On January 2, 2019, I was diagnosed with the branch of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) formerly known as Apsergers Syndrome.
And it was one of the happiest days of my life.
Prior to the three-month diagnostic process that led to this moment, all I knew about Autism was what most people know: Rain Man, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, inspirational youtube videos about people who couldn’t talk but could recreate city skylines by glancing at a picture. I knew children who made noises and pulled hair, who threw tantrums at the slightest provocation. And I thought that, deep down, no one really liked people with Autism.
Then, two things happened. First, my best friend of twelve years called me out of the blue, in tears asking if I’ve ever thought they were on the spectrum. My first reaction was, “No! Of course not! You’re normal – you’re just like me.” If they were perfect exactly as they were, then they couldn’t possibly be autistic, because autism is an imperfection, a classification less than normal. (As I would come to learn, this is the reaction most people have.)
A few weeks later, on another phone call with the same friend, the subject came up again, and I was more open to discuss just how weird we had always been.
We decided that, since we clearly weren’t a part of the ‘normal’ human species, we must be aliens from neighboring planets who used to work together on an intergalactic mission and had been sent here to Earth to wear human suits and save the planet from imminent destruction.
“If you’re an alien, I’m an alien,” I said.
Second, only a week later, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, and one of the hosts described his journey to receiving an autism diagnosis in his forties, and how this had helped him understand himself and build stronger relationships with the people in his life. I identified with most of the symptoms he described, and this scared me.
After the coincidence of these two events, the glacial structures in my brain started shifting and carving into the rocks of my identity. Suddenly I HAD to know more.
I found one of the free, online diagnostic tests the podcast had recommended and took it three times. Every time I got the same result: “Consult a mental health professional. You might have autism.”
Cool, internet. Cool thanks.
So I did – I asked my therapist whether she had ever thought I might be on the spectrum, and, somehow, to my horror and relief, she said yes. With some hesitation, but still.
“Sometimes, during a session, I don’t think you look at me once. It’s like I’m not even here,” she said.
Well, yes, there was that.
I never had been very good at making eye contact. People’s faces are too terrifying and inscrutable, so I usually look at the floor. But lots of people are like that, right?
And yet, with my therapist’s affirmation, I felt a new sensation start to rise up in my swirly insides: hope.
I was confused by the feeling, but I never had been good at understanding my emotions, so I ignored it and, in true autistic fashion, went into Full Research Mode. It’s a common state for me, and one I now realize is called “hyperfocus” in the Autism community, in which I have the overwhelming feeling that nothing else in the world matters but this One Thought and I will not be satisfied until I understand Everything related to the One Thought. Sometimes it can last hours, sometimes weeks.
I read every article about women and autism, watched every TED Talk, made thorough lists of all diagnostic criteria for men and women, ordered books and watched movies. In about three weeks I was pretty much the leading expert on autism, women with autism, medical and research practices related to autism, and intersectional neurodiverity.
And I would NOT SHUT UP about it. Just ask my roommates.
“Did you know that some medical professionals still don’t believe girls can have autism? And women with autism often self-diagnose as adults and have to explain to their doctors why they are right? Just believe women, guys!”
“Did you know that women hospitalized for eating disorders are twice as likely to have autism as the rest of the population?”
“Did you know that autistic brains are more sensitive to stimuli than other brains? They are constantly going into information overload. That’s why they have funny habits or get upset more easily, because they’re trying to process everything in the world. Fascinating, right?”
“Did you know that repetitive behavior and social anxiety are common signs of autism? Maybe that’s why I’ve eaten the same food for breakfast every day for the last five years!”
And on and on.
The more I knew, the more the feeling of hope began to grow. I felt like I was uncovering a secret world that may or may not have been made just for me.
Like Hogwarts was real, and I was pretty sure an owl would be showing up at my house any day now.
I didn’t try to explain this feeling out loud until I went through part of the diagnostic test with my mom. As we dug into questions about my childhood and the way I was often ignorant of other children’s feelings, my mom started to look a little uncomfortable, but my face lit up with intrigue and excitement. And she noticed.
“How does the whole autism thing make you feel? Because you seem really happy about this. REALLY happy. I don’t get it.”
And the best I could do was: “Well, yeah. I mean… I’ve spent my whole life thinking there was something wrong with me, and this means maybe there isn’t. That’s a good feeling.”
She nodded and we carried on.
Two weeks later, I got the diagnosis, and I literally skipped back to my car. The moment my roommates got home, I told them “I’m officially autistic!” with the biggest smile on my face. They were happy for me, but a little confused by how thrilled I was to be given a label that had the word “disorder” in it.
Why was it the happiest day ever?
Because immediately things were different in every part of my life: I changed my schedule at work so that I spent less time in loud, crowded spaces and under fluorescent lights; my brother and I understood each other better than we ever had before; I started being more frank and open with people in my social life about the way I experience the world.
But most importantly, I started liking myself.
Genuinely, and without effort. Wholly and completely. I saw myself as a person with an identity and a tribe and a place to belong. I had compassion on my younger self who didn’t understand, who was just trying to survive in the world the only way she knew how. I liked the fact that my brain was really good at certain things, and not very good at others, just like every other brain in the universe.
And the craziest part is that I hadn’t changed at all. I was exactly the same person I was pre-diagnosis. But with one little word, I saw myself in a whole new light – as a person with unique qualities that could benefit society, qualities that other people liked and enjoyed.
I was no longer an alien. I was part of the world. Human.
Today, I finally put it together that I could have felt this way about myself all along. Maybe… probably. And that everyone could feel this level of freedom.
Loving ourselves as we are is all about perspective.
Rather than isolating ourselves, assuming each of us is alone in our thoughts and experiences and is therefore incorrect or out of place, we can assume that someone else does understand. And when we see and believe that this simple fact is true, we start to realize everything we are is good, always has been good, and always will be.
Believe me, as a woman with Autism, when I say:
If I’m a human, you’re a human too.
And you’re right where you’re supposed to be.
Julia is a writer and data analyst who spends a great deal of time researching random pieces of unhelpful information, dancing in her kitchen to Billie Eilish, and scripting conversations she will never have. One of her goals in life is to finally understand social dynamics, which might require multiple degrees. She currently resides in Chicago, but still identifies with her California homeland. You can find her resume and writing samples at www.jnclausen.com.