This is my 14th interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistics. Eric Endlich is a clinical psychologist and late-identified autistic. My questions are in bold and Eric's responses follow in regular typeface.
How old were you when you learned you were autistic?
I realized in my mid-50s that I am autistic.
How did you learn you are autistic?
I’m a clinical psychologist, but I’d been interacting with the autism community for many years primarily as a parent, as my son was diagnosed as a toddler. My wife and I were at a conference, listening to Sarah Hendrickx, an articulate, entertaining keynote speaker who, after years of working in the autism field, writing books and helping clients – even earning a Master’s degree in autism studies – discovered in her forties that she herself was on the spectrum, too. I thought, wait a minute: a professional in the field who’s on the spectrum? At that moment we realized someone else in our family besides our son was autistic: me.
How did you decide whether to self-identify or diagnose?
I’ve spent many hours considering whether to pursue a professional diagnosis, but I don’t need it for benefits or accommodations. I’m also not confident in the ability of many clinicians to diagnose older adults.
How did you feel when you learned you were autistic?
If you’re familiar with grief and trauma, you know that denial is one of the first reactions. So it should be no surprise that, like Luke Skywalker when Darth Vader tells him that he’s Luke’s father, I wanted to scream, “Noooooo!”
After the initial shock came many other reactions, including going back through my past and seeing so many things make sense for the first time: why I was bullied, why I didn’t look anyone in the eye until adolescence, why I had childhood fixations on specific topics such as reptiles or astronomy, why people found me so hard to read, why I’m such a picky eater and so sensitive to smell, and on and on and on.
I went through other stages too, much like those described in the book The Nine Degrees of Autism, or what psychologist Dr. Jennifer Gibson calls the stages of disability identity development – passive awareness, realization, and acceptance. Over time I became comfortable with who I am, an adult on the spectrum, and I dived deeper into the autism world, co-writing a book on older autistic adults and helping autistic teens transition to college. I’ve learned that while autism was traditionally viewed as a disorder or disability, it can also be seen as a difference – a difference that sometimes brings helpful skills and fresh perspectives.
What is your gender? How do you feel this impacted your journey as an autistic individual?
I am a cisgender male. It’s probably made it easier to “see myself” in some popular depictions of autism. Many autistic people are not cisgender or male, and may have a more difficult journey.
How did your friends and family respond when you told them you are autistic?
My wife and children have been unfailingly supportive. It was a life-changing
realization for me, so it’s been a surprise that others I’ve told have had very little reaction and never broach the topic.
Did you seek out therapy, coaching, or other forms of structured support for autism?
I briefly attended a support group for mental health providers on the spectrum. It was very validating to meet other autistic adult colleagues.
How has learning you are autistic impacted your life?
This realization has been utterly life-changing. I’ve developed a much clearer and humbler view of myself. I’ve focused on supporting the neurodivergent community through my career and volunteer work. I feel very connected to many other autistic individuals and feel very comfortable around them.
Your Current Life
How have you modified or adapted your life since learning you’re autistic?
I started working with more neurodivergent clients as a psychotherapist and then changed careers to become an educational consultant, primarily for autistic teens. It’s very exciting to accompany students on their journey towards independence.
In what ways does being autistic enhance your life?
It helps me understand my son, other neurodivergent people, and marginalized people in general. It’s given me goals to work for, including a long term vision of a more inclusive world.
What are some topics or activities you’re passionate about?
My interests include autism, college admissions, words, health and science. Helping autistic students apply to college is truly fulfilling. I enjoy staying healthy, doing the NY Times Spelling Bee word puzzle daily and reading books about science, such as An Immense World.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I enjoy repetition, such as eating the same foods and doing the same exercise routine. Films such as Groundhog Day that portray an endlessly repeating day as a nightmare make no sense to me (and are clearly aimed at neurotypicals), since I enjoy doing the same things every day.
If you work, what do you do for work?
I founded Top College Consultants to help neurodivergent students apply to college. In addition to being an educational consultant, I’m a clinical psychologist and professional writer.
Is there anyone else in your family who is autistic?
My son was diagnosed as a toddler. When I figured out that I’m on the spectrum, I realized that my dad almost certainly was as well.
What are some of the challenges you face in being autistic?
One of the biggest challenges is being in unstructured social situations such as parties. Also, I’m a perfectionist, which means I’m rarely satisfied with anything I do.
What helps you prevent or cope with moments of overwhelm?
I don’t have meltdowns, I have shutdowns. I withdraw and wait until I can think clearly.
What skills or strategies have helped you to work with your autistic mind?
I try to be more self-accepting and forgiving, but it’s an ongoing challenge.
What is your experience with medical systems? Are there ways you feel they can be improved for autistic individuals?
I get very anxious and quiet around authority figures such as doctors. I often feel judged, so I only make appointments when absolutely necessary.
I think professionals in all workplace settings need more training in how to be more inclusive of all types of differences, not just neurodiversity. I have provided some workplace trainings and hope to provide many more.
How did being an undiagnosed autistic child impact your childhood?
Like most autistic peers, I was bullied. I was lucky to have a strong group of friends, but always felt awkward and geeky.
What ways did you camouflage or mask?
It was so pervasive and long-lasting that it’s taken me years to even realize how much I mask. I learned how to make eye contact, use body language and vary my tone of voice. Unmasking is a slow and somewhat scary process.
How has your identification as autistic changed how you view your childhood or earlier periods of adulthood?
Everything makes sense now!
Talking to Others About Autism
How do you describe autism to people who are not familiar with it?
Neurotypical minds are broad; autistic minds are narrow and deep. When I say that I hyperfocus, I mean it in both figurative and literal ways. I’m so visually hyperfocused as I move around that I am clumsy and often bump into things or injure myself (and don’t even notice that I’m injured).
What do you wish others knew about autism?
We are diverse, both in our demographics (race, gender, age) and interests. We can be artists or politicians as well as scientists.
What is your advice for someone who thinks they might be autistic?
Find those who will support you and get away from those who don’t. Know that you have strengths as well as challenges. Play to your strengths and follow your dreams.
Connecting with You
If someone would like to connect with you, how can they reach you? firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you have any works, websites, or other creative ventures you would like to share with others?
Thank you for reading. If you are a late-identified autistic, I would love to have you participate in this series. Please email me at email@example.com if you are interested.