As a young girl, I was described as bubbly, energetic, kind and loving. The ‘social butterfly’ without many friends that was quickly liked by most but never able to form a true and lasting friendship with more than one person at a time. People would put this down to us having different likes and/or that we were growing up and going down different paths. I was constantly anxious in school; both primary and secondary. I always felt like I was wearing an invisibility suit. No one ever saw the real me. This subsequently meant that I always fell out of friendships because I could not keep up with this alter-identity I was portraying. I was a young child who didn’t like loud music, didn’t like team sports and absolutely despised being forced to socialise. This made me feel different. I was always left doubting who I was and why I wasn’t like other people. This led me to change who I was in order to feel like I ‘fit in’. This quickly escalated after the death of my father. Instead of allowing myself to grieve, I masked my true emotions and went on as this “happy girl”, as I thought happy people were always liked better.
I was masking without consciously knowing why I did so and that left me very confused. My mental health deteriorated and I felt like there was this big dark cloud over me every hour of the day. After every social interaction, I got very tired and was physically and mentally drained. After a while I avoided any form of social interaction as I could not handle the ‘social hangover’ that followed. With already feeling like an alien in my own skin, this avoidance of social interaction had another negative impact on the friendships I had worked so hard to develop. I avoided texts, calls, parties and meet ups and completely withdrew from society. Social media played a role in this concept that being popular and happy meant that you had your life together, and being unable to last more than 20 minutes in conversation without becoming distraught, left me unable to socialise and encounter those experiences that everybody on my feed was engaged in. As a woman undiagnosed but on the spectrum, I thought that this image of popularity was the social norm, and that if I did not live up to this, I would never go anywhere in life. However, this is furthest from the truth, I was just unable to see that at the time.
Comparing yourself to others is amplified in women on the spectrum. Women can be excellent in masking their “problems” and it can be very difficult for anybody to notice what they are going through. This was the case in my upbringing as I was an excellent actress. Not even my mother knew the true me. It was not until I furthered my education in a childcare course and started learning about Autism, did I start to connect the dots of my life. This led to me ultimately being diagnosed on the spectrum in November 2019, at the age of 20. This day completely changed my life for the better. It was like this dark cloud that followed me everywhere just parted slightly and this beam of hope and understanding shone through. It was the start of understanding who I was, and the start of developing my true identity. I started to re-learn who I was.
My whole life I had felt like an imposter, alien and different, when in fact I was dealing with something that I had no understanding of. To get through the death of my father, school, college, work and life without any external help and guidance has shown me how strong and resilient I am and can be. Researching about Autism by myself was difficult and it wasn’t until I asked for help from my occupational therapist did I begin to understand what Autism means to me. Autism for me means that I am creative, hard-working, resilient, intelligent and unique. I understand my social limits and sensory overloads and am better able to avoid the hangovers that followed prolonged social interaction. Ultimately I have begun to understand myself. With knowing this information, I am able to share my diagnosis with others so that I bring awareness to how I may feel when I am with them, and how they can help me when I become overwhelmed. This has strengthened my relationship with others as I can finally communicate why I can and can’t do certain things.
Understanding my traits was important in order to start developing a sense of self. It also allowed me to understand why I was so good at sport. My special interest was my sport; Hammer throw. This outlet gave me an opportunity to breathe and escape my thoughts. Not only did it positively impact my mental health but my dedication allowed me to compete in the Youth Olympics, hold records, travel and win numerous medals. But the medals meant nothing to me, it was the escapism it gave me that I truly loved. I would not have been as strong without it.
Developing my own personal identity was difficult, and I am still learning about myself to this day. However, I know I am not alone. Many other women on the spectrum get diagnosed later in life and it is due to this superpower of masking that we share. The power I had in school to turn on this invisibility suit to protect me from the world or the ability to mask any form of abnormality that I may show throughout the day that may lead people to think I was different. But different is good. If I was never different, I would never have succeeded in my sport as well as I did, I would not have been able to get through my darkest nights without my hard-working spirit and dedication. I would not be where I am today without it. I can achieve just as much as anybody else. I am Lauren O’Keeffe, I am autistic and I am proud. I now know who I am, and nobody can ever take that away from me.
My recommendation to any female out there that may have some similarities with my story is to stay true to yourself. You do not need to change for anybody, you are perfect just the way you are. Accepting yourself is the first step to true happiness, and I am on the road there myself.