The Ten Childhood Heroines of an Autistic Girl
From the moment children are born, they run a gamut of powerful emotional attachments and developmental leaps. From first hugs to a teenage sarcastic handshake, it's a long and complex road to a fully-developed character. As parents we like to think we are the start, middle and end of this process; looking back at our own childhoods honestly will give an extra insight.
My sister was at the height of She-Ra worship when I was born. My parents had agreed she could pick my middle name and I was very nearly She-Ra... but they persuaded her to go for Victoria from 'Victoria Plum'. She-Ra (pictured above) still ruled the roost for years. My heroes weren't caped muscular legends or brave anthropomorphised vehicles. Oh no. Like many children, I had my values reinforced and character informed by different sources, to widen the net my parents had cast. Unlike many other children, I was an undiagnosed autistic girl. My heroes were every day, unsung or just plain weird. Let's get cringing....!
My first teacher in full-time school was sweet-natured and softly-spoken young woman (imagine a Welsh Miss Honey from 'Matilda' and you're not far off the mark). She was close in age to my mother, with glamorous black curly hair and a seemingly infinite wardrobe of early 90s tea dresses. I remember her porcelain, almost blue-white skin and cold hands gently guiding my chubby paws while painting. She was everything I wasn't: tall, grown-up, calm, professional, nurturing. But the quality I desired most of all? The fact she was a teacher. She got to MARK stuff and learn for a living. This is something I have been excited by every day since. At one point I instructed my hairdresser aunt to stick big old Carmen heated rollers into my hair and let me borrow a dress so I could be more like her. To this day my default look is a navy tea dress with white polka dots and wavy hair. Mrs Edwards was the first person, other than my mother, to praise and indulge my true love: writing. When, at four, I was writing short stories while the other children practiced the alphabet, she covered my work in so many gold and silver star stickers I began to expect my homework to come back looking like the night sky.
I'd learned that I wrote well, that it was an excellent way to have fun and communicate. The gifts this hero gave keep on giving to this very day; as I see the look on my three-year-old's face taking his book bag into school. A face that says 'just one book a week? Oh...'
Ok, so technically she's a baddy. She has critters IN HER HAIR. I mean, I love animals but not that much...
The antihero to Lady Lovelylocks was a sassy, petulant, dark-haired little go-getter. She was critic more than creator, she believed in her own voice and had (literally) wicked levels of self-worth. She wasn't a do-gooder but rather a 'do you'-er and I loved her for it. I chose my path and it wasn't the selfless Buddhist-lite principles of the 'good' characters, but one that already recognised as an autistic girl I'd have to play by a different set of rules.
Well she's just gosh darn cute! But that isn't what makes her. Her loyalty and smart, measured bravery stood out amongst the macho spirits featured in The Lion King. She was up for adventure and had strong family values. The girl was a winner in my books and a sure-fire way to get me something from the Argos catalogue that I liked. Plus she's a frickin' lion! It's not uncommon for autistic people to find animals a lot kinder and more appealing than people..
Jet from Gladiators.
Before I could say 'internalised misogyny' I was proclaiming "well, boys are better are girls, though! They argue less, the teachers are nicer to them (leave them alone more) and they are stronger".
A recent BBC documentary conducted research on the gender bias in descriptors such as 'strong' (see more here )
What I really envied was the freedom and physicality that being a boy allowed. Feeling different from the start I lusted after a quality that would keep me safe. At this young stage I observed that gender and physicality did just that. I was to later learn that my quick wit and verbal skills were my sword and shield. But... back to my massive girl crush on Jet! She wielded power over most of the Dads I knew, was celebrated for her physical prowess and was openly competitive. Not to mention THAT hair flip. I wanted to be her but not in the fanciable and idolised sense, but to take pride in my strength and drive. The closest I got was a Photo Me booth in a Swansea mall that superimposed my face next to hers. My classmates were not buying it the next day but I was adamant I'd met her.
Queen Boudicca of the Iceni.
