Everything Changed For Me This Year (Autism Awareness Day)

Autism Awareness Day always has a theme. Officially, the UN sets the theme but different organisations also choose their own themes; for example, I know that autistica has chosen the theme of anxiety. The official theme (the one set by the UN) is ‘Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World.’ I don’t feel that there’s really anything useful I can add to that conversation, given that I’ve never been well enough to have what society would consider a proper job and that the career path I’m following doesn’t really involve traditional workplaces. So, instead, I thought I’d write about something different, something that has been a really big deal for me this year.

For so long, I just felt like I was broken. And I felt like I was broken in so many places. I couldn’t understand it. Getting the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis helped but there were still all these cracks, all of these problems that no one could make sense of. I had mental health problems, I had chronic fatigue, I had chronic pain, and so on. Nobody could figure out the whole picture and at worst, I was just abandoned by medical professionals, told that my case was just too complicated. That was the most painful part, I think; these people, many of whom it was their job to help with situations like this, were willing to let me continue to struggle rather than put in the effort and help me. It made me feel like I wasn’t worth helping, the toxic best friend of feeling like I was broken.

But in the last few months, with the help of several new medical professionals and some more diagnostic work, the pieces have all slotted into place and, I think, we might finally have the whole picture. So this is the timeline, beginning in 2016 (I might add dates later but I don’t have them all to hand right now).

(I’ve covered some of this before but I think it’s necessary if we’re talking about said whole picture.)

  • I was diagnosed with Depression and Anxiety by one psychiatrist.
  • I was diagnosed with Depression, Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) by my long term psychiatrist.
  • I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and had the BPD diagnosis confirmed at the local Neurobehavioral Unit.
  • My therapist explained that my mental health issues, particularly my BPD, may have stemmed from the continued invalidation of my ASD.
  • A few years passed.
  • After a discussion with my psychiatrist, my mental health related diagnoses were updated, changing to Treatment Resistant Depression (TRD), Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and BPD.
  • I was (re-)diagnosed with OCD after further sessions with my psychiatrist.
  • My GP diagnosed me with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) when we could find no obvious cause for Chronic Fatigue I’ve been dealing with since I was twelve.
  • A couple of years passed.
  • I started to develop Chronic Pain that got dramatically worse over a period of several months.
  • I was referred to a specialist who diagnosed me with Hypermobility (apparently individuals with Hypermobility are seven times more likely to be autistic), which led to a diagnosis of Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), explaining my Chronic Fatigue and Chronic Pain as well as a number of other ‘smaller’ symptoms that, due to the bigger problems, had been ignored. This, as far as I can tell, makes the ME/CFS diagnosis void.
  • I was also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), many of the symptoms overlapping with my ASD, during the same period.

And suddenly all of the pieces started to click together:

THE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES (TRD, GAD, OCD, AND BPD) AND ADHD ARE, AT LEAST IN PART, CONNECTED TO MY ASD.

MY ASD AND HYPERMOBILITY ARE LINKED.

THE HYPERMOBILITY LED TO A DIAGNOSIS OF hEDS, WHICH EXPLAINS MY CHRONIC FATIGUE, CHRONIC PAIN, AND OTHER PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS.

Discovering that it’s all connected has been a really helpful and comforting revelation. I’m starting to see each condition as a star in one big constellation and that’s a hell of a lot better than feeling inexplicably broken in multiple places. I still have to deal with everything that comes with each of these conditions, of course, but knowing that they’re all part of the same picture does make my health less draining to think about and manage. It all makes more sense. And I am a person that needs things to make sense. So this is all a really big deal.

Parenting A Young Adult With Autism Spectrum Disorder: My Mum Interviews Me

When my Mum was answering my questions in the previous post, she was inspired and suggested she interview me in return, with similar questions. I was up for that so here goes: this is the mother of a young adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder interviewing her daughter with said Autism Spectrum Disorder…


Briefly, what has it been like for you to get a late diagnosis?

In some ways, it was such a relief. I’d been struggling for such a long time and not having a name or label caused me a lot of anxiety and made it difficult to get any support. So in that sense, it was great. It obviously hasn’t changed the fact that I struggle but I have more confidence – it had been going on for so long and had become so complex that I did worry I was making it up and actually causing my problems – and the support allows me to work on the areas I struggle with, managing them, decreasing the intensity, and creating solutions.

