'I Felt Like an Alien Before My Diagnosis, I Deserve Love Exactly As I Am'

My earliest memory of being different is from kindergarten. I would sit with my tiny hands under my legs to prevent them from erupting into the air like a volcano, because the boy next to me had noticed me moving them and poked my arm repeatedly with the sharp end of his mechanical pencil. I remember looking around the room in panic. Before then, I thought everybody flapped their hands. I assumed it was normal.

"What's wrong with her?" I heard someone ask. Another responded, "I don't know."

I made sure to never act that way again.

It became clear that there was something wrong with me. I secretly suspected that I was born in a different galaxy far, far away. I fantasized about how I ended up here: I must have crawled onto a spaceship from my home planet and accidentally crash landed on Earth.

As a child, I believed I was an alien, but I knew I couldn't let anyone discover my secret. I decided I had to learn how to be "human," whatever it took.

Hiding "alien" traits from other humans

I hid any traits that others decided were "wrong"—which I learned quickly from their reactions to my behavior. I taught myself to laugh at jokes I didn't think were funny, to make eye contact, to pretend I couldn't hear the tapping of a pencil in the back of the room or the buzz-crackle-pop of electricity.

I was so good at pretending to be my idea of normal that I suspect I fooled several doctors, teachers, and two neuropsychologists: one when I was diagnosed with ADHD in second grade, after I got caught routinely doodling flowers in the margins of my empty multiplication tables and daydreaming out the window, and the second in seventh grade, who gave me a diagnosis of Dyscalculia, an obscure learning disability which meant I couldn't comprehend numerical value.

For a while, my plan to be "normal" succeeded. Until it didn't. I was in third grade the first time someone called me a retard.

We were playing a ball game I had never played before called Four Square.

During the game, I began to think of all the ways my opponent could send the ball towards my direction. Right, left, forward, backward. I imagined what I would do when the time was right. I was so busy thinking about what could happen that I didn't see my opponent's smirk as she took her shot and hit my leg. I gasped and stepped back, shaken out of my stupor. She grinned, lips curled up, showing her canines. She reminded me of the Big Bad Wolf, only a much prettier version.

"You're out, retard." She said the word as if it were a bullet she had fired before, and she knew exactly where to aim. I didn't know what this word meant, but I knew it wasn't good. So I decided to try even harder to blend in. But the more this worked in my relationships, the worse I felt about myself.

Navigating sexuality as a young person

I first started to develop romantic feelings for girls at around age 9, though possibly earlier. I just didn't understand them enough to give them a name, due to my difficulties recognizing and processing my own emotions. I had a huge crush on the bully who had called me a retard. I didn't know why I wanted her to like me so much.

Once, our teacher assigned us to write a poem about someone we love, and I chose her. I slowly started to notice girls in a way that other girls didn't seem to. I would get butterflies when a girlfriend put her head in my lap, or her hand on my shoulder, and knew I had to hide these abnormal feelings. No one else seemed to feel that way, so I thought that I shouldn't, either.

Lara Boyle felt "alien" before autism diagnosis
Lara Boyle says that as a neuro-diverse individual, she has had to explain how her disability affects her to potential friends or partners. Lara Boyle

By sixth grade, I had drifted apart from any group I once belonged to. I assumed that everybody else found it just as difficult to decipher social cues, body language, and facial expressions as I did, they were simply better at hiding their weaknesses. I couldn't tell the difference between a smile that meant someone was happy and a smile that suggested they were merely being polite after an awkward situation had passed.

But I would daydream about a future where I lived with my female best friend forever and we'd never have to marry boys. I looked around at all the straight couples in my life, then returned to my fantasy, and thought, "I wish real life could be like that." I knew some kids had two moms or two dads, but because I didn't see anyone like this in my daily life, I didn't think they could exist. I didn't think I could exist. We were never taught about gay rights in school except as a topic of political debate. There were no books in the libraries or the classrooms about what it's like to be gay. So, I thought being a lesbian was the worst thing you could possibly be.

I made myself "like boys." I trained myself to want them until I believed the lie. But deep down, I always knew I didn't find boys attractive at all. I wanted to be accepted.

I wondered if it was because girls on Mars, or wherever I was from, liked girls the way boys did.

I continued to hide my disability and sexuality throughout middle school and in high school. I changed high school three times, which stopped once we moved from Long Island, New York, to Charlotte, North Carolina in junior year. Being the new kid earned me a much-needed social advantage; I made friends easier than I did back home. Soon they all started to have boyfriends.

Every night, I went to bed and prayed that I would wake up straight as I said the Hebrew Shema prayer. I forced myself to date a boy because he was feminine and quiet, even though I felt sick to my stomach on all of our dates. Dating felt like a chore. I viewed romance as a mandatory script you had to follow to reach happily ever after.

