Dawn-joy Leong only found out that she’s autistic when she was 42. So for most of her life, she didn’t understand why she was quite unlike her peers.
“I was labelled ‘rude’, ‘stubborn’ and ‘argumentative’ from the beginning of school life,” says the 53-year-old. “I also found it confusing that my schoolmates enjoyed doing things in groups. I’d force myself to socialise but I don’t remember enjoying it.”
Aside from having to put up with ridicule of her social awkwardness, she also had to deal with being in a constant state of sensory overload— classroom chatter, the odour of sweaty bodies and the dragging of tables and chairs would leave her with headaches, nausea, dizziness and stress induced mouth ulcers.
It was only when she went to university that she found her groove. “The environment was genteel and gentle, and there was a culture of acceptance of difference,” she says. However, her world came crashing down 20 years later: she was under a lot of stress from having to manage her social anxiety on top of working on her Master’s in music composition and running a real estate project when she found out that her father was dying.
“One night, I became aware that I was standing on the window sill of my ninthstorey flat, staring intently at the bright moon against a pitch black sky. I realised I was on the verge of becoming suicidal, and so I rushed myself to a psychologist the very next day,” she shares.
“After three sessions with him, which involved some exhaustive tests and questions, he diagnosed me with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is now subsumed under the wider umbrella of autism.”
Dawn-joy felt a weight lifted off her shoulders after her diagnosis.
“All my life I was scolded, mocked and even punished for ‘over-reacting’ to things. I felt vindicated at last,” she says. “I finally understood why bright lights and smells that nobody else noticed would make me feel sick. I knew now why socialising would make me immensely exhausted, so much so that I needed to take painkillers after to numb myself.”
Armed with knowledge about her condition, she embarked on a journey of self-discovery and went on to pursue a PhD in autism and art. She has given a TEDx talk on autism and currently uses art and music to raise awareness about the disorder.
“Autism is a neurological function. Our brains work differently from [what is typical],” she explains. “We do not need to ‘overcome’ autism, but rather, societal stigma, discrimination and lack of respect and support.”
She also advocates defining success according to your own needs—even more so for people who fall on the autism spectrum.
“Success means different things to different people. For some people, just getting out of bed in the morning or managing a small gesture of self-care are already triumphant successes,” she says.
“The ultimate success would be to pursue passions not according to the measurements of [what is regarded as ‘normal’], but according to intrinsic autistic functionality. It would be to find your ‘self’ and to be accepting and respectful of it.”