Also available in French! ETRE RECONNUE
The print version of Being Seen is now available! Click links above for info.
EXCERPT: Chapter 5 – A Middle School near the Atlantic Ocean
When I started to go to a public middle school (which was on the same campus as the
high school), I experienced an expanding awareness of my different ways. Many of my dreams
were dashed. Others also started to notice I did not fit so well and my struggles showed more
clearly. The first year Marie and I were in the same class and it helped. We usually biked
together to and from school, meeting every day at a designated spot where our routes met.
Academically I was an average student. In foreign languages if I was able to hear and
speak the languages in a real context I had a much better chance to make sense of them. For
example I became quite skilled in English as I practiced it with several tennis players from other
countries when they stayed at our place. Also, I went to England twice (once as an exchange
student and once as a failed au-pair). German was another matter. In class I was bored by the
teacher and I doodled repeatedly on the blank pages of my notebooks a peculiar pattern doodle.
This doodle was another type of autistic stim, and as an adult I still can draw it from memory.
I built the pattern based on the lines (which, like the tennis court lines, I obsessed over)
of my notebook: French notebook lines have both horizontal and vertical ruling. I felt this
doodle to be such an intimate example of my autism that I appended a single one at the end of
each chapter of this book and I use it as my banner on my blog, Autizen.com.
I may have been able to keep up a discussion with adults but underneath there was a
problem with the child who in many situations could not do very well with her peers. My
teachers wondered if the age discrepancy between me and my fellow students was the reason
for my challenges and they had me stay back one year, which meant I was now the same age
as my classmates.
For a few months I imagined that I had special powers and acted with my peers as if I
could tell their future. I told them that a little green jade stone I called Nabuchodonosor
gave me supernatural powers. I put the stone in the other child’s hands and made up stories
that made them happy, like the number of children a girl would have, the type of person they
would fall in love with, what would be their future profession, etc. I was amazed by the
credulity of my listeners and I realized then that since it was so easy for people to make up
tales, I’d better beweary of the tales I was myself bound to be told at times.Once I had a
fistfight with Bruno in the school’s yard. A few months later, Bruno ganged up with Luc
(we were on the same tennis team) and another boy and the three of them threw bits of foxtails
at me in order to taunt me. I was paralyzed with fear and unable to move. One foxtail
crawled up so near my throat and mouth that I became obsessed with the thought that I would
The cafeteria lunch took up thirty minutes during which I usually obsessed about food and
contamination. I believed that only packaged food that had not been touched was safe. Thus
in the school’s cafeteria I only ate the food that was served wrapped, mainly the crackers
and yogurts, and this left me hungry. Maybe to make up for this, on my way to and from school
every day I stopped at a candy store and bought a lot of candy. Eventually I became addicted
to sugar and on top of the candy stores I often biked every day to several pastry shops in
order to buy two or three pastries at a time. Naturally the change money my parents gave me
every month was not enough to sustain this habit, so I stole coins from my mom’s purse
despite her anger when she happened to notice it.
The school’s midday break lasted two hours. This meant that after lunch in the cafeteria I
had ninety minutes of unstructured time before resuming classes. It deeply hurt that I was not
accepted in the little groups of students that were scattered on the grounds, with Marie in
one of them. At first I huddled in hidden places to read but eventually I developed another
obsession: I kicked a pebble over and over around the yard. I tried to keep the same pebble
day after day, noticing where I left it at the end of the lunch break so I could use it again
the next day. I counted how much the pebble traveled, wondering if it had made it to China yet.
Would I ever be able to travel thus?
It is no surprise then that the school requested I no longer eat lunch at the school’s cafeteria.
Instead I went home and my brother followed. As was the custom in France my mother also had a
long lunch break during which she had barely enough time to come home and cook. It may have been
an added responsibility for my mother as it increased her already full load but to her credit
she never made me feel guilty. At home during lunch my father, my mother, my brother and I were
now together, which I liked much better than the school’s cafeteria. The problem with a child
not being given reasons for changes like this is that then she may think it is her fault, as I did.
I took much pain to hide my different perceptions and the ensuing behaviors. Not being
diagnosed autistic as a child was my saving grace. Had I been dragged to doctors, I may have
been labeled and looked down at. An autistic diagnostic label can be cause for troubles, and
especially at that time in France. Many teachers and other support staff feel superior to their
diagnosed charge and opportunities are denied, which can be perceived so overwhelming by an
autistic person that we may fall into the abysses leading to mental illnesses, medical drugs,
institutions, or suicide and other problems. When autism is thought to be a disease that must
be cured, the fragile and nervous child might be destroyed by inappropriate treatments. We are
often so sensitive it is as if we had an insincerity meter, and the smugness of the people
around us (who are often completely unconscious of it) may seriously rock us. On the other hand
I havenow met many younger autistic people for whom being diagnosed autistic has had several
positive effects on the individual. As a teacher friend told me, “How can I help if I do not know
the child has a challenge?” Allowing access to the now much improved services can obviously
be very helpful, the answer to the situation is not simple at all, autism has many facets and I
certainly do not have all the answers