Content note: I am telling my story. Part of my story is how I could have died. If this scares you, please feel free to skip that part, and also know that I am alive enough to write this now.
I remember returning to my hometown, after years spent away.
My parents had relocated me as a teenage girl. I had been taken away from my lush Midwestern home, to an arid brown desert with strange skeletal trees and hostile plants.
I stared out the car window at the alien atmosphere, feeling deeply alone.
I didn’t know where things were. I didn’t know how things worked. Gone were the days of biking idly through the neighborhood, of knowing the names of streets and plants. I retreated to my bedroom, an unfamiliar cavelike space filled with familiar things, and studied.
I knew I didn’t truly belong. And I doubted I ever would.
We returned to the Midwest in the summer, to a familiar place, only to visit. The, the feelings of that, they… well, they’re hard to explain. But I will try.
What is it like to come home?
Coming home is…
Coming home is turning a corner and seeing that you know everything. You see a stop sign, and you remember the time it fell over and you tried to pick it up only to discover just how heavy stop signs are. You pass a house, and you know the people who live there, and their cat and two dogs and how they will talk and talk and let you walk their cat if you ask nicely. Coming home is your feet running down a sidewalk where you know every single crack, know the area that your dad repaired while you watched him mix concrete slush, know which parts turn into a stream when the rain comes down and down and down…
Coming home is throwing back your head in a laugh, and other people saying “Why are you running? Why are you laughing?” but you can’t explain and it doesn’t matter, because you are home now and this is what counts. You are home. Home is you.
I was very sick a few months before my autism diagnosis at age 18. So sick I could barely leave the dorm. Dying. I knew it, and I was scared. “It could happen any day now,” I told myself. Strange things were happening to me, things I didn’t understand. Like aching all over and gasping for air and not eating. People asked how I was, and I did not wish to scare them, so I said “still alive,” and they laughed. They didn’t know that it was not a joke.
I was told to go to campus counseling services, so I did. The doctor there told me that I had to leave school immediately and go home, so I did. I didn’t want to die. The stress of school was killing me. It made enough sense.
One of the inexplicable-things-happening-to-me was that sounds hurt now more than ever. So I looked it up, and discovered Sensory Processing Disorder. It was a neat label, one that explained things. I mentioned it to the doctor in the hopes that she would tell me how to treat it.
“Have you ever considered that you might have Asperger syndrome?” she said.
I laughed. That was impossible, I told her, because I had empathy. I care about other people. I knew a boy with Asperger syndrome in middle school and he was nothing like me. So that was ridiculous and not worth considering at all.
But later, as I sat in front of my computer, wondering whether the medication to save my life was going to work, I asked myself why the doctor would suggest such a silly thing. So I went to Tumblr. And I searched Asperger syndrome.
At first I was hesitant. It sounded a little like me. Kind of. But, I mean, I was just a quirky person.
And then I read more.
And suddenly I was transported home.
I came home to a place I never knew I belonged. These people, they had never met me, yet they knew things about me that I didn’t know about myself. Everything that was different about me. All my secret struggles. The things I had tried to hide. I turned the corner and I was looking at myself, my real self, for the first time. And I could only stare in awe.
“Why are you so excited about this?” the people said. “Why are you so attached to a diagnosis? Why would you want to have a disorder?”
They didn’t understand why I celebrated. But I still celebrated. I was seeing me. I was finding answers to questions I had never managed to ask. I was belonging somewhere, at last, after 18 years in a foreign land.
Autism is not a physical place. There is no town full of autistics, no town built specifically with neurodivergent design. Autism is a place of knowing, a place of understanding, a place of setting yourself free from the “shoulds” and the “failings,” a place of meeting yourself and finding peace.
I found autism. Autism is home. Inside me, all along, waiting to be discovered. Waiting for me to find where I belong.
As I sought a formal diagnosis, people gave me this look, this look of “why do you care so much about this, about identifying with something we think is so bad?”
Perhaps they could have said, “Congratulations.”
Perhaps they could have said, “You don’t need to be lost anymore.”
Perhaps they could have said, “I hope this helps you find peace.”
Writing about my own feelings can be hard. Fiction comes to me with greater ease. But I hope that maybe this might make some sense. And maybe, you might understand why diagnosis is not necessarily so bad after all.