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Autism was my giant missing puzzle piece

Mahlia explains how she has used her art to understand and embrace her autism.

When I was diagnosed with autism six years ago, my world changed tectonically. I rediscovered myself with a whole new perspective, and a giant missing puzzle piece. 

I’m not someone who suspected that they were autistic when it was first suggested to me. In fact, like other late diagnosed women, I was originally diagnosed with a personality disorder. So when this diagnosis appeared on my horizon, I had to learn all about it. 

Though I was born autistic, it was new information. I had to adjust, and most importantly, find out what it meant for me.

Finding the right work environment

My journey of diagnosis as an adult happened in the same year that I changed careers for the first time, to become an artist.

I’d previously worked in the corporate world, living my life to a neurotypical template, which understandingly didn’t work for me. 

The office environments were completely non-conducive; too loud, open plan, no set desk, strong smells, changing people, overlapping sounds, zero quiet spaces and just too much going on. 

I couldn’t focus on my work, and I didn’t understand the etiquette or politics. Also, as I tend to work in a very intense, hyper-focused manner, being in the same environment for nine hours a day, Monday to Friday, was completely ineffective and counter-intuitive. I was constantly exhausted and overwhelmed. 

Since then, I’ve tried different types of self-employed roles, but my main work now is as a visual artist and neurodiversity advocate. 

Self-employment works very well for me. I enjoy how I get to plan out my time, which allows me to have space for downtime when I’m not doing so well. With this, it gives me vital time to spend outdoors, to ground myself in nature and recharge. 

Art helped me understand my autism

Being an artist has played a crucial role in me understanding and embracing my diagnosis of autism. It’s also enabled me to reach out to others on the spectrum to create art exhibitions and engage in collaborative projects. This work has fed into helping wider audiences increase their understanding of autism, which is a real passion of mine. 

Art has become a powerful medium that helped cement autism into my newfound identity. 

For instance, in one collection of work, my starting point was autistic traits that I struggle with. These include communication challenges, the continual feeling of overwhelm, and sensory overload. When working on this series, I often felt very raw and exposed, and this was reflected in the heavy mark-making and limited colour palette I used. 

There are many different ways to live, work, and be

My art has taken me on an extraordinary journey, one that I could never have foreseen. Nowadays, as well as creating art and advocating for autism, I work as a mentor and coach to other neurodivergent individuals. 

My diagnosis of autism and where I’ve been on my employment journey has truly changed my life, and still continues to astound me. I want to share my learnings more broadly and to help others in their diagnosis journey. 

There are many different ways to live, work and be. For those of us who aren’t neurotypical, this just takes longer to figure out. It’s totally possible to find our alignment in this world, and it’s essentially what we deserve and have a right to.

My life certainly isn’t perfect. But I’m in a far better place now since receiving my diagnosis. Yes, I’m constantly learning and tweaking, and figuring out my next steps. I’ll get there, I know. But the huge difference now, compared with before, is that I know what does and does not work for me – and more so: why. 

I’ve learnt what triggers me and how I can reset and rebalance. I have a toolkit and strategies. Ounces of compassion. And a whole lot more. And I’m just going to keep going.


Visit my website to learn more about my art projects:
Follow me on Instagram and Twitter: @MahliaaMatina

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