On a hot late-July day two years ago I made my way out of the consulting rooms of the Anchor Psychiatry Group and paused on the pavement wondering what on earth to do next. I was 45 and had just been diagnosed with autism.
I went to the appointment alone. It hadn’t occurred to me to take my husband or a friend with me. I stood motionless, while others ambled past in groups, off to the pub for a Friday night drink. That moment seemed to encapsulate my whole life.
The diagnosis was both a shock and not a shock. Ever since I could remember I had been longing to find out why I behaved the way I did and why I was so unlike my peers. I find it difficult to recognise and name my emotions, but those I experienced that day seemed different to any I had felt before. Good feelings to me are pink. Bad ones are green. These were made up of all the colours of the rainbow. Not mixing together to make a sludge-brown, but rather like the flashes of colour you see when the washing machine spins a mixed load.
A few months before, I had been diagnosed with a genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. It’s a connective tissue disorder that causes digestive issues, easy bruising, limbs to dislocate easily and many other unpleasant symptoms. It seems many of those with EDS are also autistic. My autism diagnosis was the final piece of the puzzle for me. Having waited more than 40 years, in the space of a few short months I learned why both my body and my mind operate differently to those of most others.
With the sun warming my back, I walked slowly to my car, stopping every few moments to process the news. I thought of how in The Sixth Sense Bruce Willis’s character, Dr Malcolm Crowe, replays scenes from the past and it becomes clear to him that he is in fact dead. In my mind, I played episodes from my childhood, my teens and my later life as a mother of four, aware for the first time how my autism explained so much.
They flashed into my consciousness as individual moments. Standing away from the group of girls giggling in the playground. Sitting in tears in an exam room, unable even to write my name on the paper. Walking past bars watching a group of women on a night out and wondering what it felt like. Staring at a plate of food, knowing that because the burger bun was wet from mayonnaise, I could no more eat it than I could run a marathon. Sitting in an office being so distracted by the buzzing of an overhead strip light that I didn’t notice the phone ringing on my desk. Spending an entire Saturday researching a special interest only to realise it was 7pm and I was still in my pyjamas and hadn’t eaten. With each scene came a feeling of context and understanding.
The diagnosis came as a vindication. All my life I had tried so hard to be neurotypical, but in that one moment it became utterly clear that it was never going to happen. I was never going to fit that mould. I had stepped out of the psychiatrist’s consulting room into a new reality. The colours around me seemed brighter, the noises sharper. Finally I had the answer I had been searching for all my life.
• Odd Girl Out by Laura James, £16.99, published by Bluebird