Laura James, a freelance journalist and mother of four children, learned that she had autism in 2015, at the age of 45. Rather than dwelling on the uncertainty of her diagnosis, she decided to accept her condition.
She replayed episodes from her childhood, her teenage years, and her later life, realizing how autism explained so many individual moments. “I think the real feeling was one of relief. I finally knew why I was different,” said James. Now, three years later, James illustrates her life in her book, Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World - already available in stores and online. The book is a rare and honest perspective of James’s life before and after her diagnosis. In it, she addresses a wide range of topics, including autism, marriage, and motherhood. She reveals painful recollections of feeling different as a child, as well as experiencing heightened anxiety towards everyday sights and sounds. James also discloses sexual harassment incidents that forced her to leave three different jobs and the added impact that autism had on her during these unwelcome advances.
When she first felt different
In Odd Girl Out, James recounts her first memory of feeling different when she was a little girl about 5 years old. She would watch neurotypical girls play on the playground and she would wonder why they were doing that. At that point, she knew that she needed to imitate them out of fear of being cast as different or as an outsider.
Even everyday situations proved to be too overwhelming for her, such as when her mother made her wear a blue fur jacket, when she wanted to wear a yellow jacket. “I feel itchy and angry. I will not wear this coat. I breathe in and do not exhale. My mother’s expression moves from angry to concerned. My lungs begin to hurt. My mother is talking to me. I see her lips moving but cannot hear her words. I am silent. My body stiffens. My lips are tinged with blue. I fall to the floor and lose consciousness,” wrote James. She never fully understood why she was unable to cope and why, despite her best efforts, she had always failed when trying to emulate normal acts. Situations that she was unable to control and events that she was unable to predict confused her, whether they were positive or negative. Older people, as well as her parents, blamed her episodes on the fact that she was adopted.
“I think we grow up more slowly. Emotionally, I think that we are less mature than neurotypical girls. We are also incredibly trusting,” said James, expressing the difference between neurotypical girls and those who are not on the autism spectrum. This, to James, indicates that young women with autism are more vulnerable, especially to incidents involving sexual harassment. In one instance, James recalls cleaning up after an after-hours event that took place at her office. At the time, she was 19 and her then boss was in his late 40s. He had come up behind her and said “I think something changed between us tonight.” James stressed that she was so busy contemplating what he meant by ‘something changed’ that she had not noticed her boss was trying to pin her down on the couch. “I didn’t know what to do, so I literally just never went back to the job again. I left my stuff in my desk and never went back,” she said.
Misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis
Throughout her life, James had been misdiagnosed with anxiety disorders (due to her fast heart rate) and eating disorders (due to her forgetfulness to eat). “My parents took me to doctors all the time as a young child, and they diagnosed all sorts of things from digestive problems through to just being spoilt,” said James. Despite her endless diagnoses, she continued to live her life to the fullest. In 2015, she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disorder that affects the connective tissues supporting the skin, bones, blood vessels, and other organs, making the limbs more susceptible to bruising and dislocation. After being admitted to the hospital following her diagnosis, a nurse made a comment to James that she might have autism, after she snapped and had a meltdown (brought on by sensory issues and hunger from fasting for 12 hours). James went on to consult with a psychiatrist who confirmed the diagnosis. “It was amazingly liberating. I felt like I could finally start living as myself rather than trying to pretend to be something else,” she said. Although James’s diagnosis did not alter her relationship with her children, it did alter her relationship with her husband of 20 years, Tim. “In the past, it might have been irritating the way I behaved on the plane or the way I behave when I’m stressed or the sensory issues I have. Now Tim understands why, so he’s much more considerate,” said James.
She sees daily benefits of her diagnosis
In describing her emotions throughout her book, James writes that she sees a vast difference between good and bad feelings. For her, the good feelings came in pretty colors and felt soft and gentle, whereas the bad colors came in shades of green and felt sharp and pointy. Although autism does present its challenges, as seen throughout her written examples and recollections, James acknowledges its benefits as well, including her ability to spot trends and patterns, as well as her ability to hyperfocus and to finish a task in a quicker and more effective manner.
The Autism Professionals Award
In early March of this year, James won the National Autistic Society’s Autism Professionals Award in recognition for her advocacy work among the autism community. She has helped to shine a light on undiagnosed and misdiagnosed cases of autism, especially in women. Previous findings have merely focused on men with autism; however, James stresses that women with autism express different patterns of behavior – which are necessary to understand and address. Yet despite the female and male roles, misconceptions regarding autism are often seen among society. The biggest misconception is that autistic individuals do not feel empathy, which James argues to be completely untrue. “Many autistic people say they feel it too strongly. Others say they feel it, but need to respond with a practical solution, which can come across as being a bit cold,” she said.
Since her autobiography Odd Girl Out hit the bookshelves, James has been flooded with supportive messages from women with autism and their families from all over the globe. Her main objective was to move away from the stereotypes of autistic individuals and she did just that, showing that greater understanding and acceptance can prevail in the face of differences.
“Finally, I belong somewhere.”
Until she was diagnosed with autism, James had spent her entire life feeling different, plagued by feelings of inadequacy, shame, and fear. She is now learning to take care of herself as an autistic individual, rather than trying to pass herself off as something she is not – neurotypical. “My diagnosis was a vindication: I am not defective. I am autistic. Along with the shock, came a strange sense of comfort. Finally, I belong somewhere - and that somewhere is on the autism spectrum,” she said.