I was twenty-four and working at a before and after school program when I met Emily. The very tall, smart, and sweet fifth grade girl, her blonde hair pulled back neatly into a ponytail, sat at a tattered table, eating snack and reading her recently assigned book. Looking up at me, she smiled and showed me the cover: Wild Orchid, by Beverly Brenna.
“It’s about girl with Asperger’s,” she stated. She looked down and back up at me, puzzled. “Do you have Asperger’s?”
I laughed. I didn’t know what else to do.
Why did that moment burrow so deep into my brain? Initially I shrugged it off, but it would lead to months of research, a general questioning bubbling up within me. I acknowledged the social anxiety, the sensory issues, the trouble staying on task or staying present in the moment. The deeper I went, the more that I read, the less of an outcast I felt; the euphoria of feeling less alone. When I read about others on the spectrum lining up their toys as kids, something finally clicked. I was on the spectrum, too.
But what if I was faking it? It felt like I was. Was I just looking for an excuse for the ways that I struggled? Was I just trying to convince myself? I didn’t want to appropriate a term not meant for me or take up space meant for another. I confided in my best friend, told her about the things I had found, and cried when she reassured that lining up my toys didn’t make me autistic. I told my husband that I wanted to get an informal assessment and, when I was twenty-five, I met with an Australian psychologist over Skype. She specialized in females on spectrum.
A few days before, my boy earnestly came to me and asked, “So, just to be clear, we’re praying that you get the diagnosis, right?“
Just before the first appointment, I texted with my friend, repeating the same anxious phrases over and over again, usually in threes. The psychologist went over the results from tests and questionnaires that my friend, my husband, and I filled out beforehand. She pointed out my rocking and talked about sensory issues. The other appointments were pushed off due to technical issues and a death in her family. I don’t remember most of what we talked about. She was confident in an informal diagnosis of Asperger’s. I was happy.
I started the terrifying process of unmasking myself, and it left me empty. Who was I, if not my mask? The cycle began.
Everything finally made sense. I felt normal for the first time in my life and with that came an ecstasy. I found forums where I was accepted.
I began to feel anger over how I had been treated throughout my life. It was an after-school special, and the ending of this season had a huge plot twist. I started re-watching it all in my head with this new knowledge, seeing all of the foreshadowing that I should have recognized before.
I let myself stim more and ask questions about social situations. I didn’t feel so terrible when I lost my wallet or phone and I felt less guilty on days when I struggled to get groceries or run errands. I began to process things through these new lenses. Many of my shortcomings became quirks and I reframed my actual faults in a way that helped me grow. I stopped being so scripted-sarcastic to get by in conversations. I started being more honest with people.
I let myself break down. I cried, a lot.
The cycle would hit a tipping point before catapulting me into the valley again. I’m married. I can make phone calls, do interviews, hold down a job, interact with people, and I love language. Maybe my sensory issues were really just anxiety? I loved going to loud concerts, even if I couldn’t hand the noise in Panera. I would see things in myself that didn’t fit autistic traits. I become convinced that I am an imposter.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.