I was very honored to present this essay yesterday as one of six personal accounts selected to be read at the AANE Spring 2017 Conference, which was titled Hiding in Plain Sight: Shining Light on Women with Asperger/Autism Profiles.
I have never fit in.
I’m not entirely sure I fit in here, at a conference about women on the autism spectrum. I’ve never fully identified as a woman, and I found out only a year and a half ago that I’m on the autism spectrum. So trying to tell my story as an autistic woman almost feels revisionist, even when I’m telling the absolute truth.
I grew up not knowing why I didn’t fit in. I was just too weird, my viewpoint and sense of humor incomprehensible. Academically, I was “too smart”; socially, I was mocked for my naiveté, teased for my way of speaking, bullied for my shyness. I was seen as a girl, but I didn’t think like the other girls. As a teenager, martial arts classes gave me confidence, but I still felt out of place. In the classroom, I could hear every fidgeting student, every scrape of chairs on linoleum, the high-pitched whine of every piece of old equipment — but I was able to get past all that if I kept my head down and studied. I loved to learn, and I did well, graduating at the top of my class.
My love of science carried me to MIT to study physics, paid for by an Air Force ROTC scholarship. For a few short weeks I felt I belonged; here was a place where science was cool, people worked hard, and geeky jokes were appreciated. But it was hard, and it wasn’t long before I felt overwhelmed and alienated again. It wasn’t just the academics that were hard; it was also the social stress of living surrounded by other people, the extensive planning and prepping to keep executive functioning on track, the frequent sensory overload. Somehow I made it through, but I graduated feeling wrung out, bitter, and undeserving of my degree.
Thanks to the Air Force, I had a job for at least the next four years. I got to do some technical work and learn new skills — and at least in the military, expectations are usually made explicit, social interactions are fairly regimented, and you always know what you’re expected to wear. Not being traditionally “feminine” is not unusual for a woman in the military, either. There is a lot of uncertainty, however, in knowing you have so little control over your own career, or even your own life: even in those (relatively) peaceful years, I could not say where I would be stationed next.
So I opted to leave when the four years were up. I moved back to the Boston area, got a job at a tech company, got married and bought a house. It was a lot of change over a short period of time, but I was making my own choices. I had friends. I earned my black belt and began teaching at and even helping to run the martial arts studio I attended. It was a busy four years leading up to my thirtieth birthday, during which — first slowly, then more rapidly — I began to hit a wall.
Some people call it autistic burnout: the point at which all the energy and effort you’ve put into keeping it together, managing executive functioning and sensory overload…just runs out. I couldn’t do it anymore. Full-time work, martial arts training and teaching, keeping the house clean, making time for my husband — I just couldn’t do it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my first marriage fell apart around this time. My lack of specific gender had always been with me; among other things, it led to close friendships with men as well as women, and to the certain knowledge that I did not want children. These were things my husband knew about me from the start, but they ended up as deal breakers anyway. Looking back, I’m sure my burnout played a role, too, as well as my persistent inability to explain how I was feeling, or to understand his arguments when I found them irrational.
All this time, I still didn’t know I was autistic. I just thought I was a failure, despite all I had accomplished. I held onto my tech job for another year or two, dropping down to part time and hating it more and more. During this time, however, I also grew close to a friend from the martial arts studio, and eventually we decided to move to a rural area and start over on our own terms.
That was twelve years ago. He and I are married now, and live in a beautiful house in the woods. We have struggled for money at times, but did so because we prioritized creativity and happiness over working long hours for other people. When I learned, at the age of 43, that I am autistic, I was overjoyed. Suddenly everything made sense. I started to see my life as a series of triumphs over struggle, rather than a lifelong failure to be “normal.”
I now work part-time — from home! — for a software testing company that seeks to employ people on the spectrum. This leaves time for several creative pursuits and areas of independent study. I still struggle with anxiety and depression, but as I learn to be my authentic, autistic self, I find new ways to manage that. While I didn’t know it for most of my life, autism has helped make me who I am. I wouldn’t want to be anyone else.