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How I Found Out I Have Autism

Chicago-area woman says her diagnosis at age 54 is a revelation and a fresh start


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Jennifer Taylor in her home in Arlington Heights, IL.
Kevin J. Miyazaki

My name is Jennifer Taylor. I live in the suburbs of Chicago where I’m a corporate communications professional. I have two grown daughters and a husband of 28 years, and this past summer, I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

I’ve always felt different and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in my 30s, but I felt like maybe there was something more going on. Both of my daughters have studied psychology, and the more they talked to me about autism, anxiety and ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), the more I started doing my own research.   

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I had a conversation with my primary care physician, and she said that a lot of women in our age group were undiagnosed or misdiagnosed or have more than one diagnosis. She said she thought it was a great idea for me to go for a neuropsychological evaluation.

What the testing and diagnosis process was like

My first appointment was with a psychologist. She asked why I wanted to be tested, and I explained to her some of the things I felt throughout my life. She got me in for the testing, which was five two-hour sessions over several weeks.

Not to make a pun of it, but it’s a spectrum of tests. In one test, you’re shown faces, and you’re asked how you would describe this person. Happy, sad, angry? In another test, they’ll show you a picture, and after 60 seconds, they take it away and say, “What do you remember seeing in that picture?” You do simple puzzles and writing tasks. It’s interesting and can also be mentally exhausting. You’re also given a lot of self-evaluations to fill out. My husband also filled out an evaluation of me.

The test results were all reviewed by a psychiatrist, and I was again diagnosed with major depressive disorder. I was also diagnosed with anxiety, mostly social anxiety, as well as attention deficits, plural, but not full-on ADHD.

The new diagnoses of anxiety and attention deficits didn’t surprise me, but when she said I was also on the autism spectrum, well, I didn’t have that on my bingo card. Professionals no longer use the term Asperger syndrome. They don’t categorize autism in different little chunks anymore. It’s all one spectrum. But I would qualify for an Asperger’s diagnosis as it used to be described (autism with average or above average intelligence and no language delays).

One of the main reasons I was diagnosed on the spectrum was because I can’t read facial expressions. Like angry or apathetic. They look the same to me. Are you mad at me? Are you just indifferent to me? I can’t tell you. In the testing, I couldn’t pick up on tone of voice either. And I really can’t pick up on social cues.

Why my diagnosis makes sense to me

From a very early age, I did feel different, partly because I was told I was gifted and special. I was reading by the time I was 2 or 3 years old. I skipped kindergarten.

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Kids used to tease me and call me weird. I thought it was because I was part of that gifted group. But as I look back now, I remember some things in a different light. One of my first memories is in Montessori preschool. I was playing Barbies with a friend. And my Barbie was asking her Barbie, “Can I borrow a cup of sugar?” And the teacher says, “OK, kids, it’s time to be quiet.” So my Barbie then lowered her voice and said, “Can I borrow a cup of sugar?” in a whisper. And the teacher came over and said, “I told you to be quiet. No talking.” Then I understood. To this day, I misread things like that all the time.

And then, thinking about middle and high school, when you first want to get to know people on a romantic level, I particularly remember one boy. We exchanged phone numbers. He called me once, and I called him twice, three times, four times, five times. He was always very polite with me. But he never once suggested that we get together or go out. Did I pick up on those social cues? No, not one bit. He wasn’t the first or the last boy that happened with. I was clueless.

How my diagnosis has changed my life

Now that I know what my deficits are, I feel like I’m better prepared to do my job. In the past, I would feel like if I didn’t get something done, that I failed at it. And that would just kind of put me into a tailspin. Now I know there’s this real thing called autism burnout. A big part of that, for me, is masking — I’m pretending like I’m not autistic when I’m around other people. It’s very exhausting. So instead of accepting every single meeting, I might suggest different times so I’m no longer in back-to-back meetings. Psychologically, I just need the time to regroup and to focus on the next thing.

Also, I think now my husband has a better understanding of me. He understands that I don’t always read what his facial expressions mean and that I don’t always understand what he’s saying.

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Since my diagnosis, I no longer think that there’s anything wrong with me. Which is huge. This is just the way my brain is wired. Kids used to call me weird, but I’m not weird.

My advice for other adults who think they might have autism

Many of us in this age group could have been diagnosed with autism as children, had the tools been available back then that we have today. If you feel that there’s something going on with you that you can’t explain, go for testing. If you have good insurance, insurance will pay for it. I felt that there was something more going on with me than just depression. And I was right. So listen to your gut.

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be diagnosed at any age, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But signs of the disorder, recognized or not, typically develop early in life, the institute says. An estimated 5.4 million adults have autism spectrum disorder, according to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although the exact signs and symptoms can vary tremendously from person to person, these are the hallmarks, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) from the American Psychiatric Association:

  • Difficulty with communication and social interaction. For example, someone with autism might misread facial expressions or talk at length about a favorite subject without noticing that others aren’t interested.
  • Restricted or repetitive behaviors. Someone with autism might struggle with changes in routine, habitually repeat certain words and phrases or have unusually intense, focused interests. 
  • Symptoms that affect functioning in school, work and other areas of life. People with autism also can have certain strengths, but they vary greatly from person to person. Some are good at math, art or music or have unusually sharp memories. Some have intellectual disabilities, while others have average or high intelligence.

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