Not quite sure what made me think about this. But I was somewhat overwhelmed returning from a work event yesterday and, while having a coffee to calm myself down before getting on the train, got to wondering how some childhood stories might have gone if the hero/ine was autistic. So here’s my rewritten version of Cinderella. [EDIT: And, having read through this again, I have just realised how much I identify with the main character… Which wasn’t my intention.]
Cinderella – the alternative story
Once upon a time, in the middle of the forest, there lived a young woman called Cinderella. Her mother had died when she was very young, so she lived with her father. As her father was often away on business, and few people came through the forest, Cinderella was able to organise her life exactly as she wanted it. No-one came to disturb her routines, or to confuse her with jokes, or to make her feel anything but safe in her forest hideaway.
But Cinderella’s father couldn’t live like that forever. He was getting older, and the business trips were becoming more of a chore. Not having other children, he didn’t know how different Cinderella was, and looked to the time when she would leave home. So he took a wife; a pleasant widow with two daughters of about Cinderella’s age. And they all moved to the house in the forest.
Unfortunately, Cinderella’s father hadn’t prepared her for the change. So when her stepmother and step-sisters turned up at the house, Cinderella had a meltdown. Her new family were very concerned and, despite her father’s assurances that this was normal for Cinderella and she would come round to them in time, became afraid to say anything to her. And so Cinderella’s unhappiness spiralled. She retreated into the attic furthest from the new family and only emerged to do the chores that had become part of her daily routine. The stepmother suggested that they should get a maid, so Cinderella didn’t have to do all the work, but this made Cinderella so upset – as she thought she was being replaced – that the idea was dropped and never mentioned again.
Months passed, and Cinderella started to get more used to her stepmother and step-sisters (who we shall call May and June, just for the purposes of this story). She would sometimes emerge from her room when there were no chores to do. And the family were all very kind to her, but she couldn’t help feeling that she didn’t truly belong. Although she wanted to be close to people, to fit in, she didn’t know what to say to any of them, and May and June – with their interest in boys! and loud music! – seemed like a completely different species to Cinderella.
Then one day, shortly before Cinderella’s father was due to retire, disaster struck. He was travelling home from his final business when, in the middle of a thunderstorm, he was hit by a tree branch and died instantly. Realising that Cinderella needed to be told gently, and despite her own grief, her stepmother broke the news in stages. Once Cinderella knew, the stepmother then told May and June. Seeing the family clinging together, Cinderella wondered why no-one had tried to touch her, to comfort and console. The truth was, they assumed she wouldn’t want them to; that she would be scared and overwhelmed. But Cinderella craved the human contact, and the lack of it made her feel sad, isolated and unwanted. So she returned to her attic, and despite her step-family’s best efforts, remained resolutely mute and withdrawn as she no longer had the words to tell them how she felt.
More time passed, and the small family were getting increasingly concerned about Cinderella. Then an invitation came from the Palace of the small realm in which they lived. The Prince was looking for a bride and instructed all unmarried women to attend a ball in his honour. May and June were, naturally, excited about this – although didn’t really want to actually marry the prince, just to see the palace. The stepmother was concerned about how Cinderella would cope at the ball and tried to excuse her, but was informed in no uncertain terms that Cinderella had to attend.
So the preparations for the ball started. May and June bought fabulous new dresses in the latest style. Cinderella, however, couldn’t even be persuaded to go into the dress shop. And the dresses brought to the house were all wrong; the fine materials were too scratchy, or too silky, or made a strange noise when she moved. So Cinderella insisted that she would wear an old cotton dress, as that was the only dress she felt comfortable in.
Cinderella’s stepmother was in despair. Cinderella couldn’t attend the ball in her old cotton dress; that would be considered treason. But she also couldn’t stay home – the palace had made that clear. Luckily, Cinderella’s godmother was visiting and she had an idea. Let Cinderella wear her cotton dress underneath but make an over-dress in fabric that didn’t make a noise and that didn’t touch Cinderella’s skin. So, skilfully avoiding Cinderella’s sensory problems, the women prepared for the ball.
The ball itself started well. Cinderella had been told what to expect, and had practiced strategies for when she became overwhelmed. Her stepmother had also arranged with the Lord Chamberlain for a quiet room to be available for ‘any lady who should become unwell’. So at first Cinderella could cope with the noise and the light and the crowds. But – just as she started to become overwhelmed and to head for the quiet room – the Prince decided that he wanted to dance with her. Cinderella tried to refuse, but he gently took her hand. The light touch, so different from the firm pressure that calmed her when her father used it, made her flinch from him and she ran, leaving one shoe behind her.
Well, the Prince was furious. How dare a common woman treat him like this?! So he resolved to find the owner of the shoe, to punish her, and set out the very next day.
In the meantime, Cinderella had retreated to her attic again. The ball had been so traumatic for her that she had spent much of the night hiding in a corner and rocking. May and June had tried to talk to her, but she couldn’t speak. When the Prince came to the house in the forest, he found the companion shoe. But the shoe did not fit May or June. The other women didn’t tell him that Cinderella was also there, but he heard her keening and insisted on going to the attic himself.
When the Prince saw Cinderella’s distress, all thoughts of punishment went out of his head, for he was, underneath all the posturing, a kind man. He reassured Cinderella (and, in the process, discovered that they actually had some mutual interests, which surprised them both). Then, he made a proclamation that Cinderella was not to be disturbed in the future and told his Lord Chancellor to make sure that Cinderella and her family had everything they needed. The Lord Chancellor ended up visiting so often that he fell in love with the stepmother and they married. May and June also married members of the Court and, in time, had their own families.
And, in the end, Cinderella was left alone in the house in the forest. But she didn’t really mind. Her family visited, and she had her books and her routines. Sometimes even the Prince would visit, and they’d have lengthy conversations about their joint interests. So, if she wasn’t exactly happy, she was at least content, and that’s probably the best anyone can hope for in this life.