My daughter was diagnosed as autistic when she was 9. It took three years of research, private messages with parents of autistic children trying to guide me along the way (and through my doubts), and even finding a new pediatrician when I realized the first one wasn’t going to budge to get that diagnosis. He told me that my daughter was gifted, too verbal, too social and too empathetic to consider an autism diagnosis.
He said flatly, the fact that she wasn’t a “he” made it even more unlikely.
I used to also think that only boys were — or could be — autistic. That autism looked like stacking toy cars, staring at ceiling fans, rocking back and forth and hand-flapping. I thought these things because the blue pamphlet the hospital sent me home with after I gave birth 15 years ago told me these things.
I wish I had known that autism could look like seeing myself in a mirror every time I saw my daughter act and react in a way that reflected my childhood, that autism could look like shutting the world out because of an overabundance of — rather than a lack of — empathy that meant too many feelings to be able to process at once. I wish I had known that autism could look like well-meaning parents putting an overstimulated and sensory-overloaded child in timeout for melting down and pushing us away when too many changes threatened her sense of order and security.
I eventually figured it out, though. If I am being honest, I’ll tell you that I had figured on a dual ADHD and autism diagnosis, mainly because I truly saw myself at my daughter’s age and could stop a meltdown in its tracks by explaining to her that I understood because my brain thought the same way hers did, even though I only had a diagnosis of severe ADHD.
She told me we were “brain twins.”
I’ll never forget the moment the evaluating psychiatrist confirmed what I’d already known in my heart. My little girl and I locked eyes, grinned and high-fived when the doctor told us she is, in fact, on the spectrum. Then, while the doctor’s jaw dropped in shock at our unexpected jubilant reaction to the news that she later told me drove most parents to tears, my daughter asked if it was time for that ice cream sundae I’d promised her.
“I’m so glad you and your daughter are happy for this news,” she told me. “But I have to ask why, I mean… I’m not even sure…”
I nodded as she trailed off, understanding that the doctor was struggling to ask me why my daughter and I were celebrating a diagnosis that so many see as a negative label.
“Because,” I told her, “labels are answers to questions we didn’t know we had.”
What did I mean by that exactly? Well, for starters, my husband and I instinctively knew from the start that our daughter’s autism diagnosis meant that we needed to change how we parented to meet her needs instead of expecting her to change to fit a mold she was never meant to fit.
From her, we have learned to celebrate and appreciate neurodiversity. From our adult autistic friends, we have learned to appreciate, respect and listen to the autistic teen and adult communities because autistic kids do grow up to become autistic teens and adults themselves. Sometimes we still mess up, but we are always working to be the parents she needs us to be.
She’s brilliant, this girl of ours. And in a funny twist of fate, her diagnosis may lead to my own. I still see myself in her, even now, and she sees herself in me. I am scheduled for a second-opinion adult autism evaluation in a few months. Maybe autism looks like me, too. Maybe, we’ll high-five and then we’ll go celebrate with an ice cream sundae.
Pauline Campos is a frequent Metro Parent contributor who was born and raised in Detroit.
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