Late-Identified Autism Interview: I Was Pretty Resistant at First
This is the 21st interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistics. June is a late-identified autistic. My questions are in bold and June's responses follow in regular typeface.
What name and pronouns do you use?
How old were you when you learned you were autistic?
How did you learn you are autistic?
My therapist thought it might be the case. I was pretty resistant at first, but after gentle pushing, I slowly came to believe it was possible. After maybe a year I started to hope it was true, but was afraid I wouldn’t meet the clinical criteria.
How did you decide whether to self-identify or diagnose?
I like answers, so I went for a diagnosis. Not that someone else can tell you who you are, but it definitely felt validating to get a diagnosis. After a year of going from hostile to somewhat accepting, it was helpful to take the plunge and feel like there was an answer and I could move on from wondering about it.
How did you feel when you learned you were autistic?
From when it was first suggested, I went through a whole range of emotions. Anger that someone would suggest it. Confusion about what someone could see in me that would lead them to suggest it. Remembering how much I was drawn to the autistic people in media (Temple Grandin, particularly). Wondering how I could have gone this long without knowing. Remembering how utterly confusing I found everyone else, and wondering if it’s because they’re neurotypical and I’m not. Excitement about an answer to the most recurring question in my journal: am I like everyone else or really quite different?
How do any of your identities (ex. gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc.) impact your late identification as autistic?
I’m non-binary, so that probably made it harder to ID me as a kid. I grew up evangelical and that further confused things. Arriving at atheism in my 20s and my gender identity in my early 30s led to more exploring, which eventually led here.
How did your friends and family respond when you told them you are autistic?
Many of them said the same thing that they said when I told them I’m non-binary. To quote the excellent Jesse Sima in Not Quite Narwhal, “We all knew that,” or more precisely, “That makes sense.” Just like when I came out as non-binary, it was both relieving and annoying: why didn’t they tell me earlier?
Some people that don’t know me as well respond with a look of “Really? Are you sure?” (not that they say that, they just look like they’re thinking it). And then I start apologizing and proving it to them, which is ridiculous of course. Being twice gifted has its perks, but makes an invisible disability even harder to recognize.
How has learning you are autistic impacted your life?
One of the biggest things is it feels less like a diagnosis of me as autistic, and more like a diagnosis of everyone else as neurotypical. I already knew myself. My entire life I’ve wondered what was possibly going on in everyone else’s heads? They’re all so illogical. So disorganized. And they never say what they mean. One of my favorite Frasier lines is “Niles! What the hell are you doing?” When I see someone doing something inexplicable, I hear Kelsey Grammar’s broadway-style voice and big eyes yelling at his brother with disbelief. With a diagnosis, there was finally an explanation for everyone else’s bizarre behavior: they don’t think like me after all!
Second, my partner is amazing, and immediately set about doing a ton of research for herself and came to understand me in a whole new way. This has really helped our relationship grow.
Finally, in conjunction with realizing my gender identity a few years ago, I feel more free to be myself than I ever have. I also feel more practiced in becoming who I truly am, which empowers me to keep growing.
Your Current Life
How have you modified or adapted your life since learning you’re autistic?
First, I started masking less and just telling people I’m autistic. After several months, I started realizing that communicating in ways that neurotypical people understand doesn’t have to require masking. It can be more like any other communication: you have to translate into the other person’s language. Understanding how and why my language is different helps me do this. It also helps the people who know me meet me halfway.
In what ways does being autistic enhance your life?
For me personally, my autism has defined my entire life. I’m super fast at arithmetic. I’m great at building software. I’m very honest. I can see the big picture and the details. Having learned to mask means I can step outside of myself and see the world from above. I can design something in my head, draw it on paper, then build it (furniture, landscaping, etc).
What are some of the challenges you face in being autistic?
Ruminating can be horrible. I’ll play out an imagined conversation with a friend 50-100 times in my head, imagining every way it could go wrong, until my own thoughts are so loud it sounds like they’re being screamed at me. Then I’ll realize that all the horrible things I imagined my friend saying were… imagined, and I need to stop being angry at them for things they haven’t (and aren’t going to) say.
