Words by Jess, 23 VIC
For me, being diagnosed with autism changed my life in an enormous way. I finally had an answer for all my life’s questions, and the more I looked into the female presentation of autism, the more of my existence made sense. I spent so many years feeling like I was defective or damaged or something was just wrong with me, until I finally got a diagnosis.
The real question is, why did nobody suggest I could be autistic back when I was a child? And the answer is most likely because women with autism are underdiagnosed. We don’t often present like males do. Most research related to autism is conducted on young children, and boys. This leaves a huge gap around females with autism, particularly adult women. So, the real question is, how many women are out there in the same situation I was? How many women are needing answers and not getting them? How many young girls are in school as we speak, feeling the same way I did?
I was 19 years old and meeting a psychologist, hoping to get some answers for why I’d felt like I was on the wrong planet for my whole life. He said to me, “I could honestly diagnose you just by talking to you here in the waiting room,” but the prospect of autism had never been raised as a child. My academic results had always been exceptional. I was the model student, my teachers called me a “pleasure to teach”. I did get sent to the school psychologist for testing, but they simply described me as “incredibly gifted, but just a little quirky”. It wasn’t until I showed the psychologist my school testing results that he explained it was the textbook test results for high-functioning (although I don’t like that term) autism.
Growing up, I always felt like I was on a different wavelength to the other kids at school. Things they did just didn’t make sense to me. Why was playing “tiggy” even a thing? It just seemed pointless and boring. If I’m being completely honest, I found it so difficult to relate to my peers at all. And I couldn’t work out why. I didn’t understand why they didn’t like me, why I couldn’t keep friends and why something about social interaction in general just felt hard. I just never fit in, and I always felt almost alien. As I’m sure you can imagine, high school was nothing short of a nightmare for me socially.
And then there was my home life. I’m sure it seemed like I was a dream child, and I was, at school. Things were very different when I got home, and the stress of being at school and the weight of trying so hard to blend in with “normal” all came crashing on top of me. Looking back, I was having meltdowns, but I was just seen as a “problem child” having tantrums and starting fights from my parents’ perspective.
And yet there I was, sitting in the psychologist’s waiting room at 19 years old, being told I was autistic. I was the oldest person there by at least ten years. People seem to think autism disappears after you turn 18, after you enter the world. There’s so much research on autism in childhood, but what happens to those kids when they grow up? Autism doesn’t just fade away once you become an adult.
Autism is not a dirty word to me, and I proudly use the phrase “autistic woman” because my autism is part of my identity. Autism does not define me, but it is a part of who I am and it is nothing to be ashamed of. I am funny, I am beautiful, I am complete, and I am autistic.
And it is with this, that four years on, I proudly embrace my identity as an autistic woman.
Illustration by Aileen, You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc