'Docs said I had every single symptom of postnatal depression. My misdiagnosis almost killed me.'

This story discusses depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. 

One of my earliest memories is as a five-year-old sitting on the couch, baby brother in the crook of one arm and baby sister in the other. Even as a little one myself I remember thinking, "I cannot wait to be a mum."

So when I got pregnant at 27, just about nine months after my wedding, my husband and I were elated. We’d always wanted to be young parents. We were ready. 

My first pregnancy was rough. Pubis Symphysis Disorder (a charming condition where your body thinks you’re in labour months before you’re due)? Check. Wheelchair-bound after 19 weeks? Check, check. The pain was excruciating. 

But it would be worth it. My pregnancy may have been less than ideal but I knew I’d be able to handle motherhood. After all, I’d managed teams of 70, was a respected leader and had grand plans to finish my masters during my maternity leave.

Plus, I was all about routine. Like really into routine. I’d structure my way through motherhood.  

Needless to say my firstborn didn’t entirely agree. But combining my militant sleep schedule with his koala-baby nature meant that, as long as he was tethered to me, we both coped. 

My second child came along a few years later. And she was a completely different ballgame. She woke every 45 minutes, day or night, and screamed from the moment my husband, Dave, left for work until he walked through the door that evening. 

Image: Supplied.


After months of sleep deprivation, the loss of critical routines, and constantly teetering on the brink of a complete sensory overload, I reached the point of no return one night at 3am. My daughter had been screaming for hours and, unable to soothe her back to sleep, I walked right past my visiting father, out the front door, and literally wailed at the moon. 

And despite knowing I could never leave my babies, I was having suicidal thoughts that were downright terrifying. I'll forever be grateful to the handyman who came to my house, took one look at me and said "I'm so sorry to say this, but I know the look in your eye. I saw it in my own wife after our first born. Please call your partner, get him to come home and get to a doctor."


So that’s what we did. I went straight to a psychiatrist, was diagnosed with postnatal depression (PND) and whacked onto antidepressants. I felt relieved. Indescribably so. The PND diagnosis made sense so I waited for the meds to kick in and to feel normal. 

Watch: Identity, motherhood & 'Getting on with it' with Phoebe Burgess. Post continues after video.

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And waited. Six months in and I was being pumped with pills that just didn’t work. We swapped meds, so many times, and all of them were ineffective and/or disastrous.

This rollercoaster came to a head one day when I decided to listen to my intuition. I told my husband, "This might be the worst decision I'll ever make, but I need to come off these meds. They’re not working. I actually just need silence, and your support. In that order." 

I didn’t know it at the time but what my undiagnosed Autistic brain really needed was regular instalments of quiet and routine. I needed to know that every hard, unpredictable, loud, "touched out" day would end with Dave walking through at exactly-this-time-o’clock so I could go to my room, put on noise-cancelling headphones, inhale the quiet, and exhale the sensory overwhelm.  


I also asked Dave to take our kids to his parents' place for the weekend once per quarter while I stayed behind. I spent those weekends by myself, in my quiet home, not going anywhere or doing anything… just staring at the wall in an almost catatonic silence.

I healed. Fast. Hard. 

Looking back it makes sense that no one clocked I was Autistic. My incredible Autistic sister and father had always made the necessary accommodations to support our family’s neurodivergent needs. So out there in the 'real world', it was easily missed. 

Image: Supplied.


It was only after we found out my son was Autistic at nine years old that everything clicked into place. Sitting in his assessments felt like watching a play about my own life. I was assessed by a psychologist specialising in adult autism who confirmed what I already knew. 

I wasn't depressed. I didn’t have PND. I was Autistic.

I was the statistic from The National Autistic Society that found twice as many women as men are undiagnosed entering adulthood. Unsurprisingly if I'd have known I was Autistic prior to becoming a mother, I’d have gone in with an entirely different game plan.

I didn't need the meds that made me feel manic. I needed what most Autistic women need when they're in Autistic shutdown/burnout: 

  • Routine
  • Predictability
  • Noise-cancelling headphones
  • Silence, and
  • Isolation [yes, I know, young children + isolation = comically impossible]

What I also needed was a seasoned health professional to say, "Hey there, little baby-Autistic. You got missed, pal. Most women do. Formal assessments for Autism are diagnosed around male presentations. The patriarchy got you good. But it’s gonna be ok. You just need to a) learn - for the first time - that you’re Autistic, and b) tailor your Motherhood journey around knowing that."

I’m now well past the baby stage and dealing with all the beautiful chaos that comes with parenting tweens. My marriage is strong and rather than masking my Autistic traits, or apologising for them, my adult friendships are honouring my Autistic culture and identity. 


I've also been able to use my Autistic experience to advocate for radically inclusive workspaces. My business, The Digital Picnic has a robust neuro inclusive policy that accommodates for neurodiverse and neurotypical folk and ensures that everyone can bring their full self to work and thrive. 

I'm in the best position I've ever been in but it should never have taken 37 years. The misdiagnosis of Autism with post-natal depression is genuinely dangerous. It takes a little more than the stock standard "village" to balance the needs of young child/ren with your own - very real - Autistic needs. But take it from me, with the right support and a few modifications, it can be done and we can fully embrace the broad, beautiful experiences of Autistic motherhood.   

Feature Image: Supplied.

Cherie Clonan is the proud Autistic CEO of The Digital Picnic and fiercely motivated to create a neuro-inclusive workplace. You can reach out to her on Instagram. 

If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, contact PANDA – Post and Antenatal Depression Association. You can find their website here or call their helpline – 1300 726 306. 

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you’re based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.