Anyone who knows me is well aware that I am not the kind of person who likes to go out much and explore uncharted social territory. It is a strong innate dislike as I am quite introverted and not much of a people person. However, in my younger days, before I had come to terms with being an autistic introvert, I desperately wanted to fit in so bad. When I could muster the courage to do so, I would occasionally step outside my comfort zone and make myself do things many others would hardly bat an eyelash at. I would do them whether I liked them or not, even at the expense of my sensory issues, limited social energy, and other people’s nastiness.
Don’t get me wrong, stepping outside your comfort zone is usually a good thing, but it is also important to make sure you are doing something you are truly comfortable with. It is important to think things through, plan, and process.
I am still not quite clear on whether I was trying to simply appease others, or trying to prove something to myself, or a bit of both. To be completely honest, I did not want to be autistic, and refused to accept my diagnosis. The only people who got diagnosed with Asperger’s back then were guys I did not have much in common with. I didn’t fit in with anybody to begin with, even if it appeared that I was on the surface. Many of my ‘friends’ were just acquaintances. The diagnosis felt useless to me. I wasn’t a walking textbook stereotype, like the boys who shared my diagnosis. I had other diagnoses too, such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, and learning difficulties (what was this ‘high functioning’ drivel they were speaking of? I could barely get out of bed most mornings). I wasn’t gifted and I barely graduated high school. I also liked a lot of the same things as my peers did, just to a greater intensity and focus. There was no information on autistic girls and women at the time, so despite fitting the diagnostic criteria, I was skeptical, even though I think deep down I knew it to be true.
Some of the social occasions I made myself partake in were more successful than others. One that didn’t go so well was the first night I went to a nightclub. I am not a standard nightclub person. They are simply too much for my senses and nerves to bear. But I went in, and autistic hell it was. The social faux pas? Those inevitably happened too.
Reflecting back on that night I can see how much of my behaviour would have been misconstrued. I didn’t have a clue on how I was appearing to others. I was 21, but felt 14. All the social skills I had in my mental roster had been acquired through careful social observations; from the magazines I devoured, and some of the shows I watched on TV. I would mimic the behaviours of others but hide anything I had been rudely told was ‘weird’ (or worse).
I did not have a big group of girlfriends to go out with when I became of legal age at 19. Previously I had only gone out drinking a few times at pubs or small bars that played music I liked, or had live bands, with some guy friends. I only really went because of the music. I have never been a big drinker. It was difficult going to those places to enjoy the music because of all the people, lights, smells, and noise. Often, I did not want to stay very long, even if I liked the music.The exhaustion from the sensory overload that followed was unbearable. I felt like I was completely failing at life because things that came so easily to others were always a huge ordeal for me.
At 21, I was having a difficult time finding and keeping work. After being bullied by the manager of a small store I was working in my hometown, my self-esteem had plummeted to an all-time low. The experience was horrible, so I quit and applied for a housekeeping position at a resort in the mountains in a different province. I had been a hotel housekeeper at previous jobs, and the routine and working independently suited me well.
Upon gaining the job, I moved and settled into the position well, but the social aspect was a challenge. Here I was, working and living among all these young people from all over Canada, plus a handful of other countries. I felt awkward and younger than my years. I didn’t party constantly like the others. I preferred to read books or talk to my boyfriend (who didn’t live there) on the phone.
I was surprised when I was asked to come along to one of the big nightclubs in the centre of town one evening. Though I dreaded it, I knew I ‘should’ go, or no one would even talk to me again, let alone ask me to join them for another night out. I accepted.
I had studied how young women dressed at clubs, so I borrowed a short denim mini skirt from another girl, and paired it with a burgundy halter top and a nice pair of boots. I put on more make-up than usual, and thought I looked nice. It was early summer and getting really warm, so logically, it was a sufficient outfit. Not according to the other girls, as I would soon find out.
