I’ve been thinking a lot this month — about my past, my present, and specifically about my late diagnosis of autism at the age of 34. Looking back, I realized I first started considering the possibility that I could be on the autism spectrum after reading the stories of other women and girls with autism. Since their stories helped me learn more about myself, I’ve been inspired to share my own experiences, in the hope my story might help someone else who has been struggling. So here is my open letter to all the “weird” girls who might have undiagnosed autism.
Dear “weird” girl,
I was once like you.
I didn’t talk much as a kid. Didn’t care to make more than one friend. I was perfectly content playing on my own or just reading. I liked to play with my toys in my own way — I’d arrange them in perfect little rows, or assemble them into static scenes. Sometimes I would be so focused on my reading or toys, I wouldn’t hear my mother repeatedly calling for me. My parents had my hearing checked when I was young. I passed with flying colors, but I still didn’t consistently respond to the sound of my own name.
I was also clumsy and uncoordinated. I burned myself while cooking on a regular basis. I banged my elbows into corners and clipped my toes on the edges of furniture. The clumsiness persisted, even after getting glasses and having my ears checked.
I didn’t “get” other people a lot of the time. Jokes that sent others into stitches of laughter flew right over my head. Practical jokes were the worst. I never felt as clueless as I did when I was the butt of a joke I didn’t understand. I learned to fake it, how to play along until the moment passed. I faked my way through a lot of social interactions and conversations.
As I got older, I lost myself in movies and music, or that magical combination of both: musicals. I would watch Disney movies over and over, memorizing not only the lyrics to the songs, but the dialogue as well. Characters in musicals had clearly defined roles, and they sang explicitly about their feelings. I understood them in a way I could not understand the people around me. I still love Disney movies, cartoons, video games, collecting toys and stuffed animals, and other supposedly “childish” interests. They keep me calm, help me right myself when I’m feeling stressed out. They make sense in a world that often doesn’t make very much sense at all.
I had trouble transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Learning how to manage money on my own, how to take care of myself, how to be successful at a job — it all took more effort than I anticipated, given how easily I had sailed through elementary and secondary school. College was a lot harder, and it took me a few tries to get it right.
These days I struggle at work. It’s hard to talk to new people. I miss social cues. I laugh at inappropriate times, or when I’m nervous, or when I don’t understand something. I’m rude without intending to be. I don’t always pick up on people’s emotions, and when I do, I sometimes struggle to understand why they feel that way. Sometimes I need to be told not only what someone is feeling, but how they want me to respond, how to help them. I have trouble explaining myself and defending myself in conversation. I have trouble keeping my emotions in check.
It’s hard for me to follow conversations with more than one person. I struggle with knowing when it’s my turn to speak. I constantly interrupt others, or walk away without saying goodbye or properly ending the conversation. I find that scripted, predictable conversations work best. I am not a fan of eye contact. I sometimes need specific instructions in order to know how to perform new tasks. Without that guidance, I try to fake it and learn by copying others. I’d rather look things up on the internet than ask someone for help. I struggle with concentrating and organizing work tasks, but I love to catalog and research things relating to my own personal interests.
I like to follow a routine as much as possible. Deviating from it causes me anxiety. It took me a long time to realize how stressed I was by bright lights, loud noises, big crowds, itchy fabrics and foods with weird textures. It’s even worse when I’m sick or tired. When I’m upset, flapping my hands rapidly helps me calm down in a way that’s hard to explain to other people.
These sensory sensitivities, and a lot of other things about myself, don’t really make sense to the average person. People who aren’t that familiar with autism don’t know what to make of it. To them, I’m “weird.”
Maybe you’ve been feeling lately like you’re “weird,” too. Maybe the things people find odd about you don’t match up exactly with mine, but the end result is similar: feeling like you’re alone a lot of the time, like no one else understands what life is really like for you. If so, I want you to know it’s not your fault.
“Weird” girl, I was once like you — and I suppose I still am.
The parts of me that seem so “weird” to others are still there. They’ll always be part of me. But all those weird little traits and awkward moments in my life start to make a lot more sense when you look at them through the lens of autism and anxiety.
I spent three decades of my life wondering what was wrong with me, why I didn’t fit in, why I didn’t act the way other people do. I was so focused on what I was doing wrong that I didn’t notice all the things I was doing right. I constantly forgot that I was smart, that I could be a good problem-solver. That my brain made me think differently than most other people, and that difference could make me more creative. That I am a good writer. That I can be a great listener.
That I am, underneath all the “weird,” still a person. It took me a long time to get here, but I like who I am today.
So if you’re feeling down or stressed out, and you’re worried that your life is falling apart for no good reason, and you can’t figure out why you are so much more overwhelmed by the world around you than everyone else seems to be — don’t fret. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be scared to speak to a professional about the difficulties you’ve been experiencing. Don’t be intimidated by the possibility that your brain might be wired a little differently than you expected. It may be autism. It may be anxiety. It may be depression, or bipolar disorder, or a host of other diagnoses. But none of these diagnoses mean that you’re not still you.
You are not wrong, or broken, or stupid. You don’t lack “common sense” or the ability to take care of yourself. You might need some extra supports, but you can learn to manage. You can be a successful adult. You can be a happy, fulfilled person. You can have a life worth living.
Don’t be afraid of finding answers.
Right now, you’re like a traveler arriving at a new destination. The customs might be confusing and unintuitive, the locals might look at you funny, and people may not always understand what you’re trying to say. But once you return home, everything just makes sense. For me, getting a diagnosis of autism was like coming home.
Dear “weird” girl, I hope you find your home someday soon. It’s out there, so don’t lose hope. Keep searching, and one day, you’ll find your people. Someone else who speaks your language, who understands why you do the odd little things you do. In finding them, you’ll find out more about yourself. Things will start to make sense.
It won’t fix everything. You’ll still struggle, and the world will continue to be a strange and stressful place, but understanding why you struggle may make it all more bearable. It can also help you to figure out what to do next, how to better deal with the overwhelming world around you.
You’ll still be that same “weird” girl. You’ll still be you. But you’ll also be something greater. Taking the time to learn more about yourself, and using that knowledge to take the necessary steps to better yourself is one of the best risks you can take in life. So be brave, little one, and let that be your new moniker.
Don’t settle for just being the “weird” girl. Be the brave one, too. An adventurer setting out on a new journey. Your home is out there. Let’s go find it.
Originally published on The Mighty