I’ve had a lot of names. There’s the name on my birth certificate. There’s the irritating diminutive form that I was called by until I left home. There’s the play on my initials that I used before I decided to shorten my first name so that it couldn’t be further mangled. There’s the name I use now, shortened so I sound more like a woman in her twenties than a pensioner or a five-year-old.
I want to talk about other names, though. The names other people gave me.
The first name I was given was “Cardboard Box”. I was little, probably about 6, and ate a hot lunch with the other children at school. Two kids opposite me were about to walk away and let half of their lunch go to waste. Like most 90s kids, I’d been told about the starving kids in Africa every time I failed to clear my plate. Out it popped, without even asking my brain for permission. “You can’t leave your dinner, there are kids living in cardboard boxes”… that was it. They called me that for months.
Then came “Pingu”. I was never much for running around in the playground, and provision for those who weren’t interested in running around and screaming wouldn’t be made for a while. The playground was a dangerous place, filled with flying footballs, unfriendly children, confusing swarms of people milling around with no order or predictability. Not running around was a sure way to get cold and uncomfortable, though. I sat in a sheltered corner near the wall, with my coat pulled over my knees so that my legs didn’t get cold. Apparently, in my fur-hooded parka, I looked rather like a penguin. That stuck for as long as winter did.
I changed schools, but there’s no escaping the cruelty of children. It was around then that I was really beginning to find what would be my sparkle topic for many years. Nature. There were a great many amazing creatures living in a range of environments all over the world. They have strange and wonderful traits that we take for granted. Bioluminescence, for example, allows creatures to mix chemicals in their bodies that make them glow in the dark. The more strange and wonderful the trait, the more interesting I found it. Ask about an animal, I was guaranteed to have some nugget of information stored away in my brain. The other kids found my knowledge less than impressive.
“Nature girl” was the first of that kind to pop up. When I moved into secondary education, though, they came up with a surprisingly witty encyclopedia-themed play on my name.
It was about then that I started growing my nails long. I didn’t like cutting them, I can’t use scissors with my left hand, so couldn’t trim the nails on my right. I have a horrible aversion to nail files and the like, and nail clippers just bent my nails uncomfortably. Long nails (that is, nails that weren’t cut behind the quick) were just one more example of how I was different. I was “Cat Girl” until they found someone else to harass.
Then I was left alone for a brief, blissful period where as long as I kept my headphones on, or stayed after class to do extra work, or hid in the library, I wouldn’t have a new nickname to deal with. I was still bullied, of course, but from a distance. Hurled stones, vicious rumours, but no names.
The one that takes the trophy for the longest and most ridiculous name designed to insult, though, is the following:
“Sad twisted snail with fangs and horns who looks like a ladyboy.”
I welcomed it. It was refreshing. It was refreshing because when they weren’t calling me some ridiculous name that they thought was clever, they would surround me, chanting the name my family called me, with their hands miming like sock puppets close to my face. I’m sure you can imagine what the experience of being surrounded by bigger kids, having your space invaded, having your name chanted over and over again with people moving their hands near your face, would do to an autistic person.
I learned to hate my name. It was used to taunt me.
It was also used to indicate disapproval. Every time I made a joke that wasn’t funny, or communicated or behaved in any way that my family disapproved of, I would hear my name. Sometimes, it was my name followed by a description of what I was doing wrong. More commonly, it was just my name, with a note of exasperation and annoyance. Positive interactions never came with my name attached. When my name was attached to something, it was either a criticism or an order.
This does not encourage a person to develop a positive relationship with their name. Think about it. Your name represents who you are. It’s how people identify you. It’s the one (or two) word(s) that describe precisely you. When your name gets used on its own as a reprimand, you start encountering difficulties in your relationship with yourself. It’s much easier to internalise criticism and disapproval when your name is attached. It’s much easier to start believing you’re bad. It does a real number on your self-esteem.
I’ve had a lot of names, but the absolute worst one was my name. The one written on my birth certificate, the one shortened and cutesified by family. The one chanted at me by bullies and snapped at me when I did something wrong. If you have a child, or even a pet dog, listen to how you talk to them. How often do they hear their name? How often do they hear it in the context of praise? How often in the context of command? How often do they hear it as part of a reprimand, or even all on its own as an indication of disapproval? How does that make them feel?