Introducing my Mum

In this post, I’d like to introduce my Mum, Sandra. We’ve been talking about her writing a post or two for a while because I think she’s got some really valuable stuff to add to the discussion of Autism, and Autism in women. Most of the resources around Autism tend to be written by parents of young children and while that viewpoint is important, the lack of any other viewpoints is something that needs to be addressed. There’s very little written by young people with Autism and I can’t find anything written by the parents of young people with Autism. So we thought we’d throw this out there.

We’ve never had a typical relationship: I’ve never felt the need to rebel and I can probably count on one hand the number of times we’ve really argued. We just get on really well and we share everything; we talk everything through. So she’s been on every step of this whole journey with me, from the moment I realised that what I was feeling wasn’t normal. She must’ve talked to hundreds of people – friends, family, health professionals in multiple fields – and spent hours and hours reading up on every possibility. She’s been to every appointment with me and she came to therapy with me until I felt confident enough to do it by myself. She pushes me when I need pushing and she protects me when I need protecting. I genuinely wouldn’t have made it this far without her. She’s always believed in me and she’s never stopped pushing to get me the help I needed, not for a moment. I am more grateful than I could ever express. She spoke for me when I couldn’t and she still does if I need her too. I only have to ask and she’s there. She is my hero. I couldn’t be me without her.

Here is a little paragraph from her to start her off:

‘Get out and take up dancing!’ was one of the many pieces of well-meaning advice I was given during my search for help for Lauren. ‘Tough Love’ was another suggestion and was just another way of saying the same thing. Because of the age she was when we started seriously looking for answers, many people, both professional and otherwise, saw much of her anxiety and depression as the ‘normal’ behaviour of an adolescent. But I felt there was more to it and knew I had to try and get some answers. So I began researching: talking, reading, anything to better understand what I saw Lauren struggling with. Now, several years later, I still remember my response to that suggestion: ‘I will take up dancing once I find the help my daughter needs’. And I have been lucky. We have been lucky. We have found some extraordinary people to help and support her but it has often been a long and isolating journey and one that I wonder whether might be useful to share for other parents or carers finding themselves in a similar situation.

We’ve been throwing some ideas around but nothing’s written yet. Between work stuff, moving house, and my mental health, there just hasn’t been the time. But we’ll get there. Stay tuned!

 

Introducing My Autistic Self

Someone asked me the other day how I told people that I’d been diagnosed as autistic and I realised that I’ve never told that story on here. So I thought I’d post it as part of Autism Awareness Week. Maybe it will be helpful to some of you.

I was between my first and second years at university and I consider myself very lucky that I was diagnosed during the summer holiday. It gave me time to really process the news and figure out how I felt about it, as well as decide who I wanted to tell and how I wanted to tell them. I could absolutely set the pace and break it down into smaller tasks. It’s a big thing to tell people so I wanted to find the best way to do it.

I decided that the best way for me to tell people was to send a Facebook message. There wasn’t going to be an opportunity to tell everyone at once and I’ve always felt more comfortable sharing important news through writing. It gives me more time to think about what I want to say and I can always walk away and come back to it if it isn’t coming across the way I want it to. It also means that I don’t have to worry about processing other people’s reactions; I can think about one thing at a time.

This is what I ended up with:

“Hey guys, I just wanted to let you know of a change in my life without making a big announcement. Over the summer, I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (still commonly referred to as Asperger’s). Apparently it’s commonly missed in girls and young women as it presents similarly to Depression and Anxiety, which, as many of you know, I’ve struggled with for a long time. But this is a good thing because I’m finally getting the support that I need/have needed to manage it, the social anxiety, general anxiety, etc. Overall, nothing’s really changed, other than the fact that this thing I’ve been struggling with has a name now but I wanted you guys to know since it does affect my life. If you want to ask me anything, please do J Look forward to seeing you all soon.”

The second job was to choose who I wanted to tell. Within my family, it hadn’t been a secret that we were looking into an Autism diagnosis and so a lot of them already knew by this point. So that left friends and acquaintances. I wanted my good friends to know and I also wanted to tell the people that, because of university, I would be spending a lot of time with. It was such a big thing that I didn’t want to feel like I had to keep it a secret. I also didn’t want to accidentally spring it on anyone. I went down the Facebook list and tried to add everyone I thought fitted into those categories. I’m sure there are people I missed but I did my best.

