'I am kinder to myself' - Mum-of-three on being diagnosed with autism at 50
- Credit: Supplied by Sarah Southernwood
Sarah Southernwood has spent 20 years working with people with autism and sensory disabilities, but never saw the signs in herself.
Growing up she was, by her own admission, thought of as "weird and shy" - when she knew she wasn't either, she just struggled to connect.
Now at the age of 50 the married mother-of-three, including a grown-up son with autism, and grandmother-to-two from Caister, near Great Yarmouth, has received the long-delayed diagnosis she says could have helped her to navigate the world and understand who she was.
"I didn't seek the diagnosis and wasn't aware I was on the spectrum," she said.
"I had always been thought of as anti-social and came across as very shy, although I knew I wasn't shy - I just felt awkward.
"A few years ago I had an issue in the workplace which resulted in me getting PTSD.
"One therapist suggested I might be on the spectrum and contacted my doctor to ask for a referral. Up until then I had no idea."
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Tests followed and Mrs Southernwood's scores chimed with autism and she was put on a three year waiting list.
However, Sunbeams, where she works as an activity co-ordinator, referred her to the Oxford-based OWL centre and she was able to get an assessment there. She was handed the diagnosis last month.
"I was really pleased and then I was really upset," she said.
"It makes you think about things when you look back on your life where maybe you failed and didn't understand why - like at a job interview, why it has been a struggle to make friends and keep friends, even why it was hard going into a big, busy shop - it was just a sensory overload and I did not realise."
She also realised she had been "stimming", making repetitive movements as a way of managing emotions, but while going through a period of denial tried to suppress them, affecting her mental health.
"It has been a quick journey for me," she said, "from denial to acceptance."
"At school I was considered shy and weird and a loner, but I just didn't understand how to socialise.
"Even now holding a conversation is difficult, so I prefer not to and people think I am standoffish or worried, which is not the case."
Importantly, having the diagnosis means being kinder to herself.
"If I met someone now I would be more than happy to say at the outset that I have a diagnosis of autism because I misinterpret things.
"I can be kinder to myself, and if I had known earlier it would have been easier for me.
"Mental health has been an issue for me over the years - which is a big part of undiagnosed autism - as well as the loneliness, because it is so hard to socialise.
"It used to puzzle me that people had big groups of friends. The diagnosis helps me to accept I am wired this way."
Mrs Southernwood has worked in education with a focus on disability and autism for 20 years, initially as a way to see what the experience would likely be for her young son Kieran, now 25.
Now Sunbeams is starting up a support group for adults with a late diagnosis of autism like her.
"It's just so people are not alone," she said.
"It is for those who have had a late diagnosis, or are going through the process of being diagnosed and may be anxious about it. Also it will be an opportunity to socialise in a group without any judgement.
"I realise that everyone is different and there are people that struggle with friendship and that really upsets them."
The new group aims to meet fortnightly at Sunbeams in Gapton Hall Road, Yarmouth, from 9.30 to 11.30am, with the first meeting on Wednesday, September 14.
The group will provide opportunities for socialising, sharing experiences, time with the centre's psycho-therapist, as well as training and workshops.
Outings will also be a key element, helping people to explore new places and feel comfortable in a public setting.
For more information call 01493 442181.