Reading Odd Girl Out and being on the Autism Spectrum

A year ago, I started going to therapy to figure out why I have social anxiety and how to manage it. I’ve always been shy and felt awkward around people. When I was a kid, I was told that was normal, some even found it cute, but I always got the same response from adults: I would grow out of it. Fast forward to my late twenties, and I’m still the same awkward, shy kid, the difference is that now it’s no longer cute, it’s worrying.

I never thought I could be autistic as my experience never matched the autistic male characters we see on tv. I’m not as intelligent and observant as BBC’s Sherlock Holmes, or as clueless and routine-dependent as Sheldon Cooper. I have my quirks, but I always thought they were normal until my therapist shared she believed I might be on the Autism Spectrum as I had described and shown some autistic traits.

The thought I could be autistic haunted me for weeks, and for a while, I refused to do any research about it. I quietly joined the Subreddit AutismInWomen, never posting, just observing, and I started to read about other people’s experiences that sounded way too similar to mine.

I finally decided to read a book, any book, about autism and ended up finding Laura James’ Odd Girl Out

Reading Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World by Laura James

odd girl out

Laura James is a British journalist who was diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in her mid-forties. In this memoir, she writes about what it’s like being on the autism spectrum as an adult woman and how she has coped through life before and after the diagnosis.

Being diagnosed with ASD later in life is very common in women. As kids, girls tend to be better at masking and hiding their autistic traits to match societal expectations, so their diagnosis is usually missed. It isn’t until they reach adulthood that life becomes too hard to manage, and they start to seek answers on their own. On the other hand, boys tend to show signs earlier as they don’t try to fit in and are usually diagnosed at an early age.

Copying neurotypical behaviour is an exceptionally strong coping mechanism in most autistic girls. Unlike boys with autism, who are often happy to strike out on their own and just be themselves, girls tend to have a strong need to fit in. Mimicking the behaviour, style of speech, interests and social interactions of others provides something akin to a blueprint for life. While neurotypical girls have an innate understanding of how to behave, autistic girls tend to have to learn these behaviours by studying how others do them.

The childhood years

I related a lot to Laura’s childhood memories, though my memory is very blurry. My therapist thinks it’s related to the fact that I’m always in my head, and I’m rarely 100% present, so it’s not surprising I can’t remember moments of my life because my mind wasn’t paying attention. It’s a sad thought, but it also makes a lot of sense.

Laura describes this feeling and how she would cope in school:

When I felt scared, insecure or confused by school life – nauseous at the smell of the food coming from the canteen, hurt and confused by the cruelty of my classmates, or stung with indignation at the sheer lack of logic displayed on a daily basis by my teachers – I would recite passages from my favourite books over and over again in my head.

More often, though, I would create imaginary worlds in my head and would sit still for hours coming up with the rules for this parallel universe.

I always struggled to understand why it was so hard for me to go from eating at home to eating at the school canteen during the week, while my sisters had no problem with it. I would struggle with the new food, the new smells, having to sit with people from other grades, being unable to breathe and being surrounded by kids for eight hours straight. I would puke my lunch almost daily, my body was so anxious it was incapable of keeping my food down. The nuns (I went to a Spanish Christian school – would not recommend), thought I was just being difficult when I physically could not eat. But now that I know about autism, my reaction makes sense, that new environment was affecting every alarm bell in my body.

Social anxiety

This is the part where I can’t relate to Laura’s story. As a journalist, she has zero social anxiety and can talk to anyone she wants to, but then she will have a meltdown if her coffee isn’t made the way she requested.

I wish I knew what it was like to live without being terrified of people. I think I had that once as a kid, but once I got out of my bubble at school and had to talk to other kids, I realised how scary some of them can be. It’s sad to carry that feeling into adulthood.

Strangely, in adulthood I have never suffered from social anxiety. As long as I am allowed to be myself, I’m OK. School was forced socialization and they wanted me to fit a mould in the quest for homogeneity. Now, I don’t care what others think of me.

In her memoir, she explains she makes up stories for everyone she meets to make them seem less scary. She also explains that social anxiety is very common in autistic girls as social difficulties are one of the main traits of autism. However, the level of struggle depends on where you fall on the spectrum. 

The diagnosis

I grew up with the feeling that I was being annoying every time I mentioned a light was bothering me, or when I refused to eat meat. Or the fact that if someone said they would be ready in five minutes, I genuinely expected them to show up five minutes later on the dot, and I would start to get very anxious if they didn’t.

I was told to stop complaining and that I was exaggerating when I wasn’t even aware I had been repeating the same thought over and over and over. So I tried to keep things to myself. Now I’m learning those things were signs of autism.

Psychology Today says, “women who have autism and don’t receive a diagnosis tend to judge themselves harshly for finding life difficult; what’s more, mental health issues are common in women with autism. In contrast, women who do receive a diagnosis often find that it has a positive impact on their confidence and self-esteem”.

Laura James got her diagnosis in her mid-forties. She was married, had four children and had a successful career before she learned about this big part of herself.

Before my diagnosis, I had spent all my life waiting. Waiting to find out what was wrong with me. Waiting to fit in. Waiting for my life to begin. Waiting to find the proper me.

There isn’t another life waiting for me. I’ve been longing for my real life to begin and have been hit by a sudden realization. This is it. There is nothing else.

I haven’t gotten a formal diagnosis, and I don’t know if I ever will. The more I talk to my therapist and the more I learn about autism in women, I’m more sure I belong to that 1%. It’s the only explanation I’ve been able to find. Who knows, I might get a diagnosis later in life, but for now, going to therapy and learning how to live with my brain is my main focus.

I know this post was longer than usual, so if you made it this far, thanks for reading me! I hope you enjoyed this post.

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