Bachelor of Science (Psychology)
I have never been able to work full time, or even close to it. I have struggled intensely my whole life with standard tasks that others complete easily, such as verbal communication, expressing my thoughts, understanding speech, basic time management, following instructions, planning tasks, initiation of tasks, understanding social situations, reading cues and emotions, and processing information, all of which I desperately hid from others. I was so embarrassed about my struggles that I intentionally and consciously tried to give people the impression that I was just rude, uninterested and lazy, rather than realise my shame of how hard I was trying and failing.
In private and starting from my teen years, I was constantly, desperately searching for clues on these struggles so that I could somehow help myself. I remember when Big Brother first launched in Australia when I was 18yo - I was so excited. I had no idea about the concept of autism then, but I understood implicitly that I had no idea about how people or social situations worked, and I was completely obsessed with trying to improve my understanding. So I very excitedly viewed the launching of this reality show as my opportunity to discreetly observe and learn about how conversations and other interactions worked, from a safe distance, with no risk of getting approached or abused in the process. I also used to gobble up teen magazines each month as an adolescent for a similar reason – not reading them in the manner that I assume other girls did, but simply trying to discern more clues regarding the ongoing puzzle of humans, and learning how to mimic them in order to avoid the unwanted attention and suspicion that came for not being like them.
I realised very quickly after reading about ADHD in my 20s that I had it (as it turns out, ADHD is commonly comorbid with autism), but despite going to my psychiatrist with this realisation, was not believed and went without help for my ADHD symptoms for another 9 years. I struggled immensely all through school without any help or understanding. I do complete work to a high standard when I am able to do it, but there are so many obstacles for me in getting to that point that I rarely got any of my school work done, even in class with teachers right there supervising.
Despite this, I managed to obtain a degree in psychology in my 20s through sheer determination and perseverance (it took me 7 years and I was very ill by the end of it), but I very proudly made it.
Prior to my autism diagnosis, in my 20s, I had to believe that perhaps the reason why I struggled so much in life could be all explained by social anxiety, OCD, and depression (my three main official diagnoses at that point), purely because they were the only answers I had. But even having these ‘explanations’ and always working so hard to overcome my struggles, I wasn’t making any real progress in improving my life. Despite tremendous and continual efforts, people still abused and bullied me just for being me, and I still struggled to achieve anything to the standards expected of a woman my age. I was always so motivated, yet these ‘answers’ weren’t taking me in the right direction to solve any of my issues.
When I was about 28, the concept of a female being autistic was introduced into my mind by a distant relative who unexpectedly stated that she’d always thought another female relative of ours was autistic. I didn’t actually agree with her - I had always thought it was a close male relative who was autistic (and this was what had started the conversation), but this new concept of female autism buried itself in my head, and sent me off on a flurry of hyper-focused, online searching. Blog after blog from autistic women detailing their lives and experiences, echoed so closely my own life experiences. I stumbled across a couple of non-professional lists of traits of female autistics, and ticked off the majority of them. I started to wonder somewhat seriously if after years of searching for answers about myself, this female autism thing could be what I really was, and I began to join multiple Facebook groups for autistic women so that I could read more life histories, and talk with others about our shared experiences of the world.
Three years later at the age of 31, and having had some more time to process the likelihood of it all in between the chaos of simply surviving my life at that time, I was more sure than ever that I was an autistic woman and I decided that I was finally emotionally and mentally ready to seek out a professional autism assessment.
I spent a long time looking up available autism specialists in Australia as it was very important to me that I found someone who knew what they were doing, and whose findings I could trust implicitly to be accurate. Horror stories abound in the autistic community of grossly uneducated medical and mental health practitioners who still believe old wives tales that any autistic person is incapable of making eye contact or having friends, and outright tell autistic people (even those already diagnosed) that they can’t possibly be autistic because of such reasons. Avoiding a waste of my time and money on someone who wasn’t up-to-date on what autism actually is, was very important. Eventually I settled on a clinical psychologist specialising in girls and women on the spectrum (and with the appropriate training and experience), and I booked an appointment.
The assessment a couple of months later, involved a two hour observation session and assessment, followed by a series of reports and tests. I also provided her with all of my old school reports from primary school and high school with detailed evidence of my behaviours and presentation as a child and teenager, and my spouse filled in a report regarding my typical present-day behaviours.
