I was diagnosed as probably being on the autistic spectrum when I was around maybe 16 or 17. My therapist started to get suspicious because of my then ridiculously intense obsession with the Marvel cinematic universe (I broke down crying in her office because I couldn’t see the Avengers film for weeks). I just thought I was depressed and my OCD (which, hey, guess what: OCD and autism tend to be misdiagnosed as each other!) just meant that I was drawn to liking things a bit too much. If I were to sum up my life it would be that; liking things, but too much.
My perspective of autism at the time wouldn’t have allowed for this definition. I, like a lot of people, thought of being autistic as being mute, or screaming in supermarkets, or being really into trains.
Sidenote: can trains stop being our go-to example when we’re talking about special interests? Mine have ranged from comics, the Twilight saga, podcasts, etc. This was one of the huge reasons I didn’t think I could be autistic – because my interests were relatively ‘normal’ and not as niche as the train example.
Back to my diagnosis. I was tested, I was told I was likely autistic (technically the doctor said I have Asperger’s disorder, but I prefer the fluidity of saying I’m autistic). One therapist consulted was uncertain of this diagnosis, so I immediately latched onto that. At the time I was very mentally unwell, I was super lonely and considered myself very much to be an outcast – I was going to college soon and I didn’t want the stigma of being autistic hanging over me. So, I clung to that small shred of doubt and pretended that it had never happened, that it was a bad diagnosis and that it didn’t mean anything. Just word on a form that didn’t mean anything.
It wasn’t until I was 21, when I met other autistic people and got to know them that I realised that, oh man, I am very autistic, and if I had acknowledged it earlier, I would have been so much happier. The irony of my fear of the label not letting me accept something that would have made things so much better for me. On accepting my diagnosis, I feel free. So many of my mannerisms and affectations have always confused me and which I hated myself for because I felt so alien made sense now and didn’t confuse me. The greyness of my life became technicolour and I understood myself for the first time. I wasn’t broken, I was just wired differently – everyone else was a Mac, and I was a PC, like that Microsoft ad. But it’s true – people tend to believe that autistic people are broken, and need to be ‘fixed’, or cured. But we’re not. We’re neurodivergent; we think and respond to things differently from you, but just because we are the minority does not mean we need to fit into neurotypical values. And besides; I spent most of my life trying to force myself into a neurotypical shape and, buddy, no thanks. I don’t want to go back to that.
But if me being autistic seems as obvious as my hair being black, then why wasn’t I diagnosed earlier? Well, it’s the patriarchy, folks! Presume that to be the answer to most nonsensical bad things in the world. Autistic women are kind of shafted by research. We don’t exhibit a lot of the same symptoms of being autistic that males do or in the same way, and as a result many many women go un-diagnosed, well into adulthood. This is a pretty common phenomenon, and it kind of sucks, because for me anyway, so much of what I’ve struggled with would have been immensely easier if looked at through the lens of my being autistic. I think the best explanation for this oversight is down to social conditioning. In general, women are taught from a young age to be submissive, and to be quiet and polite, and as a result a lot of our autistic tendencies become hidden. I saw someone online describe this in such a perfect way that I think I probably clapped when I read it, and I’m going to mangle it now because I can’t remember it exactly, but a big thing that autistic people do is social mimicry. Everyone does this – everyone tries to fit in – but like with most things, autistic people do it a little bit too much. As a result, autistic men act more violent, more boisterous and ‘obnoxious’, whereas autistic women are more quiet, withdrawn and overly polite. And, like I said above, women are generally subjected to more social conditioning than men, and are collectively moulded into an image, and as a result, us autistic gals slip through the cracks of diagnosis and tend to just be seen as the weird, awkward, quirky girls.
There was a defining moment in my journey to discovering my true autistic self, where I messaged my friend to tentatively say that, hey, I think I might be autistic. From there I allowed myself to explore being autistic and accepting that I was autistic. It was actually around the time that Netflix show Atypical came out and I watched the first episode, and immediately texted the aformentioned friend like ‘HELP THIS GUY IS LITERALLY ME’ And speaking to autistic people now, and realising that oh my God, I’m not just weird, I’m autistic and this has an explanation now has been one of the most therapeutic things that has ever happened to me, and I’ve had a lot of therapy.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses now. I now am acutely aware of perceptions of autism in the media, of ‘autism parents’ and people thinking that we should be cured, that we are a burden or can’t live independently. I suspect a lot of people reading this will think I’m not autistic, that I’m just being dramatic or attaching a label to myself. But autism is a spectrum in that one day I might present as completely neurotypical, and in the next hour I may be in tears, clutching my head on a bus because of noise overload. Now that I have an explanation for these emotions and these reactions, however I can deal with them better.
There are a lot of misconceptions floating around the world about autism *coughs* anti-vaxxers *coughs*, and I think it’s time that the microphone was taken away from parents of autistic children, or psychologists, and handed to us, those with the lived experience, so that others can identify with in themselves those autistic traits. Without that privilege, I would probably still be ignoring my autism diagnosis, and still would be going around not being able to deal with my issues and problems because I wasn’t aware of needing to look at them through the lens of autism. So, I really recommend anyone who has any slight suspicion that they may be autistic to do a little research – or even reach out to me if you like. It’s a scary thing to contemplate, but for me it completely changed my life, allowing me to finally understand who I am, and to live honestly, for once.
Follow Aoife on Twitter @AoifeeO