Sitting in the clinical psychologist’s office, a little over six months ago, I heard the words I’d been expecting. At this point, they were a formality: “You are on the autistic spectrum.”
Ever since I had started researching how autism presents in girls and women in early 2018 — after a few friends and family members suggested I look into it — I had been 99.9% certain that I was autistic. I ticked almost every box — from intense emotional sensitivity to social difficulties, executive dysfunction to sensory processing issues, and the myriad of disparate traits in between. As little girls tend to be socially conditioned differently, the effort they make to fit in means they can consciously or subconsciously mask their difficulties, often flying under the radar until later in life when they can burn out from the pressure of hiding who they are.
I went through quite a process while discovering I was autistic at the grand old age of 30. The first was utter joy and relief. All the challenges I’d been working so hard my whole life to conceal could be explained — they weren’t my fault. I wasn’t an adult who had random, inexplicable tantrums. They were autistic meltdowns. I wasn’t a fussy eater; it’s very common for autistic people to have food aversions. I could go on and on. And even better, there were now other people out there like me, people who were easy to find in support groups online.
It was also quite the process of picking over a life’s worth of memories, looking at them through the perspective gained from this new information. But with the relief and understanding came a wave of confusion and panic. What did this mean? That I couldn’t accurately read social situations? That I had an inflexible, black-and-white worldview? Was I doomed to social failure? Was my behavior extreme? Had everyone noticed? What about my difficulties processing sensory input? I was in that for life? What did that mean for my future?
In that time, I veered wildly between joy and grief. Nothing had changed, but everything had changed. Now that I was aware, I would never be able to hide it again. I almost entirely lost my ability to mask. After a particularly traumatic social event where I tried too hard to keep up with a tricky environment and ended up having a catastrophic meltdown in humiliating circumstances, I withdrew socially. Suddenly unsure of myself or whether I could still trust my own perspective and interpretation of events, I totally shut down. I stopped answering messages. I scaled back on my work commitments while I processed everything. Who I thought I was had been obliterated.
It was like starting from scratch, but with a lifetime of damage from not having known who I was.
It took a lot of time and a lot of counseling and support from my family and husband for me to get my head around my diagnosis. It wasn’t that I viewed being autistic as a negative, it was that my entire identity had been turned on its head overnight. It took some time for things to settle and, truth be told, it’s still an ongoing process.
Slowly, slowly, I started to regain confidence. I still have setbacks, like when a social interaction goes poorly, or I overshare without meaning to, or I have an exhausting day. But the thing that has helped me the most is talking to other autistic women. Not just because they are able to relate and support me through it, but because seeing them from the outside gives me confidence. These are some of the most special, empathetic, kind, good-hearted, creative, inquisitive, responsible, politically engaged, funny, and honest amazing humans I’ve ever encountered. And every time I doubt myself, I remember that I’m built from a similar blueprint as them and I feel stronger and happier. We have such similar likes and dislikes, quirks and foibles, that being among them feels like I’ve returned to my home planet.
Now that things have mostly settled, I have found the courage to be myself. When I shop for clothes, I buy things that bring me delight, rather than make me blend in. I’ve embraced my colorful, autistic character — even if it means I end up stomping around in glittery wellies. I’ve also learned some important life hacks: I forego stressful trips to the supermarket and do my shopping online. When I socialize, I am clear about what I can and can’t manage, instead of just struggling through things that wipe me out. I’ve learned to say no when I need to or find alternative ways to be there for my friends. I now find myself saying things like, “I’m sorry, I can’t come to your party, I’d love to celebrate one on one instead.” The people who matter understand.
This has also meant understanding environments which do and don’t work for me, and taking that into account when making plans, applying for work, or just hanging out at home. When I go out, I do so armed with my “aspie” survival kit of things for every eventuality. I even have a uniform — noise-cancelling headphones and sunglasses.
My diagnosis has also helped me to be more understanding with others. Now, when I see someone acting in ways that might appear irrational or difficult, I question what might be behind it rather than leaping to judge or deride them. I ask myself what help they might need instead of reacting to outward behavior.
While being autistic comes with its own unique challenges, particularly when it comes to socializing with neurotypical people (rather than social difficulties, I now call it a language barrier) or coping with environmental factors that don’t bother most people, my diagnosis has also helped me to realize that there are countless positive traits associated with being autistic, some of which I’ve listed above and many more — but, as a true aspie, I’m aware of staying within my precise word count. We’re a diligent people. That’s one of the positives.
I would not be who I am, or where I am, if I was not autistic and, even though my journey has been rocky, I would not give it back for the world. I am proud to be autistic, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Header image via Lea Linin on Giphy