Back in college, I sometimes introduced myself with my name followed by “I’m an asshole” in order to set low expectations. This was only to people who knew enough about me to know it wasn’t true, but then when I did something they didn’t like, they had something to chalk it up to. I’ve always preferred setting expectations I can exceed to being a disappointment, and this horrible manifestation of that sprang out of every sideways look I got for being myself.
In my career, I’ve had some pretty bizarre experiences. I’ll be in a meeting with 20 people, and it’s 10 minutes past starting time, and everyone is chatting or (more likely) staring at their phones. My empathy is then thinking of everyone wasting all of this time, plus I’m calculating the cost of 10 minutes times 20 people times their average salary and starting to feel really uncomfortable, so I’ll say something like, “Who is leading this meeting?” People look at me funny, laugh it off, have the meeting, and then for the next 3 days several people who were in the room will pull me aside to say that it was rude. I’ll apologize, worry about my career, and be baffled as to why they’re mad at me when it was someone else who wasted everyone’s time.
And one funny one: apparently I don’t use enough exclamation points. People think I’m not excited when I send email or text messages. So now I use too many, and lean into some Glinda vibes.
If you work, what do you do for work? How does your autistic identity impact your work?
I was a Technical Program Manager for the last 10 years at Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. Now I’ve started my own tech company focused on apps for people with ADHD or Autism (more details at the end of this interview).
What helps you prevent or cope with moments of overwhelm?
Watch my favorite movies. I’ve seen some of them 50 times each.
Tell my closest people that I’m not ok. Then I know I’m not alone.
Enjoy the show: sometimes the lights and sound and general chaos of my mind is pretty entertaining when I let it happen and stop being afraid of it.
How did being an undiagnosed autistic impact romantic relationships?
It’s made it harder for me to communicate with partners in the past. Example: neurotypical people exaggerate for effect. I cannot understand exaggeration. Why would you say something incorrectly? How am I supposed to know what you mean if you’re saying something else? It makes arguments really hard because the other person says “this is the most important thing in the world to me” (exaggeration) and I say “this is moderately important to me” (literal), but on some level I know we actually assign it the same value.
Talking to Others About Autism
How do you describe autism to people who are not familiar with it?
I’m not good at this yet. It’s on my list to come up with something.
What do you wish others knew about autism?
It’s only one aspect of who we are. Since there are so few of us compared to the general population (a few percent, depending on who you ask), it feels amazing to be together. A room full of autistic people is a revelation. But once you get over how great and unusual it feels to not have to mask, we’re actually all very different from each other, like any other group.
What is your advice for someone who thinks they might be autistic?
Take it at your own pace. Start by recognizing that you’re different from everyone else, regardless of autism. Get curious about how you think, and about how other people do. And know that you’re not alone: whatever corner of thought you occupy, there are thousands of others like you, and you can find them if you stay open and curious.
Are there any resources (books, articles, videos, etc.) you would recommend for people who are exploring if they might be autistic?
Many online groups are open to people who are exploring. Check your local meetups, reddit, and discord. The best resource is other autistic people. And of course good therapists.
Are there any autistic characters in books, tv, or movies that accurately reflect autism? Which ones?
Temple Grandin is my favorite. She’s a real person for one. She’s still writing books and teaching at Colorado State. She wrote the book that the movie Temple Grandin is based on, and Claire Danes does an excellent job in the movie.
Are there any fictional autitistic characters that miss the mark on depicting autism? Can you give one example and explain why?
I think it’s time for autistic people to be portrayed by autistic people in media. While I’m a fan of getting the message out in shows on Netflix and cable (and they’re mostly pretty good shows), I wish they’d find actors who have autism.
Connecting with You
If someone would like to connect with you, how can they reach you?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you have any works, websites, or other creative ventures you would like to share with others? (please provide links)
I’m currently building software specifically for people with ADHD or Autism. I’m starting with time management, and have plans to also help with social planning for people with social anxiety, and a digital personal assistant to deal with all the mundane details of life to help you stay present with what you care about. Sign up for updates at https://www.indiebloom.co/
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.