This is the 27th interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistics. Gwen's interview was originally published on January 26th. However, after extensive editing and changes, we decided to remove the original interview and publish an updated version of her interview. My questions are in bold and Gwen's responses follow in regular typeface.
What name and pronouns do you use?
Gwen Murphy she/her/hers a/k/a “Autistic Arjuna”
How old were you when you learned you were autistic?
I was 73 when I read Julie Dachez’s graphic novel “Invisible Differences,” in May 2021. My curiosity about the nature of life, myself, existence and purpose drove subsequent investigation, research, reflection and recognition, leading me to a neurodiverse therapist who conferred a formal diagnosis, in early 2022 when I was 74.
How did you decide whether to self-identify or diagnose?
It was an unfolding process. Self-identification came before obtaining a diagnosis.
How did you feel when you learned you were autistic?
I felt a complex of feelings: rage, grief, relief, despair, amusement, confusion, hopelessness, curiosity, and excitement! The experiences of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and messed up relationships, a fragmented collage titled “my life” made sense, finally.
How do any of your identities (ex. gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc.) impact your late identification as autistic?
Born in 1947 in an affluent town in Oklahoma, I am a white, intersectionally-privileged cis-gendered elder rogue-outlaw female. I own my own home. I have no debt and no dependents. I receive a state retirement pension and a small social security allowance. I would be regarded as “High Functioning” or “Level 1.”
Did you seek out therapy, coaching, or other forms of structured support for autism?
By the time I sought out therapy for autism, I had been in and out of therapy over the course of fifty years. Before I found Joel Schwartz on the Neurodiversity Podcast, I had been seeing one Buddhist-trained Transpersonal therapist for seven years, with no discernible changes in my thinking, mood, or behavior.
How has learning you are autistic impacted your life?
A few years ago I heard about the book by Carol Stock Kranowitz “The Out-of-Sync Child.” It was the proverbial lightbulb. It is so obvious to me now! I am that child grown up and old – the out-of-sync elder! I even get out-of-sync with the teacher’s cues in yoga classes. It’s now just part of my acceptance practice.
After reading “Invisible Differences” I contacted the Autism Society of Colorado. From that connection has formed a gossamer network of support, both structured and informal. Since becoming active with the Autism Society of Colorado, I have met people “like me”, heard resonant experiences, and begun the process of being part of a community. I am currently in various stages of healing fueled from this fresh, illuminating perspective, applying a template that reveals what I thought of as “something wrong with me” to be “something wrong” with a culture that forces people like me into Procrustean beds. I am cultivating a lifestyle that reflects a thriving, alternative example of “The Good Life” to the “normative” patriarchal, neoliberal capitalistic one.
Your Current Life
How have you modified or adapted your life since learning you’re autistic?
At this point in my life, I dance daily with the entrenched patterns of isolation and loneliness. Unless I am paying them, most people leave me alone. I now orient the majority of my energy and attention towards my first love: psycho-spiritual development through the practice of yoga, pranayama, meditation, Self-study through the intersection of neuroscience and ancient wisdom teachings, and Jungian thought.
I have made a conscious decision to orient towards other autistic folks, some neurodiverse folks, and only selectively and as necessary with neurotypicals. I have adapted a discerning stance regarding when and how to “out” myself in order to obtain “accommodations.” Sometimes I just say I only have two brain cells which fill up really fast! I aim to reframe the challenge of embracing late-life identification as autistic as my greatest gift.
In what ways does being autistic enhance your life?
I may speak and be spontaneous in particular venues, expressing my truth without fear of gaslighting by the audience! I openly express enjoyment at sensory stimulation, especially visual: colored lights, glittering surfaces; tactile: I can “feel” animals such as cats and dogs but also wildlife; movement and sound: I have no fear of dancing to music heard while standing in line at the grocery store; wind reminds me of Spirit; the vitality derived from being outside in nature is a tangible, immediate, physical vibration. All this reminds me that I am alive.
What are some of the challenges you face in being autistic?
Persistent sense of “mysterious” lifelong loneliness and invisibility, or being forgotten, or not being taken seriously, especially as I move into elderhood in a culture that denies value to its elders.
Having encountered the “double empathy problem” in neuro-normative conflict resolution/communications models such as Marshall Rosenberger’s Nonviolent Communication, and no longer able to mask, I soothe the pain of letting go of relationships with pseudo- (neurotypical) “faux-friends” by recalling that I simply can’t be everything everyone wants me to be! That is true for everyone, is it not?
In what ways have you noticed you’re different from neurotypical people (behavior, preferences, communication styles, etc.)?
