‘My struggles were passed off because of ‘my Christian upbringing and shy temperament.’ The best way to survive was to fly under the radar.’: Mom diagnosed with autism at 29

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“What’s it like to realize at 29 years old that your brain wasn’t wired to function in the world it was born into? It was a road definitely less traveled, to paraphrase the great Robert Frost. And it made all the difference indeed. If you knew me before 2021, you knew a very different version of who I am.

woman in blazer, smiling
Courtesy of Savannah W.

I spent years shrinking myself to fit an arbitrary mold that I was told to conform to; a mold that wasn’t designed for me to flourish in, and upon forcing me into it, broke me instead of shaping me. I wondered why I felt like an outcast no matter my efforts. I was left hidden by shame, in wavering depression and crippling anxiety, trying to explain why I just couldn’t do things, why I was suffocated by the expectation to be perfect, but never had the words to help clarify. I diminished my identity to make more room for everyone else, no matter the discomfort. I interacted in ways deemed socially acceptable; moving like a chameleon in a paint store, but never knowing my own coloring outside of blending in to fit in. I hid personal attributes, meltdowns, and challenges out of fear of criticism, even from those closest. I expressed myself in mainstream ways while remaining undetected. It wasn’t intentional, though it felt insincere in an undefinable way. I hated superficiality, but because of my insecurities, I didn’t know what the sincerest version of myself looked like. My heart was never inauthentic, but the stress of appearing even just ordinary surpassed my desire for connection. I was a good-intentioned, ill-executed, walking contradiction.

My autism didn’t just manifest in 2021. The initial discovery revealed itself in the spring of 2020 but was ultimately a lifelong unveiling through my love of psychology that had its pinnacle during that year. Suspicions began with a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. I went down this unscientific rabbit hole, joined INFJ groups online, and saw that I wasn’t the only black sheep walking! Here were other epiphanies like Empath, Sensory Processing Disorder, and Highly Sensitive Person too. The next catalyst was a show that I was inexplicably drawn to: Love on the Spectrum. I wasn’t like every one of them, but I could definitely see parts of myself represented. Even my husband, unprompted before the tornado of research, said to me while watching the show, ‘Hmm…I know someone else who does that!’ I threw myself into another familiar state of hyper-vigilant investigation that transcended time. Together, SPD, HSP, OCD, burnout, meltdowns, anxiety, and depression co-occurred and seemed to point to something big. Bob Ross, we’ve got ourselves more than a happy little accident! It was a moment of clarity, like getting glasses and witnessing color and shape finally in focus. I now had a compulsion to see my entire life through this lens. From Ted Talks to research articles, YouTube/blog testimonials, to various autism tests as well, self-identification took root.

woman taking a mirror selfie
Courtesy of Savannah W.

My heart beat violently in my chest and my face prickled hot with anxiety as I now had to ‘come out’ to my husband. I took in a shaky breath and started, ‘I think I might actually be autistic…’ Before he could respond, with my remaining courage I fervently listed all of the identifiable traits and reasonings from my extensive self-evaluation. After this ‘info-dump,’ man of few words that he is, he said something to the effect of ‘Makes sense!’ My panicked state was much ado about nothing. After 11 years together, it apparently takes a lot to surprise him. The next few weeks existed somewhere between the ebb of joy and the flow of grief. Perhaps I could’ve saved my mental health by knowing earlier, but it also could’ve cost me all that I held dear: my husband, my daughter, and even my independence. I felt joy in my new understanding, but grief for the agony it caused by being missed. Who am I now? Where do I go from here?

