‘My brother pointed out, ‘It’s common for siblings to have it.’ A lightbulb went off in my head.’: Woman with autism raises awareness for neurodiversity

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“If I’ve learned anything in my life thus far, it’s change is constant. What we plan for ourselves is rarely what becomes reality, and that’s what makes life so challenging and surprising and wonderful.

My childhood was one that can be considered normal—great parents, one older brother who was, and continues to be, my best friend, grandparents I visited on a weekly basis who have served as a second pair of parents to me. Truly, I’m blessed to have fond memories and experiences growing up.

young girl smiling
Courtesy of Allie Knofczynski

I frankly don’t remember much, though. What stands out to me now, things I once didn’t even bat an eye at, are moments when I innately knew something was different about me. My peers, bustling with social ease and naturally congregating in groups, felt foreign to me. But at every turn, from teachers and parents, there was a pressure to socialize and make friends. Have playdates on weekends. Be friendly with strangers.

It was very early on I began developing a mask. I noticed how other little girls acted, what was ‘correct,’ and I adopted those as my own. How are others acting? What is everyone else interested in? How can I fit in and stop feeling like everyone else has a shared secret they’re keeping from me?

The mask I wore began to weigh down, heavier and heavier, throughout the rest of my education. The more you come of age and begin understanding your identity, your strengths, and weaknesses, the more I felt like I was getting left in the dust compared to everyone else. I innately hated who I was and wanted to be anyone else but me. I craved any validation I wasn’t just fading into the background, I mattered and had a unique story to share.

young girl in glasses
Courtesy of Allie Knofczynski

All of those years, I fell into severe bouts of anorexia, social anxiety, and depression. Any semblance of control I could muster, I tried to cling to in the unhealthiest ways. I so desperately wanted to be the best at something, to be recognized for anything, and it never turned out well.

College, full of media-inspired cliches and hopes for the best years of my life, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. My last summer before graduation, having just been fired from a prestigious internship, in all of my despair and hopelessness, the whisper in my ear sounded: Ministry. Seminary. A path I had never once considered, after pushing any faith to the back burner throughout my life, soon began to stir within. I was never a huge churchgoer. I had no idea what it meant, how I was supposed to proceed with that idea, but I took it in stride.

But that new idea didn’t entice me to make immediate decisions about my next steps. Instead, after graduating college, I decided to pack my bags and live in American Samoa for a year and teach an elementary class. I needed to immerse myself in something completely different and escape the constant nagging of, ‘What will you do next?’ That year was simultaneously the most challenging and most rewarding of my life.

girl in white college graduation cap and gown
Courtesy of Allie Knofczynski

Toward the end of the school year, I still heard ministry in my heart. In a single Zoom conversation with the dean of The Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley, California, an interfaith seminary and 2-year program, I knew I needed to go. So, again, as soon as I flew back to the States, I prepared to move my life across the country to a city I had never lived before and pursue ministry.

Little did I know the time I lived in the Bay Area would be the most formative and revealing. A few months prior to my cross-country move, my one older brother went to a psychologist to confirm he was autistic. The signs and mannerisms were always there. I always knew in my gut my brother was different in some capacity, in social situations and thinking patterns, so the autism diagnosis wasn’t too shocking to my family. He resembles most autism stereotypes we know from movies and TV: incredibly intelligent, very passionate about specific interests, socially awkward, and prone to stubborn, one-track thinking.

girl outside in headphones
Courtesy of Allie Knofczynski

After I moved to the Bay Area, my brother pointed out a simple but powerful fact, ‘It’s very common for those with autism to have siblings who are also autistic. Have you ever looked into autism in women?’ Up until that point, I knew as much as most people did about autism, leaning on those stereotypes of young boys throwing tantrums. I didn’t see myself in that image. But I began to research.

Boy, did I research! Anything I could find about autism in women, I devoured. It turns out, most autistic diagnostic tests were designed for boys, not girls. Women are much more likely to receive an autism diagnosis later in life because they can easily camouflage their differences. They learn to mask and adapt to receive acceptance, only to realize they’re completely exhausted from pretending.

girl holding a dog
Courtesy of Allie Knofczynski

The qualities I thought were just ‘me things’ were actually traits many autistic women share. I remember a huge lightbulb going off in my head. All of the qualities to look for in autistic women, I had. Nobody in my life would think I was autistic: I met and exceeded developmental stages, I had a fair amount of common sense, and I seemed socially equipped enough to form relationships.

