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My autism diagnosis started with a man.
It’s not the beginning to a journey of self-discovery that I — a “strident” feminist (and human) — would have wanted at the age of 39, but it’s the one I got. A man I’d never met, sporting sunglasses in all of his online dating photos. I’d upset him by making an inappropriate joke and he responded by ripping apart my entire identity, based on facts about me he found on Wikipedia. There was clearly something ‘wrong’ with me. Either I was a ‘raging narcissist’ (I’m not — I’ve done multiple online tests) or I was ‘broken,’ and I was alone for a reason.
Over the next six hours — as a total stranger lit into me over text — I slipped steadily into a meltdown: a familiar overwhelm of sensory and emotional input I’d experienced since childhood that resulted in me, curled up in a ball, rocking, scratching my legs to shreds and then fully blacking out. Because he was right: there was something wrong with me.
Connecting to other humans had always been hard. From 3 years old, monologuing at other children about my pet rocks, to my twenties and thirties (still begging strangers to ‘be my friend’ like a three-year-old). I was alone, almost all of the time. There was a gap between me and other people and I couldn’t reach across it. I was considered many things — rude, arrogant, weird, creepy, cold — but what I was, most of all, was lonely. I was so lonely I could barely breathe: a bone-deep loneliness that comes with a lifetime of feeling — and being — ‘different’.
If I struggled to make friends, romance was even harder. Flirting? Couldn’t do it. Reading between the lines, or understanding innuendo? Nope. Seeing red flags or signals of interest? Never. Whatever a man told me, I believed: good or bad, true or false. They’d ‘lost’ my phone number for eleven months? Okay! They lived with their ex but it was truly over? Sure! And if a sentence started with, ‘I’m not hitting on you, but…’, I always assumed they actually meant it.
My boundaries were non-existent. I put up with some ridiculously bad behavior, like watching my new boyfriend get another woman’s number at a bar and doing nothing about it. However I was treated was my fault — an inability to ‘understand the situation’ — so I should just try harder. I tried so hard that I was in a constant state of exhaustion.
That ‘distance’ between me and the rest of the world has never closed. I still don’t know what it feels like to be part of a real couple. Finding touch painful, I flinch at the lightest graze of a fingertip; eye contact is torture, so I’ve trained myself to make too much of it so I don’t look ‘shifty’. Naturally ‘robotic’, I sit woodenly — hiding my repetitive motions by shoving my hands in my pockets — and attempt to ‘dialogue’ by asking far too many questions. Noise and light hurt, so I force myself to feel pain without showing it. Everything that humans do instinctively, I do manually: processing, filtering, analyzing, monitoring. There is no ‘ease’ to me; no ‘breeze’. I am permanently, viscerally alert. There is something ‘inhuman’ about the way I am — and it has left me alone, over and over again.
It isn’t just social interactions: emotions are also difficult and hazardous. Unable to identify or express what I’m feeling — piecing it together later, like a jigsaw puzzle — I am in a constant state of bewilderment. And so romantic love has remained a mystery. I am desperate to get close enough to another human to feel it, but unable to recognize it even if I do.
So at the age of 39 — after twenty years of failed romantic ‘connections’ and a handful of relationships that never got past a few months — I was curled up in a ball: destroyed by a man on a dating app. There was something wrong with me, and I was finally going to work out what it was.
For a woman who uses Google in place of conversation (‘does he like me or is he being friendly?’) it took me a scarily long time to type in ‘social difficulties’, ‘sensory issues’, ‘I feel like an alien’ and ‘why do I keep having meltdowns?’. Because, once I did, the answer was there in 0.4 seconds: autism. Luckily, a clinical diagnosis followed relatively quickly. I am autistic — wired with a different neurology — and I always have been.
The loneliness is still there, and I’m not sure it’ll ever go away completely. But, in my diagnosis, I finally have the answers I’ve spent my life searching for. And — more than that — I have peace, courage, and a sense of pride. My brain and body may be unusual, but they are also uniquely mine. When my last date told me that I was ‘different’, for the first time I didn’t crumble with self-loathing. I simply agreed, with my head held high.
My journey to discovering my own neurology may have started with a man, but it will not end with one. In understanding myself better, I have started connecting with people who like me in all my glorious, formal, rocking robot-ness. I am ‘masking’ less, and being myself more fully. I am making friends. And, while dating is no easier, the realization that I am not “broken” means I no longer date with shame. I date, truly believing that one day — however long it takes — I will meet someone who understands that I am exactly the way I was built to be, and loves me for it.
And if that day never comes? My life may be hard, but it will also be beautiful: just as it always has been.
That is enough for me.
Holly Smale has been writing stories since she was 4 years old. Her path to publication included teen modeling, factory work, PR, teaching in Japan, and a chaotic stint as the world’s worst waitress, along with a BA in English Literature and an MA in Shakespeare from Bristol University. She uses neither of these qualifications on a daily basis, but still brings them up at parties.
Her Geek Girl series has sold 3.4 million copies and is in development with Netflix. At the age of 39, Holly was diagnosed as autistic and writes and speaks passionately about neurodiversity. Her adult debut novel, Cassandra in Reverse, is on sale from HarperCollins and is a Reese’s Book Club Pick, an Amazon Editors’ Pick, and an Apple Must Listen. She lives in Hove, England.
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