If I had been diagnosed earlier maybe I could have spared myself years of feeling ‘other’, writes ‘Life’ columnist Stefanie Preissner
In my first years at school we learned the poem Humpty Dumpty. We were asked to draw the story of the poem. To present our pictures to each other, we all stood around the edge of the classroom and one at a time each of my peers revealed a different version of the same picture. An egg on a wall. I was sweating, if six- year-olds can sweat.
When it came to my turn I lowered my head as I turned my picture around. It was a blond boy sitting on the wall, surrounded by horsemen. Everyone laughed. Where in the poem does it say he is an egg?
Then, at 10 on my summer holidays in Wexford, I wanted to play with the other kids who ran in and out of the sea like puppies. The water was too cold for me and I couldn’t understand how they tolerated it. I came up with the logical idea to wear my coat. Coats protect from the cold, the sea is cold, wear a coat into the sea! It made perfect sense to me. Until it didn’t and I was freezing wearing a full parka in the Irish sea.
At 11, I cried in horror when my teacher described a movie we were going to watch as a class. She told us that in the Karate Kid we should watch out for the sensei who would “drill a mantra in the Kid’s head”. It took a lot of effort on her behalf to explain to me that this was a turn of phrase and I shouldn’t take it literally. Why did she need to use imprecise and horrifying sayings instead of meaning what she said and saying what she meant?
These are some of the anecdotes I recounted to the psychologist during my adult autism assessment this year. In order to be diagnosed with autism you have to meet several criteria on the diagnostic model DSM-5.
Being reductive, the areas they cover are one’s experience of social interactions, experience of nonverbal communication behaviours, special interests, tolerance of change, experience of maintaining relationships, preference for routines, experience of sensory aspects of the environment, and experience of repeated motor movements or speech.
It’s sensible the diagnostic approach is searching and robust, I suppose. It took several sessions with a psychologist and input from my mother and husband. I wasn’t surprised when she said the words “you are autistic”, but I was shocked. Nothing about me has changed at all but everything about my context, how I see myself and where I fit in the world has shifted.
Remember a few years ago when they suddenly added a new zodiac sign Ophiuchus into the mix? It shifted all star signs slightly. People railed against the addition of this 13th sign because they had spent so many years ardently identifying as a Scorpio or whatever. I feel a bit like that. I know myself and my preferences really well. I know I hate crowds and loud noises. I’ve sworn off weddings and social events because they cause me so much distress. Whenever I’m in a social situation I feel like everyone else has a script I don’t have. I have stores of facts about random topics and scroll through them like a Rolodex trying to find common interests with people.
know that I’m direct and straight with people. Some people say I’m too officious or cold, others find it endearing and put my directness down to my German heritage. It’s hard to see yourself anew.
I always wondered what was wrong with me. In secondary school I spent hours trying to figure out why I didn’t want to go to discos, or walk to town to “hang out”, why I struggled to accept invitations to “sit on walls”. People couldn’t tell me what time we would be starting to sit on the wall, who would be there, what time it would end.
It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I really felt like an outsider. In college I couldn’t relate to the impulses of my peers. Going clubbing was too loud, too vague and too chaotic. I liked rules, order, punctuality and routine. I pretended sometimes — in the autism community they call it masking — I did what my friends were doing but at huge emotional cost to myself.
I sought the assessment because in the last five years, two doctors and a therapist suggested I should. I laughed it off as a mad idea the first two times because I thought autism meant a young boy who couldn’t make eye contact and didn’t respond to his name.
I wish I had known sooner and that my understanding of autism hadn’t been based solely on poor representations in the media. Maybe I could have spared myself years of feeling “other”. It’s not that I’m German. It’s that I’m autistic.