I see autism as a wonderful way of being. It is a neurodivergence that shapes who I am and greatly enhances my life. There are unique challenges that come with being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world, but I’m learning more and more how to set shame aside, embrace who I am, and work with my brain.
I didn’t possess that positivity and understanding as a child. I couldn’t have. I didn’t know I was autistic. I was confused as to why I felt so different.
Not knowing you are autistic has incredible impacts on your life. It’s like using a different operating system while being told it's the same as everyone else’s.
I’ve composed a list of impacts from my personal experiences and those I’ve heard from my late-identified autistic clients.
1. Self-Judgment for Differences
Many unidentified autistics know and sense they are different from everyone else, but don’t quite know why. This frequently gets transmuted into feelings of being broken or weird. As unidentified autistics try to unsuccessfully jam themselves into neurotypical standards and expectations, they’re left feeling even more broken and hopeless.
2. Misunderstood and Judged by Family
A family with an unidentified autistic often doesn’t understand why their child is so “different.” They often apply negative stereotypes to the individual, such as being too sensitive, dramatic, stubborn, disrespectful, or needy. They’re often punished for their outbursts or “inappropriate behavior,” leading to traumatic experiences and strained relationships.
Even in families where punishment is not used, parents can unintentionally harm their children. Many parents try to teach their children “socially appropriate” behavior, and unintentionally help a child learn to mask and camouflage. They also rob them of healthy coping mechanisms (such as stimming) and passions (such as being told to stop spending so much time on the thing that enthralls them).
3. Learning and Education Not Tailored to Needs
An unidentified autistic child cannot access the accommodations that would help them feel more comfortable in school and perform better. Furthermore, education techniques and standards are tailored to neurotypical minds. Unidentified autistic kids are seldom given opportunities to learn in ways that fit better with their needs.
4. Held to Neurotypical Communication and Social Standards
An autistic brain senses, feels, and thinks differently than neurotypical brains. This can have multiple impacts on social relationships. An unidentified autistic person may struggle to maintain friendships and fully connect with others, leaving them feeling othered and alone. I explore this more in my essay Autism Does Not Directly Cause Social Problems.
An autistic person is more likely to have successful social relationships when they understand their needs and are able to articulate them with others. Furthermore, an unidentified autistic doesn’t know that they might have more successful friendships with other neurodivergent peoples.
5. Taught to Ignore Feelings and Needs
One of the most detrimental impacts of unidentified autism is that a person is taught to ignore their feelings and needs. They are taught that their feelings are not normal (such as being “overly sensitive” to a particular sound), and that they need to just be like everyone else. I explore this more in my essay Gaslighting the Autistic Experience.
Unidentified autistics are not taught how to attend to their needs (such as needing time alone or time to process new information). These actions directly undermine self-trust. Unidentified autistics slowly learn to stuff their feelings and push through. They frequently feel disconnected from their true selves. Their disconnection and ability to ignore feelings and needs leads to loose boundaries and lowered self protection. They also experience a decreased ability to live and interact comfortably in the world.
6. Lost Opportunities to Learn How to Work with Autistic Brain
When an individual knows they are autistic, they can begin to appreciate and work with their unique brain. They can explore how to build on their strengths, navigate challenges, and reduce the likelihood of autistic burnout. They can learn what their needs are and how to attend to them. This has dramatic impacts in how an autistic person chooses to schedule their day, advocate for their needs, select work environments, seek support that actually helps, smooth transitions, and more.
An unidentified autistic person does not get these opportunities. While they will get them once they know they are autistic, they will mourn how different life could have been for them.
7. Development of Mental Health Challenges
Many unidentified autistics develop anxiety or depression due to the impacts listed above. Others turn to harmful coping mechanisms, such as disordered eating, self-harm, and substance abuse. These coping mechanisms can give a person a temporary feeling of control or relief, but cause long-term damage. Furthermore, these coping mechanisms do not address the root causes of the pain.
When unidentified autistics seek help from professionals, they are often misdiagnosed. I have known many autistics, myself included, who were misdiagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Many unidentified autistics do not have obvious external autistic behaviors and go undetected by assessors who solely rely on the DSM-5 criteria. My essays on The Correlation Between Intelligence and Unidentified Autism explores this more.
9. Ineffective Mental Health Treatment
When an unidentified autistic isn’t provided with an autistic diagnosis, their treatment providers do not know to tailor their treatment techniques and approach to a neurodiverse mind. Furthermore, they do not understand one of the key factors as to why the individual is struggling as much as they do. This is explored further in my essays on Does Your Therapist Know Enough About Autism to Help You?
10. Never Fully Seen, Heard, or Understood
All of the above impacts leave an unidentified autistic person feeling unseen, unheard, and misunderstood. This is why an identification as autistic is so empowering. For the first time, that individual is feeling seeing, listening, and understanding themselves. It also gives them the opportunity to develop relationships were they are seen, heard, and understood.
Thank you for reading. I'm an autistic art therapist who specializes in late-identified autism. If you'd like to work together, you can learn more here.