Laura James was 45 years old when she learned she had autism. Rather than be afraid of the uncertainty before her, she embraced her diagnosis.
“I think the real feeling was one of relief,” James, a British journalist and mother of four, tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview. “I [finally] knew why I was different.”
James, now 48, details her life before and after her 2015 diagnosis in her memoir, Odd Girl Out: My Extraordinary Autistic Life, which released in the U.S. on Tuesday. She explains that she wrote the book in order to raise awareness about autism, especially when it comes to women, who are harder to diagnose and are routinely overlooked, according to Scientific American. But the book is also deeply personal. James reveals how painful it was to feel “different” as a child, the constant anxiety she feels because of her heightened awareness to everyday sights and sounds (so much so that she can’t sleep in the same bedroom as her husband) and how her condition made her more vulnerable to sexual harassment by various male bosses — incidents that happened so often she says she quit three different jobs to escape them.
“There are good feelings and bad feelings,” James writes in Odd Girl Out when describing how she experiences emotion. “The good ones come in pretty colors and feel soft, like cashmere between my fingers. The bad ones come in shades of green and are jagged and spiky, like a piece of plastic that catches your finger and makes you bleed.”
James’s first memory of feeling “different” occurred when she was 5 years old and watched neurotypical (people who are not on the autism spectrum) girls play on the playground. She says she knew she needed to mimic them. The author writes that everyday occurrences were often too overwhelming for her to handle, like when she was 3 years old and her mother forced her to wear a blue fur jacket. James wanted her yellow jacket.
“I feel itchy and angry. I will not wear this coat. I breathe in and do not exhale. My mother’s expression moves from angry to concerned,” James writes. “My lungs begin to hurt. My mother is talking to me. I see her lips moving but cannot hear her words. I am silent. My body stiffens. My lips are tinged with blue. I fall to the floor and lose consciousness.”
Adults — even her parents — blamed such occurrences on the fact that she was adopted, she explains. (James never met her birth mother, but learned that she was once “an underwater ballerina who danced with crocodiles.”)
“I felt very, very different. I just felt like everybody was in on the story and I wasn’t,” she says. “I — and everybody else — thought that my different behavior was because I was adopted… [Adoption] was a little bit shameful.”
Throughout her life, James writes that she was misdiagnosed with anxiety and eating disorders. But that didn’t stop her from living her life. James married and divorced young before marrying Tim, now her husband of 20 years.
It was only in 2015, when James went to the hospital after being diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome — a connective tissue disorder that makes her bruise and dislocate limbs easily — that a comment from a nurse (after James broke down over a tuna sandwich) clued James into the fact that she might have autism. A meeting with a psychiatrist confirmed the diagnosis.
While her diagnosis didn’t change her relationship with her four children, all of whom are in their 20s, it did change her relationship with her husband.
“In the past, it might have been irritating the way I behaved on the plane or the way I behave when I’m stressed or the sensory issues I have,” she says, “Now [Tim] understands why, so he’s much more considerate.”
The diagnosis finally explains why James is so upset by surprises (both good and bad). Now she knows to put Post-it notes around the house to remind her to eat and brush her teeth. But her diagnosis is also allowing her to help others.
In early March, James won the National Autistic Society’s Autism Professionals Awards for her advocacy work. She’s helping to clear up the confusion surrounding autism, especially in women. Many women with autism are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed because past research has focused on men and boys with autism, who behave differently than women with autism.
“I think we grow up more slowly,” James says about the difference between neurotypical girls and those not on the autism spectrum. “Emotionally, I think that we are less mature than neurotypical girls. We are also incredibly trusting.”
For James, this means that girls with autism are more vulnerable, especially to sexual harassment. She explains that she left three different jobs as a young woman because her male bosses made unwelcome advances. In one instance, she was 19 and her boss was in his late 40s. According to James, she was cleaning up after an after-hours work event when he made an unwanted move.
“I went into the kitchen to wash the dishes and then came back… [Then] my boss just kind of leapt on me. But he didn’t just leap on me, he returned to me and said, ‘I think something changed between us tonight.'” she recalls. “Because autistic people… don’t really understand innuendo, particularly when we’re younger… I was so busy thinking about what he meant by ‘something changed’ (had I lost my job? had I made a mistake?), that I almost didn’t notice the fact that he was trying to pin me down on the sofa.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I literally just never went back to the job again,” she continues, “I left my stuff in my desk and never went back.”
Autism presents its challenges, but James also acknowledges the benefits. She can complete a task quickly because she’s so hyper-focused.
“I don’t think there is any kind of one normal person, any one normal variant of people,” she says. “For neurotypical [people], I imagine that life is much calmer, but also less interesting.”
Odd Girl Out: My Extraordinary Autistic Life is out now.