As the 1990’s dawned and I entered the tween years, the popular music charts were an eclectic offering. The decade began with the 1980’s penchant for the power ballad, the songs sung by strong voices that you could belt at full throttle, arms slung gaily around swinging necks while swaying to a slow and easy to follow rhythm. These songs were for the sociable, those wishing to connect, definitely not for me. It could not be doubted that they were popular, in 1990 and 1995, Unchained Melody had been the top selling song for the Righteous Brothers and then the Soldier, Soldier heartthrobs Robson and Jerome. 1991 was Bryan Adams with ‘Everything I do, I do it for You’ and in 1992 Whitney Houston stormed the charts with a cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘I will always love you’ and so on. These songs annoyed me. They were everywhere, they sat on my neck and dripped uncomfortably down my spine. These were the grinding of teeth songs, the smack my head and cover my ears and scream songs. I never would have admitted the strength of my discomfort, lest the other girls would think me weird. Instead, I would just say that they were annoying and bow out of the singing sessions.
This was also the age of manufactured boybands, which for most girls my age was a push for girls to obsess over pretty young men who could hold a tune and bust out the worm or head spin on request. There was New Kids on the Block, which was a little before my time and then the British version, Take That, the band to end all bands to many of my pre-teen cohort. Now, it is widely known that autistic girls are very likely to engage in the practice of masking and, although completely unaware that I was doing it, I masked like the best of them. Although I could never contemplate going to our local music shop to pick out a shiny cassette tape with lyrics in the sleeve of such a band, I could pick a member to faux crush on, in order to keep my normal girl credibility. The one I would choose would never be the cute one, the funny one or the talented one. No, I would always seek out the underdog, the one I could feel sorry for. Therefore, no Mark, Robbie or Gary would lay claim to my false girly attentions, instead it would be Howard or Jason, one at the back who could lip-sync and sway their arms to the music. I was glad when a smorgasbord of boyband options was presented and I could choose a band that I felt was a little more on my wavelength, enter the boys from Walthamstow, East 17.
Not as clean cut as Take That with their tattoos, shaved heads and white boy rapping, the advent of East 17 allowed me to express my disdain at the music of Take That without being overtly strange to my peers. I had chosen sides, albeit of the same coin and that was ok, as long as I had a crush on one of them. Girl bands came later in the 90’s, when record bosses conceded that young girls didn’t necessarily have to have a romantic fixation on a celebrity to buy into their product, especially when ‘Girl Power’ was the message and the girls were ‘cool’ girls, skinny and beautiful and a penchant for mischief that could match any boy.
If I were to be honest, I was a little jealous of boys at this time, they had more innocence. Boys of the ages 10-14 weren’t exploited in the way that girls were in the 1990’s. They weren’t marketed magazines that urged them to bypass their childhood in order to be popular, like we were with Mizz, Smash Hits, J17 and the like. There was even one called ‘My Guy’ for goodness' sake. Girls were bombarded with makeup tips and fluffy pieces about the latest marketable hunks, the magazines dictated what we should like, what we should wear and what we should aspire to be, while the powers that be were content to allow the young boys those precious years with The Beano and Desperate Dan, before they got a little older and their hormones kicked in and they could buy FHM or Maxim with their own money.
I’ve always known I was different, a little odd and shy, with a tendency for dark thoughts and macabre interests but I only realised that I may be neurodiverse in 2015 at the ripe old age of 34.
My son had been diagnosed with Autism in early 2014 after almost 2 years of assessment and then I was told that it was ‘a boy’s thing’. Someone even described it to me as a form of extreme maleness. It was purported that there was a causal link between testosterone and cognitive empathy. Therefore, even in the relatively recent 2014, I couldn’t equate that condition with me, a reasonably bright woman who was married with children.
It was only when I sat in an autism awareness class for parents that I realised I could be autistic too. The topic was sensory issues in autism. At the time I didn’t think my son had any real sensory issues but I took the course to learn all about this condition with which he had been afflicted. He didn’t like mashed potato, would smear himself with yoghurt and eat with his hands. It had all been about him and his autism until, with goosebumps prickling on my skin, I was punched with the cold realisation that it was about me too.
I’m a sensory person, the mere thought of touching cotton wool spurs a swarm of goosebumps to clamber over my skin and certain patterns in fabric make my stomach heave and my head spin. Noise can dance on my exposed nerves and set me into pure hyperventilating panic. Too much background noise negates my ability to focus, my mind becomes a blur of buzzing nothingness. My husband vents his frustration each time I turn the radio off in the car. Or when as we eat dinner and I need to jump up to switch off the extractor fan, the whirring making it impossible for me to swallow.
It is only since 2017 that there is a recognised female autism phenotype with characteristics that don’t fit with the hackneyed profile of autism being Rainmen and trainspotters; cold and detached birdwatchers who can never have fulfilling relationships. Autistic women tend to want to be sociable and can spend a lot of emotionally draining energy and time in camouflaging their differences and therefore have historically been under or mis-diagnosed as having ‘a problem with their nerves’. The link with testosterone has now been undermined as the data was limited.
