This is the 26th interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistics. Kathy Dannal Vitcak is a late-identified autistic. My questions are in bold and Kathy's responses follow in regular typeface.
What name and pronouns do you use?
Kathy Dannel Vitcak, she/her
How old were you when you learned you were autistic?
How did you learn you are autistic?
I was visiting a friend in Wisconsin and discussing/complaining about something to do with my husband. She had a book, "The Shadow Syndrome" by John J. Ratey, that covered how people can have enough of an issue to wreak havoc in their lives but not a full-blown diagnosis. I was convinced my husband had ALL the mental conditions, so I borrowed the book. When I returned home, I devoured the book. While I did not definitely diagnose my husband, I burst into tears when I read the sections on ADHD and autism. I felt understood for the first time in my life!
Side Note: I grew up in rural Mississippi and went to several different grade schools before we moved to Columbus, MS, when I was in 8th grade. I have three younger sisters who were also diagnosed with ADHD in their later 40s or 50s. After graduating college in 1978, I moved to Dallas until 1996, when I moved to Minnesota. For the last 20 years, I’ve been in far, science fiction cold Minnesota. Yes, it gets THAT cold in the winter!
How did you decide whether to self-identify or diagnose?
After my epiphany, I called several mental health clinics in the northern Minnesota area. There were only three then, so I called all three and made an appointment at one I got a good vibe from. I then did what I do and researched everything I could find online about ADHD and skimmed the Autism info. I read so much I probably could have passed an exam! There were only a few online tests, and I took them all. Each one scored me as having ADHD and Autism traits. At that time, all I knew about autism were the classic stereotypes, so I assumed somehow ADHD made me score high on those tests.
How did you feel when you learned you were autistic?
I went to the appointment with high hopes. I filled out the paperwork and questionnaires and fidgeted in the waiting room. The counselor was delightful. She listened to me ramble and then asked a few questions. She told me her receptionist had never seen anyone fill out the forms that fast, and we laughed. Then she said, “Well, you do not have a Shadow Syndrome of ADHD.” I could feel the look of shock on my face. She paused for dramatic effect and said, “Kathy, if there were a chart, you would probably be off the charts for ADHD.” We both laughed. She told me I also seemed to have most of the markers for Asperger’s (it was still used then) with a healthy OCD splash. We discussed my options, and she referred me to an NP with an ADHD specialization.
As I drove home, my mind raced. The overwhelming feeling was of relief with a splash of validation. My entire life, I had felt like the proverbial square peg that did not even vaguely fit the perfect, round, socially-acceptable role expected of a girl growing up in Mississippi, aka Southern Charmland.
How did your friends and family respond when you told them you are autistic?
I chose to be very selective with whom I shared my new diagnosis. I told my husband and a few close friends. Of course, I wanted to learn more about ADHD and Asperger’s before any significant share.
Did you seek therapy, coaching, or other forms of structured support for autism?
Yes, I made an appointment with the NP and got in as quickly as possible. We talked about what I wanted to do, and I told her I’d like to test Adderall; she agreed. So, I went that route with the ADHD treatment, which has worked well for me. We started with a low dose and worked up. I’ve been on 90 mg of Adderall (max dose) for about ten years. I’m 66, and while I have no plans to flip-switch retire, I plan to cut back and devote time to other projects on my Stuff To Do List. Then I’ll cut back to 60 mg and go from there.
I’ve used ADHD coaching for short-term problem-solving, and it worked great. I’ve also kept reading and joined a few groups online that I monitor minimally.
How has learning you are autistic impacted your life?
My autism diagnosis was one of the most defining events of my life. I could begin to let go of those nagging feelings of being “Less Than” and “Why do I never fit in?”
I also gained a new appreciation for what a great job my mother did raising my sisters and me! She encouraged our gifts and treated us as individuals. I also never had to eat anything I didn’t want to. But I had to try one bite of every food at least one time, and I had to sit at the table with everyone. Plus, I would have to make my own meals. I had a lot of open-faced peanut butter sandwiches for dinner, but I was at the table! There were foods I liked, but I loathed meatloaf and would eat a plain, dry burger (no meat now). Silly side note: I took a jar of peanut butter and two slices of white bread to school every day, as I would not eat the sandwich unless the peanut butter was freshly spread. I am still laughing at myself!
Your Current Life
How have you modified or adapted your life since learning you’re autistic?
I own my own business and have several people working for me. As is appropriate, I warn them that sometimes unplanned words pop out of my mouth without stopping for a double check in the rational part of my brain. After starting my business, I hired people to do what I wasn’t good at or didn’t want to do.
In what ways does being autistic enhance your life?
I honestly would not change a thing, even the heinously cringe-worthy, unimaginably stupid stuff I did or said throughout my life. People often tell me they enjoy my vibe and love my energy. I was going to take a “Find Your Inner Child” workshop a few years ago, and the teacher told me she didn’t think I needed it and would feel bad even taking my class fee!
