When Emmy Peach took the stage at TEDxUGA, she was ready to tell the audience about a topic of personal importance—autism in girls and women. In a year, her message has reached more than 100,000 viewers through the TEDx Talks YouTube Channel, but one of the most significant impacts was close to home.
“The best part was that I was able to inspire my mom, who got diagnosed with autism in her 50s,” said Peach, a third-year psychology major. “She didn’t feel as accepting about her own autism diagnosis; she felt that getting diagnosed at that point in life was not normal. But she was really inspired by my TED talk and ended up making a Facebook post to let everyone know she was autistic.”
Since receiving her own diagnosis at age 19, Peach realized it is not uncommon for girls and women to receive diagnoses later in life. In comparison, her younger brother was diagnosed at age 5. The gap comes from stereotypes people hold about autism. When most people think of autism, they imagine boys who are extremely intelligent and have difficulty socializing, or they picture a character on the “Big Bang Theory,” Peach said.
“I might not fit the molds of what someone thinks an autistic person looks like or acts like, and it’s exciting to break down those stereotypes and barriers,” Peach said.
Girls with autism are more likely to mask—meaning they observe how others behave and then shape their actions to fit society’s expectations. This can cover up symptoms that would otherwise lead to an autism diagnosis, Peach said.
“A lot of girls don’t even realize they could be autistic because it feels natural and normal to mask every day,” she said.
Having a diagnosis, however, helped Peach better understand her own mind and habits, and it now fuels her passion to educate others.
She can also better explain her needs and actions to friends and strengthen those relationships, while also building a community through the Disability Resource Center’s autism group on campus.
“I’m able to go there and be more natural,” Peach said. “Not that I can’t be myself around my friends, but in that group, I feel more open to just move my chair back and forth or look at the wall instead of feeling inclined to make eye contact for someone else’s comfort. This is a group that’s going through the same experiences and the same challenges as me.”
While she is still figuring out her plans for after graduation, Peach knows she wants to help others. After changing her major six times, she settled on a psychology major with a neuroscience emphasis and human development and family sciences minor, and she hopes those degrees, combined with personal experience, will help her guide others.
“I’m a Christian, and I’ve been thinking about going to seminary and to get a degree in theology,” Peach said. “Then I could go into biblical counseling and help counsel or possibly diagnose people who also have autism. My faith is very important to me, so it would provide an opportunity to incorporate my faith and help people who are on the same spectrum as me.”
Through her TEDx talk and her future career, she hopes others recognize the strength of an autism diagnosis rather than only worrying about potential challenges.
“Autism has a lot of really great things to it, even though you might not think about those,” Peach said. “You’re more likely to feel emotions on a higher level, like when I’m joyful, I’m super joyful. And I can get excited about small details. Those are just some of the good things about autism, and I love to talk about those.”