Me, myself and Autism.

I was recently interviewed by the extraordinary Kat Kennedy about my autism journey! She’s writing about sex and gender differences in various health conditions and how, so often, women go undiagnosed when symptoms present differently than how doctors are taught they should appear. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and ADHD are two such conditions. Many of the classic studies on these used only male participants and so many of the diagnostic criteria are based on the male experience. 

My friendship with Kat Kennedy began as tattoo artist and client. Back in 2016, I created her first tattoo back when I was working in Cheltenham which grew into a full sleeve. Kat followed me when I relocated back home to Wales, and we finished the sleeve in 2018 just before she moved out to the scorching hot deserts of the US. Kat’s support of my tattoos, illustration and writing has been so motivating and comforting. Her posts have been a huge source of inspiration and courage and have kept me going in bleak times. I’ll never forget a quote she told me from one of her friends when we were discussing how overwhelming social media can be:

“We’re just not meant to process human suffering on this scale.”

Thanks for letting me be a part of this piece Kat – I’ve managed to keep a couple of succulents alive that you gifted me years ago, and the wonderful and kind letter you wrote when the sleeve was finished still hangs on my wall today!

1. Full name, age, occupation and city where you live:

My name is Lala Taylor, I’m a 34-year-old tattoo artist & illustrator based in Penarth, South Wales UK.

2. When did you receive your ASD diagnosis?

I received my autism clarification at 31 years old! I was diagnosed by a private therapist, who I’ve been seeing regularly for 3 years now. I had just opened my first business, 1 year into my 4 years sobriety and 4 weeks after a knee reconstruction.

3. When did you first suspect that you might have ASD? What were you experiencing?

I spent my twenties and thirties almost constantly confused and overwhelmed. I would often put this down to PTSD; I would blame the difficulty of my existence on the emotional/physical/sexual abuse and trauma I’d survived as a child and teenager, and this reinforced the justification of my struggles. Since being diagnosed with anxiety and depression at 19 with no follow up with a mental health team or offer of counselling, I’ve distrusted the mental health system in the UK and distanced myself completely. I tried a few private therapists in my early twenties which yielded no positive results – one of them took a phone call in the middle of the session, whilst I was reliving a fresh and particularly distressing traumatic event. Safe to say I never went back.

From my mid-twenties, I was chronically overworking and self-medicating with alcohol as much as I could get away with to ease the constant masking and shape shifting in social groups and work settings. During the last few years of my twenties, I continued to chronically overwork myself and began mixing alcohol with other drugs. 

I always struggled to maintain relationships, especially romantic ones. I was regularly manipulated, used and lied to – I even tried to leave one partner multiple times before they would pull me back in. I eventually cheated on him just so he would leave me alone! I had a very small emotional vocabulary and couldn’t tell what I was feeling or what was really happening.

I would regularly find myself in friendships and work connections that were disrespectful, toxic and abusive. I always thought that I struggled to inherently know what was best for me because of my abusive childhood and teenage years, but deep down I knew it was something else.

I dated a woman in my late twenties with borderline personality disorder, which had a profoundly painful effect on me. I started to wonder if I may have a more complex disorder/condition myself that was playing a big part in my life without me knowing. ASD is often misdiagnosed as something else (like bipolar and borderline personality disorder) in women. This is because the criterion for autism is still based on male studies only. For decades, many autistic girls have flown under the radar along with the female indoctrination in schools and at home to be poised, pretty, polite, and passive.

Social media gave me small clues and hints which I identified with, which included routines, special interests, scripted responses, repetitive behaviours, self-medicating, difficulties with food/cooking, depression, missing social cues, fussiness, bluntness, perfectionism, and excessive planning. I spent a few months saving these autism posts in private, and after being unlawfully dismissed from a tattoo studio in 2018 just before a knee reconstruction, I made a promise to myself that I would find a therapist that specialised in CBT and diagnosing neurodivergent conditions.

I remember struggling at school and being mercilessly bullied. In the classroom, if I didn’t underline the date or title of the lesson perfectly, I would panic, suffer an internal meltdown and be unable to write anything else for the rest of the hour. My books became full of emptiness, save for a few scratched out words at the top of each page and watermarks from dried tears. I excelled in art and my talent was considered far beyond my years. I loved the praise (finally I could do something right!) but hated the spotlight this put on me. I often had my artwork and art supplies stolen and sabotaged by jealous kids. I spent my school years learning to hide, mask and please people that terrified and confused me. 

