It seems almost annoyingly cliche to say I’ve felt different my entire life, but I think it’s the only way I can describe how I felt. This meant I looked into various reasons but none seemed to quite fit. The obvious, first glance answer was anxiety, and looking back, it wasn’t a wrong answer – simply an incomplete one. The term ‘anxiety’, one I’d been told by doctors (often accompanied by “It’s perfectly natural for teenagers!”) seemed to fit with my experiences, but only to a certain extent. I’d spoken to people who struggled with anxiety and I related, but there was more that they didn’t seem to struggle with. Something was off, but at the time I told myself I was being silly and over-dramatic. I thought a full-picture answer was unrealistic, no matter how much I wanted it.
Last February, however, was when something inside me snapped. I struggled to leave the house and attend school. Nothing felt right and I was in a constant stage of confusion. I found the simplest tasks difficult and started forgetting the most basic things, like to eat and to look after myself.
It was in a meeting with an art therapist, who listened to my struggles concerning things like noise, crowds and change, that I heard the words “I’m in no place to diagnose you, but have you considered the idea that you’re autistic?”. I’d considered all sorts, from physical health conditions that lead to this deep-seated feeling that I couldn’t begin to describe to mental health conditions, that extended beyond anxiety, in a desperate attempt to understand what was going on. Honestly though? Autism hadn’t crossed my mind. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t know much about it at all. Therefore, like any young person these days, I turned to the best place to find an answer – google.
I found myself thrown into the world of the neurodiversity movement, online autistic communities and most importantly to myself – a place where I didn’t feel like an outcast. I found people describing what I was feeling and it was wonderful. It took me time to understand and piece everything together because I never realised what autism encompassed. I had no idea that the fact loud noises scared me to the point of wanting to hide was also related to the fact I had to put the seams on my socks a specific way, or the fact I seriously struggle to understand other people’s facial expressions.
I told my parents about the therapist’s words the day she spoke them and over the next few months fed them the information I’d found out from looking online. It wasn’t long before we were certain that I was autistic and decided to consider professional diagnosis. By the end of October 2016, just a couple of weeks before my sixteenth birthday, an assessment concluded three things: I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder and, yes, I am 100% autistic.
This diagnosis meant that my brain, finally, made sense. There were so many little things that added up and put my mind to rest, after years of wondering what on earth was wrong with me. I found out that nothing was wrong with me. I was just autistic. And what happened to me, following research, seemed to perfectly describe autistic burnout. This, simply put, was my body’s way of telling me acting neurotypical, or not autistic, was too much (there’s more about this here: http://autism.wikia.com/wiki/Autistic_regression).
Passing as neurotypical for nearly sixteen years of my life meant that I couldn’t cope. It’s been a long process to recover from this but it’s been such an important and positive one. It’s not been easy but it’s meant that I’ve accepted who I am and am proud to be me. Autism is such a misunderstood neurological variation and comes with a ridiculous amount of, sometimes harmful, stereotyping and misunderstanding. The label, while for me brings happiness because I know who I am, is taboo and comes with large amounts of misconceptions.
If people listen to autistic voices, like that of myself, autism will be a lot less misunderstood and lot more widely accepted. It’s not a taboo, disease or in need of a cure. It’s who I am. I’m Emma and I just so happen to be autistic.