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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Life on the spectrum

BY Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash Apr 21, 2023

I often talked about the fact that when I got sober almost five years ago, I really thought my life would get easier instantly and that most of my problems were because of the addictions I developed to cope with trauma. I was expecting to do much better overall, especially socially, but as time went on, I realized there was still something off about me.

I am particularly aware of it when I have social interactions; being around other people feels like acting. It gets overwhelming because I have to think of everything: my stance, my facial expressions, forcing myself to maintain eye contact, and trying to conceal my hands shaking from anxiety.

People know it and it’s kind of a running gag. I spend a lot of time alone because I bury myself in my work, but also because I avoid social settings when I can. I quite enjoy alone time and people close to me have always struggled with that because they expect me to express love, friendship, intimacy and support the way most people do.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve seen countless healthcare professionals for my mental health and was misdiagnosed many times. They tried a lot of treatments and I failed most of them. Trying different medications that would make little to no difference or make my symptoms worse has been taxing on my health and body. Like many other women, I was diagnosed with the entire DSM-5 (the big book of mental disorders) before they realized what’s up with me.

Often, autistic women will be diagnosed much later in their life than men, because they tend to mask symptoms better and because doctors will brush them off as being difficult, crazy or dramatic. The profile doctors used to diagnose it would always be of the typical non-verbal and apathic variety. 

This overlooks the great diversity of what autism can look like. Society has higher expectations toward women, so the ones living with autism naturally learn how to conceal certain traits for survival. However, having to keep up with societal standards with a condition that affects how you interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave can lead to exhaustion, and will be so traumatizing for the body that autistic adults often experience “skills regression”.

That’s basically what happened to me. I started losing the ability to blend in with “normal” people, because my body didn’t have the energy to do it anymore. So, at 27, I received an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.

My whole life, I was told I was too much. Or not enough. The feeling of never being able to grasp or reach what people expect of me socially has been excruciating, especially since I got off booze and substances that I used to take to make social interactions and life in general more bearable. I’ve always been told that I was dramatic, difficult, cold, blunt, nonchalant, intense, depressing, careless or straight up weird, and I always hated myself for it.

Although my diagnosis brought me relief and answers, I also regret all the things I could have been if I had been diagnosed in childhood with tools that could have helped me achieve my goals. My ASD gives me many gifts, especially the ability to retain information. I have a more positive view of myself now that I know better how my brain works, but my heart often aches for younger self. She was so confused and scared, and all she needed was safety and support.

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Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash is Cree from Waswanipi, and is the Nation’s newest columnist. She is an activist and writer who also has a regular column in Montreal’s French Metro Newspaper.