By: J.M. Shaw
Prior to receiving a diagnosis of autism, I struggled with feelings of discomfort and awkwardness. I truly felt like an actor on a stage without a script. Cruel names such as “annoying” and “misfit” have followed me from grade school into adulthood. After enduring years of bullying and harassment from peers and teachers, I became convinced there must be something wrong with me. Unfortunately, the same sentiments I faced in youth continued beyond graduation, haunting me through college and into my career. While my discomfiture was obvious to others, I was unaware of my differences. What is worse, no one enlightened me to my specific divergence from societal norms—the lack of understanding about autism likely played a huge part in this silence. Thankfully, academics was my strong suit and I threw myself headlong into my education. I became a quiet people watcher, ultimately compiling notebooks of interactions that allowed me to sufficiently engage with the general public. Regardless of my social inadequacies, I graduated from high school as well as college—both with honors. I entered into a successful career and even got married. By the time I turned thirty-six I was the proud mother of two young boys. But it was not until my oldest son started preschool that our lives changed—arguably for the better.
As a parent it is natural to compare your child to others. In doing so, I started to question aspects of my children’s behavior. At age three my eldest was enrolled in preschool because of a speech delay. Fortunately, his teacher was very astute and noticed some “social communication” concerns. My son was finally diagnosed with autism the following year, but it was a battle to find a doctor who was educated enough to recognize the signs and listen to me. Because diverse presentations of autism remain obscure to many, not even my family acknowledged my worries. In the end I was forced to procure a private assessment for my son, which allowed me to observe the process and ask numerous questions. The more I learned, the more I recognized myself. Three months later, at the age of thirty-nine, I received my own private assessment and diagnosis of autism and severe ADHD. Two years later, my second son was also diagnosed.
This determination of autism came with no explanation, leaving me clueless and lost to the significance of its impact. To say I was in shock would be an understatement, but sometimes we need a catalyst to set us on the right path. Following a period of emotional numbness, I finally started crying—I do not remember how long this lasted, maybe days or weeks—until I was emotionally exhausted. When the tears ended, I muscled the resolve to move on and protect my children from the bullying, self-doubt, and confusion that I suffered. However, in order to help them adapt to this world, I needed to first understand myself. I began my three-year mission of self-discovery by analyzing the challenges of my past with a new appreciation for why I felt so out of place. I reached out to parent and peer groups, consulted a counselor, scoured books stores and libraries, and endlessly googled, but for every answered question, several more sprang up. It was a disorienting and frustrating process of education.
This journey of understanding and my social inaptitude continues to this day. Over time I have found peace in the recognition that I am not deplorable or flawed because of my diversity. This realization did not happen overnight, it has been gradual and painful—much like growing up. I now give myself permission to ask for clarification in conversations instead of suffering lingering questions and doubts. Rather than accepting my diagnosis as a deficiency, I choose to embrace my cognitive and creative strengths. Because autism continues to remain mysterious to so many people, I openly share my experiences in order to educate others. Regrettably, there is a severe lack of resources for newly diagnosed adults, but it is my hope to create a world of understanding and acceptance. Above all, I endeavor to guide and support my children with what I have learned. Autism is not an unconquerable impairment; it is just another state of being that requires clarification in order to embrace the powerful capabilities of our extraordinary brains.