Let’s rewind. Aside from my more camouflaged autistic traits, and due to my upbringing, many of my struggles and idiosyncrasies were passed off as being a result of something else entirely. Regardless, I was labeled shy, introverted, quiet, perfectionistic, sensitive, people-pleaser, emotional, naïve, high-maintenance, dramatic, mature, rigid, uncoordinated, serious, opinionated, picky, and inflexible. Still, it was all because ‘I was an only child,’ ‘my Christian upbringing,’ ‘my shy temperament.’ It was a phase, and my inability to maintain relationships was just because I didn’t ‘do’ drama. Though it all flickered around the realm of truth, the root causes were never investigated. No one knew that they needed to be back then, and I didn’t have the language to tell them otherwise. I learned that the best way to survive in this world was to fly under the radar. People weren’t to be trusted, and none of them really ‘got it’ anyway. I attached emotion to my belongings instead, as they were, and still are extensions of myself. I could always tell if my room had been disturbed, and in turn, would feel violated knowing that someone encroached on my safe space away from my watchful supervision. I even had a special bag or backpack that was on my person at all times. It contained precious collections of beads, rocks, books, ephemera, my art, stuffed animals, trinkets, toys, and always something that sparkled. My purse is still my ‘apocalypse-ready-kit.’

I got involved in the Miss America organization as a teen, wore the crown and sash as a local titleholder, and later competed at the state level too. I was active in my community and church, co-captained a cheer squad, excelled in school, and in turn, graduated at 17 with some college already under my belt. What was there to question? On the outside, I was a driven, well-behaved, integrity-based success. My inner world told a much different story. Behind this facade was a deeply distressed and insecure girl. Isolation only perpetuated the idea that I was less than and unworthy primarily because of my natural state of being. I began to believe that my existence was a mistake. I started to mask even more with the traits I knew were acceptable and worked harder to hide the less desirable ones. I was conditioned in more ways than one to believe that this was an attribute. No one knew the true damage it did to my young, moldable psyche left vulnerable to those who abused such pliability. I went through the motions, but the motions were not my own. They were meticulously learned and implemented behaviors that I’d always hoped would net me even just one friend. I’d attend events eager to find someone I could connect with, but time and again I’d come home in tears over the failed attempts in putting myself out there. I only met my first real friend in 7th grade, who naturally became my first college roommate too, but there was a social equation I had to solve in life’s next chapter. Math was never my strong suit, but it seemed that if you did ‘x’ then add ‘y,’ ‘z’ would result. Unfortunately, my execution looked a bit more like whatever Matt Damon was scribbling out in Good Will Hunting. I had been personally victimized by the American social system, and Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls was my soul incarnate with the cluelessness I felt in any interaction-based setting.

woman in purple gown with a crown
Craig Douglas Photography

College is where I sadly took the road most traversed, dear Frost. I plummeted into the cavern of uncertainty known as adulthood, and I partied my anxiety, integrity, and differences away. I hated the unease I felt trying to socialize, and the overwhelming negative sensory input during these events, but this was how you made friends, right? I struggled with the basic energy needed to juggle school, a job, dance team, and extracurriculars simultaneously, realizing this wasn’t sustainable. Socializing came at a price, and for me, it got too high. I had a nagging conscience and a low tolerance for shallow relationships that emptied of their worth in stride with the bottle. If things weren’t already a dumpster fire, I was flunking college too. Somehow sensing the impending finality of this season, my body began to shut down. The onset of a stress-induced illness caused my spleen to nearly rupture unbeknownst to me, and then ignited a bout of full-body hives that kept me out of class. Combine a lack of interoception, a high pain tolerance, and a conditioned belief that everything I experience ‘is normal,’ and you’ll see how this too, was missed. College dropout was my next humbling failure.