I love that my mind goes fast, fast, FAST and I always have an idea. I have never been afraid of new ideas and have often pushed my friends outside their boxes. The words, “Hey, y’all, I have an idea. It’ll be fun,” struck terror in many of my friends’ hearts!
What are some of the challenges you face in being autistic?
The flip side of all that I love. I apologize a LOT for the stupid sh*t, I say. Sometimes, I envy people who are satisfied with their life/the world/the environment. That envious feeling goes away quickly, especially after I look around at the life I created.
In what ways have you noticed you’re different from neurotypical people?
I could never, EVER have worked a job I wasn’t excited about. When someone tells me they stayed at a job they hated for the insurance benefits, I want to scream/cry/make them quit. My life has been of exclamation points; it’s how I talk, write and live. I get really excited about stuff, not always for long periods of time, but at that moment, I am gung-ho!
Do you experience any other mental or physical differences that impact you? How have these influenced your autistic journey?
The ADHD/Autism co-morbidity is so common that it almost feels like the same thing.
If you work, what do you do for work? How does your autistic identity impact your work?
Bear with me; this rambling part will make sense! Since I turned 15, I have worked, often multiple jobs. The one thing they all had in common is they were something I was interested in or even passionate about. I moved to Dallas after graduating from college and worked in fashion for years. After I got my first dog as an adult, I went to work for Petsmart and then Petco in the early 1990s. At that time, I also started showing, then breeding, French Bulldogs. Back then, no one knew what dog breed Frenchies were! In 1996 I was offered a job as a graphic designer for a publisher of dog show magazines, and I moved to Minnesota. I had no idea what driving in snow was like!
Two weeks after moving to Minnesota, I met my now husband. After five years of working at the dog magazines, it was time for something else. I learned Photoshop, InDesign, the printing business and more. My by then-husband and I bought a small fishing resort in far northern Minnesota and headed north!
I started another dog magazine after getting settled and was off and running! While it was a bit of a scoot to go to dog shows now I was still showing the Frenchies.
Side Note: French Bulldogs, like most flat-faced dogs, have a predisposition toward having ugly, dry, crusty noses. I wanted something to moisturize their noses that wasn’t petroleum jelly because dogs lick their noses! I started experimenting with shea butter-based recipes.
Fast forward through all the recipe tweaking, website disasters and wins, and growing pains, and here we are! The Blissful Dog Inc. has six full-time employees and several on-call and online team members. Plus, we have sub-contractors we work with for specific needs, like working at volume with Amazon. We have our own website and are on Etsy, eBay and, of course, Amazon. We have distributors all over the world. The Blissful Dog products are in pet supply chains, pet boutiques, grooming shops, veterinarian clinics and more worldwide.
We’ve surpassed a million dollars in sales each year for the last four years and have fielded quite a few offers to buy us! Who knew? We also now have The Blissful Cat, The Blissful Horse and plans for more divisions soon.
Is there anyone else in your family who is neurodiverse, autistic, or otherwise?
My three younger sisters were all clinically diagnosed with ADHD, but I am the only one with the bonus of autism.
What helps you prevent or cope with moments of overwhelm?
The Number 1, by far, comfort for me has been my dogs. They don’t judge, well, a couple of mine have perfected a stink-eye that leaves a mark, but overall they love unconditionally. If I am sad, mad, scared, or hurt, I know holding one of my dogs will instantly make me feel better. Yes, I realize my career since 1993 has revolved around dogs, and I am so grateful for that! When I see t-shirts that say, “I Just Want To Be a Stay At Home Dog Mom,” I want to tell the person. “Figure out a way to make it happen!!! You can do it!”
I may have been known to scream and curse at my Mac, but only when I’m alone. I always apologize to Steve Jobs after I do that, though! My business is on a 40-acre farm, so I grab a dog or two and walk the steam off, as needed. If it’s TOO cold, we cuddle inside.
What skills or strategies have helped you to work with your autistic mind?
I have safe words for my COO/right hand to use when I divert into unacceptable territory in conversations, Zoom Calls, etc. That was a game-changing idea!
I read a LOT of non-fiction, with books on my iPhone, iPad and Mac. I also take 1-2 BIG online classes every year to learn new skills or advance the ones I have. Lots of Photoshop, Design-type classes and web stuff.
Another thing I am working on is not interrupting. I get excited and want to ask questions and share and start talking too soon aka I interrupt. I am also asking two questions for every sentence I interject. I am getting it!
One of my most successful mental shifts has been to say “I am so sorry! I did not mean to hurt your feelings” and “I apologize for that stupid remark I made about (fill in the blank). Please, ask me if I meant that or to clarify myself, so I can do better.”
