1 October 2021
The 2021 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers Nonfiction Winner – Ruby Wiggins
Ruby Wiggin’s story Watching the Wheels Spin has been awarded The 2021 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of creative nonfiction. Wiggin’s was presented with the award online at the National Young Writers Festival at a special event, and won a $500 cash prize, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of their winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks.
Read Wiggin’s winning piece below.
Watching The Wheels Spin
It’s an autumn afternoon. I’m perched on the edge of the playground, in my own world of thought. The bell for lunch has just gone and everyone is scattering off into their friendship groups, to decide how they want to spend their lunchtime. The only thought on my mind is, I wish you were here. I feel so lost. My best friend is away today, fighting off a cold. It’s the second time in the three years that we’ve been friends that she hasn’t been here. Usually I’m the one taking time off. We’ve only got each other, and it hasn’t occurred to me until now how lonely she must feel. Cutting across my worried thoughts, a voice calls out to me: “R***! Come play with us!” It’s Phoebe, a girl that I’ve known since kindergarten. I feel conflicted. If I go and play with her, I’m betraying Celine, my only friend! It feels so wrong, but if I don’t, this is going to be the longest lunchtime in history. I make my decision and run over to the group of girls. I hope that they’ll be playing fairies, I love fairies. “What are we playing?” I ask timidly over the chatter of the group. “Mums and Dads.” Elizabeth answers. She is by far the most confident in this group. She wears her hair in a high ponytail and always wears a tinted pink lip gloss. I’m not sure if she’s even allowed to wear that. The uniform is very strict, after all. “How do we play?” I ask. The concept doesn’t sound very appealing. “We all act out being in a family together!” Elizabeth says. “I’m the mum, Charlotte, you can be the little sister, Phoebe you can be the dad, Jayda, you’re the little sister.” She instructs. “Who am I?” I ask. “Well you can either be the little brother or the dog!” The dog? Who would want to be a dog? They bark randomly, jump and bite. “I’ll be the brother.” I sigh. The next ten minutes are just utter chaos! People speaking over the top of each other, people changing the time of day that the scene is supposed to take place. There’s no logical order, or reason or rhythm to this game! How is this supposed to be fun? I’m standing awkwardly at the edge of the group, just watching this group of girls. When Celine and I play together, it’s never like this! We have fun games! Ones that make sense. Like watching for fairies, like we’re in the Rainbow Magic books. Another one of our favourite things is playing in
the wooden cars on the playground and pretending we’re teenagers on a road trip. Celine and I have been friends since we were four. We always listen to each other and always stick to one game the whole time, although watching for fairies isn’t a game, it’s very serious business. Standing awkwardly at the edge of the group makes me realise, I’m an outsider in this group. No matter how hard I try to be like them, I won’t ever be like them. But that’s okay. I have a perfectly good group. A tight group of two. Celine and I. I decide to give up on the group and slip away. Nobody notices. I sit down outside the Year Two classrooms on the retaining wall and wait for the bell to go. Another fifteen minutes. I sigh and watch the rest of my classmates playing happily, with not a care in the world. I want to join them, but I don’t know how. What do I say? I don’t want to barge in and annoy anyone. The bell finally goes and I stand outside of our classroom to line up, alone. We always line up in pairs and I don’t have a partner. Another stinging reminder of how lonely I feel. I usually adore school, but not today. Not even writing stories is making me feel better. 3:30 couldn’t have come any quicker. I meet my mum out the front of the school and we go to my appointment. I tell my mum about my lonely day without Celine and she hugs me. “These are good things to talk about to Gloria today.” My mum says gently. I nod.
At eighteen-months of age, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism. My mum knew that I wasn’t developing properly, because she is an occupational therapist. I had an obsession with The Wiggles and would sit in front of the tv watching them for hours. I loved playing with cars, but not in a conventional way. I would hold the toy cars upside down and just spin the wheels. I loved stimulation, especially the swings. I would be pushed on the swing for hours at a time and I just adored it. These subtle differences became less subtle as I grew older, but I didn’t realise this at the time. I began therapy almost right away to try and give me the best possible chance of a happy and healthy life. I did physiotherapy to help me move and walk better, speech therapy to support my language development and teach me social rules.
Occupational therapy to help with my fine and gross motor skills, the list grew and changed as I developed. I was one of the lucky few girls that received early intervention. Unfortunately, so many other girls and young women with more subtle and/or less obvious symptoms, don’t receive that crucial early support.
