This is the 24th interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistics. Cliff is a late-identified autistic. My questions are in bold and Cliff’s responses follow in regular typeface.
What name do you use?
How old were you when you learned you were autistic?
How did you learn you are autistic?
About 20 years ago one of my wife’s grandsons was diagnosed autistic. My curiosity led me to learn what this meant, and as I researched I began to recognize many of the symptoms in myself.
How did you decide whether to self-identify or diagnose?
I decided to get diagnosed by a professional for a couple of reasons. First, I have heard of people diagnosing themselves with practically every illness or condition known to mankind. Often it is some sort of hypochondria rather than an accurate diagnosis; an effort at explaining themselves and perhaps their perceived failings. I did not want to be viewed this way.
Second, I know I am not qualified to make such a diagnosis with a high degree of confidence; I needed a definitive yea or nay so I could make future decisions about my life confidently; based on more than my opinion. I also didn’t want to re-evaluate my past based on a self-diagnosis that might not be accurate.
How did you feel when you learned you were autistic?
Initially I was very relieved, maybe even profoundly so, learning that there really was an explanation for my oddities and failures at socialization and my feeling that I was on the wrong planet.
How did your friends and family respond when you told them you are autistic?
I don’t have many friends, and the one that I told had an underwhelming response (“I thought we were all weird”). My wife, who is also recently diagnosed on the spectrum, was not surprised, as she was with me on my search for answers from the beginning. My son didn’t have much of a response at all. I haven’t told others, because they have no need to know.
Did you seek out therapy, coaching, or other forms of structured support for autism?
I haven’t sought support, partly because there seems to be many people in greater need of the services of professionals, who never seem to have the time or space for new patients/clients. I don’t do computer meetings, nor do I like talking on the phone, and this seems to be the only way these things are done nowadays.
How has learning you are autistic impacted your life?
In some ways I have found it liberating. I have given myself permission to be a recluse, which I have always tended toward anyway, and am comfortable with it. Mostly this new knowledge has given me a solid foundation to begin a re-evaluation of my past and my tendency to deep-dive in researching everything that interests me makes this a long-term project.
Your Current Life
How have you modified or adapted your life since learning you’re autistic?
Being retired, I am able to stay home and avoid social situations, and I have doubled down on this. I think my life is better because of this; interpersonal relationships have always been stressful for me.
In what ways does being autistic enhance your life?
I love many aspects of my autistic self. Though my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be I see much that others don’t; worlds of life swimming in a Mason jar filled with pond water, the antics of the gray squirrels racing around in the trees behind the house as they chatter and banter among themselves; the crows mobbing a red-tailed hawk that occasionally ventures into our little world on the greenway. I hear the faraway train whistles very early in the morning, the rain on the sidewalk and the sound if it running off the roof and down the downspout. I hear the hoot-owl late at night, and many other solitary sounds that I can isolate from all the other sounds that go along with living in town, while hearing them all, I can listen to just one at a time if I choose (except for human voices).
Maybe the most important thing, at least to me, is my ability to see the elephant in the room. That is, the Most Important Thing that it seems most people either studiously avoid seeing, or are really blind to. If I was an artist there would be an elephant, somewhere, in all of my drawings. I cannot not see the elephant.
One example of the elephant is the fact that with all the environmental problems and catastrophes we have, almost no one identifies overpopulation as the root of it all. If the population became smaller, all the other problems would become exponentially smaller as a result.
What are some of the challenges you face in being autistic?
I mourn for my past life of being the odd one and never knowing why. I often think that if I would have known who I was my life may have been much different and much better. Sometimes I get stuck in the mud thinking about this. Now that I have more understanding of myself I can customize my world going forward, but the past can’t be changed.
In what ways have you noticed you’re different from neurotypical people (behavior, preferences, communication styles, etc.)?
I have not been able to communicate well with neurotypical people face-to-face in social situations though I have tried for most of my life. Though my undergrad minor was speech communication, I still fail at it in real life.
If you work, what do you do for work? How does your autistic identity impact your work?
Before I retired my most successful jobs were when I worked alone, as a chemistry lab technician, a computer programmer and a computer system administrator. I do my best work alone and I’m the worst team player in the universe.