Beyond this self-realization, I eventually decided to pursue an official diagnosis. After thousands of dollars and hours of testing, I came back with my results: I had Autism Spectrum Disorder. I cannot describe the emotion I felt beyond liberated. I hated who I was for so long because I didn’t know who I was. The mental illnesses that drew me down were key signs I was burnt out by years of masking my autism. My entire perspective on life changed: the struggles and constant failure I faced came from my attempts to fit into a neurotypical mold never meant for me to fill. It wasn’t fair to compare myself to my peers when my brain and nervous system worked differently.

girl smiling in glasses
Courtesy of Allie Knofczynski

While I can say my autism diagnosis has been the best thing to ever happen to me, it has come with many obstacles. Given I was a woman who could make eye contact and keep a conversation going, most people have doubted my diagnosis. Everyone, from employers to primary care doctors, looks at me and practically interrogates me about how legitimate my diagnosis is. In the last job I worked at, any request for reasonable accommodations were disregarded, and I was even talked over on numerous occasions when discussing disability.

I also acknowledge the many contradictions I represent. I’m an autistic person who hates math and loves service professionals, specifically ministry. Many fellow autistic people are atheists and find jobs with logical duties and less personal interaction work best for them. I, on the other hand, do not fall into that category. I love directly serving others and seeing the positive impact I can make. I was recently ordained as an interfaith minister and love to discuss abstract ideas and hypothetical scenarios.

girl with her reverend certification
Courtesy of Allie Knofczynski

There’s a great need for more awareness and acceptance of all neurodiverse people. This includes autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, Tourette’s, and other neurological conditions. We need to recognize invisible disabilities, ones that don’t involve physical or developmental limitations. The work I do through social media as Autistic Allie has these goals in mind. I want those who feel lost and misunderstood to realize their gifts and receive the wisdom I wish I had in all of those years of severe mental illness, low self-esteem, and unrecognized frustration.

It’s been just over a year since I received my official diagnosis, and only recently since I’ve realized I also have ADHD, and I’m proud of all I have and continue to accomplish. I’m starting a Master of Divinity program this fall. My online presence continues to grow, along with opportunities like this to discuss my story and passions. I have wonderful relationships. And most importantly, I truly know who I am. Every day is a step in fully unmasking myself from who I had pretended to be all those years.

girl holding a tree
Courtesy of Allie Knofczynski

Being autistic and having ADHD isn’t a walk in the park. I still struggle with employment and financially supporting myself, executive functioning, and motivation. I will be taking antidepressants for the rest of my life. Existing in the middle ground of not being neurotypical but still capable enough to pass as neurotypical means I can fall through the cracks. This is an all-too-common occurrence for other neurodiverse people. Statistics show autistic and fellow disabled people are much more likely to be homeless and unemployed. We don’t have a chance to demonstrate our gifts. For that, I hope the greater population can open their eyes to how important equity and inclusion are and how disabled people offer unique perspectives you need to hear.

That is why I remind you here and always I see you. I hear you. I understand your struggles. You are not alone. Cliche phrases that especially ring true as we transition out of pandemic times and back to ‘normal.’ You deserve to receive the care and accommodations that let you thrive. You deserve to live comfortably without having to mask and pretend. The most important thing you can do is exist as you, fully in your truth, despite the world telling you otherwise.

My story is just beginning. And so is yours. I look forward to all that is ahead for us.”

Courtesy of Allie Knofczynski

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Rev. Allie Knofczynski from Sioux Falls, SD. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Twitter, and YouTube. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more stories like this:

‘After a life of pretending to be normal, I finally let myself be me.’: Woman diagnosed with autism, ADHD as an adult

Before I Understood My Son’s Autism

5 Things Your Teen With ADHD Wants You To Know

‘Isabella has potential…but is easily distracted.’ I am not stupid. I am neurodivergent.’: Woman diagnosed with ADHD urges ‘representation matters’

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