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Insight: ‘A 30-year-old trapped in a little girl’s body’

Navigating friendships while growing up with undiagnosed autism


Insight: ‘A 30-year-old trapped in a little girl’s body’

Navigating friendships while growing up with undiagnosed autism

Toby and I have been best friends for as long as I can remember. We both liked sea creatures. It’s funny how simple friendship can be when you’re young. All you had to say was "You’re my best friend now," and just like that, you were best friends.

The problem is Toby wasn't your typical best friend — he wasn’t someone whom you could play tag on the playground or trade your lunch with. Toby was a little green turtle stuffed with sand.

We went everywhere together. We wore matching outfits I handmade, I talked to him incessantly, and I planned his wedding to another little sandbag turtle — typical kid things, until you remembered he wasn't real. I didn't feel comfortable outside without him, which is something that should have troubled my parents. But they chalked it up to an overactive imagination, and to be fair, I definitely had that too.

I've always had a very difficult time socially. Up until I was 7, I interacted with adults only. They seemed to like me. They called me precocious. Wise beyond my years. A 30-year-old trapped in a little girl’s body. Any other way to describe a socially incapable child without uttering the word "autistic." And, God, how I wished they just would’ve said it. 

Recipe for disaster

The first time I consistently attended school was in the third grade. I never cared for it, so before then, my unconventional parents didn’t make me go. Looking back, that couldn’t have been healthy for my social development.

When I finally did go to school, I was a strange little kid. It turns out other kids didn’t really like 30-year-olds trapped in little girls' bodies. They liked kids who didn’t demand eye contact. Kids who didn’t fidget constantly or have meltdowns. Kids who didn’t carry around a little green sandbag turtle everywhere they went. If I were neurotypical, I probably wouldn't have liked me either.

I was many things, but most of all, I was self-aware. I started to recognize that I was on the fringe of social normality, and for some reason, this revelation made me shut down.

So when I started fourth grade, I just stopped talking at school. Nobody could figure out why. I don't think I even knew why, but perhaps it was because I couldn't handle what people would say if they knew who I really was. I was particular. Emotionally unstable. Socially awkward. Too mature for my age. And yet, too immature in other ways. A complete recipe for disaster friendship wise.

To encourage me to talk, my school gave me a "spirit award" — a meaningless participation certificate that would hopefully fix my lack of social skills. It didn’t work.

The school's next move was to assign me a friend. I probably should have seen through this, but honestly, I was happy to just have any kind of friend, even if they were essentially being paid off. Slowly, my dependency on Toby faded away.

It was through this forced friendship that I finally started to open up, and when I did, I realized something crucial: I was funny. Where I didn't fit in, I carved out this niche for myself: the neurotypical’s jester.

Being the jester friend is exactly as it sounds. People think you're the funniest thing on the planet because you’re weird, so you do your little song and dance for them — anything to not be alone. I survived like this for longer than I'd care to admit. I was scared to be myself, so I hid behind my role as the playground’s resident comedian.

The mask

By the time I got to middle school, I started to mask. I left the authentic version of myself at home and traded it for a perfect neurotypical girl every time I went out. For the neurotypical readers, masking is a strategy employed by some people with autism in which they suppress their neurodivergent traits in an attempt to blend in — and I was becoming an expert.

I learned to stop flapping my arms and quoting television shows. I no longer carried a little sandbag turtle with me everywhere.

Instead, I tried to make new best friends. Unfortunately, I was largely unsuccessful, and whenever I did succeed, I built friendships based on lies. Inevitably, they all crashed and burned.

I didn’t know how to relate to kids my age, so I adopted my friends’ personalities and interests. They liked Justin Bieber, so I liked Justin Bieber. They liked to draw, so I liked to draw. Their opinions became my opinions until there was nothing left of me. I had hidden myself away, a sacrifice that felt worthy just to stop eating lunch alone in the bathroom.

I’ve never had a firm grasp on what’s considered "normal" socially. Some might say this makes me "unique" or "quirky," but really, all it did was make my life a living hell. In the seventh grade, I trimmed my hair into an ugly little pixie cut just for a change. All I got for it was social isolation. My gym teacher interpreted my haircut as a sign that I was coming out, so she stood me up in the middle of class and had my peers clap for me.

She may have been right, but it was torturous nonetheless.

