I was diagnosed with autism as an adult and it felt cathartic
Navigating the world as a neurodivergent woman can be physically and mentally exhausting
For some people, the journey to adulting can feel like learning to ride a cycle on an oil slick. Dealing with undiagnosed developmental, neurological and mental health issues, where just getting through every day is a challenge. This often has a ripple effect on everything from their career to relationships and self-confidence.
32-year-old Samriddhi Malhotra is on the autism spectrum. A diagnosis she got from a neuropsychologist ten months ago.
“For adult women with autism, it doesn’t necessarily present itself how you see it in young kids, especially males, or on TV… I didn’t think such a diagnosis was even possible for me.”
In our series ‘I wish I’d known sooner’, we pass the mic to people who share what it has been like to receive a diagnosis that can transform your life – for better or worse. Here’s Malhotra’s story in her own words.
I was reading a book by Helen Hoang one day when I had an ‘aha!’ moment. The protagonists of her novels generally have autism, and in the book I read, this autistic woman gets diagnosed in her adult life. Even though it was just a story, it was eye-opening because I had never thought about my experiences this way. Even if I had connected the dots, the image created in my mind wouldn’t have been of autism.
Through my research I discovered Hoang herself was diagnosed with autism as an adult; there were other public accounts, such as Hannah Gadsby’s and I Think I Might Be Autistic by Cynthia Kim, but nothing from India. Luckily, I got a referral from someone I knew who was also diagnosed with autism as an adult, so I worked directly with a veteran neuropsychologist.
Initially, I wondered if I really needed a diagnosis at all; what difference would it make? I was hesitant, but I had so much going on in my head that only a professional could help me make sense of.
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Autism in adults, especially women, is incredibly under-researched. The challenges of living as a neurodivergent person can lead to secondary conditions like anxiety, depression, burnout or suicide ideation. General therapists and psychiatrists might address those issues, but an autism specialist can see why a person struggles and why their life has panned out a certain way. For me, that was a very important missing link.
Getting diagnosed is a process. There were tests, questionnaires, and many qualitative sessions with me, family members and close friends. The sessions with my family, especially my mother and sister, and hearing what they were saying based on the therapist’s questions made me (and them) realise that many signs were pointing in the direction of autism. But because we didn’t have the knowledge back then, they were easy to miss.
I remember that as a child, I would have meltdowns very easily. Small things would trigger me, and I couldn’t control myself. There was a lot of what we call executive dysfunction – difficulties with planning, organising, and monitoring actions. It’s something many neurodivergent people, me included, struggle with it. If my mom had to drop me to a friend’s house and I wouldn’t know how to get there, it wouldn’t strike me to ask my friend about it. A lot of what you would consider fundamental to functioning in daily life didn’t come naturally to me.
My family couldn’t understand this because I was considered academically bright. Because of these ‘odd’ behaviours, people would say things like ‘she’s so careless and haphazard’ or ‘she’s lazy’.
As an adult, I wouldn’t always understand social cues, the dynamics in a friend circle and the subtext and subtleties of what people say. But, over the years, I learnt to master them almost like a science. Piecing it together logically, like, oh, this is what people mean when they say this or that, and I learnt to adapt.
Especially for adult women with autism, it doesn’t necessarily present how you see it in young kids, especially males, or on TV. This phenomenon is called masking. You learn to mimic other people, which is how you adapt. So you don’t ‘seem’ like an autistic person, but it actually means that you’ve gone through life wearing a mask. It’s exhausting, and you get burnt out.
Getting diagnosed with autism as an adult brought up a lot of mixed emotions. On the one hand, there was relief. Because you’ve internalised the struggle for so long, you think, okay, maybe life is this hard for everyone. To understand that your brain is wired in a way, that your struggle is legitimate, is pretty cathartic.
At the same time, some part of getting the diagnosis had me wondering,’Who am I if I didn’t have to do all of this to adapt and blend in?’. So I’m still unpacking these feelings.
The response to my journey on social media has mostly been positive. Representation matters, and people need to know how others struggle because that’s how we build more awareness and compassion.
Yet, people have messaged saying, well, you don’t look or seem autistic. You’re doing this for attention. It takes a lot of mental energy to explain to them, and I wish it wasn’t my burden. Information is as easily available as a Google search.
Now, I understand the boundaries I need to set. For example, my parents are very social people and earlier, if they were hosting an event and said I needed to attend, I’d say no, but carry a lot of guilt for it. Now I can say no without that boulder on my chest.
I know I might not be able to hold a regular 9-to-5 job. To be able to accept that reality, and my limitations, is not always pleasant. But it doesn’t make me less than. I’ve made peace with the life I lead.
This is a personal account, as told to Sara Hussain.