But I don’t want to imply that it’s been a hundred percent straightforward because it hasn’t. For twenty years, I operated under the assumption and expectations (from myself and others) that I was neurotypical and would go on to have a neurotypical life, meeting the usual milestones. I’d always held myself to a high standard and that wasn’t really a problem until I was finishing school: learning was something I was comfortable with and excelled at and my social issues were just assumed to be shyness. But then life started to get harder, with bigger and more serious demands, and I struggled more and more but still held myself to the same high standard. I still do. It’s very deeply ingrained. So it’s really, really hard to accept that my life is never going to look like what I expected or like the lives of my peers.

Having discussed how I’ve been your advocate at various times and in various situations, where did that need come from? How has that made you feel both pre and post diagnosis? Are there particular times where it has felt more necessary than others?

I’ve definitely lost count of how many appointments we had with various people where I would explain what I was going through and how much I was struggling only to be told things like, “All teenagers struggle,” and “Well, you’re showered and dressed so you’re clearly coping.” There’s so much I could say about those experiences alone but after a while, those appointments made me so anxious that I just couldn’t talk. At all. I needed someone who could tell my story for me when I wasn’t able to and since we had (and do) talk about everything, you were always able to give all of the information and spare me at least some of the anxiety involved in those appointments. Pre-diagnosis, you were the only one a hundred percent behind me and I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done without that. Best case scenario, I don’t think I would’ve gotten my diagnoses and the worst case scenario doesn’t bear thinking about. If I hadn’t had you in my corner, researching and reaching out and pushing for answers, I certainly wouldn’t have gotten this far. Post-diagnosis and in the time since, I think I’ve grown in confidence and have needed it less but there are still times that I’ve, at the very least, needed back up. There are many situations that I do now feel able to manage myself but in times of great stress or anxiety, having someone on my side, someone ready to step up and take over when I get overwhelmed or it all becomes too much, is just so important in moving life forward. I like to think that I get a bit further every time before needing you to take over but I am also aware that I may never be able to completely handle these kinds of situations when under great stress.

Having answered this question from my perspective, what about you? What would you would consider to be the positives and negatives of having Autism Spectrum Disorder?

I think I’ll start with the negatives first. That’s not a particularly optimistic start but the negatives do, at this point in time, feel more overwhelming and painful. The high levels of anxiety and overwhelming intensity of my emotions can make it really difficult to function day-to-day, plus both are incredibly exhausting. All of that is really hard. I also often feel very different from – and behind – my peers, which can feel extremely distressing. Not really in a competitive sense but because I really want to experience all the things they get to experience and often take for granted, knowing that I may never get to have those experiences.

Onto the positive things… Admittedly this perspective is harder because I am in a period of feeling that my ASD takes more from me than it gives back. Hopefully one day I won’t feel this way. But for now, positives… Although the strength of my emotions can be overwhelming, I definitely prefer it to the idea of ambivalence or apathy. And while the negative emotions are awful, the positive ones are like nothing else in life. I imagine it’s like going from grainy black and white to high definition colour: when I’m happy or passionate or excited, I feel like I’m glowing brighter than the sun. I don’t know if that makes sense but it’s how it feels. I can also get completely immersed myself in something: it doesn’t even feel like I’m focussing because I don’t feel like I’m in control, but I think people would call it deep focus. I can work on something for hours and fours. For example, I once started working on a song at eight in the morning and when I next looked up, it was dark and my hands were shaking because I hadn’t eaten for over fourteen hours. I hadn’t even noticed the time passing. And I guess another positive is how seriously I take things – my relationships, my commitments, my words, and so on. Nothing is flippant to me. I mean, I can be funny and silly but I take life seriously. Everything that I invest myself in matters so deeply to me and I never want to give anything less than my best. All of these things do have negative side effects if they go too far – which they often do – but overall, I consider them to be positives.

How do you think things would’ve been different if your ASD had been recognised when you were younger?

