The domino effect | Autism Awareness Week 2017

We sit in a field on Hampstead Heath and as the sun sets, I explain why I think I am autistic. She and I flap like the birds around us as we discuss whales – a shared special interest. She worries she is just mimicking; I strongly disagree.

We are cuddling on the couch. I’m talking about something that I’m experiencing, an emotional struggle that is innately linked to being autistic. They begin to cry and I grasp their hand. “Is it all a little familiar?” we ask, and they nod. We don’t need to say anything else.

I open a DM from an online friend who I rarely private message with. Her message is full of ellipses and “fuck”, and realisation that the thing I just described on Twitter reminded her of herself intensely. She asks her partner if he thinks she has Asperger’s, and he says “of course”.

These are three moments out of many where, when talking about being autistic, a fire is lit in other people. It may have been smouldering away before, but it seems to be a turning point for them, in the same way I had a moment.

It was 8am and I was lying in bed crying, confused and aching. My friend had whatsapped me the night before about being autistic, and being the person I am, I began heavily researching autism and specifically autism in girls in order to understand how to help. I cried because I saw me on the page. I woke Tim and cried more and felt a light turn on. I messaged my friend and she gently said she expected this might happen.

Here’s a weird reference that stuck in my little queer head because I was a repressed teen when it happened, but also because it’s a strange visual comparison that works for me. Remember when Madonna famously kissed Britney and Christina Aguileira onstage at the 2003 MTV awards, citing that she was kissing them to pass her energy along to them as baby popstars? That’s what it reminds me of. Not that I kiss all my friends. But a moment of genuine intimacy can lead to that light being turned on inside them.

Two weeks ago, I spoke to the two doctors who diagnosed me about this. They referred to it as “the domino effect”. They said this was increasingly common, not just because like attracts like, but because often the only way we find out about our own autistic nature is by meeting someone else who share our neuro-divergences. Whole friendship groups can change from being just a few intense, seemingly neurotypical people, perhaps with a variety of mental health problems and some strange habits, to a group of autistic friends.

It’s a truly world-shattering sensation. Your sense of self takes quite a battering as you realise you have spent your life trying to mask, hiding that less acceptable part of yourself. Later, once you have settled with this new autistic identity, imposter syndrome sets in. You twist and turn, regurgitating old phrases said to you, brush offs, suggestions you are just a singular weird person. It’s almost like part of you decides you don’t deserve to be autistic.

Formerly or self diagnosed, you know that painful path well. At the end is the potential for self understanding, sure. But also being autistic isn’t easy, and coming to terms with a lifetime of misunderstandings that could have been mitigated if only you’d known is a bitter pill.

Representation matters; I spent 26 years never seeing someone like myself in real life, never mind on tv or in books. Imagine if I had.

When I was seeking diagnosis, I watched endless videos of women and people raised as girls talking about their autism diagnosis story, seeing commonalities in our stories and how we moved. Upon receiving my diagnosis, I made a decision to be an out unashamedly autistic person, to talk about my life and share stories of others. So I’ll talk and hopefully I will light those flames… or, if you prefer, kiss those baby popstars.

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