When I got to the bar, it was already overwhelming. The music was awful, the beer was crap, and the girls who I went with wouldn’t talk to me. Once I had gotten a few beers in me, I noticed a guy there had on a shirt of a band I liked. Finally, someone I can talk to here so I don’t feel like a complete reject, I thought. Since I already had a boyfriend, my intentions to talk to this dude were platonic and friendly. I approached him and said that I listened to the same band that was on his shirt. This guy, his friends and I started talking about music and bands we liked, with the conversation progressing to the topic of tattoos. He and some of his friends asked me what I had on my thigh. It was a large piece, so in order to show them what the whole tattoo looked like, I stood up on a bench, and hiked my skirt up a bit to show them. Afterwards, we talked and joked around, and then went outside for some fresh air. Now I know this would probably not look very good to a non-autistic, especially a group of judgmental girls who were witnessing this from afar. It probably looked like I was flirting with all of the guys and ignoring them, despite the fact they were not being very friendly with me. What was the point of awkwardly hanging around them, when I could find someone with a common interest to converse with, and distract myself from all the sensory stimulation? I was trying to be social and enjoy my night out, even though inside I wanted to leave.
After I had gone outside with the guys, I decided to say goodbye and walk home. In hindsight, I probably should have told one of the other girls from my work for the sake of safety. I just wanted nothing more than to escape the noise, the nasty smell of sweat mixed with various perfumes and colognes, the smoke, and the cheap beer. As soon as I got home I went to bed. I needed to de-compress. I was done.
It was really hard waking up the next day and getting myself to work, but I somehow managed. I was tired and my ears were ringing. My head still hurt from the beer, and I felt sore all over. As I was walking to work, I overheard some of the girls behind me discussing my clothing choices. I distinctively heard the word ‘slut’ and my name in the same sentence, with snide comments made about me taking guys home. Now usually, I would not confront a large group of girls and swear at them, but seeing that none of us were in high school anymore, and they hooked up with a variety of guys all the time (which I did not judge them for), I turned towards them in fury. I called them out on their bullshit. I was not going to tolerate this sort of gossip anymore. My face was heating up and going red, my body was shaking as I said to them that I should be able to wear whatever I want. I was talking to those guys about heavy metal and tattoos. I left early because I was tired. I had a boyfriend who did not live there, not that it was any of their business! I also told them that if they had any concerns about me like that again, that they could fucking well say it to my face and not behind my back, especially when I could hear them! They were shocked that I had that much gusto and courage to assert myself. As was I! But I was proud of myself. The whole mean girl mentality was something I was done with, especially as I had endured this through school. These girls needed to know that this was not acceptable, ever!
After I called them out on their bitchy behaviour, they no longer bothered me, or made such comments again. Some of these girls I developed a good working relationship with, and decent rapport. Others moved to different jobs so I no longer had to deal with them. I even made a few friends with some as I got to know them at work. I went out with them sometimes, mainly to pubs. The other nights we went to clubs were also disappointing, so I realized that was not my scene and that was okay.
As women, especially autistic/neurodivergent women, standing up for ourselves in the face of adversity is difficult, but at times it is necessary. When others are attacking our character, making negative assumptions and shaming us, we have every right to tell them to stop. Bullying of any kind is unacceptable. I was completely unaware that my outfit may have been too revealing for some people, and that I looked like I was flirting with a bunch of guys. I was just doing the best I could in that uncomfortable situation at that given moment while trying to enjoy myself. And you know what? For a naïve 21 year old autistic, I think I did pretty well given what I had.
Thanks for reading, and don’t take any shit! Cheers.
About Jen Elcheson
Jen was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 1998, back when very few people were diagnosed, let alone females. She has devoted her life to supporting and mentoring children on the spectrum. She currently works as an Education Assistant for the public school system, and as an assistant caregiver at a small daycare. Jen also runs an online support group, has written articles for AAN magazine, and is a lifelong music fan, especially metal and classic rock. Jen lives in northern British Columbia in Western Canada with her two ball pythons.