I stand and watch the other parent call their child by name as they encourage them in a park: “Come on Isabel… well done Isabel!… Isabel where are you hiding cheeky girl?” This is a thing I cannot do. I can physically talk, I have verbal skills, I don’t stutter, externally I am usually able to pass for neurotypical. Yet I cannot use my daughter’s name, the word is there in my head and yet it’s so hard to get it to pass my lips. This leads to all sorts of linguistic acrobatics until I find I simply have to use it. The responsibility of choosing a name for my child was particularly hard for me, particularly as there was a time limit on this. I find using her name is not so bad somehow if I’m doing something like taking her to the doctor and checking in for the appointment, I expect to be asked for her name and that I can manage, perhaps because it is compulsory.
It’s not just my daughter’s name I have this issue with. For me using people’s names feels similar to maintaining eye contact, I can do it, I can force it but it’s never comfortable. Some autistic people have described making eye contact as similar to trying to look into the sun. Nicknames or things like job titles or the role the person plays in my life feels somehow safer ground, something I have a little more control over.
It was in fact this issue with my daughter’s name which lead me to realise I was autistic. (Forgive me if I’ve described it before on this blog, I don’t tend to reread posts once posted). I was reading Look Me In The Eye by John Elder Robison. It was by no means the first autistic autobiography I’d read, I considered myself pretty well clued up on autism already. John described how he couldn’t call his new baby brother anything other than the nickname he’d given him – ‘Varmint’ if memory serves. This rang such a resounding bell with my experience with my then baby daughter that I seriously considered for the first time that I could be fully autistic myself. Until that point I had believed that I was just particularly empathic (!), that I could put myself in autistic people’s shoes fairly easily because of my experience with depression and anxiety.
A few of my ex partners complained that I never used their name. I’d always use terms like ‘hun’ or ‘love’ instead, never the name. Going out on a limb and making assumptions about how others might feel here – I think it’s a bit like if I were to call my mother by her first name instead of ‘Mom’, that would be weird for most people right? (Yes I’m a British person who says ‘mom’ instead of ‘mum’, it’s because she called her mum ‘mom’ as they lived in a ‘mom’-using country when she was growing up, I do however always refer to her as my mum as this is what people expect).
So people end up with different labels which I use to describe them: my childminder, my friend who is a teacher, my pregnant friend, the friend I go to the pub with and so on, bizarrely referring to someone as somebody’s something like saying ‘Bob’s friend’ or ‘Mary’s sister’ isn’t so bad, a further degree of emotional separation from the name perhaps… For the most part this doesn’t bother me, I’ve far greater problems than this strange inability to use people’s first names and I’m well used to finding workarounds. It does bother me with my daughter though. I know it’s ok for me to say “Well done darling!” or “Come here you little hooligan!” instead of using her name, I’m sure there’s many other things which are far worse about my parenting. Yet it niggles and I have a sort of envy of people who can so freely call their child’s name across a playground.
I have some hope. As with Robison my nicknames evolve over time – a quick google tells me I was both right and wrong, his kid brother was originally nicknamed ‘snort’ and then later ‘varmint’. My daughter whose original nickname was ‘Piggy’ has now become an approximation of her real name which she instigated as a way to refer to herself while she was learning to talk. Now she has learned to say her name properly but the approximation has stuck. I’m aware it’s not her real name but it’s as close as I can get for now. I still refer to her as P online, mostly for ease and anonymity and she is still Piggy with friends who have come to terms with this nickname – some people have been very judgemental about this name, saying it’s unkind etc, like I had any choice over what my brain chose to label her, it suited her as a baby who was quite the frequent feeder.
These issues of identity mirror my own in some ways, I take pains to protect P’s identity online as I do my own. There are some trusted people who know my real name as well as this alter ego, they are few and I plan to keep it that way. The anonymity gives me a freedom to be more honest, however unsavoury that can be at times.