For most of her life, Dr Dawn-joy Leong, 51, has been viewed as an oddball.
She could fold origami at three years old and composed a musical play at the age of nine. But while obviously intelligent, she was labelled difficult and spoilt when she had what were perceived as tantrums and could not be consoled.
In school, teachers said she was lazy when she aced English Language but failed English literature, despite studying hard for both subjects.
As a young adult, Dr Leong, the third of four daughters, found it challenging to make out societal norms and expectations. She felt lost trying to figure out what to say and how to behave at parties. The concept of telling white lies to avoid social embarrassment was also bewildering to her as she preferred to be frank and direct.
When she was in her early 40s, she felt suicidal following the death of her father, to whom she had been close, and amid acrimonious, hurtful interactions with people she knew, one of whom called her “crazy”.
So, she sought psychiatric help. It was only then, at the age of about 42, that she was diagnosed as being autistic.
“It was a relief. I always knew I was different. I had thought, ‘Am I a bad person? But I was not bad. There was nothing wrong with me. I just function differently,'” says Dr Leong, a multidisciplinary artist who worked as a librarian and a pre-school teacher earlier in her career.
After decades of having been mocked by peers, teachers and family members, the catharsis she felt gave her the impetus and energy to pursue further studies – a Master of Philosophy degree in music composition at the University of Hong Kong and, subsequently, a PhD in autism and art at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
She is working on art pieces that help others understand aspects of her autistic experience for an exhibition in Sydney, which opens in September.
Autism is a complex neurobehavioural condition that includes difficulties in social interaction and communication skills.
Because of the wide range of its symptoms, such as requiring rigid routines and unusually focused interests, this condition is called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It ranges in severity from a handicap that somewhat limits an otherwise neurotypical or “normal” life, to a profound disability that may require institutional care.
Earlier this month, British writer and mother of four Laura James published a memoir, Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman In A Neurotypical World, which recounts her experience of being diagnosed as autistic at age 45.
Children as young as three years old can be diagnosed as autistic, says Dr Lam Chee Meng, principal autism consultant at Autism Resource Centre (Singapore).
Adult diagnoses might come about due to increasing awareness in recent years of Autism Spectrum Disorder – some people may seek diagnosis after recognising certain autistic traits in themselves from reading news reports, he says.
“People with high-functioning autism may also be diagnosed later as they can be successful in what they do and social, emotional and relationship issues surface only later in life,” he adds.
“There is also the possibility that autism is attributed to other co- morbidities – such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia and anxiety – resulting in autism being diagnosed later.”
A diagnosis is only a beginning, says Dr Lam.
“While a diagnosis can provide signposts for intervention and access to services, what is more important is that the individual with autism knows his strengths and how he can overcome challenges using appropriate strategies,” he says.
Indeed, Dr Leong and other autistic persons interviewed by The Sunday Times, all of whom are not married, speak of a clarity in understanding their past struggles after they received their diagnosis as an adult, having passed off for years as non-autistic, neurotypical persons.
Some feel that being autistic is now an essential part of their identity and reject being defined according to the standards of “normal” society.
Dr Leong is keen to dismantle myths about autism. For example, one stereotype of autistic persons is that they lack empathy. For herself, she found it too distressing to study history because of the pain and suffering it described, which ultimately led to her not showing up for her A-level history examination.
As an autistic person, she is also sensitive to sensory issues. In the 1970s, her mother used to take her as a child to a wet market, where chickens were slaughtered. The smells she encountered there led to meltdowns, which she says looked similar to temper tantrums, but were involuntary responses to sensory overload. A child yelling for ice cream, in contrast, can be placated with a popsicle.
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