The signs were there from the beginning; repetitive behaviours, preferring my own company, trouble making friends, and doing well in school despite hating the rigidity of it all. Later came my bafflement at the social ease of my peers, my struggling to follow arbitrary rules, and my generally feeling like an alien who’d been dropped head first onto a bizarre planet inhabited by creatures I neither liked nor understood.
I learned to cope as best I could. Despite detesting the formal rules women and girls were expected to follow in the deep south in the early 70s, I found the structure helped me to fake my way through social situations. I learned to mimic the behaviour of my parents’ friends in order to win approval. And I came to accept that I was never going to have a big group of friends like so many of the girls with whom I attended school.
My first inkling that something might not be right came when I spent a summer in Germany with my dad when I was 14. It was so different from being in Alabama. German people tended to be forthright, and their language wasn’t peppered with weird social niceties. No one tried to strike up a conversation with me whilst standing in line at the market. I felt more at ease and less alien without all of the artifice around me. I decided then that I wasn’t going to live in the southern US any longer than I had to.
Fast forward through quite a few lost friendships, failed relationships, and jobs I never had any hope of keeping, I found myself happily living in Scotland with my husband and children in an extremely cocooned life. No friends to speak of, self-employed, wearing a ‘uniform’ daily so I didn’t end up with decision fatigue, and generally keeping to myself. Then came the pandemic and lockdown.
I know it sounds terrible to say this, but I had a really good lockdown. My staff were furloughed, so I didn’t have to interact with anyone other than my family. There were no sales calls at work, no social pressures and no need to say no to anyone trying to impose them on me. No more makeup, hair dye, or smalltalk. For the first time in my life, I was completely and utterly myself. It didn’t take long for me to turn feral.
Once lockdown ended, I found it impossible to go back to presenting different versions of myself to different people. Social contact outside of my family felt more awkward than ever, and there were times I was literally at a loss for words. It was at this point I suspected I’d been practicing what’s called ‘masking’ – hiding symptoms of what I’m fairly certain is autism.
Four different health professionals in the mental health field and initial testing agree, and I’ve been referred for a formal assessment. I suppose it seems weird to be at this point in my life and seeking a diagnosis, but it would mean so much to me.
Perhaps I wasn’t completely at fault for some of my failures with other people. Maybe it wasn’t a lack of trying, but rather a lack of capability to fully process and understand. I can’t think of a better gift to give to myself than a kinder lens through with to view my past, and the ability to tell myself that, most of the time, I really did do my best.