After years of behaving “weirdly”, journalist Laura James finally discovered at the age of 45 that she had adult Asperger’s .
Here the mother of four, now 47, who lives near Holt, Norfolk, with second husband Tim, 55, a photographer, talks about how it feels to be a wife and mum – and autistic.
“If I asked you to picture an autistic person, most people would think of the stereotypical geeky guy who works in IT or maybe a seven-year-old boy. But I’m nothing like either of those.
I’m a 47-year-old mother of four grown-up children – and I was diagnosed just two years ago.
The fact is, there are loads of autistic women and we’re as different and diverse as neurotypical – or ‘normal’ – people are.
It’s just the diagnosis rate for autism in girls and women is much lower than in boys and men. I don’t think GPs are trained at spotting it – and girls are good at masking it.
Looking back, I’d spent my whole life feeling different and trying to hide my weirdness from others.
As a child, I was obsessed with books and learning – I’d read the dictionary from cover to cover.
I was happiest by myself and never managed to connect with other children at school or be able to build relationships in the way others did.
My teenage years were hard and I found it difficult to understand why people behaved the way they did. Why did girls at school say one thing but do another when it came to boys?
I wore my heart on my sleeve, so if I liked a boy, I’d just say so.
For me, everything was taken literally, so when I read Jilly Cooper books, which I used as an instruction manual, I thought everyone was meant to behave like the characters in her novels. It made for a few misunderstandings!
Unlike most teenagers, I hated going to nightclubs because my heightened senses often left me feeling overwhelmed. On bad days, I still feel under endless attack from smells and sounds. Listening to the music was like putting your iPod on and getting a terrible jolt because the volume’s too loud.
School couldn’t teach me in the way I needed to be taught and, although I’m relatively intelligent, I left aged 16 with just one O-level in cookery.
From there, I went through a series of jobs, working for a dating agency, an estate agents and even being a personal shopper, where my sometimes brutal honesty didn’t always go down well.
Neurotypical people understand social situations naturally but autistic people have to learn – and I hadn’t yet. No one understood why I struggled to cope. I was just 20 when I married my first husband, Michael, and gave birth to my eldest daughter, Lucie, now 26, eight months later. Three years after that, I had Tatti, now 23.
I fell in love with my girls from the moment I met them and we became a happy little unit. But I’d got married too young and our marriage didn’t survive.
At 21, I was on tranquillisers after being misdiagnosed with hyperventilation syndrome, but the doctors never told me they were addictive and two year later, I spent three months on a withdrawal programme.
I was misdiagnosed a lot throughout my childhood, with doctors suggesting everything from anxiety to an eating disorder because I’d forget to eat.
While in rehab, I met Tim who was being treated for depression. Michael and I split, and Tim and I married in 1996 and went on to have Jack, now 21, and Toby, 19. By then, I was an editor at a publishing company, but Tim encouraged my love of words and found me a job on a magazine.
Then I went freelance and we set up a PR company together. On the outside, it looked as if I had it all – a successful business, happy marriage and four wonderful children.
But people didn’t see that sometimes I’d be so focused on a work project I’d forget to dress or eat for hours. I would turn down invites to social events because I didn’t know how to make small talk. I also find eye contact difficult.
Then in 2012, I fell ill and needed surgery. I’ve always suffered from digestive problems – I just don’t seem to be able to process food as well as other people – and it had got worse.
Doctors diagnosed me with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare inherited bowel condition.
It was while being tested for that, and only by chance, that I discovered I could have autism.
It was the hottest day of the year and I’d not eaten in 24 hours because of the tests. I was really hungry and I’d been told there would be a sandwich waiting for me in my room. It wasn’t there and I had a meltdown. A nurse came to calm me down, and presuming I was autistic, said: ‘Don’t worry, love, we see a lot of people with autism.’
My GP referred me to a psychiatrist and after a very long assessment, I was diagnosed with adult Asperger’s – in July, 2015.
Finally I knew why I was the way I was. It made me feel like I wasn’t failing and, actually, I was incredibly successful under the circumstances.
It made me feel as if I had all the answers. I like to have everything neatly ticked off in boxes. I like labels and everything being clearly laid out. I line up my clothes and nail polishes in order of colour.
Tim says our marriage has been like a constant first date for the past 20 years but since my diagnosis, he finally feels he knows me for the first time.
That’s not to say he doesn’t still struggle with my lack of passion for things. I just don’t get excited, as other people do. When he proposed, it felt good, but also having a really lovely pudding feels good. There’s not much gap in feelings, to be honest.
When I told my boys about my diagnosis, one of them asked, ‘Wow, does that mean you can go and count cards in Vegas?’ and the other one said, ‘Oh right, what’s for supper?’
It was no big deal in our house. And, of course, when something like that happens, you’re still where you are. You still have to get up in the morning, go to work and parent your kids.
I still like things to be exactly the same all the time, so I have to go to the same coffee shop at the exact time every morning.
The baristas there joke they could set their watches by me.
But therapy and writing a book about it, Odd Girl Out, has helped me to come to terms with my late diagnosis.
I’ve also learned to make practical changes, such as setting alarms reminding me to eat.
Being autistic has plenty of positives. Although I may struggle with communication, my ability to focus means I can write quickly and spot a trend before it becomes big.
I think it’s made me a better mum for my own children, too. Instead of ranting and raving, I’ve got a calm and rational approach to parenting.
Tim jokes I’ve never told the children off. He was brought up being disciplined, and neurotypical people tend to conform. But I don’t care what the done thing is.
Do I want a cure for my autism? Absolutely not. It’s part of who I am.
Odd Girl Out, by Laura James, is published by Bluebird, £16.99