Read time: 6-7 minutes. Potential triggers: contains details of depression, anxiety, trauma and PTSD.
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.