A CEO who struggles socially was diagnosed with autism aged 41. It's helped her understand herself and deepen her relationships.

A CEO who struggles socially was diagnosed with autism aged 41. It's helped her understand herself and deepen her relationships.
  • Heather Florio, a CEO, mother, and wife, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 41.

  • She grew up thinking that there was something wrong with her because she was different.

  • Getting her diagnosis has been life-changing and she urged others like her to get tested.

Growing up, Heather Florio always felt like there was something wrong with her. At 41, she received an autism diagnosis that finally allowed her to accept herself.

At school, Florio seemed to constantly say the wrong thing at the wrong time, couldn't connect with her peers, and was horribly bullied for being different.

Her brain seemed to work differently, too. She had an analytic, rather than emotional, approach to everything, and often found herself in the library consuming book after book on whatever subject she was into at the time.

"My brain is constantly trying to put people together, ideas together, that's just what I do," Florio, 43, a CEO, wife, and mother of two based in Maine, told Business Insider.

She applied this organizational approach by turning to books to try to understand the baffling behavior of the other students in middle school — who, unlike her used sarcasm and kept secrets — and later, to her career.

Florio has been the CEO of Desert Harvest, a multi-million dollar family business that specializes in sexual and pelvic health, since 2012. She believes the way her brain organizes information and finds patterns has given her an edge in business.

But it wasn't until 2021 that she considered her thought patterns could be down to neurodivergence. She had been in therapy for a few years to address her fear that she was inherently flawed. Her psychologist told her that she wasn't flawed, but she might have autism.

An autism diagnoses helped her past make sense

Florio got tested and was diagnosed with autism, a revelation that "connected all the dots" and made her confusion over the years make sense. The relief was "instantaneous," she said.

"To realize that there's not something wrong with me, I just think in a different way and that's okay," she said, "it also made me feel much more comfortable and much more self-aware than I've ever been."

Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious About Autism, a UK-based charity that advocates for young autistic people, told Insider: "Most recent estimates suggest women are three times less likely to be diagnosed as autistic than men and on average receive their diagnosis 1.8 years later than men."

This is partly because girls with autism present differently to the "typical" way that we think about autism, she said, which is often still wrongly thought of as a male condition.

"85% of women tell us their lives have been easier and better following their diagnosis," she said.

Relationships with friends and family have deepened

While having autism has given Florio a unique perspective, she believes that she will always struggle with certain social situations.

"I always say that there are two versions of myself. There's the one that might not necessarily fit into the world, and then there's the version I work really hard to be that fits into the mold to function in day-to-day society," she said.

She often feels envious watching other people chat so effortlessly in social situations, as socializing for her involves constantly thinking about what she's going to say, controlling her thought process, and monitoring other people's facial expressions, which she finds exhausting.

This behavior, known as masking, is common among women with autism, and has been associated with poor mental health outcomes, Lasota said. It may also play a role in the gender gap of autism diagnosis.

"Some autistic women feel pressure to conform to expected behaviors, such as being 'better' social communicators. This leads to women 'masking' their autism more than men, hiding differences or difficulties, so that other people don't realize they are struggling," Lasota said.

At work, Florio can get lost in thought and not hear anyone around her. She also struggles to connect with and console employees going through a hard time emotionally. "This is where my husband refers to me as Sheldon from 'The Big Bang Theory,'" she joked.

But her diagnosis has given her a framework to understand herself better and, over time, she has been able to make small changes, such as physically stepping out of an emotionally overwhelming situation, that make her struggles easier.

"There's nothing wrong with being neurodiverse. It's just a different way of thinking. And we have to adapt a little bit differently for society to find our place and where we fit because it's not as easy," she said.

Since being diagnosed, Florio said that her relationships with her family and colleagues have deepened, as it has helped them to understand her better too.

"It changes how I'm able to interact with people and maybe people can be a little bit more forgiving of me maybe not saying the right thing at the right time or maybe not fully actively listening because I'm so focused on a project," she said.

Florio says anyone who wonders if they are autistic should get tested

Florio urged anyone who suspects they might be autistic to get tested. "It's okay to go get tested. It was really easy and it was kind of mind-blowing," she said.

"It's a beautiful thing when you find it out. It's not a hindrance. It's an understanding of yourself and feeling okay with yourself and your place in this society," she said.

As a neurodivergent mother, wife, and boss, she wants other autistic people to know that it's totally possible for them to have these things too.

"Don't judge a book by its cover just because someone might not seem to fit into your societal expectation," she said. "They have beauty and amazing things to contribute to this world."

Read the original article on Insider