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A psychologist didn't know she has autism and ADHD until she was 37. Now, she educates others on spotting subtle symptoms.

Dr. Megan Neff
nullMega Neff
  • Dr. Megan Neff was finishing her psychology PhD when she was diagnosed with autism and ADHD.

  • After her daughter was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, she began to recognize the symptoms in herself.

  • The diagnosis helped her see her strengths as well as learn to be kinder to herself.

At age 37, Dr. Megan Neff was about to receive her doctorate in clinical psychology when she had a psychological breakthrough: She was diagnosed with autism and ADHD.

It's common for people to get diagnosed with both of these disorders together — and combined they are sometimes referred to as AuDHD.

"It's like everything clicked into place, and I finally had a lens to understand myself," she told Insider.

Years earlier, Neff's daughter had been diagnosed with ADHD. As her daughter got older, Neff and her spouse wondered if her daughter might have autism as well based on other symptoms they saw.

"That started a whole rabbit trail around autism for me, and this is really common for autistic people. " Neff told Insider. "It becomes a special interest."

Because of her education in psychology, she had unusually high access to peer-reviewed literature on autism and ADHD, as well as her own IQ tests and personality assessments. She started to suspect that she might have ADHD and autism too.

Six months later, she received a medical diagnosis of AuDHD from a psychologist. She told Insider that the diagnosis has changed her career trajectory as well as her relationships.

Previously, she was masking a lot of her symptoms

By the time she received a formal diagnosis, Neff had been in therapy for three years, exploring the possibility of repressed trauma.

"I was getting to a point of just trying to grieve and accept that I would never understand why I was the way I was," she said. "I just couldn't understand my sensory sensitivities and my social aversions, and trauma is a narrative that made the most sense."

Instead, realizing that she is AuDHD helped her understand why certain things, like small talk, are more difficult for her. She told Insider that she relies a lot on masking, a common symptom of autism and ADHD, to socialize.

"I used to rehearse and script out conversations," she said.

Masking can be one of the reasons that many women and gender non-conforming people aren't diagnosed until later in life, or are misdiagnosed with conditions like borderline personality disorder.

Because she had been concealing and finding adaptations for her difficulties, some people, including her spouse, were skeptical of the diagnosis until they learned more about autism and ADHD.

"That's a really common response for people who mask," Neff said.

The diagnosis helped her recognize her unique strengths

Neff said that hyper-fixation is her most dominant autistic trait. "I become highly obsessive around my interests," she said. "It's why I've been able to create a career out of mental health and neurodivergence, because I have a lot of energy."

She also experiences self-soothing through repetition and categorization. While this behavior is more commonly associated with math or tech, hers is tied to psychology, which is also her special interest.

She shifted her career to focus on neurodivergent patients like herself

The diagnosis radically changed how Neff restructured her life. "I went from being incredibly hard on myself to finally being able to be gentle," she said. Before, she constantly self-criticized and made herself push through her discomfort.

Because she requires more energy to "decode" social interactions and also stay focused, Neff said that she can experience burnout more quickly. She also has sensory sensitivities and becomes irritable when her routine is unexpectedly disrupted, both common symptoms of autism.

After recognizing her sensory needs and how she socializes, she switched to a private practice where she works with other neurodivergent patients from her home. She also runs a popular Instagram account where she educates people on the symptoms of autism and ADHD.

According to Neff, it isn't uncommon to experience big life shifts like hers after an autism or ADHD diagnosis.

"There's a lot of self-exploration that often happens as a person starts unmasking and starts getting curious about who they authentically are," she said.

For people going through similar self-discoveries, she recommended finding a therapist to help them learn more about themselves, as well as connecting with other ADHD and autistic people through groups or social media.

"I really can't understate how powerful it is just to have an accurate lens or narrative to understand ourselves from," she said. For many, a diagnosis is the first step to letting go of internalized shame — and embracing all the things people with autism and ADHD can be proud of.

Read the original article on Insider