pass as ‘normal’.
What if I told you that because I'm female it was expected that I care for and about others, and I learned fast? What if I told you that the world around me is designed for neurotypicals and that in order to cope, I had to learn to play by the rules if I wanted to be included or even liked? What if I told you that my behaviour is only but a mechanism designed to keep me alive in a world that demands and insists on framing female agency from a carer position?
The masks I wear for you hide away, neatly and consistently, who I truly am. My identity, buried beneath, conforming to binaries based on cisgender and neurotypical ‘norms’, which punish ‘otherness’ and diversity.
Between these two, I struggle to find myself. Who would I be without either of these norms? And then I think back to the kid on the playground, climbing trees, being frank and honest, brave and uncompromising. And in moments of mindful nothingness, I get a glimpse of what I could have been, a hypothetical actualisation of myself.
What happens to kids like me nowadays? Can they be who they want to be or are they being made into what others think is ‘right’?
Disclaimer: the views expressed in this post are those of the respective author and are not necessarily shared by the #ChangeHerStory Campaign partners.