I mean, who knows? I don’t think we can ever really know the answers to questions like these, although I’m fascinated by the ways life might’ve turned out had this happened or that not happened. I’m not sure, to be honest; there would obviously be so many differences. But the biggest one that sticks out for me is that I wouldn’t feel so stuck between a neurotypical world and an autistic world, especially identity wise. I often feel like I have two sides to myself constantly pushing against one another and like I’m trying to find a place in the world where I don’t just have to be one part of myself, where I can be all of myself. I mean, I know everyone’s trying to find their place in the world and that most people don’t often get to be their whole selves but I feel very conscious of the two worlds that I don’t quite fit into and end up feeling like I don’t fit anywhere. So I think the obvious thing for me would be that I think my identity wouldn’t feel so fractured because growing up knowing I was autistic would’ve meant that my personality and my identity evolved with that already present, rather than trying to fit everything together later on, if that makes sense.

How do you feel about taking various medications and going to different forms of therapy for years now? How do you think those have affected you?

It’s an ongoing, exhausting part of my life and I do sometimes wonder whether any of it has made any difference. But then I think about it properly and despite all the awful medication experiences, there have been some really great ones: I wouldn’t have made it through my BA without the Phenelzine, wouldn’t have made it this far through my MA without it. And sometimes it feels like therapy only uncovers more problems but then I remember how many empowering conversations I’ve had with my therapist, how many strategies I’ve learned to help me manage not only my struggles but my life in general. There have been more ups and downs than I can count but I honestly don’t know where I’d be without them.

What do you think the hardest part of living with ASD is? 

This is a really difficult question to answer. Part of me wants to answer with ‘living with ASD’ but that’s not helpful. There are so many things I could say: the anxiety; the fatigue; feeling like I blend in enough to fit in casually but feel too different to fit in on a deeper level; my limited ability to be independent; sensory sensitivities… The list goes on. But I think, overall, the hardest part is feeling like the life I want to have is never going to be possible for me and I don’t mean in the being-a-musician-is-a-risky-career-path way; I mean that, as an autistic person, I will not be able to do the things required of me to do music. It’s a terrifying prospect because I cannot imagine my life without music at the forefront. There seems no point to living otherwise. I know that sounds overdramatic but given the intense emotions I experience as part of being autistic, that is just how I feel. To an overwhelming degree.

How do you feel your life as an autistic person is different to those of your neurotypical peers?

I can absolutely recognise that we do go through a lot of the same things, albeit often in different ways and according to different time frames. But then there are definitely significant differences between my life and the lives of most of the neurotypical people around me. I feel like my life is smaller, limited. I’m sensitive to food, loud noise, large groups of people, and I struggle with low energy levels, which all make it difficult to keep up socially, so I often feel like I’m on the outside. I also find myself constantly comparing my level of independence to that of my friends: so many of them – if not all of them – have moved out (even if they’ve moved home during the pandemic), lived with friends or alone, have jobs, operate as independent adults. And I’m just not able to do that. Every day, I have to ration my energy down to the smallest sliver and it’s just not physically possible for me to do any of those things with the amount of energy I have to allocate out to all the tasks required in a day. And that’s as things are now, living at home, let alone if I was living alone and taking care of myself without any help. These things are some really big issues for me and I do find that I isolate myself sometimes so that I’m not being constantly reminded of them.

Are your relationships with your neurotypical friends different to your relationships with your autistic friends?

I think there probably are – to a certain degree, at least – but for the most part, I think it’s not that different to how we relate to each different social group we interact in. We connect with different people for different reasons so while the underlying connection to my university friends is music, the underlying connection to my autistic friends is based on our shared experiences as autistic women. But all of those connections are strengthened by other things, other commonalities and time spent together. So while I initially connected to my autistic friends because we are all autistic – and those similar emotions and experiences and struggles are an important part of our relationship because we can connect to and support each other in a very specific way – our friendship has grown a lot from there, just as every friendship grows.

How do you feel parents can be most supportive to a young adult with ASD?

I have a couple of things I’d like to include here, things that have been invaluable to me over the years:

  • Really listen to what your child, teenager, or young adult is saying and I mean really listen and take seriously what they’re saying.
  • Support them in the areas they struggle with as best you can without judgement or criticism. Chances are they don’t understand why they find it so hard either. You can do this by encouraging them to be honest about what they’re feeling, researching the particular issue (noise sensitivity, for example), and speaking to specialists. There are also therapies you can then pursue if you both/all feel it’s necessary or would be helpful.
  • It’s good to have someone to push you to help you work through your struggles, particularly someone who loves you and only wants to see you succeed, but it’s also important as the parent to recognise when the child, teenager, or young adult is reaching their limits and that they need to take a break. Respect those limits and celebrate each victory.
  • Advocate for them when necessary, with no judgement as to why they need you to in that moment.