Cue the love interest. What is this feeling: to be known and loved at my lowest, most battered and unworthy? Fast forward six months through the swoony stuff, and he proposed. I knew early on that he was my future. We married, swift and young, struggled to understand each other, but nevertheless, we persisted. I floated from job to job, usually quitting because of my inability to handle the people or environment. I tried college again (cosmetology this time) and limped my way to graduation. I worked for myself for a while before we finally decided to grow our family.

couple on their wedding day
Vallejos Photography

In May of 2016, motherhood shook my world. After a traumatic, 28-hour medication-free labor and delivery, my daughter Aurora was born. My battered body was the epitome of my mental state from there forward.

floral maternity photo of a young, blonde woman
Armijo Designs and Photography

Despite cloth diapering, organic products, and struggling through exclusive breastfeeding, this was yet another experience I felt I was failing at. Sometimes you realize that deep in the trenches of shame you have to raise the white flag of defeat and face your fate. No matter how unnatural or humiliating it felt, I knew I needed help. I had to be vulnerable in a way that would let someone glimpse behind my perfectionistic, masked persona that I inexplicably clung to. Tears drowned my vision as my doctor diagnosed Postpartum Depression and notable anxiety. My body had hit max capacity and started shutting down in a silent cry for help. Even after medication, my body instinctively knew before I did: we were done hiding. I stumbled on through life, still trying to make sense of who I was. I relied on my faith and talked about my seemingly endless struggles in counseling too. Slowly I brought to light my burdened soul and the idiosyncrasies of my emotional existence. During this journey, I also looked into potential physical explanations before giving up. I felt inept in that all too familiar discouraged exhaustion. I now know this to be the signs of autistic burnout that fluctuated throughout my life.

mom and her daughter laying next to each other
Tessa T Photography

2020 uncovered the realities of my being, and it was then that I was lucky enough to find someone covered by insurance to hold my fate in her hands. The waitlist was over a year long but I thought, ‘I’ve been surviving in this state for almost three decades, what’s another year of waiting?’ In this agonizing state of limbo, I dedicated every moment I could to researching and gathering examples, even signed traits lists from my own parents to make a thorough case for myself. I found an autistic community through social media and found solace in their experiences too. This was my saving grace as I waited. April 2021, I embarked on my evaluation journey with a doctor three hours north. I had become a reclusive turtle of pessimism wrapped in a fragile shell of hope. The process was incredibly draining emotionally, physically, and mentally from the constant analysis. There were extensive interviews and questionnaires for me, my husband, and my parents, then eventually the face-to-face, multi-hour testing event in a blur of anxious responses. Time crawled as we waited for the results. June 7, 2021, diagnosis: Autism. After 29 years of self-hatred and misery, I found peace in knowing that it wasn’t all just in my head. This isn’t a privilege offered to all of us who grapple with identical realization, however. Conditioned masking techniques, out-of-date diagnostics, lagging research of how autism presents differently across gender (with emphasis on race and economic status), as well as evaluation costs and waitlist times, are all obstacles to accessing the support we need. Creating awareness is only the first step. Acceptance and accommodation must follow for us to experience true equity.

Autism has supplied me with my singing voice and my love for music, art, design, and literature, along with a passion for information that thrives in detail. It’s allowed me the ability to empathize intensely with people and to connect through a loyal heart and unique perspective. This diagnosis illuminates my qualities and attributes and explains in clinical detail why I’ve always felt alienated. It provides a new perspective on my capabilities and insight into my struggles. It offers me a chance to reclaim my identity as it should’ve been before the condemnation. It helped me trust myself for the first time and not second guess my intuition. It introduced me to beautifully like-minded people and gifted me a new grace for myself and others. My life has been a lie that I’m a broken person, that if I just try harder I could eventually be accepted as some shade of ‘typical.’ But I’m not a broken neurotypical person, I’m an autistic woman who is learning to thrive by finally accepting the beautiful brain that God gave me. Autism isn’t a dirty word, and it isn’t one more thing I’ll allow people to make me feel degradation for either. I speak in transparency about the label without a name I’ve been forced to conceal for too long. I speak with those who will come after me in mind because neurodiversity is magnificent and worth celebrating openly.”

mom holding her daughter outside
Courtesy of Savannah W.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Savannah W. You can follow their journey on Instagram or Facebook. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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