Most of my autistic signs are invisible. I spent 26 years of my life – that is, until I was diagnosed – hiding them, internalising my emotions and pretending to be countless separate personalities and identities so others would accept and not judge me.
After years of obsessively observing and mimicking the behaviour of my peers, family and characters in films, I became an expert at it.
Now I pass for “normal” quite easily. When I was young, I presented very few signs of autism other than not appearing interested in interacting with children my age, and being shy, anxious, serious and emotionally immature. I struggled with maintaining eye contact; I’d look at foreheads instead.
However, I understood this to be rude, so I learnt to hold eye contact when talking to people. Today it’s no longer a struggle, but it still doesn’t feel natural.
In my opinion, many healthcare professionals view autism as a disorder comprised of a narrowly defined set of characteristics or symptoms, and seem unaware of the fact that there are autistic subtypes and endless variations in the traits autistic individuals present. This particularly pertains to many women on the spectrum, because of our proficient social-adaptive ability.
Tania A. Marshall, an Australian based psychologist and the author of I Am Aspien Girl: The Unique Characteristics, Traits and Gifts of Females on the Autism Spectrum, formally diagnosed me in 2014. I had consulted many medical professionals, none of whom picked up my being autistic.
However, I always knew I was different – as if from another planet or era; as if I were missing some large piece of the puzzle that would help me to identify with myself. Receiving a diagnosis helped me form my identity and develop self-esteem. It forced me to come to terms with and accept my past and current experiences.
It offered an explanation for feeling different. It gave me an “appropriate” label – neurodivergent – which nullified my internal thoughts that I was stupid and a freak. I can and do sincerely empathise with people. I can also discuss my feelings if I feel I need to in order to be understood. But I find it difficult to appropriately start and end social engagements, as timing and relevance is often an issue. I’ve had to teach myself to be assertive, charming and charismatic.
People with autism tend to struggle to maintain deep, connected relationships. I’m terrible at staying in contact with family and friends; I never remember dates or events that are important to them, such as birthdays. This may come across as trivial, but it causes me significant stress and confusion. It can be isolating and lonely because, in spite of my autism, I deeply yearn for real relationships – everybody needs to love and be loved.
My last romantic relationship was seven years ago; I became emotionally unstable because of how deep my feelings ran, and it broke apart as a result. Being autistic does not make me better or worse than anyone else, it just makes me neurodivergent. Many of the struggles that come with autism are only so because society is geared towards neurotypical behaviours. If people could be less judgemental and more accommodating, and realise that limitations are natural, then the perceived autistic “problems” would be normalised and less burdensome to those who experience them, as well as less noticeable to others.
Austism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT) is the largest service provider for people on the autism spectrum in Australia, providing assessments and support. For more information visit autismspectrum.org.au.