As a little girl I was the keenest tennis player, I practiced every single day, some days I would get up to practice before school and spent most of the time at my local tennis club, but I never really made any close friends. It’s not that people disliked me, I just never fitted in, I was always on the outside looking in, never intentionally ignored but also never included. I tried so hard to make friends, but somehow it was never as easy for me as it was for everyone else, my parents put it down shyness and going to a different school to everyone else, but I always knew there was something different about me.
As I got older I got better at hiding how different I was by masking the things people didn’t seem to like about me. I started to analyse everything I said and did and would reflect for hours on this when I got home. The more I did this the more tired I became and although I started to form a few alliances, I still never got fully included. My parents used to ask me to ring people to go for a game, but I never did, I knew they didn’t want me to and that’s why they never asked me.
When I left my tennis club and moved on to golf no one really kept in touch, despite me being a member for numerous years. The same thing happened with the people my age at golf, I connected with a few but I rarely got invited for a game or social events, it was okay though as I came to accept that in sports I was different from other people.
Again my parents asked me to ring people to go for a game of golf, to make them happy I did, but without their knowledge it was at a significant cost to my wellbeing. Playing competitions with a partner required me to make intermittent conversation for 3 to 4 hours, sometimes staying after for drinks or food meant having to mask for long periods of time. The same with social events including presentation evenings, these would be overwhelming due to the noise, crowds and small talk causing full meltdown and non-speaking periods afterwards.
I appreciate that many people will think I don’t ‘look autistic’ because I don’t present how people perceive how an autistic person acts. I don’t say socially inappropriate things or seem uncomfortable around other people, but, what you do see is a well-crafted mask. What people see of me in sport is not what I am like at home, most days I use non-verbal forms of communication because I often don’t have enough energy to speak after a day of work.
Gaining an autism diagnosis at an age of 26 has allowed me to understand so many things, I understand why I was constantly forgetful, turning up to the tee at golf without the correct equipment, it was all due to planning difficulties in my ADHD brain, and another big thing I was thankful for was the understanding of my sensory sensitivity to cold and hot weather. Most people don’t enjoy playing golf in the snow, wind and rain, but for me it was physically painful, now I have an explanation why I feel the need to go into hiding from October until April without just seeming like a diva, or someone who isn’t committed to the sport.
My diagnosis has also allowed me to be kinder to myself, I am able to communicate to people that I can’t commit to many golf social occasions or drinks after a game, allowing myself to advocate for my mental health and put that above pleasing people. In my life I have had significant episodes of mental health difficulties, purely because I have put other people first and not myself, that needed to change!
People have said that they are sorry about my diagnosis, but I don’t feel sorry. I am glad that I have finally understood myself and accepted that I have a disability. It’s allowed me to learn that I’m not just lazy or a bit ditzy, I am disabled, I am different and that is okay. It has been a massive relief to find out why I found the social aspects of my life so challenging and stop putting so much blame on myself. I am proud to be an autistic, ADHD woman. I am proud to be a woman in sport. I am proud to be me underneath a mask and I look forward to being that person more often.