My path to an autism diagnosis began after a series of mental health challenges caused the upheaval of my professional and private life. A relationship and job had ended. In the throes of self-loathing and depression, I wanted to understand why I operated in the world the way I did.
It had been suggested by a manager at a previous job that I exhibited traits of someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Her son had been diagnosed, and she saw a lot of the same traits in me. At first, I was surprised and hurt. I was trying so hard at that job to compensate for my lack of social awareness and clearly, it wasn’t working. I mulled over the idea of having ASD and then mentioned it to my mother while shopping at the mall. My mom looked as if something she’d been fearing had come to pass. She told me she’d long suspected I was on the spectrum but had been poo-pooed by medical professionals.
I masked well. I had friends, did well in school, dated, and overall gave the appearance of being neurotypical. While I masked well, there was always something different in my head and heart. I knew I wasn’t comfortable with traditionally feminine things like high heels and makeup, and the social dynamics of the girls at my high school might as well have been calculus. There was a gap between what I knew I was capable of doing and what I knew other girls were experiencing at my age.
After that conversation at the mall, my mom accompanied me to the office of a psychologist to begin testing. The interview felt odd. As she asked questions, the dots began to connect. My elbow popping and rubbing my fingers together was called “stimming,” or self-stimulating behaviors. I had interests that could devour my free time for weeks. I never understood sarcasm. I didn’t understand why people would say things they didn’t mean when they could just say what they meant.
After the interview, I returned for more testing. I remember there was a word association test and another test in which I had to look at people’s facial expressions and try to guess what they were feeling. The tests lasted for six hours, and then there was a follow-up appointment for the results.
Hearing I was diagnosed with level one ASD was a relief. I’d felt like a failure for so long. I hadn’t been able to force myself to act or feel like I knew was “normal.” I thought I hadn’t worked hard enough or there was something wrong with me. Hearing that my brain was wired differently was wonderful. My world made sense. My hatred of textures and sounds and love of structure was how I moved through the world and made sense of what otherwise would’ve been chaos. I hated Thanksgiving as a child. There were always so many people and so much noise. I would hide in my room, my heart racing, just wishing everyone would leave so it would be quiet.
A diagnosis freed me to advocate for myself and unapologetically so. I no longer tried to fit into social constructs that didn’t serve me. I stopped caring that I couldn’t walk in high heels. I don’t wear makeup unless I want to and, even then, it’s very minimal. I was myself, and I had arrived.
The biggest gift of the diagnosis was that I found people who were like me. Meeting adults who were also diagnosed and seeing how they moved through the world was a great comfort. I felt seen and understood for the first time. I met people who didn’t mind if I spoke loudly and was a bit odd. I found my tribe. Spending time with them was healing and uplifting.
While I was overjoyed with my diagnosis, it brought complicated emotions and conversations with immediate and extended family. My dad wrestled with what he possibly could’ve missed. Family members who’d tried to mold me into a more ladylike individual realized that it wasn’t even a possibility. My brother was concerned that I would view my world as smaller if I was diagnosed with a disability. As a family, we navigated these difficult conversations with patience, empathy, and understanding.
What I gained through a diagnosis was an understanding of myself. I don’t believe a formal diagnosis is necessary for every individual who identifies on the autism spectrum. It was the right choice for me. I encourage those who are curious about their potential neurodiversity to explore what it means to them. I explored what it meant for me, and healing was on the other side.
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