Three people chatting outside.

Navigating life as a late-diagnosed autistic teen

6 min read
15 November 2023

Topics mentioned: autism and mental health, schoolinpatient care

About: Fab, 17, shares her experience of late autism diagnosis, and how school, stress, masking and burnout impacted her mental health as a young autistic person.

It always felt like I was carrying a backpack full of heavy stones when attempting to keep up with society.

After receiving my autism diagnosis at 17, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Even though I’m still struggling to accept the diagnosis, it has given me a form of closure. It’s helped me understand why I always felt different to my peers, different to my classmates, and why it always felt like I was carrying a backpack full of heavy stones when attempting to keep up with society.

I’m often referred to as ‘having autism’ which is something that I don’t resonate with. Autism is not a disease, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. The same way my skin is brown, I am not a ‘person with brownness’, I am a brown person.

I’ve been told many times that I do not ‘look autistic’ or that I am ‘lying’ about being autistic. While these comments are made with no thought behind them, it is a clear reason why we, as a society, need better education on developmental disabilities such as autism.

One thing I struggle with most is the school setting. I struggled following such a tight, strict, full-day timetable.

Why I struggled at school

For me, autism comes with many ups and downs. I can be very high-functioning, balancing school, three jobs, volunteer work, socialising, and be constantly busy. But I experience burnout from overworking myself and masking for such an extended period. Some of my autistic strengths are organisation, perfectionism, and creative skills. I love doing creative activities and sports, like pottery, netball, athletics, painting and baking. Focusing on my hobbies makes me very happy.

‘Masking’ is when we hide or disguise parts of ourselves in order to fit in with others. Autistic people experience lots of pressure to fit in with non-autistic culture, and one way to cope with this pressure is to supress certain behaviours and traits. This can really impact mental health, as masking takes up lots of time and energy and stops autistic people from being their true selves.

One thing I struggle with most is the school setting. I struggled following such a tight, strict, full-day timetable, and the only way I managed this was by taking control and choosing which lessons to go to. But I started to fall behind. The communal spaces being so busy and full of different noises and people was a definite no. Having to eat my lunch around everyone was always a no. I preferred to hide away in the bathrooms, away from the world, in my safe space.

I’d feel self-conscious sitting at the front of the class, which meant I could only focus on the fact that I was sat in the limelight. I would try to use 100% of my energy to take in what the teacher was saying, but failed every time.

I’d take photos of every slide of the teacher’s presentation, so that I could catch up once I got home. I did this every day with every lesson, and it was like doing school twice in one day. I would stay up until two or three o’clock in the morning making sure I had written all my notes perfectly.

Instead of being in sociology class surrounded by new teenagers, which completely terrified me, I would get on endless bus rides with music playing in my ears.

I felt like I was being left behind

In sixth form, lessons became too much. I started doing completely different activities to soothe my mind. instead of being in class, I would sleep longer. Instead of going to psychology, I would go shopping. Instead of being in sociology class surrounded by new teenagers, which completely terrified me, I would get on endless bus rides with music playing in my ears. I would take walks around the park to soothe my mind. I would go out on my own to relieve some of the school stress.

A girl sitting in the park wearing headphones. She is looking down at her phone and listening to music.

In my early teen years, I have vague memories of researching autism. I always avoided labelling myself as I knew I didn’t want to feel more different than I already did. I just wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to be picked on for simply being different.

I observed how fast life went on around me, while I remained stuck, feeling like I was trapped in a bubble and being left behind from everyone else my age. I always believed that feeling disconnected from my peers was my fault – something I was doing wrong.

Earlier this year I had to drop out of year 12. I was admitted to an inpatient psychiatric facility, and school became too much to balance alongside my mental health conditions. All I ever thought about was discharging myself from hospital to resume studying for my A-levels, just so I wouldn’t be behind everyone else. I was so stuck in thinking I was a failure and that I was disappointing everyone around me, but this was not the case. I was simply burnt out.

All my remaining energy went towards masking my difficulties and differences to navigate a world and society which isn't tailored for neurodivergent people.

The impact of going undiagnosed

While autism is not a mental health condition, the trauma from going undiagnosed can have a big impact on your mental health. Every day since I received my diagnosis, I wonder how much things could have been different if I had been diagnosed earlier.

I went 17 years of my life feeling like the odd one out and blaming myself, but all along my brain has just been wired differently to a neurotypical person. One of the reasons I went undiagnosed for so long is because all my remaining energy went towards masking my difficulties and differences to navigate a world and society which isn't tailored for neurodivergent people.

Autism is diagnosed between three and four times more often in boys than girls. One of the reasons for this is that girls tend to feel more pressure to mask their autism to meet social norms. This can be exhausting and can really wear you out. I wondered for many years what was wrong with me, but I wasn’t ‘wrong’, and I was not the anomaly I felt like I was.

Autism is a diverse spectrum with so many amazing people on it with different strengths and talents.

You are not alone

By sharing my story, I hope to help even just one young person feel less alone with their journey. Autism is a diverse spectrum with so many amazing people on it with different strengths and talents. Autism does not define everything that you are. You can still live a full, happy life, whatever that looks like for you.

I wondered for many years what was wrong with me, but I wasn’t ‘wrong’, and I was not the anomaly I felt like I was.

More information and advice

We have tips and advice to help you find the support you need. Take a look at our guides.

Where to get help

However you're feeling, there are people who can help you if you are struggling. Here are some services that can support you.

  • National Autistic Society

    Offers support to autistic people and their families. They have a a wide range of information about autism – from what autism is, to diagnosis, to socialising and relationships.

  • Childline

    If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.

    Sign up for a free Childline locker (real name or email address not needed) to use their free 1-2-1 counsellor chat and email support service.

    Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.

    Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.

    Opening times:
    24/7
  • The Mix

    Free, short-term online counselling for young people aged 25 or under. Their website also provides lots of information and advice about mental health and wellbeing. 

    Email support is available via their online contact form.

    They have a free 1-2-1 webchat service available during opening hours.

    Opening times:
    4pm - 11pm, Monday - Friday

Thanks for sharing your story Fab, 17

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