So there we go. If you guys have any other questions for me or my Mum about living with and managing my ASD and mental health problems, please get in contact and we can always do another of these posts. I hope it was helpful!

A (Fairly) New Development: Chronic Pain

This post feels like it has been a long time coming but I didn’t want to post anything before I had more to say than ‘I’m in pain’ and, at long last, I do. But first, context: I started struggling with chronic pain about halfway through the first UK lockdown, early last year, and it’s been really, really tough. But recently I finally got some answers and started to get some support. And while it’s not a journey that’s over – if that’s even a possibility – I’ve come far enough that I feel like I can talk about it with a certain level of knowledge and emotional distance. So, here we go…


It started out as sporadic pain in my left hand and arm. I’ve experienced this on and off before, due to my extensive writing and my compulsive hair pulling, so I wasn’t overly concerned. Waking up to my hand being numb and tingly was unusual and a bit unnerving but given how much I was writing and how much hair I was pulling out – both of them being outlets for stress – during that first lockdown, I figured that I was just straining that arm a bit more than usual and that it would probably go back to normal as my anxiety decreased.

But then I started developing an ache in my left leg. I don’t really know how to explain it but it felt like it was coming from somewhere deeper than the centre of my leg, deeper than was physically possible. And then what started out as a painful but sporadic ache turned into attacks of debilitating pain, like electric shocks shooting through my leg at random. They were (and are when they still happen) excruciating and had me collapsing on the floor every time, sobbing or even screaming. There were a few so bad that I ended up hyperventilating so hard and long that I nearly passed out. And if that wasn’t bad enough, both the ache and random electric shock attacks spread up to my lower back. None of the common painkillers did anything and I was living in constant fear of the pain hitting me with no warning.

Eventually I was prescribed painkillers but I could only take them for a few days at a time to avoid their addictive nature. They actually – FINALLY – helped; it was such a relief. But the days in between were miserable and the painkillers I was taking in between was barely making a dent. I was also referred to Rheumatology at the hospital.

That was in May (of 2020) and I had to wait until December for an appointment. While, objectively, I can completely understand that, given how overworked hospitals are due to the pandemic, the waiting was also horrendous: I was in constant pain and desperate for help. It was hard to be patient, especially when it was affecting my education because the pain was so bad that I could barely play any of my instruments. It was a really hard time, and that was without all of the COVID-19 and other life stuff.

Eventually the appointment arrived. We didn’t learn much but it got things moving. The hypermobility diagnosis was confirmed and the possible diagnosis of Fibromyalgia was dismissed. I was referred to various departments, including Occupational Therapy, Hydrotherapy (although the consultant wasn’t sure when it would be available due to the pandemic), and, after discussing multiple different medications (many of which I’ve already taken and had negative reactions to), Pain Management. The consultant recommended I have an ECG every five years or so as heart problems can occur with connective tissue disorders and booked my first one for me, as well as an MRI, just to double check my back. She said we’d have another appointment in three months, after the ECG and MRI (it’s been more than three months at this point but I’m hopeful it will be soon since I’m still in a lot of pain).

After the wait for that appointment, I was expecting to wait for ages but we received a call about the MRI less than a week later. The woman who arranged it for us was really thorough and really aware of what might be helpful for me as an autistic individual, suggesting and putting in place so many things to reduce any of my anxiety; for example, I could have Mum in the room with me, I could play music, I could hear the sounds the MRI made before getting in it, she suggested taking Diazepam first, and so on. So that was really helpful. Surprising (I don’t think that’s ever happened before an appointment or procedure before) but very helpful.

