As a child, I was always a “teachers’ pet”. The kind of kid that every teacher loves; well-behaved, attentive, responsible and followed rules to the letter. This extended to my home life too. I was always honest, did what I was told, and tried to encourage my younger brother to do the same. It became more rewarding for me to spend time with adults that praised these behaviours than other children that disliked my obsession with rules.
As a result of this, I was often described as, “mature for my age” or “an old soul”. This is a very common experience of many autistic children, and it often results in us being given more responsibility at a younger age. As much as this may help us become more independent, it can also rob us of the chance to be children, and forces us to grow up much quicker than we should. This along with the painful knowledge that we are fundamentally different from our peers can isolate autistic children even further, and adds to the trauma of being autistic in a world that isn’t built for us.
It seems almost poetic that I have ended up pursuing a career in academia. The field revolves around learning (something I love) but also teaching (something I am good at). When I was younger, I never had the urge to be a teacher. I hated children even while I was one – which was partly due to the fact that other children were noisy, unpredictable, and often vicious towards me as they sniffed out my abnormalities that I tried so hard to hide. However, I was very frequently thrust into teaching roles from a young age when teachers noticed that I was excelling with schoolwork. Some of my earliest memories from school were teaching maths to other disabled children as the teachers remarked that I had a “knack” for explaining problems in a way they understood (this was one of many signs that were missed that I was also probably disabled).
As I entered high school, I tried desperately to stay out of the spotlight as I learned that being a “teachers’ pet” was only a good thing when you were around teachers, not other children. But even then, I was tasked with helping to teach younger pupils, and offering counselling (something I was not equipped to do) because I was seen as a good role model. My friends even started waiting until after a teacher had set us a task to ask me to explain it again in a way they understood. I still craved the praise and validation from both adults and peers, so I conceded every time.
Don’t get me wrong – I love to teach people about things that interest me. Info-dumping is one of the greatest joys in life if the other person is equally as interested as you. But that is rarely the case. It’s usually either me boring someone with my long stories about Mars hot springs, or me being thrust into a teaching role that I didn’t ask for to take the pressure off an adult that wanted to take advantage of me.
All the times I was put in these positions meant that I was having to assume the role of someone much older than my peers. The responsibilities meant that I couldn’t act like other kids my age, because it was expected that I play the part of their superior. This resulted in my emotional development almost skipping a few stages. I didn’t get to experience the emotional maturing at the same rate as my friends, so even though I seemed to act older, it was just an act.
I was smarter than them in some ways – but in other ways I was completely at a disadvantage. I struggled to learn how to regulate my own emotions, I didn’t know how to soothe myself out of a panicked or upset state, and I bottled everything up until I got home and unleashed them in a meltdown. I imagine this probably confused my parents, seeing their “mature” child frequently lose control and have tantrum-like episodes.
I used some outlets for the stress like video games, daydreaming and collecting teddies. But I was often reminded by others how “childish” these interests were. So I forced myself to start to show interest in things like parties, alcohol and dating to seem like a “normal” teenager. This only resulted in more burn-out and meltdowns, as well as a lot of bad experiences from other teenagers that saw my emotional immaturity as an opportunity to bully or manipulate me.
I am so proud of myself for realising the effects that my childhood experiences had on my development. And I can see myself in other autistic people as they reclaim their childhoods later in life. This is often why neurodivergent people seem to take up “childish” interests or hobbies as adults (which we are unfairly attacked for). We are allowing ourselves the childhoods we never had.
I am slowly allowing my “inner child” to heal and grow as I slowly undo the years of masking, suffering and anxiety that I endured. I have had to teach myself things that most young children are capable of; comforting myself, communicating my emotions and saying no to things I don’t want to do. And I am becoming less embarrassed of any childishness that I might show – I am making up for lost time.
So readers – next time you judge someone for having “childish” behaviours or interests, just pause and consider if what they are doing affects you (or anyone else) at all. And once you realise they are doing no harm, leave that person alone to do something that makes them happy. Something that they never had the chance to do in the past.