Discovering a Satisfying Professional and Creative Life: Late-Identified Autism Interview
This is the 38th interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistics. Kann is a late-identified autistic. My questions are in bold and Kann’s responses follow in regular typeface.
What name do you use and, if you want to share it, what pronouns do you use?
I’m Kann, known online as KannDraws, and my pronouns are she/they/he (i.e. it’s all fine).
How old were you when you learned you were autistic?
I learned gradually over ages 29 through 30 (I’m 32 now).
How did you learn you are autistic?
I'd known since late childhood that I was different from the average in many ways. From what little I'd read about autism, I thought it was likely that I was “on the spectrum,” which I misunderstood to mean that I was so mildly autistic that it wasn’t an important part of my identity.
I got an official ADHD diagnosis in my 20s. Later, I dated someone who was ADHD but not autistic and the significance of the autistic side of my identity became clear from the contrast.
This partner was very supportive and a huge fan of Hannah Gadsby, so she started sending me autism resources and putting me on the path to self-identification.
How did you decide whether to self-identify or diagnose?
I got my official ADHD diagnosis with the intent of seeking a small number of academic accommodations in college, which I ended up receiving.
When I was out of school, I didn't see a need to seek a formal diagnosis for autism. Reading various articles about the medicalization of autism and Devon Price’s article about the reasons not to seek an official diagnosis further inclined me to self-identify.
I was confident in my self-identification and didn't feel a need to get any further confirmation, since the knowledge was for my own benefit rather than to prove it to anyone else.
How did you feel when you learned you were autistic?
It was quite mixed and mostly positive. I felt validated in following my own path (something I was inclined to do anyway) because I could see why neurotypical advice didn’t work for me. It was permission to start from a blank slate and follow my instincts confidently.
But I also felt intimidated by the challenges I faced as I began to acknowledge them. I wondered if my various aspirations were still possible - especially if it were true, as some claimed, that I could ‘never’ be good at certain skills, like socializing, relatable writing, understanding people, etc. I didn’t believe this to be true, but still feared it might be.
I had a huge wave of sympathy for my younger self because she was handling a lot more than I gave her credit for. Behaviors that I had written off as silly childhood acting-out were actually meltdowns or responses to overstimulation, change, a school system that wasn't set up for people like me, etc. I was sad that my younger self was going through all of that and wasn't validated for it, even by myself. When I learned I was autistic, the shame and judgment I carried toward my childhood emotional volatility went away.
On top of all that, I had a belated sense of grievance for how marginalized autists were. The extent of the ableism of modern capitalist society and the stigma and misinformation about autism online was an unpleasant surprise. I won’t deny having a chip on my shoulder about it, and it has made me more egalitarian and supportive of diversity of all kinds.
Most positively and importantly of all, it now feels really good to be able to find others I can relate to through our shared neurodivergences.
How do any of your identities (ex. gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc.) impact your late identification as autistic?
Having multiple intersectional identities made it harder to tease them apart. It may have contributed to my late identification. I couldn’t tell what traits were ADHD, autism, being a nonbinary lesbian, or being a third-culture kid.
The overlap between gender and autism was especially large because I think autistic traits like directness or logic are coded masculine.
The combination led me to think I was just uniquely different and indescribable, but untangling the traits helped me identify a few discrete identities, each of which had their own communities and resources.
How did your friends and family respond when you told them you are autistic?
The only friends and family that I've told are themselves some flavor of neurodivergent, and they barely batted an eyelid. Not all of them attach the same importance to the autistic identity as I do, but they all took my word for it.
I don't think I've told any neurotypical people, and I'm not sure I plan to. I prefer to tell people about behaviors or traits rather than the label, so I will say something like: “I have this thing where I'm sensitive to this” rather than ascribing it to autism, and I’ve mostly been accommodated. I'm not big on labels unless they serve a purpose in context.
Did you seek out therapy, coaching, or other forms of structured support for autism?