This one is cringey. I promise you I have no intention of beheading Romans or leading an army. I can barely cope with a toddler and baby. But there was something about a strong, rebellious woman smart and trustworthy enough to lead an army. Her actions gave others faith and often their lives, a hero in the truest sense. As an undiagnosed autistic little girl, this bravery and raison d'être was empowering. I didn't put value on being pretty, being a good dancer or cute. I felt isolated from my peers at a basic level of being but Boudicca's rebellious nature gave me inspiration.
Ripley from Aliens.
Again inspired by physical strength and a fighting spirit, I found Ripley entrancing. She faced the daily acts of sexism that women everywhere face, even when she was in space. Instead of dampening my spirits, this raised my confidence. Even amazing, scientist, alien-defeating Ripley had sexism and Imposter Syndrome thrown at her. Her resilience and sharpness of mind helped her survive an alien environment. This resonated on a deep level to my young autistic brain that was struggling to feel grounded.
OK I thought Jet was embarrassing...
So my Spice Girls phase was intense. From stretchy denim Capri pants, bubble wedges and two sickly blonde stripes in my brunette bob, I was interesting to look at. Most girls my age had hitched their inspiration wagon to a Spice Girl of their choosing. By now I resented being pigeon-holed as cute, existing for the male gaze or being a warm-up act for others. It wasn't the Prince-Charles bum pinching or red hair that got me in Team Geri. It was her bold decision to leave the legendary pop group and go solo. To resist the easy path of sure-fire acceptance and fortune and go your own way appealed to me.
Acceptance was an alien concept, I didn't know how it manifested or what the requirements were. But I also knew I didn't care enough to be tied down by it. The path less travelled was good enough for Geri so I feared it less.
The impact Jo has had on my life has far-reaching roots and is something I've only recently understood the scope of. Sparked by a Twitter game where people were discussing who would play them in a film of their lives, I found it hard to find my stand-in. My husband gave a weak offering of 'Joanna Lumley in a fat suit', but I unravelled the reasoning and *click* yes! I've got it! Stoic, unimpressed facial expressions? Check! Comfort-led black clothes and shoes? Check! Dry, acerbic Feminist-led humour that terrifies 'blokey blokes'? Check. Disdain for cultural and societal norms expected of women? Check. Love of cake? *ding ding* Bingo! We have a full house! Jo gave me the confidence to cast aside the expectations of my gender, to be comfortable in not wanting children and eventually comfortable with finding love later than my peers. I fantasise about one day bumping into her as we both reach for the same Victoria Sponge in Morrisons, admiring glances of each other's black tunics, leggings and walking shoes. A girl can dream.
I first understood about drag queens on holiday in Tenerife aged 8. A tall, broad, gorgeously glam comedian in a red sequinned dress and blonde beehive absolutely slayed her stand-up routine at our resort. John Major, Coronation Street, sexism... no holds barred. To be so strongly feminine and political with a captive and adoring audience had me in raptured admiration. One night I pretended to be ill to 'sleep' downstairs on the sofa with my Mum while she watched a Lily Savage stand-up. Peeking through fake sleepy eyes I watched as this woman took hot topics and dark humour in her long, PVC-clad stride. She deconstructed the gendered roles, pointed at them and laughed at them, yet somehow using them to make a career. What attracted me was as an autistic woman, I was to dissect society and individuals to forensic levels to try to understand why people did what they did and how I can 'pass' as one of them, just like a drag queen.
Willow from Buffy.
'Why not go for the pretty, blonde protagonist?' I hear some of you ask. As an undiagnosed autistic teen I was spellbound by witchy Willow, who turned her outsider perspective, academic abilities and unruly emotions into actual magic. Happy in her own skin because she had earned her own self-respect through battling the scary forces around her, I hoped I could fight my way to confidence just like her. Although heroes are associated with younger folk, I still think most adults have one or two close to their hearts. Currently, I worship Game of Throne's Brienne of Tarth with gusto. Watch this space for a Brienne article ;)