I grew up without the words to understand myself. Some of them weren't around yet, some were deliberately kept from me. This didn't make me any less autistic or queer, but it did make it harder for me to accept myself and for others to understand me.
Now I have the words, I struggle not to shout them from the rooftops. I've never been good at holding back or trying to fit in. I never wanted to be, no matter how much others wanted me to. I don't like secrets or lies. I cannot be anyone except me. I am proud to be me.
I didn’t always feel that way. It took time to get to a place of autism acceptance, just as it took time for me to accept I was gay. I feared my life would be more difficult and that I wouldn’t find my place in the world. I was afraid of how other people would treat me, and that I would be seen as unlovable and unable to love. I’d heard traumatic stories and was shielded from joyful ones. I didn’t understand the concept of Pride at first, even after coming out as gay. I eventually embraced pride after coming to understand it as the opposite of shame.
My school days were spent under the shadow of Section 28, legislation that banned local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” (read more HERE)This meant schools and libraries were not allowed to acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people. My teachers didn’t just not want to support me, they could be risking their jobs if they did. The school library may have been a place of safety from bullies and the chaos of the playground, but no matter how many books I read I would never find myself reflected in their pages. And I read a lot of books! The only place I did find anything for teens who were questioning their sexuality was in a Christian youth book which made it clear things were not going to end well if I carried down the path of self-acceptance.
Slowly, I found some of the words but my first tentative attempts to claim them were denied. When I found the courage to tell a friend I thought I might be gay, she told me “don’t worry about it, you’re probably not”. I tried to take her advice but it was hard to completely suppress my understanding of myself. When I first heard the word “autism” I instinctively knew it symbolised another part of my identity: I remember going to my mother and saying “is that what I am?” She dismissed this reach for understanding, responding instead that it was a spectrum we’re all on and I’m not as far along it as the people she worked with (adults with learning disabilities). This misunderstanding of what the autism spectrum means and comparison with the presentation of people with learning disabilities left me less sure of my discovery. At other times she let slip that the Speech and Language Therapist I went to as a toddler thought I was autistic, but when my dad said “I always thought you had Aspergers” she told him off. My autism, just like my queerness, was a dirty secret that should not be acknowledged.
At times, it left me feeling like I was a dirty secret. Instead of supporting me to access a world that wasn’t built for people like me, I was pressured to act ‘normal’ and hide my struggles. I didn’t get my first glimpse at a community that would embrace me until I went away to university. There, I found places and Found Family who accepted my sexuality, though my gender diversity still made people uncomfortable. We didn’t have the word “non-binary” then but I found comfort in androgyny and other queer people who were on the outskirts of our community. I also found people who understand and accepted my neurodivergence, even if not consciously. I remember how one day I suddenly lost speech during a student society meeting, so a friend wordlessly got up and straightened the wonky poster that he realised had thrown me, then I restarted and we all carried on like nothing had happened. I learned that sometimes words weren’t needed, just compassion and acceptance.
I didn’t seek my autism diagnosis until my late twenties, when my life was falling apart and I was in desperate need of support. I was tired of denying my wants and needs, and trying to stay on top of everything by myself. Though I was diagnosed without question initially, it didn’t suddenly make all my problems go away or bring in appropriate support. I was denied reasonable adjustments at work due to our NHS service being direly underfunded. My wife and parents didn’t change their expectations of me. When I just got worse, I was denied therapy because I was seen as too unstable. I spent several months in and out of mental health wards, where my diagnosis was changed to an ill-fitting mental health label with one of the reasons being “there are no services for women with autism anyway”. I was deemed uncooperative and unreachable for refusing to stop “acting” autistic. Eventually I would be diagnosed with autism for a second time, but only after this crisis and my mistreatment escalated to the point where I was institutionalised for years.
My initial diagnosis had seemed like bad news due to the state I was in; I thought it meant life would always be that hard. I was wrong. When I got my diagnosis the second time, I saw it differently. It was validation of who I was and why others couldn’t change me. I’d learned therapeutic skills and gained self-understanding that made it easier to navigate my feelings and the world. Since then, I’ve learned to work with my brain and found I thrive when I stop fighting myself. I’ve learned how to approach work in a way that makes use of my skills and intense focus. I’ve found earplugs and other tools that make going out not overstimulating, so I can enjoy what I’m doing more. I’ve found people who want me to be myself and be happy.
When we tell our stories, we tend to focus on the difficulties we’ve faced in order to improve support for other autistic and LGBTQ+ people. But my life, my existence, is not a tragedy. I wish I had the space to share all the joy and triumphs with you too. I want to tell you about how I used to stand in a pub making fun noises with an autistic friend, and our other friends still wanted to dance with us. About how I looked in the mirror after shaving my head and with a rush of euphoria thought “there I am!” About how my publisher is excited by my “unique voice” which comes through in my writing, despite my English teacher marking me down for it. About my adorable pets who I happily spend more time with — and often talk to more – than people. About my partner who says she loves me because I’m sooo passionate about things. About how I feel joy so intensely that it balances out all my struggles. About all the big moments and the small moments when I am so glad to still be here and be me.
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Disclaimer: En-Fold does not endorse treatments, interventions and therapies but lists them so people can make informed choice. This site is for information purposes only and is a starting point for readers to look into options that may fit or resonate. Remember, therapies for autism, like any condition, should be discussed with a trusted medical practitioner or certified therapist before use. All information, data and material contained, presented or provided here is for general information purposes only and is not to be construed as reflecting the knowledge or opinions of En-Fold, or as providing legal or medical advice. All treatment decisions should be made by the individual in consultation with a health care provider. Case studies provided are done so in good faith, and based on the personal experience of the individual submitting them. En-Fold are in no way endorsing the establishments that are mentioned but offering peer reviews to inform readers.