I’ve been a teacher throughout most of my adult life. I’m dual certified with 17 years of experience as an elementary teacher and 15 years (and counting) as a high school Culinary Arts chef instructor. I have an Associate’s degree in Culinary Arts, a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education, and a Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction. I turned 61 last October.
Although my parents knew that I was different as a child, I grew up in a very conservative family. My father was a doctor in the U.S. military service, and during the 60’s the thought of taking one’s child to see a psychiatrist just wasn’t done. As a result of this attitude, my parents decided early on that they would be especially firm with me.
Whenever I violently shook my head or flapped my hands (which I now understand to be forms of stimming), my parents would tell me to stop. If I didn’t stop, my father would either pull off his belt or my mom would fetch her yardstick. They would then beat me until I stopped.
Back then they referred to this as “tough parenting.” Today this would be called “child abuse.”
As a toddler, I am told that I had a problem with walking. Whenever I walked, I did so “pigeon toed” with my toes turned inwards. My father’s solution was to put leg braces on me that forced my feet into a “normal” position. Although this corrected my pigeon-toed stance, it had the unfortunate effect of delaying my physical development. I didn’t learn how to run until I was 9, and as you might imagine, I was always the last person chosen to be on any team whenever I was in PE.
Since I had reclusive tendencies, my parents forced me to participate in play dates as a toddler. When I was older, they made me join the cub scouts and later the boy scouts. They made me take horseback riding lessons. My father also taught me to swim first by throwing me in the deep end of a pool and pulling me above the water when I started to drown.
“HOLD YOUR BREATH!” he ordered before releasing my head.
When I opened my mouth to scream and swallowed a mouthful of water, my father grabbed me by my hair and again pulled me above the surface of the pool.
“DO YOU WANT TO DROWN?” he shouted. “HOLD YOUR BREATH!”
I held my breath and managed to survive the first lesson. My parents subsequently enrolled me in swimming lessons through the Red Cross. After I learned how to swim, they also signed me up for junior lifeguard training.
During one particularly stressful summer after I completed 4th grade, my mother made me sign up for a gymnastics/dance class. All of the other students were girls in pink leotards. I’m fortunate that the instructor allowed me to wear shorts and a t-shirt. I was doubly fortunate that, in time, I was able to get my father to side with me so that I could drop this class. The instructor was disappointed because we had been scheduled to perform a scene from Swan Lake. To this day, the sight of anyone in leotards or tutus makes me shudder.
Although I did not enjoy being forced to socialize, these experiences taught me how to interact with others, how to listen, how to follow the rules, and how to take turns. I essentially learned how to mask. To this day, I’ve retained the ability to “pass” as a neurotypical, even though the process of doing so continues to be incredibly stressful.
I didn’t suspect that I was autistic until I was 54. By this time, I had ended my elementary teaching career, had pursued a degree in Culinary Arts, had worked in the food service industry, and had been teaching Culinary Arts for several years.
During my 7th year as a Culinary Arts instructor, I was told that I would be receiving a new student. Since he was in special education, I was given a copy of his IEP (individual education plan). According to the student’s IEP, he was autistic. I had no idea what autism was and googled it.
One site offered a list of symptoms.
- Difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling
- Trouble interpreting facial expressions, body language, or social cues
- Difficulty regulating emotion
- Trouble keeping up a conversation
- Inflection that does not reflect feelings
- Difficulty maintaining the natural give-and-take of a conversation; prone to monologues on a favorite subject
- Tendency to engage in repetitive or routine behaviors
- Only participates in a restricted range of activities
- Strict consistency to daily routines; outbursts when changes occur
- Exhibiting strong, special interests
My eyebrows rose. I found myself identifying with every single bulleted point.
In reading on, I found a link for a self-identification test. I took the test, and the site suggested that there was a strong likelihood that I was autistic. The site encouraged me to seek a clinical diagnosis.
It took a year for me to find anyone who would evaluate me. There were several problems. My insurance company wouldn’t cover the cost of a diagnosis because they said that this was a preexisting condition. I had by this point been a teacher for 24 years. The insurance company suggested that I didn’t have a compelling need for a diagnosis. If I wanted to pursue this, I would have to pay for a clinical evaluation out of pocket.
The other problem was that I couldn’t find anyone who would work with me. Most clinical diagnosticians who specialize in autism prefer to work with children. Since adults have presumably learned to compensate for their differences, it can be more challenging for a psychologist to identify autism in adults.
I was 55 before I found a clinical psychologist. My evaluation cost $1,100 and took nearly 8 hours to complete.
“I’m a bit behind in my paperwork,” apologized the diagnostician after the series of tests and interviews had been completed. “I will have your written evaluation completed within two months.”
When I begged the psychologist to at least tell me whether or not I was on the spectrum, she nodded. “Oh yes, you’re definitely on the high performing* spectrum.”
*Editor’s note: please note that the words, “high performing,” are not the language of the author. Functioning labels are offensive to most autistic people and inaccurate descriptions of autistic existence.
As you might imagine, I had a long series of ah-hah moments after learning that I was autistic. My life flashed before my eyes, and I could see how autism had influenced a wide number of social and career decisions.
I immediately undertook plans to reduce the amount of stress in my life. I transferred within my school district from a large suburban school with over 3,000 students to a small rural school with just 300 students. My class sizes dropped from a high of 54 to just 21 in my largest class and only 7 in my smallest.
I used the transfer to end my only friendship. Since I have reclusive tendencies, I gave myself permission to not make any new friends and to stop dating. Since developing and maintaining friendships has always been stressful for me, not having to socialize outside of work has been a huge relief.
As an added benefit, the depression that I had sometimes felt over my inability to “fit in” went pfftt. Now that I knew why I was the way I was, there was no logical reason for me to feel depressed. I have now been depression-free for six years.
I told my new principal that I was autistic and filed a copy of my diagnosis with my district’s office of compliance and accommodations. Since autism is a recognized disability, my principal implemented workplace accommodations that include the following:
- I am excused from attending pep rallies and assemblies
- I am not expected to chaperone proms or to attend home games
- I am allowed to virtually attend large meetings instead of being made to attend these meetings in-person. (Although everyone now does this due to our on-going pandemic, being able to do this before the pandemic began was a HUGE relief.)
My life is now quite simple. I have home, and I have work. Although I am friendly with several colleagues, I prefer to keep to myself when I’m on my own time.
This is not to say that I am completely alone. At home I have four cats, and even though I don’t like being touched (let alone hugged) by people, I don’t mind having my cats curl on my lap, lie on my chest, or throw their paws over one shoulder in feline “hugs.”
Despite my ability to mask, I will never be “normal.” I will never belong to a loving family. I will never know a woman’s love. While there are people on the spectrum who aspire to a life of normalcy, to have friends, and to have a significant other, I am not one of these people. I am at peace when I’m at home and now that I know that I’m on the spectrum, I’m perfectly okay with who I am.
I have a good life. I am respected within my field of study. I believe that I’m making a positive difference in the lives of my students. Life could be so much worse.
The time that I used to spend with friends or dating is now devoted to my hobbies. I’m working on a fantasy novel that features an autistic protagonist. I enjoy puttering around my kitchen and testing or creating new recipes for use in my classes. I also enjoy making candles that look and smell like real food.
- Life with Autism, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Cats - January 10, 2022
- How to Deal with Workplace Bullying - December 18, 2021
- How I Came to be Diagnosed with Autism at 55 Years of Age - December 12, 2021