The MRI itself was actually a really interesting experience. It was completely manageable and I actually found it quite soothing in a weird way. And, of course, my musician brain couldn’t help but wish I could sample the different sounds the MRI made to use in various tracks. It was over pretty quickly and the whole process was super efficient. I really want to see the images; I don’t know if she’ll bring it up but I’m gonna ask the consultant if I can see them at the next appointment. I’m weirdly intrigued. I mean, I’ve always been kind of fascinated by how my body works specifically (seeing my brainwaves was super cool, for example, and one day I’d love to see images of my brain) so I’m just really curious about what my spine looks like. Like every other spine, I’m sure, but I’m still curious.

(Throughout this time I had been swimming where possible – according to what felt safe and as lockdown allowed – and I’d started incorporating the basic hydrotherapy exercises that the hypermobility specialist had recommended.)

I was prescribed a new daily pain medication but I didn’t really feel like it helped (and I’m still not convinced that it’s actually doing anything helpful). The only thing that helped – and still the only thing that helps is the painkiller that I can only take for a few days at a time; it’s the only thing that has consistently given me pain free periods of time. But, as I said, I can only take it for a few days at a time and the other days are pretty awful.

Around New Year (2020-21), I noticed that the pain was spreading and by the end of January 2021, I was struggling with pain from my toes all the way up to my neck. I rarely experienced pain in my whole body all at once but it had reached a point where there was practically no area of my body that didn’t experience this specific type of pain and often for extended periods of time. My hands, arms, lower back, and lower legs were the worst.

I began Occupational Therapy in February for the pain in my hands. The therapist gave me compression gloves (I have tiny, skinny hands and so they turned out to be too big and I had to buy a smaller pair) and a series of ‘gentle’ exercises that would supposedly allow me to control the hyperextension in my fingers. Right from the start they were painful and I had to drop one of them straight away; it just hurt too much. But I worked hard at the others, whilst simultaneously trying not to work too hard and accidentally regress.

The therapist also discovered that the Pain Management referral hadn’t gone through and put a rush on it – apparently, because the pain is directly affecting my education, I should move me up the waiting list more quickly than if I wasn’t currently doing my Masters. So I guess that’s good news. Hopefully it makes up for the time lost with the referral not going through. She also had some suggestions around swimming during lockdowns, which unfortunately didn’t come to anything but it gave me hope and it was something to work on. That was better than just waiting.

In the following OT session, we talked about the pain caused by the exercises and she reduced them to every other day, which has been better, but I’m still in pretty much constant pain to some degree. But she was pleased with the progress I’d made. Unfortunately though, she thinks I’m probably in the group of people that take the longest to see real change. That’s not massively surprising to me – I’ve been in similar positions before – but it’s still frustrating. Like, out of all of this stuff, couldn’t one thing not be super hard? Couldn’t one thing have the best possible outcome? Anyway. It’s pointless to speculate about that stuff; it’s not like I can change it.

I’d been doing some research on hypermobility but as far as I can tell, it’s a symptom rather than a condition or disorder, like Joint Hypermobility Syndrome or Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. And since only ‘hypermobility’ had been mentioned up to that point, I asked what my actual diagnosis was and after some conferring between the various people involved, they agrred on a Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which explains both the chronic pain and the chronic fatigue (I don’t know what this means for the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome diagnosis – at some point, we’re all going to have to sit down and work out which diagnoses are still relevant and which are now out of date), as well as multiple other problems. So there was this huge rush of relief and that lasted several days before I just felt overwhelmed. It’s an experience I’ve had before: finally knowing is amazing but then the reality of it all sinks in and it’s just a lot to process. Life is suddenly different. It’s not what you thought it was. So, yeah, it’s a lot. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about if you’ve been through a similar experience. But I’m getting there. The dust is starting to settle.

We’re still waiting on some of the other things, like the Pain Management referral and the second appointment with the Rheumatologist. And I’m continuing with the OT; I’ll be graduating to a new set of exercises soon. I’m also super excited to swim again when it becomes possible. We’ve already got several slots booked at our favourite pool. Plus, I’m due to get my first COVID vaccine soon, which will make me feel safer about swimming, even at this pool that takes the safety precautions so seriously.


So this is where we are. As I said, I didn’t want to write this post until there was a natural stopping point in the writing of it. And this seemed to be that moment: we have the beginning, the diagnosis (or diagnoses), and now we have the treatment. Obviously that’s ongoing and there are still different areas to pursue for support. So, I guess, all we can do now is see how things go and hope the pain improves.