I hit send and then did my best to forget about it for the rest of the evening. Just sending the message was a lot to process. So I had some quiet time with my family, watching TV and having dinner. And only then, a few hours later, did I check the response the message was getting. These were all lovely people so I wasn’t expecting a negative response but I was a bit overwhelmed by how positive the replies were. I unashamedly admit that there were several messages that just about had me in tears. I don’t think it’s fair to post anyone’s actual words but I had people thanking me for sharing the news with them, telling me I was brave for doing so, saying that they were glad I was getting support and that they loved me. Those messages still mean so much to me.

Of course, there have been occasions where I’ve had to tell people face to face but the positive response really boosted my confidence. So I hold up my head and say the words like they’re a shield to protect me. I don’t always feel as self-assured as I appear to when I tell people but I have found that it helps my confidence to act like I do. I’m not generally a fan of the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ approach – I usually find it invalidating – but in this case it has helped. Maybe I’m not faking it, maybe I’m using it as something that protects me rather than something that weakens me. I don’t know.

29571040_10155602539003121_1894359336831308738_n

Learn With Me

I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of twenty, after actively struggling for several years. When I use the word ‘actively,’ I mean that, while I had had difficulties with all the things that turned out to be characteristics of Autism, they had become really hard to deal with and were having a serious impact on my life and my mental health. For example, I’d always found socialising confusing and stressful but I’d managed it for most of my life, thinking that that was just how I was built. Ultimately, that’s true but knowing where it comes from has been very helpful, both in validating that struggle but also in helping me to learn how to cope with those feelings. So, the diagnosis was a really big deal but I still think a lot about why it came so late and what that means.

In my opinion, there was one big reason why it took so long to get a diagnosis and that was the lack of awareness and understanding around both mental health and Autism, especially in women. Because Autism in women often presents very differently to the stereotypical male presentation, no one even mentioned it until we’d been looking for an explanation for more than eighteen months. I have a couple of blog posts about the process of getting my diagnoses coming up but the short version is that we started out by looking at my mental health. We went to various people but no one took my anxiety, my depression, and so on as serious problems, brushing them off as things that everyone deals with. So it took a lot of work to get even one person to recognise that what was happening was an actual problem, and then even more work to get them to see that that was part of a bigger pattern. And I know that all of that was down to this general lack of awareness about how Autism can manifest and again, how it can manifest in women.

I am very grateful to have my diagnosis, regardless of how long it took to get it but I do think that getting it so late has had a detrimental effect on me:

  • Expectations, my own and those of others – Having grown up assuming I was neurotypical, I have always compared myself to my neurotypical peers and hated myself when I couldn’t measure up. When I got to sixth form, I started to really struggle (mentally, socially, academically) and so the whole thing started to snowball. And because I was comparing myself so viciously to those around me who were coping so much better, I did great damage to my mental health and self esteem. Had I known that my brain worked differently and that I might need support, those two years of my life would most likely have been an altogether different experience. Even now that I know the difference is there, I still find it really difficult not to compare myself to others; I still often see myself as less capable or less intelligent or less whatever word is relevant to the situation.
  • The mental health consequences – While this is not something I can scientifically prove, the chances are that this whole process has had an impact on my mental health. Being repeatedly invalidated and brushed off definitely made my depression and anxiety worse. That invalidation may also have triggered the development of Borderline Personality Disorder; I’m not qualified to make a definitive statement on that but between discussions with my health professionals and my own research, it’s a theory if nothing else.

I’ve often had friends and family ask what they can do to help me and to be completely honest, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure all of this out for myself: what’s affected, what helps, what doesn’t… Sometimes it feels like, just because it’s my diagnosis, people think I have this deep understanding of it. I’m definitely more clued in than I used to be but even two and a half years later, I don’t always know what to do when something comes up. I think the only thing I can say is this: “Learn with me.” This is a process, which involves a lot of trial and error and over-planning and screwing up. When it doesn’t work, it’s no one’s fault. We just learn and move on to the next thing. But hopefully, we can navigate it as a team rather than a group of individuals.

I try not to spend too much time thinking about how my life would’ve been different if I’d been diagnosed at a younger age because there’s little to be gained from it. It is how it is. But occasionally the thought creeps in and I imagine this life where I’m so much more productive and engaged and independent. I don’t know if that’s how it would’ve played out but it’s a seductive thought. But as I said, I try not to go down that rabbit hole. I think it comes down to this: there are people I wouldn’t have met and experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I’d been diagnosed as a child and ultimately, I wouldn’t give those up for anything.