Perspective on an Undiagnosed Childhood: Autism Isn’t Stereotypes

It’s Autism Acceptance Month! To learn more about what that is, exactly, please see my intro post from this year and this post from last year.

Today we have a very special post from my friend, Vanessa Matelski! Vanessa draws chronic illness comics as PotsieSpoons. She uses the comics to show various aspects of her life. Vanessa is also autistic, and I wanted her to provide her perspective on autism and how it impacted her before diagnosis. I hope you enjoy reading this post as much as I did! Please check out both her website and Instagram!

Vanessa, PotsieSpoons

All of the images in this article were created by Vanessa! Make sure you follow her on Instagram (@potsiespoons) to see all of her fantastic illustrations and comics!

I realized at a young age that I was, as the kids might say, “a weirdo.” I was painfully shy, preferred books to people, and was never exactly sure what to do with my hands. (They were always cold, and I had a tendency to clasp them tight in front of me—nun fashion, as other kids pointed out—or hide them in my pockets.) I loved rules and order and craved unchanging plans. The social aspect of any gathering, whether it be free-time at summer camp or lunch during high school, was my least favorite part of anything.


Because for some reason that I couldn’t quite figure out, I just didn’t fit in.

Unsurprisingly, this caused a lot of anxiety for tiny-me. I wondered why the other kids didn’t like me—if I was broken or missing some innate knowledge everyone else seemed to possess. I was often alone—and often lonely. It wasn’t until I was about 19 or 20 that a few key life events happened to help me realize there was nothing wrong with me. I was weird and different and awkward and sensitive—and that was okay. I was going to start liking me for me. I was going to allow myself to really enjoy things without feeling self-conscious about it. Well…without feeling too self-conscious about it. I was going to embrace the parts of me that seemed odd to others—I was going to be me, and I was going to have fun with it.

Obviously that’s easier said than done, but over time I did develop more confidence. Not because my weirdness magically went away, but because I consciously chose not to care what people thought about my weirdness. Some days I achieved this easier than others—some days the doubt and self-consciousness took hold again—but for the most part, I grew to like the weird little nerd that I am.

Fast forward a few years—I was scrolling aimlessly through Tumblr when I came across a post about autism from one of the blogs I followed. I don’t remember what it said—but there was some element to it that intrigued me, maybe some hint of familiarity, and I began to research autism. I read articles about it—particularly about how it presents in girls—and found personal stories from autistic women, many of whom were not diagnosed until adulthood.

And the more I read, the more I saw pieces of myself laid out on those digital pages.

I told my mom about some of what I read. I shared with her the interesting facts I found, but I held back the fact that it felt so much like me. I did a lot of research before I finally worked up the nerve to properly utter the words, “I think I might be autistic.” And when I did, she looked at me, face scrunched up in an expression I read as confused shock. “No, you’re not,” she said. She only knew the stereotypes—and I didn’t fit those. I’m not a science or math person, I love words and writing, I’m (sometimes overly) emotional, and I’ve never been obsessed with inanimate objects.

But autism doesn’t look just one way. For many girls, autism looks like an active imagination and countless created worlds. It looks like fixations on people—celebrities or characters—rather than things. And, for anyone on the spectrum, it looks like outbursts of emotion, often over things others would consider inconsequential.

And looking back at tiny-me—my need for structure and rules, my inability to make friends and keep them, even the fact that I was always, always, always on the swings at recess—I can see autism all over the place. Now that she’s learned more, so can my mom.

But when I was a kid, girls didn’t have autism. Autism was a boy thing. That’s what people thought, anyway. In reality, girls didn’t present with the same symptoms, so their diagnoses were missed—creating a generation of women who grew up wondering what was wrong with them.

Even though this revelation—I am autistic—has explained so much, I’m still nervous to say the words aloud. It took me weeks, maybe months, to say them to the people closest to me—branching out beyond that has been, admittedly, terrifying.

And it shouldn’t be.

But it is.

I admit that I am afraid of the way people will react—whether it is disbelief or assuming it means all the stereotypes associated with autism, rather than getting to know how it affects me personally. Autism isn’t its stereotypes—it’s unique and varied and different for each individual. There are some overlapping and common characteristics, but even these may not happen with the same frequency or severity from person to person. There is a world of variety within the autism spectrum, and every individual deserves the chance to explain how autism affects them without being put in a box.

I am autistic. I need structure and I tend to panic if my routine is suddenly altered. I do not handle any changes in plans well, and I am not spontaneous. I don’t like lots of noise and have difficulty focusing on conversations in crowded or loud environments—and I notice every smell, everywhere, all the time. I tap my toes a lot, but with small enough movements that no one notices. I find activities like origami or building a small Lego set to be incredibly relaxing, and I am almost always listening to music—sometimes the same song over and over again. I like most foods, though the texture of shrimp kind of weirds me out. I can focus on a single task for hours, which means sometimes I forget to eat, but I always enjoy whatever it is I’m doing. My favorite jokes are the terrible ones, I create worlds inside my head, and the characters nearest and dearest to my heart are the awkward kids. I love to laugh, but I cry a lot, and I’m okay with that. I like who I am and I appreciate the things that make me weird—and I hope to help little girls appreciate their own weirdness, too.

I am autistic.

And I think it’s pretty awesome.

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