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I always wondered why I was different...At age 50, I got my answer

This post is by Anita Lesko, an adult on the autism spectrum, Anita's story has gone viral as the bride to one of the first ever all-autism wedding! This post is part of an initiative on our site called “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism from their perspectives. Have a story you want to share? Email us at InOurOwnWords@autismspeaks.org!

Never even hearing the word Asperger’s until age 50, I went through all those years not knowing why I was so different, never fit in, and had a myriad of “unusual” sensory issues.  I couldn’t figure out why I was unable to make friends, and why all social interactions were so difficult. Yet despite it all, I forged ahead and followed my dreams.  I set goals, and then mapped out the path to reach them, no matter how lofty. 

In 1995, after renting TOP GUN and seeing it for the first time, I decided I wanted to take a flight in a fighter jet!  That being a seemingly impossible feat for any civilian, I figured out a way to pull it off!  I spent the next seven years becoming an internationally published military aviation photojournalist.  I was obsessed with fighter jets and all military aircraft. No one could figure out my “addiction” to all of this, not even myself!  I even moved 1,000 miles from Wisconsin to Pensacola, Florida to be near the two big military bases there.  Naval Air Station Pensacola was home to the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the world’s premier precision flight demonstration team.  I had the extreme honor to make numerous visits to their squadron and meet all the pilots and photograph them up close with their jets.  I also got to spend a lot of time at Eglin Air Force Base, with the 33rd Fighter Wing.  There, at the Fighting Crows Squadron, I earned my dream of a lifetime!  I got a flight in an F-15 Fighter jet, complete with full after-burner take-off! It was the culmination of seven years of perseverance that got me in that back seat, hurling down the runway and straight up to 15,000 feet.   

When I was a young child, I fell in love with horses.  In my teens, I dreamed of jumping horses in competition over six foot high fences.  Again, a seemingly impossible dream, especially because it takes a lot of money for lessons and horses to get there.  Lack of funds didn’t stop me.  I became a working student and earned all my riding time and lessons from hard work at the stable.  I must have mucked out a million stalls, or at least it seemed like it.  Eventually, I was jumping horses over six foot fences.  Again, my perseverance got me there.

My biggest accomplishment was yet to come.  In 1988, I graduated from Columbia University in New York City with a Master of Science in Nurse Anesthesia.  I took my Board exam, passed, and have been working full time ever since as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, over 26 years now.  I recently calculated how many cases I’ve done: to date, it’s over 50,000 anesthetics, and one step further, over 1,000,000 - yes, one million - social interactions! 

Six years ago, just after turning 50, a co-worker’s son got diagnosed with Asperger’s.  She came to tell me about it.  Until that day, I’d never even heard of it.  I will never forget that moment, that Oprah Winfrey “Ah-ha!” moment, when Lisa handed me the paper about Asperger’s. The paper said that if you have 10 out of the 12 signs, you have Asperger’s.  I had 12 out of 12.  Suddenly all the pieces of the puzzle of my life fell into place, and it all made sense.  Several weeks later, I received my formal diagnosis.

90% of people with autism are either unemployed or under employed.  While it is true that we need to educate employers of our abilities, WE must also help ourselves.  I’ve accomplished something few autistic people have done by maintaining a career in a VERY high-stress, fast-paced job as a Nurse Anesthetist. The operating room is not for the faint of heart.  In addition to having patients’ lives in my hands every day, I must interact with the entire surgical team, the surgeons, and patients and their families. I am only able to do this because I’ve spent my life interacting with endless people, and getting out in social situations. 

Remember, I went the first 50 years of my life not knowing I’m autistic.  Oh, for sure I made TONS of social blunders!  But I never let it stop me. Using one of Scott Hamilton’s famous quotes, “It’s not about falling. It’s about getting up!” 

The more you do, the better your successes!

Dr. Valerie Paradiz, PhD wrote an inspiring piece for Disability Studies Quarterly that discusses Asperger syndrome as an adult that you can read here.

Autism Speaks recently came out with a tool kit for adults who suspect they may have autism, as well as those recently diagnosed with the disorder called Is It Autism and If So, What Next? A Guide for Adults that you can read more about here.

Have a story you want to share for our “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.