Late Diagnosis: School Years
I began suspecting something was different about me late last year, at 32 years old.
It must sound funny to other people, that you just kind of “suspect” something is “different”. Like, even I get that it doesn’t exactly resonate out of the context of Autism. But this distinction is important—because up until that point, I had felt that something was just plain wrong.
In reality, the clues are there right in front of us, like road signs. With my Autism diagnosis early this year, I felt like I was able to look back at my life through a new pair of eyes. Things have explanations that make sense. There are patterns in my behaviors that directly match up with the social frustrations I experienced, and the pain I experienced when I felt misunderstood or unable to understand others.
I want to walk through some of the highlights of my academic struggles, and how I was able to see them differently with a diagnosis.
This topic is very near and dear to me, and it informed much of my career decision-making in terms of helping others who face similar challenges. I’ve carried education and the need for custom tailoring into web development, where I teach people complex skills while providing critical context by which to understand the topics they’ll learn.
I’ve always been a whiz with computers, and super passionate about video games. I had a major ear for music, and began playing musical instruments around 4th grade, going on to pursue most of the single-reed woodwind section.
As a young, biracial, really tomboyish and awkward girl, this obviously created problems for me in the friends department. But it set a solid foundation for a future in web development, with a concentration in e-Learning and games—a career I feel fits me like a glove, and embraces all of my greatest passions.
And it was cute and awkward as a kid. “Perhaps she’ll grow out of it,” I often heard said about me when others thought I wasn’t listening. But clearly, the cumulative effects of being “different” culminated in a difficult adulthood. All because nobody ever took the time to look closer and figure out what was really going on.
Some context of my background, before I get into details: I was raised by my mother’s parents, after difficulties arose with my mother and her ability to care for me. She was still very much in the picture, but my grandfather was able to ensure I had everything I needed. And that he did. My grandmother passed away in January 2017, and I currently care for my grandfather at 86 years old.
I often joke that I peaked in life somewhere between 5–8 years old, when I was kind of “recruited” and evaluated by the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. My grandfather had brought me there as a recommendation of a school guidance counselor, who had brought to his attention that my language and mathematical skills were through the roof.
At 7 years old, I took the SATs. I think my scores were shitty, but I mean, I was 7. Who the hell is taking the SATs at that age? I guess they wanted to create a baseline, and mine was pretty decent. Looking back, I hated standardized testing, and I remember nearly breaking my pencil from the stress of being timed while having to recall information.
Despite these indicators of my giftedness, which my grandfather was quite proud of, I was still set for a life without a diagnosis. There was so much focus put on my academic prowess, that they never thought to consider the root cause of it.
Somewhere around 5th grade, when standardized testing and teaching for these tests became the norm, I became incredibly anxious. Classrooms weren’t a comfortable place for me, because I was constantly aware of my classmates. I often wasn’t prepared and had to scramble to pull myself together. Early report cards I recently found carried kind-but-concerned hand-written notes like:
“Nicole is doing very well. At times, she has a hard time organizing everything she has to do. She puts a lot of pressure on herself.”
“Nicole wants to please.”
I remember crying on many occasions when having to be spoken to by a teacher for not being prepared with my classwork. I felt that I had let them down, and myself down… and I didn’t understand why it was often so hard just to get things done.
I wasn’t exactly picked on for being smart. I think I was more overlooked. Because I didn’t really know how to socialize with the other “smart kids”, I wasn’t friends with them.
So, I was smart… and largely alone. Some good that does an already-lonely kid.
Escaping reality… with boys
Throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, I played online roleplaying games. Or, I should say, I was addicted to them.
It was there I was able to build a persona based on who I felt I was. Or at least, who I felt I was at the time. This is important to note, because looking back, I was picking up all of my identities from others in a nearly copy-cat way.
My characters were often portrayed as “promiscuous”, because I was kind of learning about sexuality via the internet. So, it was like practice. Practice that made me extremely vulnerable to child predators—a fact that makes me cringe now.
Being raised by grandparents, two generations removed, as an Autistic girl, was basically a recipe for disaster. I had to learn these things somewhere, and I put myself in a lot of potentially dangerous situations just trying to learn about the world around me.
Escaping into these characters offered me the only solace I had from the extreme discomfort of growing up as an Autistic girl. And oh man, did it get in the way of my education. Obviously, I’d far prefer to play games for hours on end after school than do my homework. My grades saw the effects, so I had to put the extra-crunch effort in rather than just manage my impulses and not play as often. All of this stress adds up.
I’m pretty sure my mom went through the same challenges, because she always seemed to be getting in trouble, too. I didn’t even understand what I had done wrong when I was in trouble. It was like I didn’t see the risks associated with anything. All that kept me from doing something was what others thought. If I thought it would benefit me, I would do it.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had had two boyfriends. They were nice gentlemen, because I seemed to be particularly attracted to nerdy white boys who didn’t have much of a “bad” streak to them.
I wasn’t quite sure how to act with boys. I watched other girls, and observed what they did. By the end of my senior year, I felt like Tracey (Chewing Gum), desperate to lose my virginity and just move on with my sex life. I thought I was pretty healthy in terms of my approach to sex and relationships, but looking back, it’s terrifying to think of what might have happened if those boyfriends weren’t so kind and compassionate.
Because, it wasn’t until much later that I realized exactly how susceptible I was to emotional manipulation and abuse. And I never even saw it while it was happening—someone had to literally tell me, “You are being taken advantage of.” And then that prospect made me blind with rage, and I had to hit back even harder to avenge my dignity.
Boys would go on to distract me throughout college and my adult life, as I tried to navigate these relationships where I had no compass whatsoever for what the other person was experiencing. I was empathetic, but it was like I couldn’t express that empathy in a comforting way.
Wherever you go, that’s where you’re at
After graduating high school, I went on to Wellesley College. And things got exponentially more difficult for me. The school had a saying, “Wellesley doesn’t make mistakes with our admission decisions.” I was quite sure they had, or that I was only there because of my un-cool but interesting story of being raised by my grandparents as a mixed-race girl.
As I had crawled across the high school finish line, I didn’t even feel like I had any preparation whatsoever for college life. Unlimited food gave me a chance to eat my feelings at every opportunity. No supervision as I’d had at home opened doors for non-ideal decisions, like playing games when I should be studying.
I failed my first-ever course my freshman year: Calculus. I was stressed as hell, exhausted, and unsure what anyone even wanted from me. I took it again, because I felt like I couldn’t give up—then just dropped it altogether. I found out later that I hadn’t even needed it for my Computer Science major, and could have subbed something a little easier. I just decided that I wasn’t smart enough.
My entire freshman year, I struggled through the Computer Science major curriculum. When I finally closed out the year, I hadn’t done very well. I badly wanted this to work.
I watched one of my close friends at Wellesley try to be humble in her aptitude with the same work we were doing, where I was clearly not doing so hot. Rather than feeling that my more adept peers were who I needed to be befriending and working with… I isolated. This began a more than decade-long habit of surrounding myself with people than whom I could feel more intelligent.
My sophomore year, I faced one of the courses that I’ve since realized was designed to be a weed-out course: Data Structures. The classes were long, I didn’t identify with the professor at all… and quite frankly, they didn’t seem to really care about me, either. I was struggling, and there were other students who weren’t—ones with greater promise—who deserved their attention more than I did. A lot of this was just projected onto myself, and I came to believe it.
By the time my grades warranted a discussion, I was unsure what to do. I was so good with computers—what happened?
My professor suggested that it was possible Computer Science just wasn’t a “good fit” for me, but it was ultimately my decision. And although this may seem like a kind and gentle way to say “you’re not doing well here, look into something else if you don’t want to keep struggling”, it was actually incredibly harmful.
I wasn’t even really considering that the issue wasn’t so much with my computer aptitude was learning logical and programmatic thinking. It was a new perspective, and people with Autism often have difficulty seeing new perspectives. Now, I can get there, but it takes a lot of time and the right resources until something clicks. Then? I was screwed.
I was 18 years old, and STILL, nobody seemed to see what was right in front of them. I certainly couldn’t see it, so I was relying on anyone else to suggest that maybe my struggles were for some reason other than just a lack of skill, ability to organize myself, or academic confidence.
I switched to a Political Science major, which wasn’t much better at times, but at least I could learn a bit about how people worked in the process instead of just computers. I learned about the roots of power, political thought and theory… and probably a bunch of other shit I don’t remember.
Because anxiety set in eventually. And wherever you go, that’s where you’re at… the major doesn’t make a difference.
After my sophomore year, I had eaten up my AP credits with the Calculus debacle, so I had to take a summer school course. I decided on geology. The pace of the course was really relaxed, because there weren’t as many students. I did really well, and I still remember a lot of what I learned. Rocks, man. Who knew they were so interesting?
Change your approach, change your results
I went abroad my junior year, to Córdoba, Spain. It was an incredible experience, but while I was there, my mom was getting into a lot of trouble with her own addiction. It stressed me out from across the Atlantic, and I’m really fortunate I made it back overseas without a body transport with the amount of time I spent in bars with strange people, drinking my depression even further down the hole.
