Autistic and Alone: What I Learnt Navigating Adolescence as a Young Autistic Woman

A photo of a teenage girl walking alone down a leafy track.

Written by Jac Lai

The smell of smoke wafted lower and lower, encompassing the giggling group of girls in the cubicle next to mine, hanging near them, like it knew they all belonged together, possessing knowledge that I did not.

Parts of me filled with anger and despair, equally intertwined, fluctuating throughout my body. How I craved to be part of that, connected to that …

Reflections of my adolescence, come back to me from time to time. Sometimes fleeting, sometimes so vivid I can still taste my favourite chicken and salad roll from the tuckshop, on my tongue. Memories are bittersweet, often on the more bitter end of the spectrum, filled with moments of hopelessness, loneliness, and despair. Why did I keep having to forsake my true self, for a version of ‘me’ I often didn’t understand or even like? There were moments of hope, of glee, where I finally thought I had found someone that knew me. (It did happen!)

Adolescence is a time of separation from what we have previously known, so is often turbulent and unpredictable. Of course, teenage brains are programmed to seek alternate forms of acceptance and understanding. This is from peers most of the time, a skill very much needed to navigate the world when they become adults. Yet, what no one tells you is how incredibly isolating it can be, how incredibly challenging it is to find where you fit, how incredibly despairing it can be to keep trying, without success.

The most painful memory – where it became very clear that I was in fact quite different from my peers – was at a party full of my co-workers from my part-time job. My parents were my ride, dropping me off and wishing me a fun time.

What no one really knew was how much it took me to step out of the car, how long I practiced conversations in my bedroom, how much my fingers bled as I picked them to stim and quell my anxiety on the car ride to the party.

These things no one talks about. These things no one seems to understand. These things are what it can still take me to go to a new social event.

Once at the party, I walked in, obtained a drink (I think I did?), and commenced the dance of pretending I knew how to be a typical, socially-apt adolescent. After standing quietly for a while, I proceeded to sit at the table, where there were a few familiar faces. Of course, I thought to myself. They know me, they will talk to me, they know what to say, I don’t! This was the quintessential moment! I was not alone, and I was surrounded by my peers. Desperate for connection, desperate to be accepted, yet desperate to escape.

I sat, and the longer I sat, the deeper I was pulled into the pit within my stomach. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. Where do I go? How do I start a conversation? The constant questions in my mind, exhausting me. The pit becoming deeper, sucking me into its depth.

My eyes were suddenly wet, as I sprinted to the front of the house, alone once more, in the darkness, just like the darkness from the depths of my stomach. Desperate for a lift home, my Mum saved me. I cannot express how grateful I am to this day, for the lift home that night.

I hope I haven’t pulled you into the depths with me, yet this was my adolescence – unfinished conversations, smiles unreciprocated, end of year journals with minimal signatures. I learnt to hide, I learnt be quiet, I learnt to stay safe in the library or toilet block.

Yet I still had hope because I knew I would find my people, others who I shared an unwavering bond, others who I did not have to pretend for, hide for, mask for. And I did find my people, who I love very deeply and fiercely protect.

Late diagnosis or not, I am Autistic, I am female, and I am unique. I bring warmth, I am worthy of people who love me. So are you, no matter where you are on your journey.

Remember – you will find your people too. They will love you; they will protect you. It takes time, but at the end of the day, these people, who are so much like you, are the ones worth waiting for.

Tips for my neurokin on finding connection when transitioning to adolescence:

  • Find groups or clubs that are linked to your interests. It is an easier in and everyone is there for the same interest. Participate and connect about that interest, whether it be board games or horses, in your own way.
  • Surround yourself with people who love and accept your authentic self, as often as you can. This will allow your confidence to grow and for you to be valued for what you bring to the world.
  • Be kind to yourself by accepting your needs as valid, and work on setting boundaries to advocate for them. Don’t hold yourself to a neuronormative standard. I know it is hard, yes, it is daily practice, but self-acceptance and self-advocacy are crucial steps to Autistic wellbeing.
  • Find what you enjoy, what you love, and do that, whether it be your job, your fur baby, or having coffee when reading a book.
  • Try new things, open yourself to new experiences (and yes this is incredibly tricky to navigate), but having a plan in place, understanding your limit can be so helpful, or having an out can be hugely impactful.
  • Seek out people who are unwavering, who have your back, who ask for no explanation when you are fatigued, who ask for no compromises from you. These are your people.

Jac Lai is a 38-year-old Autistic female, finding her own way in life. She is a mum, book lover, nature lover, and an avid animal lover (mostly horses, wolves, and cats). She is currently studying her Masters of Autism at Griffith University and is a Program Designer and Trainer at Empower Autism, designing programs for Autistic individuals and raising awareness of Autistic people in workplaces. Feel free to contact her at


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The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Amangu, Awabakal, Bindjareb, Birpai, Whadjak, Wiradjuri and Yugambeh peoples.

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