4. Have you ever had any instances where you felt you were dismissed by a doctor when hoping to discuss suspected ASD (or another health condition)? Did you have to make multiple appointments before finally getting diagnosed?

My Autism was never dismissed professionally because I never presented the question to anyone outside of private therapy, I’m really glad for this. However, I have a lifelong chronic illness called Fibromyalgia which was dismissed by doctors and nurses for years before I got a private diagnosis last year (at 33 years old). I once had a nurse say to me “I have no idea why you’re here to be honest” after I wanted to know why I was getting outbreaks of shingles and cold sores every 2 weeks and wasn’t able to stay awake more than a few hours in each day. I was 30 – I went to the gym twice a week, had a good diet, never smoked a cigarette in my life and was 1 year sober at the time. I wanted answers to why I was so ill all the time. She thought I was wasting her time. I insisted that she refer me to a GP, and after listing years of symptoms to a doctor she booked me for a CT scan to check for cancer (which thankfully came back all clear). I paid for a private rheumatologist after a recommendation from my therapist and another GP (both female) who finally diagnosed Fibromyalgia in 2020.

5. Have you ever felt that this was because you were a woman?

Women are conditioned by society from birth to be naturally passive, polite, sweet and agreeable. Anger, frustration and sadness are all very unladylike. Women are called “crazy” and “psycho” for struggling mentally, and not being able to articulate themselves fully in the moment. They are also expected to take on the emotional labour of (cishet) men on top of their own. In my experience, women have two options: you are either a beacon of unconditional love, grace and emotional support (keeping quiet at the cost of your mental health) or you are a cold-hearted, crazy stuck-up bitch (for speaking up and putting yourself first).

I’ll be reposting Kat’s finished article on my blog instagram: @auteetotaltattooer.

🌵🌵🌵

Boundaries and Business.

“What you say NO to, often defines YOU and your business far more than what you say YES to.”

— The Costa Sisters.

I have my own business, but I am NOT a business.

I’m an ARTIST and a human being, not Starbucks. I’m 1 human doing the work of 3. I feel everything more than most, and work harder than anyone will ever really know.

I am posting this, currently off work for a few days and suffering an immune system crash due to stress… I think? (I’m having more bloods done and a CT scan, very morbidly exciting). Spending my 2 year sobriety birthday hardcore napping and visiting my GP twice yesterday was an interesting surprise!

Although it didn’t go to plan, I still made time to meditate, enjoy the outdoors and do a bit of work admin/home cleaning.

Maybe it was working a 55 hour week of awesome tattoos whilst hiding/managing a shingles flare-up – just after getting back from an amazing, 5-day business trip to Sweden. Maybe it was the excitement/stress of travelling and exploring Stockholm for the first time. Maybe it’s been from enduring online harassment for weeks and weeks. Maybe it’s the general misery of the UK. Maybe it’s because I had another flare-up after getting home from a 12 hour round-trip to Manchester, just after the first one healed. Maybe it’s a hEDS thing. Maybe it’s something else.

I’m still learning a lot of things: most importantly, how to say no. 

It’s coming up to a whole year since I’ve been running my own little business, and it’s definitely been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. I’d say most of all the hardest things I’ve ever done have been in the past 2-3 years. Trial by fire, over and over.

Biggest and best thing I’ve been learning this year?

 BOUNDARIES.

This year, I’ve been speaking up and taking up more space. Communicating with clients that I don’t think are the best fit, or I feel do not trust me and how I work. I’ve been more vocal about clients that have scared me. Clients that are clearly more interested in what I look like, than how my tattoos look! I’ve been more vocal about clients that have made me uncomfortable, and have had to suggest they go elsewhere. I communicate to every client about how I work in detail, and explain my process more.
I work WITH clients, not FOR them.

Many people with Autism (me included) have a very keen, overwhelming sense of the emotional states of others. Being hyper-aware like this is usually a choice between: ignore it and shut off, or tune into it and become overwhelmed. Being sensory overloaded can affect this choice too.

