Autistic – or just “Shy”?

Once there was a little girl, afraid to say her name
She lived behind a self-made mask of silence and shame
She played all by herself, wrote stories in her head
And she dreamed of the day when those stories would be read
(From my song “The Real Me” 2014)

The most common adjective used to describe me a a child was “shy.” When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, it was thought that autism didn’t exist in girls, or only in its more extreme forms. Aspergers was not a word in common use. If I had had a pound for every time someone had looked at me and said “She’s a shy one” I’d have been very rich. Undoubtedly I was introverted, wary, uncomfortable around people. I was a late talker, and once I’d learnt to do it, I didn’t do it a lot. I would answer direct factual questions quite readily, provided that I knew the correct answer, so no one imagined there was anything other than shyness going on. (The song above isn’t quite true; my name was information I’d have happily given.) But there were days when other than answering questions, I probably said little else. Talking was hard work. Writing was always so much easier – I learnt to read and write soon after I could talk, and was way ahead of my peers in my written work.
But I was always keen to perform in front of others, in fact I loved it. A truly “shy” child wouldn’t have stood up in front of 300 people, alone, age 9, and sing a song she’d written. She wouldn’t have joined the church am-dram group or dancing classes, or sat down and played piano in front of the whole school. As long as it was rehearsed, I was fine. Yes I got nervous, and the reception wasn’t always what I’d intended. I was frequently laughed at for being awkward, unusual, just the odd one out.
I grew up believing I was “shy” because I’d been told it so many times. I hated the word and worked hard not to let it define me. Now, I am far more verbal. Years later than my peers, I managed to master the art of conversation, although it still does not come easily. At times now, I amaze myself at how neurotypical I can sound.
“Shy” children are usually the deepest ones. If I encounter a child who has little to say, I know there’s probably a lot more going on in their minds than those who chatter all the time. A few of these children will be autistic like me. I regret not being more verbally confident as a young person, but I don’t regret taking time to listen, think, learn and take it all in. Now I know there was a lot more to me than shyness.


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