The first 29 years of my life were painfully spent agonizing and tormenting myself about why I constantly felt so fucking different than everyone else.
There was a never-ending narrative that I mulled over in my head reprimanding myself for feeling like I was an accident created without any sole purpose in life. Like I could never just get it, that I was so alone and continuously misunderstood by everyone.
I had trouble keeping friends, maintaining jobs for more than 3–4 months, living with roommates, doing well in school, completing tasks, having successful healthy relationships, amongst many other things. Each time I thought I had my shit together, and that THIS was the time that I would finally become responsible, I would inevitably burn out, quit whatever is what I was doing, and start the same excruciating process of beating myself up for not being normal.
Two summers ago, I had found a lovely therapist who specialized in patients with C-PTSD and EMDR treatments. It was during our third session that she asked me if I would be willing to take a test to allow her to see how my brain processes information, so she could continue my treatments in the best way possible for me. I agreed and came back the following week with the completed test in hand. After reviewing my scores, my therapist suggested to me that she had a strong feeling that I might be Autistic. As an Autistic woman herself (or “Neurodiverse” as her preferred identity lingo of choice) she had noticed traits and similarities in our first couple of sessions that felt to her like Autism. I was absolutely dumbfounded and found myself in complete disbelief.
“Umm no.” I exclaimed.
“I’m not Autistic. There’s absolutely no way.”
After a couple of more minutes of vehemently denying my poor therapist’s suggestion, I immediately went home and spent into literal days of research on online accounts of Autistic women telling their stories of late diagnosis.
I went to the library and checked out every book I could find related to Autistic Adults and read every list of Autistic traits that my therapist had recommended to me.
I watched TED Talks, read countless blogs and articles, and visited numerous websites about Autistic women. I remember with each new story I read or each resonating trait I found, my heart began to feel lighter and lighter, yet heavier and denser simultaneously. I remember clutching my heart and sobbing tears of relief and sadness and suddenly the truest words I have ever believed about myself came flooding into my entire body.
“I am autistic.”
Why did it take almost 30 years for this information to be presented to me? Why was I constantly overlooked by psychologists growing up, and how come Autism had never even come into my own radar once? The answer is simple. Unawareness.
Unawareness in the way Autism presents itself differently in every Autistic person, and especially misinformation and unawareness about the differences between Autism in boys/men and girls/women.
People tend to diagnose Autism with really specific check-box descriptions, but in reality, it’s a diverse variation as to what we’re like.
I think this is why I was in such disbelief about my own Autism because the only accounts of Autism I knew were either from the media or Autistic children I had seen at my high school in the Special Education program. People often associate Autism with being a male, a genius, excelling at math and science, or even having difficulty speaking or being mute in some cases. But that is a stereotype, and the stereotypes of things are often, if not always, wrong. For instance, a lot of people think autism and think “Rain Man” immediately. That’s the common belief, that every single autistic person is Dustin Hoffman or Sam from A-Typical.
Not only is this incredibly untrue and kind of insulting, but the constant male-dominant storylines shadows any experience of Autistic girls and women.
What we are seeing in mainstream media is not a true reflection of Autism. We are, instead, seeing what neurotypical people think Autism is. Autism is multifaceted, varied, and exists on a spectrum, but we never truly get to see the diversity of autistic people and their symptoms on our screens. Autists can be creative, outspoken, entertainers, bookworms, scientists, artists, and everything you can imagine in between.
One of the key problems in diagnosing females with Autism is that we present very differently to males with Autism. We pretend to be normal for most of our lives. We mask our Autistic traits to be able to fit in with neurotypical people.
This “masking” or “camouflaging” involves mimicking (an unconscious attempt) or learning (a conscious effort) socially acceptable behavior, such as making eye contact in conversation, using pre-prepared phrases or jokes in conversation, copying other’s social behavior and imitating facial expressions or gestures.
I would say that I spent an incredible amount of my life masking. I would be extremely outgoing and social, even the “life of the party” at some points. After a while, I would ALWAYS burn out and end up isolating myself, avoiding people, and even lose friends in the process.
This continuous pattern was so confusing to me for so long but now I finally know it was because I was constantly trying to be something or someone that I was not meant to be, or ever going to be. Now that I know I will never be neurotypical, I’m a lot gentler with myself when it comes to social and work-related situations. I still, however, have crippling days when I feel so overwhelmed just by the presence of my own mind. I don’t think that will go away anytime soon, but I’m learning to lean into it. I just found out that I have been living my entire life not knowing my brain is wired a certain way, so I think it’s definitely okay for me to not be okay.
It’s still a work in progress, but slowly I’m allowing myself to accept and embrace my wonderful Autistic self.
For me, and for many others, an official diagnosis is the beginning of this journey, not the end.
I was formally diagnosed this past February by a Ph.D. Psychiatrist who specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorder, and with this confirmation, I now feel like I can gradually start to become what I have always been trying to become my entire life.