“I wasn’t diagnosed with autism and ADHD until I was 30 years old. All my life, I felt like a misfit. An outcast. Someone who was always looking through a window into the neurotypical world, desperately wanting to join but never fully able to, no matter how hard I tried.
My journey of self-discovery began when my son was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old. At the time, I knew nothing about autism. I began to devour everything about autism I could get my hands on: books, blog articles, social media pages. I immersed myself in learning. I wanted to better understand my son so I could help him in the best ways possible.
It was at this time I reached a breaking point in my life. I was a mother of two boys under the age of 3. I was struggling to survive, stuck in a perpetual vicious cycle of meltdowns and autistic burnout, clueless as to what was triggering these episodes. I spiraled into crippling anxiety and depression, for which I would berate myself cruelly. I couldn’t understand why I was triggered by so many things, things the average person wasn’t bothered by. I felt like a failure. I felt broken. I felt useless. The more meltdowns I had, the more ashamed and guilty I felt. Why couldn’t I just GET IT TOGETHER?!
Finally, through my research, I began to notice there were similarities between my son’s struggles and my own. Things that triggered him also triggered me. I realized I had meltdowns, just like my son has meltdowns.
I dug deeper. I read books like Aspergirls by Rudy Simone and found myself flabbergasted. The stories shared by the girls in the book I could have written about myself verbatim.
For the first time in my life, there was a word that encapsulated every struggle I had ever faced. Autism. I spent hours upon hours reading everything about autistic women I could find. Every story I read felt like I was being SEEN and UNDERSTOOD for the very first time. I laughed. I cried. And slowly, the pieces of my shattered soul began to bind themselves together again. Finally, I allowed myself the space to exist. To grow. To accept. As I learned to accommodate my son, I simultaneously learned to accommodate for my own needs.
Reading the books on autism in women made me think back to unusual memories from my childhood. I’ll never forget one time as a child, I was about 8 years old. My parents had a group of people over. I squished myself into a corner and just observed. I heard words flying around and they didn’t make sense to me. I knew what the words themselves meant, but the social nuances went completely over my head. People were telling jokes and I didn’t understand them. I was terrified to say anything or respond to anyone because I just knew I was going to say something stupid and be ridiculed.
‘She’s just shy,’ they said. ‘She will grow out of it,’ they said. Turns out, I didn’t.
I made frequent social blunders, and with each one I made, I withdrew deeper within myself, humiliated and embarrassed. Nobody understood why I was obviously intelligent but acted socially inept repeatedly. A few blunders were socially acceptable, but repeated offenses quickly got me shunned or blacklisted by other girls my age. To avoid this, I rarely spoke in social settings and became terrified of social interactions in general. My mother eventually gave up on trying to get me to be more socially involved with my peers because each attempt she made resulted in massive meltdowns.
I retreated into a world I felt safe in—the world of books. Books didn’t judge me. Books didn’t make fun of me. Through books, I could safely analyze social interactions without the pressure of being in the moment in real life. By the age of 10, I was a voracious reader, checking out 7-10 books a week at my local library. I lived vicariously through my books, going on grand adventures and absorbing everything about social interactions I possibly could, in an attempt to fill the gaps I felt in real life.
I developed unrelenting and unrealistic high standards for myself at a very young age. I desperately wanted to please my parents and others around me, and would internally punish myself constantly for my mistakes. Looking back, now I have the knowledge that perfectionism is a common trait associated with autism.
I remember feeling intense feelings of anxiety and depression as young as 5 years old. I felt guilty for that too, because I reasoned I had good parents and a good life, and I had no reason to feel as miserable as I often did, therefore I must be a bad kid. I didn’t know how to explain sensory sensitivities to my parents, all I knew was I felt terrible and didn’t know why. Putting to words how I felt inside was something I constantly failed to do, no matter how hard I tried to verbalize. Excessive emotional outbursts were sternly disciplined by my father, and I learned to contain my meltdowns as much as possible until I could escape to my room and cry alone, on my bed.
In school, I battled dyscalculia and would feel deep shame over my battle to master basic math concepts. My father would patiently attempt to explain math concepts over and over to me, and I could do nothing but dissolve into a crying meltdown, not understanding it and feeling stupid and useless.
It was the excessive perfectionism deeply ingrained into me at a young age that set the stage for my massive burnout in adulthood. I finally reached a place where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t endure the recurring sensory overload and autistic burnout, combined with the constant self-criticism and the unceasing toxic inner thoughts. At 28 years old, I burnt out. Depleted and exhausted, I had zero motivation to continue in the same way I had.
Through my son’s autism diagnosis and my research, I began to find myself. With every book and article I read, it was as though lightbulbs went off in my brain. I finally was able to identify sensory overload and pinpoint what some of my triggers were. Instead of guilting myself for feeling overwhelmed, I learned to just accept it and allow myself the space to meet my needs. Through all the personal accounts I read on Instagram from other autistics, I found words for all the struggles I had never understood about myself.
It was as though the silent scream for help that was buried deep within me was finally given a voice, and I was able to LET IT OUT. I unchained myself from the guilt and shame that had plagued me and began the process of practicing self-love.
It was through educating myself about autism in my son I realized I was autistic myself. My life finally made sense! Autism was the key to unlocking the mystery I had been trying to solve for my entire life without knowing it. It just CLICKED.
The waitlists were long for autism evaluations and I waited a year before finally being evaluated and diagnosed with autism and ADHD at 30 years old. More than anything, what I felt was RELIEF. I finally had the answer to my lifelong question of WHY AM I SO DIFFERENT?
I am no longer at war with myself. Every day that passes I am learning new coping mechanisms that actually help me, instead of repressing my feelings. For the first time, I am embracing how to allow myself to simply BE, as I am. Free. No more shame. No more guilt. Loving myself for who I am. Different, not less. Now I am free. And freedom feels good. I thank God for the little autistic boy He blessed me with, for it was through that precious little boy, I was able to finally find myself.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Laura Schoonover from Oklahoma, USA. Follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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