I am a family practice physician, and I’ve known I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was 4. I’m fairly intelligent, but I struggled in school and was never in the gifted program. Growing up, people would say to me, “You’re smart, why can’t you just ____.” I felt the same way, and had a low self-esteem and was hard on myself. I never felt like I fit in. I always wanted to, but I could never figure out what I was supposed to do.
It was like all the kids around me had been given some secret guide to being popular, and I didn’t have it. I got tired of being shamed for how I was acting. Slowly I learned what I was supposed to do by watching others and trying to copy what they did. I was grateful for people like my mom who would give me gentle corrections when I acted inappropriately. It was a lot of hard work, as I constantly had to be thinking about what I was supposed to be doing.
I started to do a lot better in college, when I could select classes that were interesting and challenging for me. I still acted differently, but I found friends who didn’t care so much. I graduated with a bachelors degree in biomedical engineering, and was accepted into medical school in New Jersey. I was specializing in family medicine until 2012, when health issues forced me to step away from practice. I currently work with the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition as a disability rights advocate and activist.
I attended a lecture at a conference last summer about teaching religious education to kids on the autism spectrum. As the facilitator started going down the list of traits that kids on the spectrum often have, I realized that I had personally had issues with most of the areas listed. As I read more about autism, I also found that symptoms can be very different between men and women. Men tend to act out more when they get overloaded, where as women tend to shut down. Autism is thought to occur more frequently in boys, but I wonder if we’re missing a lot of diagnoses because of generalizations about autism from the behaviors we’ve seen in boys.
After the workshop I had begun to research autism and realized that it could explain many of the things I had struggled with growing up. After a thorough evaluation by a psychologist, it was determined that I do indeed meet the diagnostic criteria for an autism spectrum disorder. I was relieved. Getting a diagnosis finally allowed me to forgive myself for not being able to figure it out when I was younger. I also could finally acknowledge how much work I had put into learning how to act, and how much work it took to maintain all of the time.
When you’re on the autism spectrum, your nervous system is under constant assault from all of the sensory information in the world around us. Sounds are louder, colors are brighter, and tasks you need to accomplish can quickly seem overwhelming. I have always suffered from sensory overload, though I didn’t have a way to explain what was going on. As I have learned, pain, illness, and general stress can all make this sensory information even more overwhelming. Modifications to the environment can help, as long as you know what sensory overload is and what your triggers are.
Since my diagnosis, I have been able to learn what sets off my overload and how I need to advocate for myself and my needs. I have also been able to learn what I can do to help manage overload. I bring a visor and ear plugs with me wherever I go, and have gotten glasses with a special tint that help with my sensitivity to florescent lights. I’m also gentle with myself when I get overloaded and need to stim. I have had to learn to be a strong self-advocate, especially because neurotypical people often can’t understand why such seemingly small things can be overwhelming for me.
I have learned to thrive through the advocacy work I do for myself and others with disabilities. I understand the communication issues many neurodiverse people face as I have a lot of trouble trying to talk when I am overloaded. In speaking with other neurodiverse people and their caretakers, I am able to understand the problem from the standpoint of having a neurodiverse brain and suggest solutions that others might not have thought of. I am very passionate about issues that are important to me, and I redirect my energies towards the work I do. Advocacy work is also ideal for me because I can tailor the hours I work so that they’re better for me. I can also make sure to get the supports I need to do this work.
Autism is not a curse, and I’m glad I have my diagnosis. I have started to learn what I need to do to take care of myself, and I am better able to speak up for my needs. For me, my diagnosis connected many of the parts of my life that previously had not made a lot of sense. If you think that you might have ‘high-functioning’ autism, talk with a psychologist who specializes in diagnosing adults. I’m certainly glad I did.