In my business, I am generous as I can be with bonuses, raises, paid bonus time off, etc. We also keep a VERY full snack/lunch pantry. We’re 30 minutes from a gas station, so running to grab lunch doesn’t happen. We celebrate ALL birthdays, even the dogs, with cake and singing. We pull cards, a couple of times a week, from various decks, from Unicorns, to Power Animals to Angels and more. We do Vision Boards every year, discuss what each aspect means and then hang them up. The little things can make a huge impact; everyone here has unique business cards, we make sure their fave snack is in the cupboard, and I praise them publically!
How have you self-advocated for your needs?
I ask. Seriously, I ask people for help, I ask for input, I ask for whatever I need. If they look at me funny, oh well, their loss!
How does your autistic identity impact your friendships?
When I was first diagnosed, I had a few twinges of shame and horror at what I may have inadvertantly said to friends. I wasn’t sure if I should bring it up or just let it go.
How does your autistic identity impact your romantic relationships?
Well, I didn’t get married for the first time until I was 45, so I’ll let your imagination have fun with THAT!
How did being an undiagnosed autistic child impact your childhood?
I am SO grateful I did not have any type of diagnosis. It could have been used as a crutch or a way for people to either hold me back or have expectations. I was always an A student from first grade through college, so no one seemed to care that I was quirky. Teachers sometimes told me I could not monopolize the discussions and that other students needed to answer even if I knew the answers. The intelligent teachers enlisted my help with the neurotypical kids. Upon reflection, I realize my Mom is one of those who dismisses a lot as “made-up conditions” to get sympathy or allowances. If I had come home with an autism and/or ADHD diagnosis, she would have told me not to think that gave me an excuse.
What ways did you camouflage or mask?
Here is a classic example. After graduating from 6th grade, I would go to the bigger high school with students from the whole county. By then, I knew enough that I was odd and didn’t fit in. I also had thick glasses and braces. Yeah. Anyway, the bookmobile came to our house every week in the summer, and I read every single book about manners and etiquette and how to make friends. I also checked out Seventeen magazine and studied them religiously. I approached being more likable as I would have a history class or building something. The parts that did not come naturally to me I had to study. Did I get it down pat? Oh no, I still cringe when I think of some of the inappropriate stuff I said to people. I have apologized in my mind and even written letters I never mailed to a few people whose names I don’t even remember.
How has your identification as autistic changed how you view your childhood or earlier periods of adulthood?
I cut myself a LOT of slack after my diagnosis. Plus, I can never say it enough, I also realized what a stellar job my Mom did raising us. My main memories of my childhood were of us laughing…a LOT! My Dad meandered through our lives but was a pilot and gone a LOT. Though I remember when I was 10-11, he screwed a piece of plywood on the living room wall. That was my area to draw, paint, and color on. When I filled it up, he would paint over it, and I would start again. Keep in mind this was rural Mississippi in the early 1960s!
How did being an undiagnosed autistic impact romantic relationships?
Well, I did not get nuances of how to act or what to say in boyfriend/girlfriend situations. I am shuddering and cringing at my sheer inappropriateness as I figured a few things out. Junior high and high school were socially disastrous, and I did not realize it until years later. I had boyfriends, as I was a cute enough teenager with big boobs and could tell a joke. OK, I said it, but it’s true! If I were to be single again, I would probably not pursue romance. It is just too complicated.
Talking to Others About Autism
How do you describe autism to people who are not familiar with it?
Autism is a different operating system. Think of Mac OS, Windows, Linux, Unix, plus, an experimental Operating System, called AusOS that shifts/changes for each computer/device you put it on.
What do you wish others knew about autism?
That is ranges from one person to the next, from non-verbal to off the charts genius level.
What is your advice for someone who thinks they might be autistic?
Do your homework and then make an appointment with someone who knows. Get a personal recommendation.
Are there any resources you would recommend for people who just learned they’re autistic?
Explore Amazon, your local Indie Bookstore, or anywhere that sells books. Google and read, but try to avoid going down obvious rabbit holes!
Are there any autistic characters in books, tv, or movies that accurately reflect autism? Which ones?
I loved Atypical. I thought it was lighthearted, yet it still got their message across. The Good Doctor had me until he got engaged. I kinda lost interest then.
Are there any autistic activists, autistic entrepreneurs, or autism groups you would like others to know about?
I have been inspired by Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Richard Branson, Anthony Hopkins, Tim Burton, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, Jerry Seinfeld, Stanley Kubrick, Temple Grandin (love her), Susan Boyle and Dan Akroyd.
But Elon Musk makes me twitch, and not in a good way…
Connecting with You
If someone would like to connect with you, how can they reach you? email@example.com
Do you have any works, websites, or other creative ventures you would like to share with others?
I do all the website/graphic stuff. I love, love, love creating images and coming up with new product ideas and names for products. I could spend 20 hours a day at my Mac except for that pesky sleeping. In case you wondered, my dogs are always in my office unless they want to go out.
Thank you for reading. I’m looking for more people to complete written interviews just like this one. I’ll send you the questions and you can complete them on your own time. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested