• Ellie Middleton, author of Unmasked, spent her earlier life feeling different and lost

  • Diagnoses of autism and ADHD helped her understand, and forgive, herself 

  • We have therapists who specialise in supporting clients with autism and ADHD – find them here

Somewhere during my twenty-fourth year on planet Earth, I realised that, up until that point, I’d never actually been myself. Instead, I’d spent an awful lot of time pretending. 

See, we’re always told to be ourselves. But, at least in my case, it never really felt like anybody actually meant it.

I was told to be kind and caring – but not to be so clingy. I was told to be sweet and loveable – but I shouldn’t be so intense about it. I was told to be open and honest – but not when that meant I was being sensitive. I was told to speak up about my feelings – but scolded if I brought the mood down. I was told to put on a brave face – but called a bitch if I was too stern-faced. I was told to be friendly and make conversation – but reminded of how boring and repetitive my conversation topics of choice were. I was told to look people in the eye when they were speaking – but if that eye contact lasted slightly too long, then staring was rude.

It felt as though everybody else, when they were born, had been handed some sort of handbook explaining this never-ending list of contradictory rules – a rule book to direct them on exactly how to be themselves without being “too much” or “not enough”; without being “too loud” or “too quiet”; “without being too stone-faced” or “too sensitive”. It seemed, however, that I had never got a copy.

These constant reminders that I always managed to get the simple task of “being myself” wrong, quickly taught me that I was different – and that different wasn’t a good thing to be. So I decided that I wouldn’t be myself, and instead tried to copy and mimic the people around me. 

I never really showed up as “Ellie”; I showed up as the person that I thought everybody else wanted me to be. I hadn’t ever really known how or why I was doing it, though. A lot of the time, I hadn’t even realised that it was something that I was doing at all. It was never something that I’d had explained to me, just something that I learned to do in order to survive.

And then suddenly, in my twenty-fourth year, everything was brought to light. I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Condition and ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. After twenty-four years of knowing that I was different but not ever really knowing why, I was given an answer. 

I’d spent a lifetime asking questions like:

What is so wrong with me?

Why am I so weird?

Why can’t anybody see that I am a nice person?

Am I really as horrible as they say I am?

Why do I find things so difficult to understand?

How does everybody else know what to say and how to act?

Why am I so lazy?

Why does everybody always leave me?

Why am I so much more incompetent than anybody else?

Am I a terrible person?

Why can’t I just do things?

Why don’t they understand me when I am clearly saying what I mean?

Does everyone find it this hard to keep up with things?

Why am I so sensitive and dramatic?

What did I miss that everybody else seemed to take from that?

Are they laughing with me, or laughing at me?

Why can’t I just relax?

Will I ever make any friends?

I’d always known that I was different, and always done everything to cover up these differences, but I’d never, ever known why – until now. And I’m not alone in my late discovery of being autistic. Studies have shown that only 1 in 20 autistic women are diagnosed in childhood

That’s just 1 in 20 who are aware that they are disabled; 1 in 20 who have any hope of getting the support that they need and deserve; 1 in 20 who have the knowledge and understanding that they need to be themselves.

But although only 1 in 20 of us grow up knowing why we are different, we all know that we are. Autistic women, girls, and people marginalised for their gender know that they are different long before they get a diagnosis that affirms this. They know that they don’t fit in. They know that they are ostracised. They know that they are more tired than everyone around them. They know that they can’t translate the sensations in their body into what emotions those sensations represent. They know that they seem to misunderstand those endless contradictory rules about how to be themselves. All that happens when they remain undiagnosed is that they don’t have an answer as to why.

Getting my autism and ADHD diagnoses at the age of 24 was the beginning of unlearning all of those negative things that I’d been repeatedly told about myself, both by the people around me and by the voice inside of my head, and learning to understand that being myself was, actually, an okay thing to do. 

I could begin to learn to forgive myself for being different. I could begin to understand that those differences weren’t personal flaws; they were part of my disabilities. And I could see that being different wasn’t actually a bad thing after all; it was just a natural part of being a human, and something to be celebrated.

Learning who I really was - an autistic ADHDer – was the best thing to ever happen to me, and we must ensure that others who have slipped through the net are able to find their own answers. Getting a diagnosis of autism or ADHD – however late that might be – is an invitation to finally be yourself. And I can’t think of an invitation I’d like to receive more.

Ellie Middleton is the author of Unmasked

Further reading

What's the relationship between neurodiversity and trauma?

What we want others to understand about ADHD

Diagnosed with ADHD at 51: My story

Therapy has been invaluable for learning to live with my adult ADHD diagnosis