A year and a half ago I was sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, distracted by the large pile of teddy bears and a massive bookshelf, which when you find out that I’m autistic and this was my diagnosis appointment, has a certain level of irony to it.
I built myself up for this session. For two years, I’d been researching autism in women and using what I had learned (both academic and social) to understand the links between what I was reading and what I was experiencing. I had prepared myself for a fight, to get a medical professional to listen to me and take me seriously. After years of being dismissed by doctors around my mental health, I knew the fight that was needed to get someone to listen. But I found I didn’t need that energy, instead, the doctor listened to me, heard my responses and, after an hour, I had a life-changing diagnosis and a new language framework for how my brain works.
Because for me that’s how I see autism. It’s a language toolkit that has enabled me to explain how my brain works, my ‘quirks’, and helps me explain to others as and when needed. Like most things though, autism is a spectrum and while I have low support needs, there are many who do need support and experience autism in a different way. It’s like a fingerprint, just because you’ve met one person who’s autistic it doesn’t mean that one person represents the whole spectrum. And while this is my story, it’s not everyone’s; my voice is just one of many who live with neurodiversity.
I count myself lucky. Only 15% of autistic adults can work full-time, and I can understand why. Pre-pandemic was a life of spending 40 hours a week in a brightly lit office surrounded by people and constant noise. Personalities were demanding and required as much management as the work I was completing. I worked in professional services for 8 years full time and by the time the pandemic hit I was burnt out. But I was still working.
The break came last year when I made the transition out of professional services and into aged care. Now I work for an organisation that truly understands and is focused on care, and it’s not just a platitude, it’s infused in every interaction and everything the organisation does. Covid-19 has thankfully changed how things are, flexible working has made work feel more accessible for disabled people and while the workload remains high, it’s enjoyable and I have found that I can lean into the gifts that autism has given me. Creative thinking and content production is something I get to live and breathe and when my autism meets my ADHD in tandem. It’s like when Shania Twain did that duet with Harry Styles at Coachella. That’s not to say there aren’t difficult days, but now I have the language for the experience, the difficult days aren’t as hard as they used to be.
From having anxiety and panic attacks on a daily basis, I now have language for what I’m feeling so I can better mitigate the days when the disability may be showing up. I am more compassionate towards myself whereas before I would berate myself for not being able to manage my anxiety. I’ve leaned into gentle living, to enjoy the peaceful moments, the quiet sinews on busy days. This change has led to only having one anxiety attack in the last three years, and that was due to a lack of sleep.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is your environment plays a major part in how you can manage a disability. With epigenetics, our genes literally can change depending on the environment we’re in and our brains can get addicted to stress and cortisol releases, which when you’re neurodiverse can have a huge impact. Making small and big changes may be scary and overwhelming but there’s nothing more important than managing your health so you can thrive. So, my advice to anyone who’s on the spectrum is it’s okay to need help, it’s okay to make changes that give you a better quality of life and for those who aren’t neurodiverse it’s okay to ask questions, as long as they’re respectful.
Life with autism is different for everyone who lives with the condition, but there is always hope. Hope that the world embraces neurodiversity and continues to change so that more disabled people can have equal access to opportunities and experience important life moments. Because being different isn’t a stigma, it may be just what the world needs.
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