I became paranoid that others might catch me staring at a girl and forced my attention towards him. I broke up with him without any real explanation why. But, I knew the truth. I liked girls.

Finally receiving an autism diagnosis

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I had never been able to truly connect with people. I worried I might never be able to.

Outside of my friend group, I struggled to interact with other human beings. I believed I was inexplicably, irreversibly damaged. In social interactions, I felt like a tourist who had been dropped off in a foreign country and expected to speak the native language like a local without a translator and handed a map I couldn't understand. Somehow, I survived until high school graduation.

My parents knew I was socially awkward, quirky, and anxious, but they just thought I was an "old soul." Then, in my freshman year of college, I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The accessibility services director had suggested I get tested after we began to meet weekly to discuss my struggles adjusting to university life. I didn't eat in the cafeteria because I experienced panic attacks as the wave of smells and sounds overwhelmed me. I heard the clang of silverware, the screech of chairs being moved, the crash of dishes being loaded onto the rotator belt. I couldn't stand the crowds. I ate alone, and rarely left my room except to go to class or the library. I hated sudden change, like classes being canceled or assignment due dates being changed.

Discovering you're autistic as an adult is a lot like rereading a mystery novel and chastising yourself for all the obvious clues you didn't put together sooner. I learned that women were often misdiagnosed, diagnosed late, or not diagnosed at all. Had this staff member not figured it out, I likely wouldn't have received the closure I needed to answer the question I'd been asking nineteen years: Why am I like this?

Coming out as gay and embracing neuro-diversity

After my autism diagnosis, everything about me finally made sense and shortly after, during a COVID-19 quarantine in 2020, I came out as gay.

The pandemic allowed me to fully process my feelings rather than hiding or ignoring them to please others. I didn't have to pretend to be a stranger anymore. I finally took off the mask I wore and met the girl behind it. I cut all of my long hair off.

I flapped my hands again.

Since my life-changing diagnosis, I've taken a new approach to the way I view relationships, both friendship and romance. I now view my difficulties in friendships as part of my disability.

I try not to be harsh on myself when I don't have anyone to hang out with on weekends or during breaks. I also want different outcomes in a relationship than most people. I value stability and a soulmate over a temporary fling and I've deleted dating apps that I thought I needed to use.

Lara Boyle Felt "alien" Before Autism Diagnosis
Lara Boyle felt as though she was an "alien" when she was growing up. It wasn't until an autism diagnosis at 19 that she began to understand herself more. Lara Boyle

As a neurodiverse individual, I've had to explain how my disability affects me to potential friends or partners. This process can be emotionally exhausting, which is why it's frustrating to meet people I think I would get along great with, only to have them invalidate my experiences.

Once, I was asked out by a girl I really liked, unaware other members of her sorority would join us at the restaurant. I had thought it was a date because she had asked me out to dinner and a bookstore just the two of us. I hadn't realized it was recruitment week. These sorority girls bombarded me with extremely personal questions, their eyes drifting towards one another after each answer I gave. I then had to listen to her giggle and say she thought she might be autistic too based solely on TikTok videos she sent me that she found funny. I didn't laugh. When I asked her not to make fun of my disability, she canceled our plans.

Another peer I thought was my friend posted videos on Snapchat showing him flapping his hands in an over-exaggerated fashion and giggling. In his caption, he appeared to brag that he was "stimming" along to a song.

This person doesn't have an autism diagnosis. Stimming is a coping mechanism. I stim to process overwhelming emotions, be it happiness, sadness, anger, fear; not for fun.

I've seen some videos on TikTok that say: "If you get nervous around people a lot, you're autistic." This isn't true. It's misinformative. I have also seen neurotypical (non-autistic) peers hijack autism specific symptoms like "executive dysfunction" and "sensory overload" without any idea of what they really mean.

Seeing people who have what I've always wanted: a normal life and the ability to form human connection, suddenly claiming to have a disability that was long my biggest source of shame, hurts.

They don't understand the pain that comes along with the words they use, or the reality of what it's like to be autistic. Whenever this happens, it feels like they're mocking me. I wish I could tell them that autism is not a trend or a quirky personality trait. I've learned to accept who I am and embrace it because I have to. I've realized that my sexuality and disability will always be essential to the way I conceptualize the world and the people in it.

I am 21 now, and I am aware that I find it difficult just to take care of myself even as a "high functioning" woman, so I doubt I'll be able to handle children in the future, which I no longer feel guilty about. I also recognize that it may take me longer to find love since I've always been a little behind people my age in terms of maturity. But I no longer adhere to society's timeline for how to live my life.

Most importantly, I've realized that I don't have to pretend to be someone I'm not to find joy, or success. And neither should anyone else. I know that I deserve love exactly as I am.

In the future, I hope I can make connections where I can truly be myself.

Lara Boyle is a writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina. You can follow her on Instagram @laraboylewrites and Twitter @laraboylewrites

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.