When most people think of autism, they think of stereotypical presentations. Young, white, school-aged boys who have no interest in interacting with others, disrupt learning and study train timetables. They might be a prodigy in maths or science. But that is just the tip of the iceberg, there is so much more to autism than society and the media presents to us. What about that quiet girl who sits at the back of the classroom and always has her head in a book? What about that successful 30-something year old writer with crippling anxiety who adores fashion? These are the sorts of people who fly under the radar. The ones who have become so good at adapting and changing themselves to meet the expectations of the people around them. The ones who are so good at pretending to be someone else. The ones who have good behaviour and high marks in school. The ones who only realise that they’re different when they reach adolescence and these coping mechanisms no longer seem to work.
The diagnostic statistics for autism are thought to be 4:1. That is four male diagnoses to every one female one. Just for reference, 52% of the world’s population is female. How can that possibly match up? Why do so many females fly under the radar until they just can’t cope anymore? Older children and adolescents struggling with undiagnosed autism usually develop anxiety, depression and poor self-esteem before they even receive a professional assessment or any help at all. These statistics need to change. Imagine what a detrimental effect this must have on those who have never received support or were diagnosed late? These young women who are missed are proven to have more difficulty in leading happy and healthy lives. Why, even in the 21st century do we still allow our girls and women to suffer in silence? This needs to change.
A month or so after that lonely lunchtime, I began to notice changes in the people around me. Celine and I would go out to play as normal, but the teachers began to act differently. Every time they would notice Celine and I playing together, we would be told off and separated. We didn’t know why. We missed each other so much and we would cry when we were put in different friendship groups; always at separate ends of the playground. We used to sneak out at lunch together and hide in different parts of the playground and hope that the yard duty teachers wouldn’t spot us. Just so that we could play together. Time went on and she was moved into the other class. We stopped talking because we had no classes together and we weren’t allowed to mix at breaks. I was inconsolable. I have no-one now. For years after that, I was left with the constant burden of the questions: what’s wrong with me? What did I do wrong? But little did I know that it was Celine’s mother, who complained to the school so many times that the school had no choice but to listen. Why did she complain, you may be wondering? Because I was autistic. Let that sink in. Her mother thought that her daughter was catching autism off me. As if autism was wildly contagious and transmissible. Need I say any more?
Five years later, I arrive at school early, as I always do. It’s a cold winter’s morning and I head to the library, like I always do. I’m allowed to be here in the mornings so I don’t bother trying to find a group of kids that I can sneak in with. I say good morning to Ms Ritchie, the teacher librarian. I head to the back of the library and I notice the spot where the popular girls usually sit, vacant. They always hog the heater and now it’s all mine! I sit on the floor in front of the heater and I take my book that I hid in my blazer and begin to read, feeling on top of the world. I sink into the pages of the book, unaware of the rapidly filling library around me. I don’t want to know, I want to find out who the murderer is! I feel a gentle nudge of my feet and I nearly fall sideways with the shock. “Sorry.” Elizabeth mutters. I look up and see her entire group of friends sitting in the comfy chairs around me. High ponytails and light makeup, none of them wearing their blazers. Everyone knows that your jumper can’t be your outer layer! And you can’t wear makeup. My insides are writhing with the anger of their disregard for the rules. Sure, nobody likes the strict uniform policy, but we all have to follow it! “What are you reading?” Paityn asks. My heart skips a beat. I was just addressed by one of the most popular girls in the junior school! Act cool, R***, act cool. “I’m reading a murder mystery about two students who investigate the death of their principal.” I say, my voice wobbling slightly. “Cool! How good would it be if Mrs Hallman was gone.” Holly says. Oh no, I didn’t mean it like that. What do I do now? Elizabeth nods and abruptly changes the topic. I don’t really get what they’re saying. Something about a birthday party and ditching school to meet some boys from the boys campus. I make the decision to sacrifice my position in front of the heater and slip away from the group. I’ve become very good at this now. Being a wallflower. I check the time briefly and make the decision to start walking towards the classroom. The bell will ring in two minutes.
When a female doesn’t receive a diagnosis, she is constantly left wondering ‘what’s wrong with me?’ ‘Why can’t I fit in like everyone else?’ This constant lingering thought can lead to a wide range of acute mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, eating disorders, anger management issues, and in some cases, suicide. Why does this occur? Simply because she is trying so desperately to catch up and keep up with her peers. When a diagnosis is missed, this capable, intelligent, funny, witty, girl can’t realise her full potential. The evidence is clear. Hundreds and hundreds of studies conclude that autism presents differently in females than in males and that early intervention and support for ALL people on the spectrum is key to fulfilling a long and happy life. Why do we still allow our girls and young women to fall through the cracks? We need an autism assessment criteria just for females.
