I didn’t have a clue I was autistic until I was 53⏤so I’m about a year in to this adventure⏤and for the most part I can say that it has been a massive relief: a profound shift in both understanding myself and in learning self-acceptance and (maybe) self-love.
The process of finding out was kind of random and perhaps serendipitous. My husband got chatting with a woman in our yoga class who said her daughter had just received a diagnosis; she explained the difficulties she was having, and my husband came home and said that sounds like you. So, he dug up an online assessment instrument and I did it⏤and needless to say did very well. Anyway at the same time I was having sessions with a psychologist at the university counselling centre. I had been having some ‘issues’ at work related to being in a shared office space. To be honest, I now know I had an autistic meltdown brought on by sensory overload⏤but I’m getting ahead of myself. After taking the test I have a session with the psychologist, and I say to her it’s really funny because this test says I’m likely to be autistic, fully expecting the spiel about how online diagnostics are unreliable and we can all convince ourselves of anything etcetera. But she didn’t say that. She said do you think you might be autistic? And then bang! The realisation that it was and had always been true. I was autistic. I remember feeling nauseous at the thought. This feeling carried on for about a week. I compared it to what I imagine it might feel like to find out that what you thought was your family isn’t⏤a kind of rolling sea-sickness where you suddenly feel unsteady in your life. Then it went, as suddenly as it had come. I got myself assessed and here I am. Autistic AF.
I think the reason that I didn’t know I was autistic was⏤ironically⏤because I’d done a fair bit of autism training and reading around, in connection with my job. None of the representations of autism I found there fitted me: as a qualified therapist and coach I’ve had my empathy rubber-stamped numerous times⏤everyone knows autists are not empathic (this is not true). Where I did recognise myself is on autistic Twitter. Engaging with my new peer group there began a process of realising that everything I thought was a quirk personal to me⏤and I am talking dead specific here, down to becoming frustrated when buttering bread⏤was actually just a sign of my neurodivergence. There was a phase, thankfully now passed, where I wondered if I was actually a person at all rather than just a set of behaviours linked to my autism. With hindsight my experience on social media has been overwhelmingly positive and I would recommend anyone who suspects they might be neurodivergent to start there⏤and not with the official literature, which broadly is not good.
One useful thing the psychologist said to me was that autistic people often work as therapists: when you are late diagnosed it means that you have spent a lifetime carefully observing people⏤noting and reflecting on the minutiae of behaviour⏤in order to mask which means acting as if you are neurotypical. The upside of this is that it makes you a good listener. It is worth saying here that I have since found out that autistic people are often super-empathic⏤we feel deeply for both humans and animals⏤which is another plus if you work with people on emotional stuff.
Although I have come to terms with being autistic and have gone so far as seeing it as a positive thing, I have been more reticent at telling other people. Mainly this is because they either a) say something along the lines of, but you don’t look autistic (which is not the complement they think it is) or b) giving me a look that I can only describe as diminishing as they bring to mind the last autism training session work sent them on. Advocacy is important, though, so I am telling people I’m autistic. Writing this blog is part of that process.
Above I mentioned self-love and I guess that has been the most significant thing finding out I am autistic has brought me. Living a life undiagnosed means that you have always felt wrong or bad or less-than other people. Finding out I am autistic takes the judgement out of that⏤I am neither more nor less than a neurotypical person, I am just different. And here is the important bit: I am part of a big group of neurodivergent people who are all different in different⏤and similar⏤ways. We are legion.
Diagnoses and really any clinical writing about autism tends to foreground what is ‘wrong’ with us. Popular culture can be just as undermining when it goes down the Rainman route and ascribes us all superpowers. The reality is somewhat more mundane, somewhere in the middle. I do see my autism as a disability because I find it hard to cope with daily tasks⏤social interactions, organising paperwork, changes in routine⏤that typical people don’t seem to give a second thought. But my autism also brings benefits. For example, I have a strong response to music and writing and sensory experiences; I also have heightened empathy which makes me a better therapist and coach. I am also rarely bored because I can absorb myself in ‘special interests’⏤something which has resulted in me writing two PhD theses over the last twenty years. Everybody is different and everyone has different strengths and needs. But that’s me.
Finally, discovering I am autistic has led me to be able to care for myself better. It’s like I have the label for a particularly sensitive plant⏤now I know what water and light it needs to thrive. It turns out that those lights are fairy lights.