Cover Beatrice Leong (Photo: Imran Sulaiman/Tatler Malaysia)

Diagnosed with autism in her 30s, the filmmaker and healthcare startup founder wants to create a better world for other misunderstood female autistics

As a child, Beatrice Leong was an 'A' student. To her teachers and classmates, she was also an enigma—a troubled girl who struggled to form connections with others and to understand the nuances of human interaction that other kids picked up instinctively. Beneath her aloof facade, she always felt a few steps behind everyone else and took great pains to conceal this by pretending otherwise.

In the first of a five-part series on The Vibes for Autism Awareness Month in 2022, Leong wrote: “When you’ve lived so long being told that the person you are is not welcomed in this world, you will try to adapt and find ways to belong.”

More: This Shanghai-Based Startup Helped Doctors Detect Autism Earlier

She was 36 when first assessed for autism. A year later in 2021, she was diagnosed with it. It was a moment of realisation that shed light on the struggles she had faced for so long. “Knowledge empowered me,” she explains in a recent conversation with Tatler. “The diagnosis was an important piece of information that helped me find a path towards stability."

Leong soon found strength in telling her stories and hearing similar experiences of other women diagnosed with autism in their adulthood—women who are at greater risk of being misdiagnosed and misunderstood in Asian society compared to children diagnosed with autism. Convinced that sharing these stories with the rest of the world is a step towards empowering female autistics, Leong has been hard at work researching for her upcoming documentary titled The Lost Girls.

Read on for more insights from Leong on her journey to self-acceptance and the importance of changing how we talk about autism in Asia.    

My first stint in filmmaking was…

When I assisted in a documentary helmed by Lina Teoh, having the opportunity to do everything from being the water cooler girl, to transcribing interviews, research, looking for stories and fact-checking. Seeing how such a chaotic creative process could produce such powerful stories gave me a sense of how important storytelling was. I think on some deeper level, I wanted to tell my chaotic story and struggled to make sense of it.

Even before I was referred to a neuropsychologist for further assessment…

I started to read more about autism and entertain the idea that maybe I was autistic. I bought almost every available title on autism in women. I remember browsing a few pages of one particular book in Kinokuniya with tears in my eyes because it felt like I was reading my own life story.

I had found the answer that I was looking for. I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t impossible and I certainly was not a broken person—I had simply slipped under the radar. I felt as if my life finally made complete sense. I had always felt so broken and misunderstood, and I kept learning how to cope in the most unhealthy ways.

Related: Adele Lim, From Composition Book Scribbles to Hollywood Screenplay

 

The term ‘lost girls’ wasn’t coined by me…

It was used by another autistic writer to describe women like me, the misunderstood and angry 'drama queens'. Throughout my diagnosis, I connected with many other women, and not just from Malaysia, who shared profoundly similar trajectories and stories. We all shared the feeling that that we were different but could never quite place why. It became more than just my own sob story and I realised how little was being told about how women experience autism.

I think it’s hard for anyone, not just autistics, to ever truly ‘feel’ free.

We live in a world where everything is so constructed, and everyone is subconsciously pressured to put on personas to fit into the world. For many autistics, there is a devastating concept called masking, often misunderstood as just ‘putting on a face or an act’ to fit into a situation. A difference is that autistics do not ever get to take this mask off, it drowns you and makes you forget the person you are inside. I've had troubling coping mechanisms with this.  

These days, I am more at ease with myself.

And I don’t feel so guilty anymore when I have had enough at gatherings of people. I used to force myself to sit through it and constantly felt overwhelmed by a sensory overload. Now, I spend a lot of time with my pets because with them, I do truly feel that I don’t have to be anything else but myself. They don’t judge me if I am not out of bed for a day, if I have a meltdown or have a screaming fit. My dogs have always come to me even when I would lie down pathetically on the floor. That connection and peace to be yourself is something that very rarely happens between two humans. Animals don’t see you the way most people do.

"I want to find space to live my life being a lot kinder to myself, and to live a lot more gently."
Beatrice Leong

We need to change how we use language about autism…

And rethink the terms we use. Saying things like Asperger’s, persons with autism, adults with autism—these are all extremely outdated and for the community at large, is offensive as it insinuates that autism is a disease or an illness. Autism isn’t something a person comes with or a condition that they can be without. A lot of newer research and also accounts written by autistics themselves would show you the importance for autistics of being seen as their own person with their own autonomy of mind. This is important because the way we use language to describe something, helps to inform and shape public views of a certain subject.

It's important to understand that…

The world we have today isn’t adaptable to people who are different. Autistics, people with physical impairments—just because we aren’t the majority of society’s make-up, it doesn’t mean we don’t have the rights to exist and live our lives. We must start thinking of building a more genuinely inclusive world and society, and to do it with active co-participation from autistics themselves.

This year...

I am in the midst of writing a book of my experiences and that of others in the same position as me. I’ve been talking about doing this for a long time and have had many different drafts. It’s been difficult as I never find my ending. So let’s hope the book gets finished this year.

Also, I want to find space to live my life being a lot kinder to myself, and to live a lot more gently. 

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