5:59First person: What Jennifer Burgess’ late-stage autism diagnosis taught her
This first person article was written by Jennifer Burgess from Calgary. For more information on CBC First Person Stories, please see our FAQ.
I sat on my bed with my cell phone pressed to my ear and was on the phone with Dr. S for over 3 hours. It was his second multi-hour session in many weeks.
Finally he broke the news. “I give you a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
“Oh, nice! Thank you!” I replied, hoping it was reasonably normal way of responding. I wanted him to know that I appreciated the time he spent with me and that I was functioning well enough to respond appropriately to such news.
But I felt nothing inside. This news really wasn’t news. At 59, I already knew a lot about myself. I knew this diagnosis could be strong.
But then Dr. S said something else. “You have to know that you have never lived a life of failure. You have lived a life of challenges.”
With those two words, he changed my life.
More and more adults are being evaluated in later years. Now, as one of them, I look back on my childhood and begin to associate many difficult experiences with being autistic. He didn’t feel like he had a fundamental problem with himself as a human being.
For example, when I was five years old, Brent, who lived next door and was my age, invited me to see his rock collection. He showed me various samples and gave me the place names for them, so I pocketed a few when I thought he hadn’t seen them.
I knew stealing was bad, but my mind didn’t associate it with stealing. Shiny and beautiful, I just liked them.
His dad stopped me at the door, grabbed me by the shoulders, poked all my pockets, then reprimanded me and sent me on my way in shame.
When I was in elementary school, I used to walk a lot with my friend Carol. We used to play outside together on weekends. I knocked on her front door and walked her through the door while she got ready, while she put on her socks, into her bedroom, and all the way to the back door where she kept her coat. I followed her around the house.
“Don’t follow me!” she said indignantly. Her mother kindly called out, “Please wait at her door while Carol gets ready.”
But I didn’t realize this was a social norm — that guests should wait at the front door until invited. You don’t want to go to school anymore and you don’t want to play with me.
In the Brownies, at a mother-daughter tea party, she would hide next to the leader of the Brownies and keep chatting, entertaining funny stories until her mother said, “The leader doesn’t want to hear it.” You don’t have to pretend to be a clown to be liked. ”
As a kid, the rules weren’t intuitive for me, so I started making my own rulebooks. Do not take what is not yours. Stay at the door unless invited. Know what other people expect of you and do it.
Even as an adult, relationships didn’t work because I didn’t understand when I was being used or disrespected. I was let go of a job I loved and an organization I was fiercely loyal to because my personality didn’t fit. At work, I was overly angry with myself for small mistakes that no one else noticed, freezed with worry, and didn’t show proper concern about mistakes my boss cared about.
But then I met my husband. He is neurodivergent, so he approaches the world in his own unique way. It was like being an alien wandering the earth and meeting another alien.
we were comrades. Talking to someone without constantly monitoring my own correctness restored my sense of self-esteem.
I started accepting myself. But it wasn’t until Dr. S made the diagnosis that the complete puzzle came to light.
I felt a tingle in my stomach when he spoke those words to me about living a life of challenges instead of failures.
Being autistic, I have faced, survived and overcome many challenges. i thought i was broken. Now I know I am different. I finally know in my heart that I am not living a life of failure.
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