Ellen Clarke suffered repeated episodes of anxiety, depression and breakdown all her life, and had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

But it wasn’t until she reached menopause in her 50s and all her coping mechanisms ground to a halt that she realised she might actually be autistic.

Ellen, a music teacher from Newcastle, asked her GP for a referral and was finally diagnosed with ADHD in 2021 and as autistic last November. “My whole life now makes sense. I can look back and not be so hard on myself,” she says.

That's why she's backing our #Everyday Equality campaign highlighting the challenges and obstacles neurodivergent people face in their daily lives.

I’m now a passionate advocate for awareness of autism in women and misdiagnosis. It’s important that women like me realise we’re not broken, we are not anxious messes and quivering wrecks.

As a girl growing up in Northumberland, Ellen was very shy but was one of seven children who were all similar so the family didn’t think anything was amiss. "As a child I was shy but also loud at times. I was a bit of a walking contradiction," she says.

She had anxiety as a teenager and was prescribed tranquillisers. Later, she suffered post-natal depression after both her children were born and she was hospitalised for a time in a mother and baby unit. 

“Autism was never picked up on despite the lack of eye contact, the emotional burnout and the meltdowns,” Ellen, 57, says. “In those days, autism and girls didn’t go hand in hand – it wasn’t on the radar then.

“People told me I was a black-and-white thinker and a perfectionist, and that I was my own worst enemy. I kept a lot inside because the last thing I wanted to do was stand out from the crowd.

But from time to time I had massive meltdowns and burnouts because I couldn’t internalise it any longer.

During one of her burnouts in 2006, when she was in hospital, Ellen was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Nobody discussed it with her at the time and she didn’t see it in her notes until a decade later.

She was furious, and eventually got it removed. “I firmly believe that I was just given that diagnosis because doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. It’s a label for women – it’s normally women – that they can’t fit into any other category.”

When Ellen reached menopause, she says, “all the rituals and systems I’d built up to cope with life broke down.” She was told she was treatment resistant, but a chance meeting with a friend who’d just been diagnosed as autistic with ADHD was a “lightbulb moment” for her.

“I said, ‘oh hang on, that sounds like me’. I researched and researched, joined groups, listened to other people, then went to my GP and said, ‘I think this is what has been going on’.”

Her GP referred her for assessment via Right to Choose and it took around five months for her to get the diagnosis. It has been life-changing, she says. 

I have lived in a constant state of fight or flight. Now I’m learning that I don’t need to be like that any more, and I’m having the time of my life. 

“People are seeing the real unmasked me and I can connect with people. I feel so sad for so many women who aren’t able to get that.

"For too long now, women have been marginalised with mental health conditions, not knowing what the root cause was. A lot of my anxiety and depression was neurodivergence and I’m sure I’m not alone.

“I’m not keen on labels in themselves, but they’re particularly needed at the minute because women have been underrepresented, undiagnosed and missed. We need to say ‘we are this’ so we can get support, accommodations and understanding and be allowed to function at our best.”

Read more about our Everyday Equality campaign