Growing up as a kid I didn’t know I was autistic.
I knew I was different in some way. I had a hard time relating to kids my age. Groups of people were especially difficult and overwhelming. I liked to spend a lot of time by myself. I would get lost for hours in my art, reading, and imaginary worlds. As I entered my teens, these things did not change. In fact, they became more pronounced.
I felt more and more different from my peers. I wished I could enjoy parties. I wished I could figure out how to casually socialize (versus the intense, deep conversations that I loved). I wished I could comfortably be in social situations. I couldn’t feel comfortable because I overanalyzed everything. I was also hyper-aware of my surroundings, including what everyone was thinking and feeling. I always felt drained after groups, and therefor came to dread them.
Despite not liking groups, I still wanted friends. I’d meet someone nice, and they’d invite me to a party or some other social gathering. I’d feel overwhelmed at going to such an event, but felt embarrassed to admit that. So I declined or simply made up an excuse at the last minute.
In short, I was good at making friends, but not good at keeping them.
I figured there was just something wrong or broken about me. I had so many contradictions inside. I loved people, but found them exhausting. I was deeply empathetic, but also judgmental and bothered by some people’s behavior. The list could go on and on.
Eventually I made my way to therapy, thinking anxiety, depression, or the other traumas of my life were the cause. My brief period of therapy did help me to address and heal from traumatic events.
I continued to struggle though and many years later decided to see a psychiatrist. I was misdiagnosed and deeply misunderstood, but I was at least referred to therapy again. Therapy helped reduce some of the depression and anxiety I was experiencing.
But after years of therapy, I still felt off.
I didn’t understand how someone who had done so much healing and therapy and changing and growth… could still struggle so much to be like a normal human. To feel and think and act like a normal human.
I kept shaming myself for being so different. Like if I just tried harder, it would change.
It was until my 30s that I learned I’m autistic (thanks to my art therapist who suggested I read the book "Neurodiverse Mind").
Before that, I had always thought of autism through the lens of what I now call mainstream white boy autism. Most of the symptoms of autism are based on observations and studies of cis white heternomative boys. Turns out, the symptoms don’t match how autism typically appears in girls and women.
I didn’t know this until I read "Neurodiverse Mind." It was like a lightbulb turning on.
I ascribe to a neurodiversity lens, which sees autism as a brain that functions, learns, and processes differently than other brains (you can read more in my essay why it matters to know you're neurodivergent).
The increased number of neural connections, pathways, and crossways leads to me feeling more - both emotionally and my five senses.
It also generates more thoughts. It means I am more aware and observant, which has made me more perceptive and empathetic. It also can lead to me being overwhelmed from all of the information coming in.
I will never feel and think like a neurotypical person.
When I try to act like a neurotypical person (and I have tried my entire life - it’s called camouflaging and masking), it becomes even more exhausting. What’s worse, I feel cut off from my own self.
Recognizing I have autism gave me the permission to just be me. To stop trying to change.
It means that I no longer shame myself for not wanting to go to parties. I understand why they are overwhelming for me. If I do choose to go to a party, I ensure I have time afterward to decompress by myself.
I now accept that I have stronger emotional responses than the average person. I therefor take more time to honor them (being present with them) and process them (letting them move through my body with movement, art, writing, etc.)
I now know my brain will experience periods of intense thought. I try to capitalize on it when I do (like writing essays like this one), and provide structure when it gets in my way (like when I cannot sleep or focus on what’s in front of me because I’m thinking so much).
I also no longer work toward traditional views of life/work balance. In autistic women, our areas of intense interest are often in the social realm - turns out mine is in psychology. It’s why I read and write about it so much. It also happens to be my job. I will probably always yearn for a good psychology book in my free time, and that’s ok. It doesn’t me I’m “unbalanced” or incapable of separating from work (I can and do separate from my clients and the therapeutic work we do).
There are many, many more aspects of myself that I am now seeing through a different lens.
And as I do that, it turns out I am getting more of the things I wanted in the first place. I’m making more friends. I’m feeling more and more like I belong. I’m feeling more and more like a whole human.
That’s all I wanted in the first place.
I provide therapy for autistic women and those who wonder if they might be autistic.