I see flaws in systems of thinking, e.g. Nonviolent Communication. I recognize illogical processes of thought that lead to higher-order abstract misperceptions of reality. I pick out details in complex visual images that neurotypicals do not see. I am a Highly Sensitive Person, sensing others’ “vibration.” I am extremely averse to cold temperatures – food, air, water – and to synthetic fabrics. I cannot tolerate the physical environment of large office buildings, with their steel, glass, fluorescent lighting and indoor air. I am very particular about what foods I eat. Certain loud sounds agitate me.
What helps you prevent or cope with moments of overwhelm?
Basic tools such as yoga, breathing, self-talk, and “mindful self-compassion.” Always having easy access to nutritious food including emergency chocolate. Imagining beforehand details of an upcoming excursion to anticipate and address known needs combined with recollection that I have no control over the unknowns.
But in truth, in the moment, very often I give in to a meltdown. I growl, scream, clench my fists and snarl under my breath, much like an infant having a temper tantrum. I find this physical discharge actually helps me regain equilibrium in a matter of moments.
What skills or strategies have helped you to work with your autistic mind?
See response to what helps me with moments of overwhelm. I have the ability to laugh at my own jokes, and to appreciate my unique experiences, even when surrounded by neurotypicals. I always have a “solo Plan B,” my preferred plan, for activities that involve cooperating with others.
How have you self-advocated for your needs?
Understanding how I may be experienced by others as “demanding” accommodations, I modify my stance using skillful communication skills. E.g., in situations where I’m agreeing to meet someone for coffee or lunch, or similar casual situations, I might let the person know ahead of time that on the day of the meeting, if I’m not feeling well enough to meet, I will cancel with thanks for their understanding.
How does your autistic identity impact your friendships?
Until recently I would say I have no friends, but now I must qualify that. I am cultivating connections (I wouldn’t say “friendship”) with women and men that I meet through local organizations, e.g., Autism Society of Colorado, Metro Autism Coalition, etc. I have made important connections with parents of autistic youth. These parents are becoming my friend-mentors, consultants, and allies.
I am, however, letting go of “faux-friendships” that do not serve my flourishing.
How does your autistic identity impact your romantic relationships?
It has been 35 years since I had what could be considered a romantic relationship. No past romantic relationship (there were a few) lasted for more than two years.
What is your experience with medical systems? Are there ways you feel they can be improved for autistic individuals?
I do not trust our health care system or much of “western” medicine, relying on complementary and alternative traditions first. Here is a resource shared with me by a friend: this site includes a tool to create your own personalized instructions for your provider. https://autismandhealth.org/
How did being an undiagnosed autistic child impact your childhood?
I felt like I was from another planet. As a young child I played by myself. I was quiet, shy, my muteness not notable until junior high school. I recall my mother asking me, throughout my childhood, when I returned from a social activity, “What’s wrong with you?” At some point between elementary and junior high school I recall noticing I wasn’t making friends anymore. In junior high school my parents urged me to take part in school activities. I preferred to be alone and study. In high school, I had three friends, described accurately if not benignly by my mother as “an orphan, a cripple, and a Mexican.” We liked to drive around on Friday nights in one of our parents’ cars, chasing boys and fantasizing future liaisons. In other words, I was a plastic doll easily molded into the form dictated for females in the culture at that time (1960s).
What ways did you camouflage or mask?
I stayed silent in group settings, learned how to imitate through observation and mimicking, and rehearsed stock responses beforehand. My academic achievement helped me get by.
How did being an undiagnosed autistic impact romantic relationships? In my early 20s into 30s, sex was a powerful “mask.” I recall my last boyfriend asking me who and where were my friends. I was in my early 40s when that last romantic relationship ended.
Talking to Others About Autism
How do you describe autism to people who are not familiar with it?
I say: People with autism characteristics experience differences in three areas of life: (1) sensory, (2) interpersonal/social-emotional, and (3) intense interest/focus on specific topics. Also, I share the observation “You’ve met one person with autism. You’ve met one person with autism.”
What do you wish others knew about autism?
How much intelligence and anger are borne silently, the presence and prevalence of suicidal ideation among female autistics, the historical-political background of the phenomenon as is presented in Eric Garcia’s “We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, and Steve Silberman’s “Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.”
Are you involved in any forms of autistic activism?
Only in a nascent form, just getting to know the players!
Are there any autistic activists, autistic entrepreneurs, or autism groups you would like others to know about?
Xenia Grant, Brian Be, Metro Autism Coalition, Autism Society of Colorado
Connecting with You
If someone would like to connect with you, how can they reach you?
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and text: 720-224-7574
Thank you for reading. I’m looking for more late identified autistics 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 email@example.com if you are interested.