Up until I was 14 years old, I would constantly try to separate myself from my diagnosis. I thought that it was freakish and strange to have such a diagnosis as autism. I wouldn’t ever tell anyone about my autism, not even my closest friends. I was terrified of being found out and
made fun of. I had heard the classroom banter for years: ‘oh my god you’re so autistic!’ ‘Retard!’ They would tease their friends as a joke. My heart would always skip a beat whenever they said things like this. Is it really that bad to be on the spectrum? I would constantly ask myself. It must be if they’re using it as an insult.
I’m 13. I’m struggling to cope with the constant sensory challenges of being in a classroom. The lights are too bright, the girls are too loud and nobody does their work. Unless they’re yelled at. My noise-cancelling headphones come with me to every class and I’m constantly on edge. It feels like everyone hates me. I begin walking towards the art block as I have a double in five minutes. I sit down in my usual spot in the breakout room where our classes take place and wait for the teacher to arrive. I need to zone out so I take my book out of my blazer pocket and start immersing myself in the character’s worlds. The teacher walks in and I finish the page I’m on and slip my novel away. “Good morning year eight!” My teacher says. “Please open your visual diaries and copy the learning intention from the board.” I swiftly take out my book and watch the whiteboard. “We’re starting a new unit next week which is food tech!” Everyone cheers except me. Art is supposed to be fun! Not a recipe for disaster! I think, starting to panic. I don’t know what to say. I need to say something, but I’m too rigid with fear to do anything. I write the learning intention unsure what to think or say.
A staggering 96% of people on the spectrum report having heightened and dulled senses. These can range all across the five senses. For example, one person may have an extremely high pain threshold, but also struggle with the tags on the inside of their clothing. Some of these hypo and hyper sensitivities may help the person excel in seemingly impossible acts, but others, can severely impact their ability to function in seemingly ‘basic’ and ‘routine’ tasks. As a young woman in the 21st century, the constant societal drive for perfection in every part of our lives is particularly prominent, especially when trying to achieve the ‘perfect’ body. Now, as an autistic female, the constant drive to meet the social expectations of a ‘functioning’ person is so real and
raw. Those of us who were fortunate enough to receive early intervention probably know what it was like to be constantly working with adults to match the social expectations of those around us. From body language, to conversation, it was intense. Like almost trying to force the genetic predisposition of perceived social deficits of our brains out. Now, combine those two factors and pause for a moment to think. New studies emerging suggest that around 25% of eating disorder patients are autistic, or thought to be autistic. Now combine the challenges of being a vulnerable, young, disabled woman in the 21st century. The drive for perfection is so impossible. I have benefited hugely from an accurate diagnosis and adequate support, both in school, in my social life and in every other setting. I can’t even begin to imagine what my life would have been like if I wasn’t diagnosed and supported early. I don’t want any other female to fall through the cracks and miss out on the opportunity to find themselves. So please, we need an autism diagnostic criteria specifically for females and young adults, which detects the subtle social differences of people with less obvious symptoms. I don’t want anybody else to have to go through their journey alone.
At the age of fourteen, I decided I had had enough. Enough of hiding my true self, enough of pretending to be someone else. I changed schools for a fresh start and I joined an art therapy group for teens with mental health issues. I was asked to introduce myself to the group. “Hi, my name is R***, I’m 14 years old and I am autistic.” I look back at the girl from five years ago and I barely recognise her. The timid, hunched over girl trying to run from herself. I knew what autism was previously, but I never viewed it as anything other than an inconvenient, shameful flaw that I could overcome with painstaking amounts of effort. Now, I am in recovery from anxiety, depression and an eating disorder. I have awesome friends and a great support network. I have been in therapy my whole life, and only now, I realise the purpose of it. It’s not there to ‘cure’ me or ‘make me normal’ it is there to help me thrive and reach my full potential in life.
I walk into the cafe, bracing myself for the chatter. With my headphones and book tucked safely away in my bag, I walk over to my friends and take my usual seat at the table. “Hey!” Maeve says. “How are you? I haven’t seen you all morning!” “I had an appointment this morning,” I reply. “How is everyone?” I ask, trying to get a foot in the conversation. “Ridiculously tired!” Maeve says. “It’s so annoying!” Aaliyah replies. “No matter how much sleep I get, I’m always tired!” Dagny says. “Welp! The perks of being a teenager,” I reply. Asha asks me about my pets, and then, the conversation begins. We talk and laugh for what feels like five minutes, but has actually been our entire lunch break.
Hi, my name is Ruby, I’m 16 years old and proudly, autistic.
Listen to Vincent read an excerpt of her piece and all of the other nonfiction shortlistees here.