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“Building a Life That’s Right for Me: On Living with Autism and ADHD”

“In a scary and unpredictable world, routine can calm the autistic brain and allow us to function. ADHD, on the other hand, is all about novelty. The ADHD brain hates monotony, is deadened by repetition, seeks stimulation, and rebels against structure. So how does someone with ADHD and autism find a place in this world?”

An illustration of a woman sitting on top of a pink circle agains t a blue backdrop. Birds in the sky.
Credit: We Are/Getty Images

I had an overactive and rich imagination as a child. I was the celebrity savior of a distant planet. I was friends with an invisible boy who lived in a hollowed-out tree. I had a magic flying swing that could take me anywhere I wanted to go. I yearned to be an actress, writer, singer, and director when I “grew up.” I wanted to lead a supremely excellent life, and I was eager to get started.

As an adult, however, I’ve mostly fantasized about living a “normal” life — one where my kids could invite their friends over to a clean house. Where I’d arrive to work on time, and to an organized office. A life where I’d eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, and practice mindfulness (in a retreat room that I’ve arranged for the maximum flow of chi). In this life, I’d also have regular date nights with my husband.

Until recently, I had given up on my childhood dreams of leading a supremely excellent life. How could I, after all, if I was struggling just to reach normal?

First Comes ADHD…

My fantasies around achieving normal seemed attainable after I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 40. Here was the buffer all along, I thought, and ADHD medication would finally set me on the right path. I would be able to focus on my work and approach each task head on, without a nauseating sense of dread. I would not stress about submitting my expense report on time, because completing tasks on time would be a no-brainer — one feature of the system I’d create to manage my workload. Suddenly, a supremely excellent life didn’t seem far off anymore.

Not long after my diagnosis, I shared in an ADHD support group that the medication I was taking might not be right for me. Why? Because I was still having trouble focusing at work (I’d plan a blog during normal working hours), I didn’t care if the dishes were clean, and I was less interested than ever in creating an efficient organizing system for myself.

[Get This Free Download: The Guide to Autism in Adults]

To my surprise, I learned that these signs were not indicative of a problem with my treatment, but of what happens when you suppress your true self in favor of following expectations. As it turns out, it’s my interests, not externally-imposed priorities, that dictate what makes my ADHD brain tick. In other words, the things I like are the very things that make me function well in the world.

But it would be another 10 years until I received a missing piece of information necessary to fully understand my neurology: Not only do I have ADHD, but I am also autistic.

Living with Autism and ADHD: Making Sense of Opposites

My autism diagnosis helped me make sense of so much in my life, from my childhood fantasies of belonging on another planet to difficulties grasping social norms. I realized why I spent so much energy trying to manage my reactions to experiences that most people consider normal but are overwhelming to me. My diagnosis also explained why I’m drawn to the reliable structure of a 9-to-5 job. In a scary and unpredictable world, routine can calm the autistic brain and allow us to function.

ADHD, on the other hand, is all about novelty. The ADHD brain hates monotony, is deadened by repetition, seeks stimulation, and rebels against structure. So how does someone with ADHD and autism find a place in this world?

[Read: “Could I Be Autistic, Too?” Signs of Autism in Women with ADHD]

In a twist of fate (that I didn’t have the courage to initiate myself), I recently lost my office job due to budget cuts. My autistic brain was terrified, but my ADHD brain was exhilarated. In this time, I’ve rediscovered a long-dormant motivation to do things that I actually enjoy, like writing and making videos. I’ve also learned more about my unique wiring, and recognized how my autistic neurology can build the reliable structures that allow my ADHD neurology to create new and interesting things. I have also tried to give myself grace for all my perceived shortcomings and imperfections.

It will take time and it won’t be easy, but I’m determined to build a life that is right for me – one where I will pursue the goals and fantasies I had abandoned while I was trying to fit in. In other words, I’ll lead a supremely excellent life, as I had always wanted.

Living with Autism and ADHD: Next Steps


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2 Comments & Reviews

  1. This part: “I’ve also learned more about my unique wiring, and recognized how my autistic neurology can build the reliable structures that allow my ADHD neurology to create new and interesting things.” This is the part that I need help figuring out how to do! Any suggestions?? Many thanks in advance!

  2. It can be either a tough or wonderful combination, often both. But I’m trying to play to my strengths. Lean into ADHD to innovate and my autistic qualities to organise plan and visually describe. When I’m fearing change on a new job it’s ok to let my distractibility loose on a task while I walk or swim. With nothing else to occupy my brain it usually focusses on the anxiety and comes up with ideas. Then I can harness those in planning and structure. For me setting up my environment and removing my own barriers has helped. And not masking who I am. It’s a privilege to be able to not mask but one that I’m running with. I’ll explain my honesty and check in with empathy to be as effective as possible.

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