As a mother of two autistic children, one male and one female, I can see many indicators of neurodiversity in my own childhood. I was the awkward one, the loner who shunned the outside games to huddle in a cosy corner with a book. It’s not that I didn’t want to play, I just didn’t know how to. I felt awkward with other children, even those that I had grown up with.
There has been a recent study by Dr. David Greenberg which illustrates the strong links between music preferences and personality types. The study had 350,000 participants and spanned 50 countries over 6 continents. This made me think about the music preferences I had in my childhood and how they could have been an indicator of my neurodiversity at a time when Autism was misunderstood and practically unheard of in girls.
When I first began listening to music for pleasure, the very first album I bought for myself was not one of the coveted ‘Now that’s what I call Music’ compilations, it was Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats. I’d heard the song ‘I don’t like Mondays’ and I was fascinated by the story of 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer who shot a gun into a school playground in San Diego in 1979. It was a heinous story with a theme that is all too familiar nowadays, but at that time it really grabbed my attention. I thought deeply about the reasons a young girl would do such a terrible thing. I would lie in bed at night and cry for the schoolchildren, who must have been terrified, I cried for the adults who died, and I also cried for the young girl who fired a gun because she didn’t like Mondays and the act of killing ‘livened the day’. I see now that I just wanted to cry. To feel hurt and sadness, to swim in emotions that I didn’t understand. I wouldn’t tell anyone though, because, as in timeworn tradition, your music taste was deemed to be a direct indication of the social group to which you belonged and I was aware enough to not seem weird.
In the mid 1990’s I found myself getting to know a new group of girls who were a little more like me. They were clever, reasonably liked but didn’t fret about popularity and their music tastes aligned with mine. They introduced me to bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden before ‘Black Hole Sun’ It was a revelation to me. How I worshipped those depressed boys from the gloom-grey of Seattle, Washington, not for their looks or any sexual attraction, but because they were free to express their melancholy and frustration with the world in a swirl of blue-black emotion. I felt their pain.
We had sleepovers where we thrashed around bedrooms, hair swinging and without care of how we looked, we didn't seek to be pretty or sexually appealing to boys, we could be us without expectation of what girls should be, it was a homecoming of sorts.
In the late 1990’s our nightclub scene was limited. There were two nightclubs that the majority of teenagers frequented and there was, ‘The Clock’, the small club split into three parts, dancefloor, bar and room with the sofa. Here was the place for those who identified as different. Here I could wear Doc Marten boots that I had spray-painted silver and the vintage green flares, scavenged from the charity shop with impunity. I could spray my hair blue and, in a time before cultural appropriation became a thing, wear a pink sticker Bindi in the centre of my forehead.
We would headbang on the small crossword painted dancefloor, not caring that our hair would go frizzy in the sweaty humidity, that our cheeks would bloom red and glisten with the sweat rolling down the back of our warm necks. Over pints of cider and blackcurrant, long haired boys and unimpressed girls discussed politics and the environment, the philosophies of Nietzsche and share their aspirations to become marine biologists in order to save the whales. This was the club where the music was dark and the conversation, deep. A safe haven for those who knew they were different. It was comfortable.
An anthem for me at that time was Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, a song that had been banned from the BBC after its release in 1992 for being too depressing. Which is depressing in itself as this was a song that spoke to people like me, the outsiders, the self-loathers, the youth that didn’t know who they were and sometimes wondered if they were anyone at all. When this song played in ‘The Clock’ we would hold up our arms, arch our necks, straighten our backs and sing loud, proud and in unison. That song got us. Whether we were exposed to that song or not didn’t change the fact that many of us had experienced the black dog of depression, or the isolation of bullying but upon hearing it, we knew that we weren’t alone.
Dr Greenberg, in his 2016 study attributed the liking for intense music like Nirvana to neuroticism and I have to say that is probably true to an extent. Neuroticism is the disposition to experience negative affects such as anxiety, self-consciousness, emotional instability and depression and these affects are often noted among the neurodiverse population, especially in those undiagnosed or late to the party as such. A Paediatrician with specialism in Autism, explained to me that autistic people, especially those with a typical or high IQ, are at a higher risk of mental health issues such as self-harm and eating disorders. These friends and I are middle aged women now and from what I can tell, we have all experienced some of these mental health issues since those heady days of our youth. I personally experienced all of them and they were exacerbated awfully after experiencing trauma in my late teens.
Looking back now I often wonder if things would have been different if autism in girls was recognised then, as it is today. Would I have felt able to express myself without feeling less than my peers? Would the understanding of my neurodiversity have impeded the creep of low self-esteem and depression that clouded my youth? And could I have admitted that I too didn’t like Mondays?
(The Song is You: Preferences for Musical Attribute Dimensions Reflect Personality. David M. Greenberg et al, May 2016) ↩︎
Marie-Louise McGuinness comes from a wonderfully neurodiverse household in rural Northern Ireland. She has work published or forthcoming in Bending Genres, Intrepidus Ink, Roi Faineant Press, The Metaworker, Splonk and The Airgonaut amongst others. She enjoys writing from a sensory perspective.