I have not found any structured support for autism.
I'm in some online communities for some other identities, such as people who have multiple interests or ‘multipotentialities,' which have a lot of overlap with autism (typically autistic people have eight or more special interests, which fits the description). I’ve found these helpful.
How has learning you are autistic impacted your life?
Apart from the points I’ve already covered, it has also helped me understand the other neurodivergent people in my life. I've realized that I actually have the same behaviors and traits that I previously judged in them (to greater or lesser degrees), but I hadn't noticed. Having a better understanding of the why and what it feels like helps me be more compassionate and adapt to their reactions.
Your Current Life
In what ways does being autistic enhance your life?
Autism might be the reason I’ve been so self-directed in my work and independent in my thinking (though, of course, not perfectly so). It has also helped me dodge negative peer pressure and a lot of harmful societal messaging, such as stereotypes and prescriptions for women. I was able to dismiss messages that didn’t make sense to me and retain confidence in my abilities even when societal messaging pushed against it.
My special interests also enhance my life. They’ve brought me a lot of joy, both in solitary pursuits and in sharing them with others. These long-running interests have helped me build the skills I’m rewarded for in my career. I’m grateful for my satisfying professional and creative life, which can be a rare thing in today’s world.
What are some of the challenges you face in being autistic?
Misunderstanding people in conversation used to be a big challenge when I was younger. My brain always presented numerous possible interpretations of what was said, and I’d often choose the wrong one. This made conversations more cognitively demanding than they needed to be. It got better when I got in the habit of asking a clarifying question when confused, which people mostly respond to with good humor.
I also struggled with social rules and protocols, because I take them quite literally (for example, a road sign that said “NO STOPPING AT ANY TIME” would make me think my car couldn’t be at rest for even an instant, even if the car in front of me braked). I follow stated rules in a more strict sense than they were intended, causing myself unnecessary hassles and stress.
And I am rarely aware of unstated rules, meaning that I broke them often as a kid. Even if I’m better able to navigate social norms now, I have a mild paranoia that I might be “being weird” without knowing it.
Until recently, I rehearsed every statement rapidly in my head before speaking. For most of my life, I haven’t been able to let my guard down, relax, and have fun in social settings.
Since self-identifying, I’ve consciously loosened up and accepted the risk of occasionally putting my foot in my mouth, so I can be as authentic and present as possible.
In what ways have you noticed you’re different from neurotypical people (behavior, preferences, communication styles, etc.)?
One difference is how I tend to think of a ton of possibilities and interpretations of statements all at once, and I have to guess which interpretation is meant. Quite frequently, I guess wrong. It seems like neurotypical people intuitively grasp the correct interpretation. I’m not sure if they consider and dismiss the others, or if they never occur to them in the first place.
I’m also more than usually aware of the parallel workings of my brain. Consciously, I can probably think only one thought at a time, but I have a strong sense of the background activity as well.
I’ve described to people my experience of my mind as a busy workshop full of elves, all working on processing different tasks, and they’ve found it both quaint and unusual, so perhaps this is an autistic thing.
I seem to enjoy and need intense intellectual activity most of the time. It almost feels like mental stimming or exercise. Relatedly, when a question feels in need of an answer, I tend to fixate on it and have trouble moving on.
I have sensory sensitivities I can’t usually explain to people - certain colors, sounds, and textures bother me for no obvious reason.
From childhood, I’ve been told I'm ‘very logical.’ I don't see myself this way, since a lot of my decisions are driven by whimsy, intuition, and emotions, but it is true that logic comes naturally to me.
Do you experience any other mental or physical differences (including disabilities, other neurodiversities, etc.) that impact you? How have these influenced your autistic journey?
I have ADHD as well. I struggled with executive functioning throughout school and college and into my early career. Resources for ADHD helped me part of the way in managing my time and energy, but they felt like a patchwork of half-measures until I recognized the autism piece.