When I first started saying no, I did it politely but very bluntly.
This shook a few clients up, made them uncomfortable and they lashed out. Setting and holding boundaries is a terrible, clumsy process at first, and there’s never a guarantee you can place them safely and avoid conflict. Maybe their cognitive discomfort is from their interpretation of me, not playing out in real life in the way they had predicted in their mind. They say that expectations are just planned disappointments – I had to keep telling myself that the version of me they’ve created in their mind is not my responsibility. If someone responds in a hurtful way and continues to harass me, I am simply getting feedback on their emotional wellness. I remain calm. I breathe, learn and wish them well.

“Those with trauma and unhealthy attachment will view boundaries as a rejection. Or abandonment. They have not healed, and believe a person with limits is harming them.”

— Dr. Nicole LePera.

Here’s a little bit about what I’m talking about: 

I have 2 years sobriety and a substantial amount of therapy under my belt. I meditate, I work out, I fight personal chronic illness and promote mental wellness.

I raise awareness about Autism, and offer support for women going through a diagnosis later in life.
I also offer support to anyone going through any topics that are discussed, as best I can.

If that makes you unhappy in any way, please don’t request to book in to get tattooed by me. We both deserve to be happy in life, so let’s agree to leave each other alone! I want to recover out loud to help those struggling in silence; and serve as a testament to the theory that if I can do this stuff, anyone can.

(A lot of what I’ve been through I have managed totally on my own. I live alone and I don’t have any family to rely on or a large support network. Usually, it’s just me. I do however, have an incredibly loving cat, 2 magical best friends, a fantastic PT and a wonderful therapist!)

If my lifestyle makes you uncomfortable, I understand. There’s plenty of other amazing artists out there that make great tattoos and share your values and attitudes – tattooing is a close proximity, 2 player game. Tattoos are a luxury, and I want to keep and treat them that way. I’m more than happy to talk to you about drinking/drugs and share anecdotes from my past, but won’t be able to connect with you about it as a current lifestyle. I’d much rather talk about movies, games, sci-fi, conspiracy theories, science, ghosts, aliens, travelling, where you see yourself in 5 years, favourite animals, funny stories and weird facts. I love hearing all your beautiful, wonderful and interesting answers! We don’t even have to talk: we can just listen to music and enjoy the process. Sometimes tattooing needs to be a quiet, focused experience.

Unfortunately, confessing embarrassing/dark/criminal/secret things to me whilst you’re getting tattooed does not absolve you from them. I’d recommend talking to a licensed therapist, joining a 12-step programme in your area and practicing self love and compassion. I can only listen and offer reassurance during our appointment, whilst you’re in my care. 

I’m proud to be able to provide a private and intimate tattooing experience, free from most of the usual distractions and social bullshit. I want to focus on the two most important things: the client and the tattoo! My studio is also inside an amazing gym – my whole life and work ethos is now focused on positive change, self care and self improvement. I truly want everyone to achieve their “best self”, in whatever way that feels best for them, and however that looks for them. 

I don’t have to tattoo everyone, or take on every ‘job’.
I can’t. 

I only have a finite amount of time and energy remaining on this planet. I cannot physically, mentally and emotionally afford to take on clients and work which isn’t the right fit for the both of us. I have big trauma behind me and chronic illness/autism beside me. Recharging in solitude and pacing myself is essential to my survival, and I’ve got really good at it.

Something useful I found on the internet, which I hope is of use to you too.

This isn’t about NOT being able to tolerate stressful, difficult situations with clients – this is about how much BETTER I am when I’m not dealing with it on a regular basis.

I create better work, I’m able to show up better for my clients and the people in my life, I can manage my autism, health conditions and sobriety more effectively. I can be a better human, more regularly.

“Boundaries are an act of self care. They are for us. If someone responds in a hurtful way we are simply getting feedback on their emotional wellness. Emotionally well people respect boundaries. They honor the needs of others, because they honor the needs of themselves.”

— Dr. Nicole LePera.

I’ve been through a lot. I really have. I’m becoming more aware of how this has changed and shaped me.

I’m capable of a lot of good things, and when I’m happy and comfortable I can achieve great work and great things. I don’t have to constantly grind and make money; I’m very fortunate and lucky to have a modest life, occasionally treating myself and others. I’ve spent 7 years learning and working in studios where heavy alcohol/drug use and lack of boundaries/toxic relationships were not just standard, they were funny and cool as fuck. 

I’m now unlearning lots of old, outdated and toxic things about tattooing and the industry, so that I can take in and learn more new, better and healthy things.

Thanks for reading!