I am a late-identified autistic. I also work with late-identific autistics as a therapist. I know autism well, especially through a neurodivergent lens.
AND YET, I still find myself questioning if I am actually autistic. One such questioning moment happened as I was studying for my art therapy board exam. The exam study book offered the following description of autism:
Asperger’s disorder was removed as a diagnosis in the DSM-5. Individuals with these symptoms now fall into Autism Spectrum Disorder (High Functioning). On this end of the spectrum, individuals generally have normal or even high verbal intelligence. However, they usually have serious social skills limitations, including difficulty understanding emotional and social cues, less eye contact, and tendency to have fixed interests. Some individuals may have difficulty with voice modulation, resulting in inusual monotone speech. Posture may be ungainly, and fine motor control may be a bit compromised. There may be a tendency toward anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
I definitely do not identify with the majority of what is written. I have great social skills and can understand emotions and social skills. I have good eye contact, and my voice is full of expression.
Descriptions like the above are what I was taught in graduate school. It’s all I knew of autism.
I start questioning if I am actually autistic when I forget how much more there is to autism.
However, a neurodiverse lens shows us that it’s not just about our external behavior. It’s about our neurotype and how we think, feel, and perceive differently.
For example, I can perform social skills. However, my internal emotions and thoughts may be far different than what my behavior is. While I may be behaving socially appropriately and doing all of the “right” things, I may internally feel like a robot who is making sure I perform it all well. That internal self-regulation is an autistic characteristic. And yet, my ability to perform is one reason I thought I couldn’t be autistic.
Sometimes I can question if I am different enough than other neurotypicals to really merit calling myself autistic. Typically though, those are days where things are going well. When I’m not experiencing challenges and I’m just flying unencumbered.
For example, I may forget my enhanced sensory perception when I’m not exposed to something particularly assaulting to my senses. There are many great sensory benefits to enhanced sensory perception as well, but I also forget them when they are just a part of my everyday lived experienced. I don’t stop every day to remember how much I like the texture in my home and that this is due to being autistic.
Similarly, I often forget that my drive to be creative, innovative, and productive is fueled by my autistic brain. It is so normal for me that I forget it is quite different than other neurotypical people.
The same happens when I don’t experience challenges for a while. When things are going smoothly I forget that my autistic mind often takes mental downturns and detours.
I think for autistic who are late-identified, it is natural to question our autistic identity at different points. Almost every late-identified autistic client I have ever worked with has also questions at one point if they are actually autistic. This is the part of the process of integrating our autistic identity.
Furthermore, we’re often not presented with complete, accurate portraits of what autism is like. When confronted with jarring descriptions like the one from the exam study book, we can feel alien from our austic selves. The more we hear from other autistic people what it is like for them, the more we know what it really feels and looks like to be autistic. The more we self-educate or work with therapists and coaches, the more we can understand how our autism uniquely shows up for ourselves. This is one of the reasons I do the work I do as a therapist, write essays like this one, and publish interviews with late-identified autistics.
I was talking to my autistic friend about this self-doubting that comes up from time to time. She laughed at how it happens to her, and then pointed out that our self-analysis and questioning of our autistic identity is yet another example of our autistic minds at work. We had a good laugh at the irony.
We also agreed that we can embrace our self doubt. It usually leads us to great questions, research, and more clarity. It’s part of the process and what it means to be autistic.
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