Up to that point in my life, my friendships had been intense. After I'd adopted a whole new self out of my insatiable craving for connection, there was nowhere to go but down.

In seventh grade, Alice was my best friend. I met her in the lunch line. She noticed the Twenty One Pilots pin on my lanyard, and from there, I just followed her around. That’s how I made most of my friends in life. We would bond over something, and then I would just never leave.

But Alice didn't like me very much. She didn't like that I liked whatever she liked. She didn’t like how much I liked her. She especially didn't like it when I took off my mask. I wanted to be cool like her, but I was a baby gay with undiagnosed autism — not exactly the coolest kid on the block.

It's difficult to tell the story of our failed friendship. What was holding me back from deepening our friendship was not only my stunted social skills, but also my queerness. Our friendship ended because I was in love with her, on top of my lack of social skills. The ultimate gay panic.

So in eighth grade, I dropped out of school.

An emotional tether

After a year off, I rejoined the public school system for high school. It was around this time that I met my new best friend. His name was Gil. He didn't talk much, but he was my best friend all the same.

He was also my dog.

I know it sounds cliche. "My dog is my best friend," says everyone ever. But Gil truly is mine. Friendships have always worked best for me when only one of us could speak. He's the only one in the world who doesn’t judge me when I have meltdowns, nor does he find me too clingy or think I'm too weird.

I didn't know this when I met him, but he would become a support animal for my myriad of mental illnesses and would change my life forever in the best way imaginable. Through every failed friendship, I always had Gil. At the very least, he was a little closer to a human friend than Toby, who had long been buried in the back of my closet — hidden, but never forgotten.

Having autism made it difficult to understand what my boundaries were, so in high school, I had none. Someone would show me an ounce of kindness, and I would spill my guts right then and there. I never realized sharing all your secrets was a bad idea; I just wanted a connection. But people used it against me.

How could they help it? It’s human nature to hurt the ones you love. Especially when they give you every weakness they have.

Because of this, I ended up in very unhealthy friendships. When a friendship is solely based on shared trauma, it's easy for things to go south. I became multiple people's only reason to live — or at least, that's what they told me. Very quickly, I learned being someone's only tether to reality is exhausting.

The worst part is by that point, I had made true friends. I had finally found people who loved and accepted me through the good and the bad, but I was too stupid to appreciate them. Instead, I wasted time on the people who only wanted to control me. I couldn’t recognize who my real friends were, and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t see it for so long.


By the end of my senior year, I realized for the first time who really mattered in my life, and I felt hopeful for the future. College could be my chance to break this vicious cycle, which I still didn't know the root cause of at this point.

But when I got to ASU, I became people's plaything once again. Slipping into the role of the jester was practiced, comfortable, familiar — something I was too accustomed to. I was the strangest thing my freshman-year dorm neighbors had ever seen, so as always, I was treated like a pet.

I was baffled. How had I let this happen again? Why couldn’t I just make friends like a normal person? 

Then, something shifted. I started to make a few true friends at ASU, and one of them happened to be neurodivergent, just like me — even though I was still undiagnosed. My friend pointed out that many of my behaviors were traits of autism and encouraged me to look into what that would mean.

So I began my journey of realizing I have autism. It started like most things do — online quizzes and obsessive reading — until I spiraled down a deep rabbit hole that caused me to question every moment of my life. 

Later that year, I was diagnosed with autism. And in an instant, I forgave myself — for everything. Before I considered the possibility that I was neurodivergent, I was convinced that I was just out of my mind, that I was the only person in the world who struggled so much with making friends for no possible reason. For 18 years, I had hated myself. And then in an instant, compassion for my younger self flooded through me. I finally forgave myself for all my weird tics and habits. I finally understood why my earliest best friend was a little green sandbag turtle.

This isn't to say that being diagnosed with autism is the only path to achieving this clarity. I understand people experience different obstacles in the health care system, especially regarding mental health concerns. I was simply privileged enough to be able to get diagnosed.

But for me, I think I needed the external validation my diagnosis provided. I spent my whole life invalidating myself, and it was life-changing to have someone look me in the eyes and affirm what I suspected — that I just had autism. Everything suddenly clicked into place, and I could think clearly for the first time. 

After years of feeling unlovable, I’m proud to say I love my friends and they love me. But most importantly, I love myself.

Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen.

This story is part of The Best of ASU, which was released on April 30, 2024. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @notevilclaire on X.

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