NAOMI SCHRANZ, who identifies as non-binary, spent their life feeling like they were an alien. They were finally diagnosed with autism two years ago, at the age of 19.
Naomi Schranz had always known they were different, but it took them 19 years to be told they were neurodivergent and not, as they had always thought, a very flawed individual. “As a child, I could not connect to other children the same way they did with each other,” Naomi says. “It was like there was a language barrier between us and children would literally cram on tables just to avoid me.”
Although problems with social communication should have been a warning sign, nobody seemed to suspect that Naomi was autistic.
An avid reader since the age of three, Naomi used vocabulary which was very advanced. This reinforced the idea that they could not be autistic since delayed speech or being non-verbal are more commonly associated with the condition. At the age of nine, Naomi started research into human behaviour and how other children interacted with each other in an effort to learn how to make friends.
“I would sit on my own in the playground and observe the other children. I analysed how I could be more like them, which is when I learned how to hide my autistic identity, known as masking,” says Naomi. “I stopped talking about my special interests and tried using the same language my peers would use.” Naomi even watched Disney sitcoms, which didn’t interest them, to learn what people found funny.
Things got more complicated as Naomi grew. “I spent a good portion of my school years, especially in secondary school, hiding in the bathrooms,” they share. “Only now do I realise what a sensory nightmare school is for autistic children. The bells, all the children talking at once, the colours — it’s a constant sensory bombardment.” If ever Naomi stopped talking, which happened occasionally when they got overwhelmed, their teachers assumed they were being difficult and sent them out of the classroom.
Eventually, the exhaustion from having to keep up a facade caught up with Naomi and their grades suffered, which lowered their self-esteem even further. Knowledge of autism was very limited at the time, especially when it came to people with non-stereotypical presentations like Noami. “Even now, I find myself constantly explaining that the spectrum just isn’t a straight line but a sort of a constellation of different traits and that autism has no look,” Naomi explains.
The turning point came in sixth form, when Naomi started studying psychology. “I started looking more into it and one day the subject came up during a family discussion,” says Naomi. “It turns out they had suspected I might have Asperger’s Syndrome when I was in kindergarten. So I Googled it and at first all I found was information about autism in children. Eventually, I stumbled across a YouTube video about a woman who had been diagnosed as autistic as an adult, and that’s when the penny dropped. Her story sounded exactly like mine.”
After a good year of research, Naomi tried getting a formal diagnosis, but it proved to be near impossible. There were many places that could diagnose children under the age of 16, but not a 19-year-old like Naomi. Doctors either dismissed the idea of them being autistic or didn’t know whom to refer them to. By the time Naomi started studying psychology at university, they were desperate for answers. “So I started emailing my lecturers,” they admit. “One of them referred me to an excellent doctor who finally gave me a diagnosis. I now have a 24-page document confirming I am autistic.”
The diagnosis brought enormous relief to Naomi, who could finally make sense of their differences, but it also set off a very turbulent period. “The year after the diagnosis, I was filled with anger,” Naomi shares. “I was so angry at the system that had failed me as a child. I still carry that anger, but am now channelling it in productive ways. I am now kinder to myself and have shifted from thinking I was a broken person to just someone who is autistic.”
The moment the mask Naomi had been wearing began to slide off, they also realised they were non-binary. “I realised just how much of my life had been a performance,” they say. “Life is a lot easier now that I can be myself.”
Making daily life more manageable are also some tools they use, like tinted glasses, noise-cancelling headphones, and their Augmentative and Alternative Communication device.
Now Naomi is using their voice to advocate for fellow autistic persons and would like to see society, especially places like schools and hospitals, be more understanding of their needs. “If I could send one message to other autistic people, it would be to tell them they are not broken,” concludes Naomi. “Autism is a disability, but that does not mean that it is something negative.”