Alcohol and the social anxieties of Autism are a funny thing. A lot of Autistic people never develop substance abuse issues. However, I’ve noticed that the ones that do tend to be women, and they are secretively covering up their deep insecurities about socializing.
When I drank, I felt 6 feet tall, skinny, and blonde. I wasn’t myself anymore, and that was ok, because myself seemed to suck anyway. She wasn’t confident, happy, or anything I wanted her to be. But of course, alcohol comes with costs, and I definitely experienced them.
Still, my studies there seemed to be better because of the differences in pedagogy and class structure. My (super-hot) professor was encouraging, and my fellow Spanish students in my Political Science classes were happy to help and socialize. Classes didn’t start at ass o’clock in the morning. I had time to enjoy coffee and a torta in the morning before class, breathe the spring air, and generally appreciate life. It helped me to relax, and I had to wonder—why wasn’t school this way back in the States? Was it not supposed to be, for some reason?
In the afternoons, when I wasn’t drinking or laying in the courtyard of the Mezquita Cathedral, staring up at the oranges wishing they weren’t sour, I wondered what the hell I was even doing.
I wandered alone a lot, walking miles just to silently observe my surroundings. I touched grass and trees. I smelled and tasted delicious food. Everything was so vibrant. At times, I wanted to stay and feel everything forever. And other times, I just wanted not to feel everything so strongly at all.
My senior year, I think I had a bit of an existential crisis. I turned 21 that September. Stress escalated. My classes went alright, but I didn’t feel like I cared quite as much as before I had gone abroad. I had seen somehow in Spain that there was no way the world was supposed to be the way it was. I wanted to believe things were going to be OK, but my personal and academic life seemed to be falling apart.
I dragged myself across the finish line at Wellesley with a double major in Political Science and Spanish. I had no idea how I had done it. With my last name at the top of the alphabet, I was right in front of the stage to see Madeline Albright—a Wellesley alum—speak. She was inspiring, but I was past the point of inspiration. She was out there doing something I didn’t feel I could ever do.
It was hot and uncomfortable. As soon as I turned my tassel, I popped open a small bottle of champagne I had had under my chair and just chugged. The photographer took that opportunity to snap our graduation photo.
When I received the Wellesley Magazine graduation issue, my post-college roommate and I opened the full-page spread to find that they had Photoshopped me out.
I think that pretty well sums up my college years.
Learning after diagnosis
When you receive an Autism diagnosis, you have a unique opportunity to reevaluate things under a new criteria.
At the end of the day, my academic struggles were a big part of my story. I had undergone them because I didn’t know anything else. I thought I was broken in some way; that I wasn’t going to be able to function to others’ levels (or at least how I perceived their levels).
I learned that Autism and executive function are closely tied together, as many people with Autism struggle in that area. There are reasons for this, even deeper, tied to my unique neuropsychology. I see now that I’m just not going to be able to meet most of society’s expectations. I have to learn, and do, things my own way.
I wish I had had a diagnosis when I was younger. Those charged with ensuring I wasn’t set up for failure overlooked my symptoms.
A hyper-perception for those around me, sounds, things I saw… to the point of interference with my studies. Learning doesn’t look like play forever.
My inability to be flexible with or kind to myself when things weren’t going the way I needed them to.
My frustration with myself when I couldn’t seem to meet others’ expectations of me.
My difficulty absorbing and recalling information when I was being evaluated, scored, timed, or otherwise qualified.
Now, these weren’t learning disabilities, per say. My executive function difficulties are at the root of much of this, as well as the anxieties that arose from my fear of being “found out” as an “imposter”. The world was not well-adapted for a person with my type of brain, and it took me literally until my diagnosis to realize this.
When you don’t feel like you belong somewhere, and you don’t know why, it’s difficult to both pinpoint the root problem on your own as well as solve it. I needed professionals to step in.
So, I know all too well why early diagnoses are important. It would have changed the course of my life. I could have gotten the help I needed. Because I’ve realized since changing up my own (self-)education style that learning simply wasn’t going to happen, the way the opportunities were being afforded to me.
And I know I’m not alone.
Nicole Archambault is the creator of La Vie en Code, a blog, podcast, and (coming very soon!) online course site dedicated to the unique experience of self-taught web developers. She has built her business around the intersection of technology, education, psychology, and the ways they affect self-educated web developers.
And, of course, she is a proud neurodivergent woman helping others find their own path. :)
Read the rest of the Late Diagnosis series:
Late Diagnosis: Aspiemoon
What do you do when you’re diagnosed with Autism? You go on a vacation.