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This is not normal...

Updated: Feb 20

By Anna

Those words changed my life.


My first college exam left me in tears. I knew the information, but the sounds around me crescendoed into a whirlwind of sensory overload. Pens clicking, tapping feet, heavy sighs, and a ticking clock drew my attention and warped the page in front of me into a blurry mess. I approached the professor with an empty exam: shaking, sobbing, unable to speak.


“...I mean, this is not testing anxiety. This is worse. I want you to see someone in disability services.” Because of my class participation, my professor knew I was a good student– a good student that needed support.


So my therapist wrote a letter declaring I needed time and a half on my exams due to anxiety. I sat in a room with other students in disability services, and despite wearing earplugs, the sounds still sent me spiraling. Something was missing. Knowing that disability services should be a safe space to practice self-advocacy, I spoke with the office and they helped me choose a different set of accommodations that included extra time to complete tests as well as testing in a separate room from others.


I never imagined that I’d need those accommodations, but with them I was able to focus solely on the material and utilize my photographic memory (my primary way of memorization). I was not distracted by the pressure of time or noise. I was able to move my body in ‘socially unacceptable’ repeated motions. I was able to take the time to regulate from distractions before continuing the exam.


I spent most of my life masking struggles to avoid bullying. I would find ways around advocating for myself, mirroring my peers and ‘playing it cool’. I excelled at school due to a high IQ, but when I decided to move to a new state and study challenging scientific material, I was not able to keep up the mask.


I was lucky to have an observant and kind professor. Not all were supportive, though. Some would try to alter the accommodations. Once, a professor barged into the room while I was taking a test and ruffled through scrap paper, trying to find evidence of cheating. Their actions made me uneasy, but I stood strong in my rights. I learned to advocate for myself and kept focused on my goals.


“This is not normal...” Those words validated my struggles. They inspired me to find out what was ‘not normal’ about me.


A neuropsychological evaluation led to speculation that I was on the autism spectrum, but there were no adult testing services in the state. Finally, a therapist who did adult evaluations educated me on the stereotypes of autism, and how autism presents in adult females. After our assessment, they were certain that I was autistic. An autism diagnosis led me to discover the needs that I was used to sacrificing in order to try to survive in a neurotypical-dominated society. It helped me understand how these needs could change according to circumstances, and how to advocate for them. Assimilating to this has been an ongoing practice.


 

"An autism diagnosis led me to discover the needs that I was used to sacrificing in order to try to survive in a neurotypical-dominated society. It helped me understand how these needs could change according to circumstances, and how to advocate for them."

 

While my professor was a good person with great intentions, saying that my physiological response to taking a test in the classroom was not normal highlights the work that needs to be done in society. What is normal, anyway? I wish for all disabilities to become normalized.


In the meantime, I am glad my professor acknowledged that the meltdown he witnessed was a sign of deep distress, and that a high-masking autistic woman let her mask down just enough to allow people to help.


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