By Adria Nassim
I remember sitting in the developmental pediatrician’s office as she reviewed the clinical assessment her partner, a child psychologist, conducted. The results stated that I fit the criteria for what, at the time, was called Asperger’s Syndrome. “I would say she fits the syndrome,” she said quietly.
Asperger’s Syndrome, now folded into Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is not the only diagnosis doctors ever gave me. They diagnosed me with mild cerebral palsy at birth, followed by the discovery of a significant learning disability in early childhood. The ASD finding was added in adolescence, as my social world became more complex.
I felt such a sense of relief when I was diagnosed with autism. I finally understood why it had been so hard to make friends with other kids in school, and why I always wanted to go to the library instead of the football game.
It wasn’t something I did or didn’t do. It was autism.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 54 children nationwide are currently diagnosed with ASD. That number for adults is one in 45. Research demonstrates that girls tend to be diagnosed with autism at a later age than boys, possibly because the criteria that medical professionals use to look for deficits and abnormalities in development is geared toward boys, which were the group first examined when autism was first recognized in 1945.
Also, some findings have suggested that girls tend to be more successful at “masking” or hiding their autistic tendencies or behavior than boys. While I met the criteria for an autism diagnosis later in my teen years, I did not demonstrate many of the symptoms classically associated with autism. However, by middle school, I was having a more difficult time making friends and fitting in at school. I didn’t understand how to have a reciprocal conversation with other kids, and I had absolutely no understanding of more abstract and complex social behaviors such as dating, which my peers were beginning to show interest in. Bullying was something I experienced because, although I was bright, I did not pick up on social cues and hardly made eye contact. At free time, I might be seen sitting in the corner reading rather than chatting with the other kids.
My autism became more obvious during my teen years.
Today, I speak to groups about my experience with autism. My favorite life stages are the teen and young adult years because that’s when my life changed, in so many ways. The adolescent and young adult years, while at times a difficult period for young people, is a crucial period when they begin to develop their own identity and become who they truly want to be.
I hope that those young people who have yet to discover their autism can embrace it and be at peace with it, and that they learn to own it as part of their unique life experience. It took a long time for me to come to that point, and I had a lot of support along the way. However, now that I have, I find that I am much happier. I hope one day, other young people can accept their autism as part of who they are and live their life for all that it is.