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As a woman, I was written off as lazy and disorganized. My unexpected diagnosis? Autism.

Difficulty adapting to daily life is not a symptom often factored into the diagnostic process for autism. It should be.

Rushing off the subway platform, I race through the crowded streets to try to make lunch with my friend.

I’ve canceled on her twice this week, something she isn’t exactly thrilled about. As I cross an intersection, my foot catches the curb and I tumble to the ground, my phone smashing into the busy street.

Grabbing it quickly, my daily reminders flash through the cracked screen  — wash dishes, clean room, buy tampons, email manager. I groan, remembering that I was supposed to do all of these things before lunch. I start to panic, contemplating how I will squeeze them into my schedule now.


Overwhelmed by the thought of having to sit down and socialize while feeling on edge, I call my friend to cancel. She digs into me for being inconsiderate. I head home, filled with shame. But instead of beginning my tasks, I push the clothes on my bed aside, turn off my phone, and crawl under the covers. I don’t resurface until the next day.

My inability to properly plan ahead and complete daily tasks has stunted my personal growth and well-being since I moved away from home seven years ago.

I live in a constant state of disorder, expressed through missed appointments, forgotten text messages, and errands and assignments that take twice as long than my peers to complete. My poor organizational and cleaning skills have fractured my relationships, prevented me from thriving in jobs, and, in the process, destroyed my self-worth.

I reached out for help multiple times, relaying to various therapists my struggles with organization and cleanliness. Not one specialist connected the dots. They viewed disorganization and forgetfulness as easily amendable and never searched for the source of my struggles.

Defeated, I lamented my woes to a friend one afternoon. When I mentioned that I obsessively ruminate  —  something I rarely admit to anyone  —  a light went on.

"Has anyone ever suggested autism?" she asked.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that’s thought to be primarily expressed through differences in socializing, communicating, and repetitive behavior. Lesser known are its effects on executive functioning (EF)  — the transit map in our brains that tells us how to plan and organize, keep track of time, and remember information in the moment.

Teachers and therapists don’t equate difficulty accomplishing daily living tasks with ASD. Continually showing up late doesn’t raise a flag like, say, lack of eye contact readily does.

New research, however, is shedding more light on how EF affects autistic people, especially those socialized as girls.

It’s presumed that autistic girls adapt better in life since many display stronger social skills. But a five-year study published this year in Autism Research unveiled a different layer  —  autistic girls are struggling in their ability to function in daily life, perhaps even more than their male counterparts. They just struggle with different skills.

My therapist was stunned when I broached the topic of autism. She hesitantly said, "But you don’t seem atypical." Like so many people, she believed autism manifests through missed social cues or lack of eye contact, neither of which I possess. My disarray doesn’t fit the mold, and so it was never seen as a neurodiverse trait.

The study looked at children and adolescents, which left me wondering  —  what about adult women? Are there women who pass socially but have difficulties navigating the pressures of daily life?

I posted the question online, and a flood of responses came in within minutes. Sue is professionally and socially successful, but struggles to remember appointments, manage money, and clean her room. Gregarious and emphatic, she didn’t see herself as autistic. But as she learned more about the different ways it can affect women, she realized that ASD fit her perfectly. She was diagnosed a decade later.

Melissa, a 32-year-old working mother, struggled to keep on top of daily tasks when she lived alone in her 20s. Trash and dirty clothes piled up in her apartment. She now leans on her husband, who does the cooking and cleaning and checks that her clothes are on correctly before work.

She has a master’s degree and a successful career, yet despite her accomplishments, she struggles with poor self-worth as a consequence of her differences in organization. "Most people see me as lazy and gross," she says.

Different executive abilities particularly hurt those socialized as women.

"Women are expected to just pick up daily skills naturally. You’re tainted as a moral failure if you can’t get organized," says Becker.

Bre from Oklahoma echoes this: "I compare myself a lot to other women. I am frequently disorganized and forget stuff  —  it’s been a lifelong struggle."

Melissa was misdiagnosed twice growing up, and it wasn’t until four years ago that a psychiatrist finally recognized ASD in her. Since discovering she’s autistic, she’s started to accept herself  —  but it has understandably been a long road. It’s easy for undiagnosed people to compare themselves to allistic (non-autistic) people, and it’s easy for allistic people to judge differences harshly if they don’t recognize a disability.

Every time I look at my messy room, I am reminded of this disheartening fact: So long as my friends, family, and therapists recognize me as allistic, my executive differences will always be interpreted as a personal failure.

At 25, I finally received my overdue diagnosis.

It hasn’t waved a magic wand over my messy room but, at least now, I understand why I struggle with organization, cleanliness, and short-term memory.

Still, while my diagnosis has helped me understand and accept myself, it hasn’t improved my relationships. When my differences surface  —  when I accidentally wear my shirt backwards, or bleed through my tampon, or tell my friends to meet at the wrong bar  —  my friends display an eye-roll, a sigh of exasperation, an embarrassed look away, a patronizing laugh, or pure anger.

Support, not criticism, after a diagnosis can help an autistic person learn how to accommodate their differences.

Recognizing areas of strain  —  that maybe those wont’s are indeed cant’s  —  they can try different methods, such as finding a routine that does work. They may also learn to accept, for instance, that maybe both cleaning and cooking are not possible in one day, as each depletes so much energy.

I am happy that, today, I have a better sense of who I am. My hope is that, eventually, we will live in a world that recognizes who I am, too.

Author’s note: To promote acceptance, I refer to myself as an autistic person instead of a person with autism because it is a central part of my identity. The people I featured identify as autistic as well. Additionally, some autistic people do not see their executive differences as a disability  —  and that is valid. My goal with this article is not to confirm or oppose that, but show how difficult it is to live in a world that doesn’t recognize EF differences.

This story first appeared at The Establishment, a platform dedicated to amplifying marginalized voices, and is reprinted here with permission. Support The Establishment's work by becoming a member here.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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