Is there anyone else in your family who is neurodiverse, autistic, or otherwise?
My wife is on the spectrum, also recently diagnosed.
What helps you prevent or cope with moments of overwhelm?
Since I was a little kid I learned and utilized what I call “The Art of Not Being There.” Though I know that this is part of my perceived weirdness I know it is not good for me to try to navigate these times, so I leave. Sometimes I walk away, sometimes I just slip out the back when nobody’s looking. I have quit a couple of jobs on the spot, and walked out because of this.
What skills or strategies have helped you to work with your autistic mind?
Since I have begun to understand my strengths of observation and concentration, I have started to allow myself ample time to pursue perfection in the things I consider important, especially my main hobby, classic car restoration (which is my artistic outlet). I have also honed my autodidactic skills to teach myself things I could not learn from teachers. For example, I taught myself auto body work by going around my latest project car, beginning at the right rear fender and repairing each fender, door, hood and trunklid.
When I arrived back at the right rear fender I saw that I could make it better based on what I’d learned by doing the work I’d just finished. I went all the way around the car three times, reworking the panels, until it all felt right to me. Now I’m pretty good at it.
How does your autistic identity impact your romantic relationships?
When I had such things, I was not aware that I was autistic. They were usually short and unfulfilling.
How did being an undiagnosed autistic child impact your childhood?
I was a loner without close friends. My dad harped on eye contact; that if you could not look someone in the eye you were being dishonest. My mom was just disgusted and angry all the time at me. This is when I learned "The Art of Not Being There”. Aside from struggling through school (even while getting high grades and generally excelling at academics) much of my life was in the woods and at the lake behind our house. My parents were generally okay with me not being there at home. I spent much time lying on a big log that went out into the lake, watching the water dogs (rough-skinned newts) and the schools of bluegills playing in the shallow water among the lily pads, or lying on the roof of the shed watching the clouds go by. Nature was my salvation then, as it is now.
What ways did you camouflage or mask?
I tried to learn eye contact, but never had much luck. Mostly I just tried to be alone when I could. In school I would excel academically, so the teachers would generally leave me alone. I was an early reader; we had encyclopedias that I read voraciously.
How has your identification as autistic changed how you view your childhood or earlier periods of adulthood?
I recognize now why I struggled to fit in and have friends throughout my life, and I now have more compassion for my younger self, seeing my youth as not being a failure, but more as being misunderstood, both by myself and by everyone else. I am still analyzing and evaluating my past; it’s probably a neverending pursuit. I see now that I often misread condescension as friendship.
How did being an undiagnosed autistic impact romantic relationships?
I think all my romantic relationships crashed and burned early on, except for the last one. We recently celebrated our 33rd anniversary!
Talking to Others About Autism
What do you wish others knew about autism?
I wish people knew that autism is not a disease. Autistic people are not weird or ‘retarded’, in fact in some areas we are way ahead of ‘others’. Though not all on the spectrum are the same, I think we may share a clarity of thought and powers of observation that many ‘others’ could not even imagine.
What is your advice for someone who thinks they might be autistic?
I would say “Drill down! Learn all you can, from many sources, and sort out the results in a way that will overlay the story of your life. If you can do this and make it fit, then you may have found your answer.”
Are there any resources (books, articles, videos, etc.) you would recommend for people who just learned they’re autistic?
Look at everything you can find on the topic. To determine its legitimacy, use your own “sniff test.”
Are there any autistic activists, autistic entrepreneurs, or autism groups you would like others to know about?
Everyone should know about Greta Thunberg. She sees, and cannot Not see, the elephant in the room. But much more importantly she is somehow able to communicate this to thousands! I am in awe of this.
People should also know about Elon Musk. He should use his gifts to create and manufacture electric cars and build rockets to the moon; look at his successes! Also note that he should avoid Twitter, and certainly NOT be the CEO of a social media platform.
Connecting with You
If someone would like to connect with you, how can they reach you?
Thank you for reading. It’s my goal to reach 100 interviews. If you are a late-identified autistic, I would love for you to participate in this series. Please email me at email@example.com if you are interested.