The follow-up appointment to find out the outcome of the various assessments and testing wasn’t for another two weeks afterwards, and I anxiously perseverated over the assessment and all the things I had been too overwhelmed to remember to tell her during it.
Finally the day of the follow-up appointment arrived, and my intuition was at last confirmed; I was officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
The relief that followed was immediate.
The full processing and incorporation of this self-knowledge was very much slower, but ultimately, profoundly life changing.
Initially the first thing to change was my levels of self-acceptance – I was finally able to see that there was nothing wrong with me. Years of intense abuse and bullying from people around me had traumatised me for most of life into believing that I was a profoundly defective human, and this had caused me to feel deep shame about myself.
Additionally, I had also long believed that there was something mortifyingly wrong (with me) because I had so much trouble coping with the onslaught of every day without visibly, physically flinching – something which I observed other people did not have trouble achieving.
The best conclusion I had been able to come up with was that they must have a greater ability for suffering things casually than I did. I knew that at the least, it was necessary for me to pretend I was also tolerating everything in order to avoid the mocking and attention that poured down on me when I did not hide it successfully.
These constant shaming reactions I received from others, led to me hiding pretty much all of my natural reactions to the world from a very young age (and just assuming that that’s what everyone else was doing too). It became second nature for me to pretend I wasn’t affected by things, and/or to feign total disinterest or lack of care about situations that were in reality hammering my internal world. Imagine my astonishment to discover upon my diagnosis and understanding of autism, that other people were not experiencing the things I was! They weren’t tolerating more successfully, they weren’t hiding things more successfully – they simply weren’t getting overwhelmed by all the light, the noise, the chaos and confusion, and their own emotions the way I was. I wasn’t weak for finding it so strainful to be casual about everything after all; I was actually pretty tough for carrying such a heavy load for so long with the additional constant stress of masking it completely from the world, on top of that.
Another unflattering assumption I had made about myself, was that other people were generally much smarter than me – this being based on how they were so utterly confident about everything.
I am someone who will not ever confidently proclaim something unless I have researched the topic thoroughly first, because accuracy and reputation for truthfulness are so very important to me. So naturally I assumed that high confidence in others meant that they must know what they were talking about (and that they were right to continually laugh at me and call me stupid for expressing my own, differing thoughts and observations).
My new awareness of being autistic suddenly opened my eyes to realise that in fact I hadn’t been stupid – I was often times seeing things more accurately than others, or picking up on things they hadn’t. But I had been so continually battered by the world and the repetitive pronouncements that I was an idiot, that I had not seen any alternative but to accept it. It never made sense to me that I was continually wrong when I put so much work and forethought into my contributions, but the savage confidence of others assessments of me made it seem to me that there could be no other explanation. Oh how everything made sense when I finally found out that other people’s brains worked vastly differently to mine. I finally had the pieces of the puzzle I needed to realise that confidence in other humans did not necessarily reflect their accuracy on a topic the way it did with myself, and I started to notice that many times that others laughed at me was because they actually didn’t understand what I was saying and were just finding their own misinterpretation comical.
So with new self-acceptance, and finally understanding that other people’s brains actually worked quite distinctively to mine, I was able to now stymie my previously, overly generous assumptions that everyone was as sincere as I was, and started to read people far more accurately. This led to me cutting off almost everyone I had been friends with for the past couple of years.
One of my major goals in the years leading up to turning 30, had been to make enough friends to be able to have a party to celebrate and therefore feel like a socially successful human being. And I had succeeded in that goal through joining a few social groups, something I had been really proud of.
But I now had the necessary cognisance to see and comprehend how disingenuous the people I had surrounded myself unfortunately were, and I felt appalled. My levels of discernment and ability to judge people’s character had suddenly shot up. I was no longer happy just to be superficially accepted by mean-spirited and judgmental humans who seemed to display the correct social image, to make me feel I’d succeeded in my masking enough to become acceptable to the world.
This drastic move left me quite alone for a while, but I have always been the type of person who would rather be alone than to be surrounded by false friends. I had genuinely just not realised what many of the people around me were actually like, until I gained some knowledge about how my own brain worked. Awareness about autism was like flicking a light on the world for me.
The next thing that changed for me, was beginning to consciously try to let go of my masking behaviours. This is something that has been quite challenging given that masking is a strategy I adopted both for safety reasons, and for the deep fear I have around other humans from experiencing so many traumatic experiences via them over my lifetime. But masking is exhausting and steals from the energy I have for doing the things I want to do with my life, so it was vitally important to me that I start to learn how to overcome this childhood-developed, brain-wired habit of masking. Six years on from my diagnosis, I have worked on this almost daily, and I have made substantive progress, but I still have a long way to go.
Next after this, began to grow in me tiny furls of confidence to begin requesting some of the rudimentary supports I need in my life in order to advance beyond my previously, eternal existence of perpetual drowning. Initially, because I was so trapped by my heavy masking and concealing my true experience of the world from the people around me, this felt incredibly hard. Both, for not feeling like I deserved support like other people do, but also for the immense difficulty of any act of intentionally drawing attention to myself. Trauma and fear of other humans makes one reasonably timid (as well as a big fan of avoiding the spotlight), so to intentionally step out and not only draw direct attention to my differences, but to ask for other people to actually accommodate them, was overwhelmingly terrifying. With time I have been getting better at it, step by step, and I have slowly built up some support in my life, but again it has taken the whole six years since diagnosis to get to this point, and I still have a way to go.
These days one of my happiest achievements is that I am surrounded by truly authentic people, and by friends who are like me (and who like me for me). I am relatively active in the online autistic community, and I am surrounded (not literally) by wonderful people who I can be totally myself around. I am no longer so frozen or cowering with fear and shame when I interact with people in the world, and I actively just try to be myself when I am out in public without automatically running from the spotlight of looking a bit different in the way I do things. I now hold the belief that I have the right to engage in the everyday behaviours that come naturally to me, just like everyone else.
I have had more than one friend and family member comment to me on how much more physically relaxed I look these days, and I feel proud and accomplished getting that feedback when I’ve worked so hard to get here. I still do consciously have to remind myself to relax and be myself in public and especially around non-autistics - it’s not automatic at all - but the fact that I can do it on even some level now, is an incredible feat for me. I did already work through years of therapy prior to my autism diagnosis, to deal with the psychological harm caused by abuse for being different, and I am now undertaking even more therapies to help with other issues like my extensive executive functioning issues - because now I am privy to the essential knowledge of what kind of therapy actually works for my neuro-type! I feel confident that the future is brighter because of this.
It’s sad that I have to, and have had to, spend so many years of my life just undoing all of the damage caused, but I’m so incredibly relieved and grateful that life is not constant, daily anguish anymore that I really don’t even dwell on it.
It keeps getting better every year as I become more confident in just relaxing into myself, without caring about other people's judgement of looking obviously disabled. I spent my whole life since childhood until the end of my 20s, wildly suicidal with major clinical depression from the stress of trying to hide the parts of me that kept getting me into trouble. I am no longer living under that level of awful mental pain every day. No longer suicidal. No longer suffering with major depression. These are things that I dealt with for as far back as I can remember of my life, and I frankly never knew that life didn’t have to be constant agony.
Getting such vital information about who I am has changed my life so drastically for the better. Finding out I'm autistic, finally having an explanation for why I could never be like everyone else, felt like pulling the cotton wool that had been in front of my eyes making everything hazy, and finally starting to see clearly for the first time. My life before getting assessed was a blur of constant confusion. Self-knowledge, self-understanding, can never be overrated. I made myself very sick trying to keep up the false appearance of being normal, because I didn't know there was another option.
Accepting and embracing myself the way I am, has been the single most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. For the first time in my life, I am now content and happy (even despite living with serious illness for the last six years), and I attribute that 100% to now being able to just be me.
I am a 37yo woman living in peaceful contentment with my two wonderful cat children. I crave physical aloneness, and in fact spend more than 90% of my time on my own – this is enjoyable for me as being around the stress of noises, the outside world and other people causes me to get quite agitated internally after an extended period, and if forced to be around such stressors on a frequent basis, I begin to fall apart and experience violent melt downs in private.
I have many friends who I talk to online daily and catch up with a few times a year in person, and this is just right for me. It’s not that I don’t enjoy socialising, I actually love it - this is why I spend all day on instant messaging apps chatting to friends. But participating in the outside world requires both extensive mental preparation as well as long recovery periods for me, so I have learned that I have to be selective about what I do. Being in my own space alone and peaceful, yet still getting to interact with everyone all day, is the best of both worlds.