If you work, what do you do for work? How does your autistic identity impact your work?
I work as an engineer. Autism is quite stereotypical for this profession and, in a way, it's a non-issue at work since many of my co-workers likely share my identity.
There’s probably a reason that engineering attracts a lot of autistic folks. It plays to (some of) our strengths. But the stereotype about engineers also masked some of my struggles.
There's a perception of engineering (both within and without) that all the decisions can be traced back to some rigorous decision making process. It delayed my recognition of the messy human element that is part of all jobs and interactions.
Difficulties with executive functioning also caused chronic overwhelm, workaholism, and cycles of burnout. I’ve struggled to understand others’ expectations, manage my time and energy, and advocate for what I need. Most tasks need a long dormant period before I feel ready to work on them, so I need to plan for that and work on tasks in spaced mini-sessions. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m learning to work with the rhythms of my brain.
What helps you prevent or cope with moments of overwhelm?
Tasks and decisions often need a percolation period where I’m processing or waiting to feel ready. While I’m waiting, I can get overwhelmed if many tasks are piling on top of each other, so keeping track of everything I’m working on is really important. I’ve been resistant to planners, to-do lists, and other productivity tools, but I definitely need them, so I’ve had to make my own, designed specifically for me.
It’s also important for me to be able to offload my thoughts. I journal a lot, and use different media for different situations - notebooks, word processors, phone memos, voice memos - it depends on how fast the ideas are flowing and how long they are. Sometimes I can’t keep up with a pen or even typing, so I need to dictate a voice memo (which I transcribe using voice recognition software).
Most of the offloaded thoughts are useful for later, so I need to be able to find them. I enjoy indexing things and I’m now on the Second Brain train (the book "Building a Second Brain" was hugely helpful). The more I can offload thoughts and be confident that they’ll be put to use, the less likely I am to be overwhelmed.
When I am already overwhelmed, I need to detangle what’s actually bothering me. It’s usually a mix of factors - worries about the future, grievances or hurt feelings I hadn’t noticed at the time, physical discomforts like hunger, and half-baked ideas that need expression. I usually ask myself “What’s actually bothering you?” Sometimes I get one clear answer, sometimes I get multiple answers. Sometimes I feel ready to do something about it, and sometimes I stall for a while before I’m able to.
What skills or strategies have helped you to work with your autistic mind?
The main skill I’ve been working on is introspection/self-inquiry. Most of my problems and overwhelm happen when I don’t ask myself: 1. What’s bothering me? 2. What do I need? When I do ask myself these things, I can usually find an answer. So it’s been helpful to pause to check in with myself. It was difficult at first because it felt like I wouldn’t feel better no matter what I did, but my experiences are proving otherwise.
How does your autistic identity impact your friendships?
I sometimes felt isolated at school and college when I didn’t have many friends, just people I talked to but couldn’t connect or share with. My friendship pool was limited by differing interests and conversation styles.
It took a long time for me to understand what I look for in friendships. I would meet a lot of people I liked well enough, but I couldn’t tell if they wanted to be friends or not. Having a large number of lukewarm friendships is not satisfying. I’d put asymmetrical effort into deepening them, only to be disappointed.
Now, I think it’s better to only actively try to befriend people I feel a deeper connection with. A lot of my friends now are neurodivergent, and we often felt mutually drawn to each other right from the start, so now, that is what I look for when making new friends.
How does your autistic identity impact your romantic relationships?
I was a late bloomer in terms of dating and had no interest in it for years. Being gay had a lot to do with that. While I don’t have a lot of romantic history, I’m grateful to have avoided bad dating experiences and unsafe partners in my formative years.
My dating pool is smaller than most, since queer women are a minority, and my neurodivergence affects how and who I connect with. Autism-friendly special channels like meetups and events specifically for queer women have been my only way of meeting people.
My romantic partners have been, overall, kind and honorable people. They were all neurodivergent as well.
