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first person

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Illustration by Rachel Wada

I walked out of the adult autism assessment clinic and all I wanted to do was walk.

It was a gorgeous sunny spring day and, for what seemed like hours, I kept walking – and smiling. It was one of the longest, lightest, brightest, most unexpectedly happy walks of my entire life.

I had just received an official diagnosis, and I was well into my 50s – right at the peak of what seemed like a gorgeous life of a neuro-typical human. I was on the crest of a big career as a corporate CEO and a recognized social entrepreneur. I was decades into a concrete life partnership.

I have always been the opposite of shy, always opinionated and never far from television studios and public-speaking podiums. And suddenly I was labelled: Autistic. Atypical.

I had always known I was very different. I was never diagnosed earlier in life because of when and where I grew up – these things were not discussed or even contemplated. Spectrums of difference didn’t exist. It was only black or white, disabled or capable, marginalized or achiever. I had grown up so close to the top of the autism functionality spectrum that I had always managed to (almost) look, (almost) sound and (almost) behave as if I was on the “normal” side of society’s simplistic divide. The A word had never been mentioned or even contemplated around me, but I knew I was different.

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Growing up, I had always been terrified of how I stood out: My trajectory as a piano child prodigy, giving public performances from an age when I couldn’t even reach the pedals. My parade on national TV as an extreme math-wiz preschooler, able to quickly figure out what day of the week it would be on any date in any year in the distant past or future. My uncontrollably weird words, outspokenness, impatience and gestures. My unbearable anxiety when routines were disrupted. And all those unfathomable expectations around making eye contact. I was so aware of it all and so scared of being so different.

Every minute of every day I tried to look and sound and behave like everyone else but I was always overcompensating and overprocessing. And, with plenty of time and endurance, it kind of worked. “Coping mechanisms” as the experts now call it. I learned to cope – or mask. I stumbled through adolescence, bizarrely sailed through university and then flew wildly through adulthood. I moved across the world, buried my insecurities, earned love, built a good, neuro-typical-looking life and even managed a few tiny brushes with fame.

But my neurons could never be rewired and the triggers were lurking everywhere. In my younger years, I was so often crushed by social and romantic rejection. I was humiliated by job performance reviews that highlighted my incurably rough edges. I was ashamed by my complete lack of nuance whenever I tried to guide employees or pitch clients. And I crumbled each time my wise partner pleaded with me about all my missing communication filters.

Time is the ultimate confidence healer. Year by year, as I grew older and as the world around me grew more aware of the spectrum of neurodiversity, my paranoia subsided and my irreverence blossomed. Little by little, the things I was seeing or saying so differently, my weird ideas and my missing filters started to feel more like fascinating differentiators or even competitive edges, instead of handicaps.

And then came the giant moment of unofficial clarity, when I was asked to help guide my autistic little brother through his incredibly overdue diagnosis as a middle-aged adult. Everything I read and everything he learned through that process seemed to describe not just him, but both of us. Suddenly our differences as autistic siblings made the notion of a spectrum seem so clear and obvious, while our startling similarities made more sense than ever.

For a whole decade after that, I was an unofficially declared autistic person. Not because I was avoiding a formal diagnosis or because I had any doubt. There was no doubt left. It was all so obvious and, as I began to use the label more and more boldly, nobody seemed surprised. I made so much more sense to the world around me as a neurodiverse human than I ever had before. Since I finally understood with so much more confidence who I was, I didn’t bother with an official confirmation.

But a book deal changed all that. The publisher wouldn’t allow the word “autistic” to appear on the cover of my memoir without an official expert diagnosis. That’s how I ended up in an adult autism assessment clinic on a gorgeous sunny spring day a few years ago. And that’s how – unexpectedly – I experienced real freedom. For the first time in my life, as I walked and walked and smiled for hours that afternoon, I felt truly free.

So, yes, I’ve always known I was different. But acquiring the label and learning exactly how and why I’m different was essential, empowering and liberating.

We’re all different. We’re all misfits. And nothing gives us better wings in life than understanding how we fit in the world.

Andreas Souvaliotis lives in Toronto.

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