We’ve suffered from communication problems - either under-communication and not recognizing issues, or persistent misunderstandings and hurt feelings. I’ve had trouble recognizing my needs and enforcing boundaries, instead carrying around resentment without knowing why.
We’ve also had issues where both partners are extremely sensitive and empathetic, trying to help each other in a clumsy and overly self-sacrificing way, like in "Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry. We mutually wore kid gloves and there was a lot of bumbling and tears.
Overall, my relationships were positive and a source of self-knowledge, but there were unique challenges to navigate.
In what ways did you camouflage or mask?
I masked mostly by withdrawing. When I was very young, I’d monologue about whatever interested me and was mostly encouraged. In later childhood, I felt a disconnect in most conversations, especially with other kids. I’d talk about what I found interesting, and they’d either be uninterested or confused. They’d talk about what they found interesting and I’d be bored or frustrated. So, I gave up on meaningful conversations and retreated into my own mind, only speaking when I had something specific to convey.
In my teens, I was also nervous about saying something “weird” and being mocked. It almost never happened to me, but I saw other kids tease and mock each other for reasons I couldn’t understand.
Most of my classmates knew me to be completely silent and were surprised when I spoke, and some teachers thought I was just shy. There were only a few friends with whom I was comfortable being myself.
Talking to Others About Autism
Are there any autistic characters in books, tv, or movies that accurately reflect autism? Which ones?
I haven’t read/watched much media with a canonically autistic character. One of the few such shows I have seen (one season of) is Netflix’s Atypical. One aspect of the main character I resonated with, which actually contributed to my self-identification as an autistic, was how he liked hugs, but only if the hugs (or any physical touch) were firm.
It was well-known and joked about in my family that I’d wriggle out of a hug unless it was a firm bear hug (back-slapping optional). For some reason, seeing that trait in a character on-screen hit me hard. It changed my perception of autism from the usual, stereotypical traits to a more complete identity.
I know that there are mixed opinions about the show Atypical among autists, and I can’t comment on the character overall since I didn’t watch the whole series, but I will always have affection for it because of my history with it.
There are a few characters I relate to as autistic, but they are only autistic in my headcanon rather than being written as such.
For example, there’s Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. His principled approach to relationships with his friends and family, inflexibility, and massive misreading of Elizabeth’s feelings all feel eminently relatable. It’s nice that he’s so well-loved within the story.
I also imagine Captain America is autistic given how he’s so motivated by principle. There's a scene in The First Avenger, where a woman flirts with him and he takes an overly literal interpretation of her words. I relate to all of this!
I also feel a connection to Bertie Wooster from the PG Wodehouse novels. One of his main traits is that he has a strict and inconvenient code of conduct for himself, which he won’t break even though it gets him into all sorts of scrapes. Overall, he has terrible boundaries and sometimes gets pushed too far, making him resentful.
He also has a distinctive, associative pattern of speech where he goes into various creative flourishes, parentheticals, and clauses. His mind leaps around in a way that screams AuDHD to me. I’m very fond of him and annoyed that the other characters keep insulting his intelligence!
Are there any fictional autistic characters that miss the mark on depicting autism? Can you give one example and explain why?
I usually avoid such media, so I don’t know of canonically autistic characters who miss the mark.
But among autistic-coded characters, I really dislike Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Sherlock from BBC’s Sherlock, and the rest of the awkward bro-geniuses (though I do like Sherlock Holmes in the books).
They all combine a disdain for emotion with arrogance, “genius,” and badly-written gaffes used for comic effect.
They don't read as internally consistent or a real people, and contribute to the stereotype that autists are unfeeling jerks.
Are there any autistic activists, autistic entrepreneurs, or autism groups you would like others to know about?
I appreciate everyone who speaks openly about their neurodivergence. Hannah Gadsby and Greta Thunberg come to mind, as well as many wonderful Medium writers.
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