Late-Identified Autism Interview: You Can’t Always See It
This is my 4th interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistic Folx.
Clare O' Connor is a late-identified autistic. My questions are in bold and Clare's responses follow in regular typeface.
How old were you when you learned you are autistic?
I was 41.
How did you learn you are autistic?
I started to learn more about it as part of my job in Inclusion and Diversity, and realised the stories, experiences and descriptions I was hearing were very similar to my own, so I sought out a diagnosis.
How did you decide whether to self-identify or diagnose?
I wanted an official diagnosis for clarity, confirmation and further advice from a professional about strategies and supports.
How did you feel when you learned you were autistic?
Relieved, a little sad for the younger me, and determined to help others in my situation through my work.
How do you feel your gender impacted your journey as an autistic individual?
I am female, and as we often present differently, have lower support needs, and mask highly, I think I went under the radar at school and in my family.
How did any other of your identities (ex. race, religion, sexuality, etc.) impact your late identification as autistic?
Moving in with my partner who had children highlighted some of the sensory issues I had and it helped me seek out support where I may have not done living by myself.
How did your friends and family respond when you told them you are autistic?
Mixed responses. Some were interested, curious and supportive, many were more dismissive or said I didn’t “look autistic” or was “obviously very high-functioning” so didn’t need to seek out diagnosis.
Did you seek out therapy, coaching, or other forms of structured support for autism?
I am planning on seeking out some therapy and coaching in the future and some further training on how to support autistic leaders in the workplace.
How has learning you are autistic impacted your life?
It has made me more self-compassionate and aware, more curious, better at my job and has given me clarity on my purpose and career choice in Inclusion and Diversity.
How have you modified or adapted your life since learning you’re autistic?
I am living in much the same way, as I already developed coping mechanisms without realising it. I have tried to use noise cancelling headphones and fidget toys more in the office and try to avoid situations where I will have meltdowns where possible. I’ve also told my manager, team and colleagues and LinkedIn network to help them understand how to get the best from me and others like me at work.
In what ways does being autistic enhance your life?
It helps me stay focussed and driven in my work and career, and some of my skills and special interests have lead me to have a very fulfilling life of travel and education.
What are some topics or activities you’re passionate about?
Languages, Inclusion, written communication, Art, Travel, Art Deco, jazz and all things French.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I have a very routined day and dislike not being in a routine, I am also a stepmother which complicates life and can throw out routines. I eat similar foods every day, try to exercise regularly, read a lot of articles and research and work 9-5.
What do you do for work?
I am an Inclusion and Diversity specialist and online learning facilitator.
Is there anyone else in your family who is autistic?
What are some of the challenges you face in being autistic?
In-person communication with extroverts, anxiety, socialising at work or in large groups is an issue, food and sensory issues, strong sense of justice, OCD, need for routine and order, financial management issues due to dyscalculia.
What helps you prevent or cope with moments of overwhelm?
Calm music, fidget toys, headphones, walking, Pilates, yoga, lying down in a dark room alone for a while.
What skills or strategies have helped you to work with your autistic mind?
I can focus for very long periods of time on work or projects, and I have learned to take breaks, use visual calendars and reminders to plan and keep routine with children in the house and working from home/online has changed my life in terms of work and managing autism.
What is your experience with medical systems? Are there ways you feel they can be improved for autistic individuals?
I have had little experience but I got told I was high functioning and shouldn’t seek to label myself when I spoke to a GP.
How did being an undiagnosed autistic child impact your childhood?
I never felt like I fit in anywhere in my childhood. I had friends and got to indulge in some of my special interests. Maths was impossible for me, I since learned I have dyscalculia
What ways did you camouflage or mask?
As a teenager, I would drink to get through socialising. I mimicked and copied others such as learning to make small talk etc to try and fit in socially. I never felt comfortable to be myself, only with very close friends or trusted family members.
How has your identification as autistic changed how you view your childhood or earlier periods of adulthood?
Yes, hugely. I see now I wasn’t a strange person with weird interests, ( I used to read dictionaries and the Quran when I was a teenager for example) I was just wired differently!
How do you describe autism to people who are not familiar with it?
I say I process my senses differently, there is no one way to be autistic, some of us need more help than others but we all contribute in meaningful ways, we often have special interests and we think and socialise differently.
What do you wish others knew about autism?
You can’t always see it, we are not high or low functioning, we just mask at different levels and require different supports and acceptance. It is a complex internal struggle at times, but it gives us some amazing skills that others may find difficult to grasp. We can be leaders, we can be entrepreneurs, we can be successful.
What is your advice for someone who thinks they might be autistic?
Read, listen and seek out information in your own way and in your own time. There is a wonderful community out there waiting to support you.
Are there any resources (books, articles, videos, etc.) you would recommend for people who just learned they’re autistic?
I have listened to a lot of podcasts such as The Neurodivergent Woman, Oh, That’s Just my Autism and Meet My Brain – A Field Guide to Autism.
Are there any resources (books, articles, videos, etc.) you would recommend for people who are exploring if they might be autistic?
I went on to google and researched books, the one I got was Unmasking Autism by Devon Price. I also typed in Autism in Spotify and followed lots of good podcasts like the ones described above that helped me learn about other experiences of women particularly being diagnosed later in life.
Are there any autistic characters in books, tv, or movies that accurately reflect autism? Which ones?
I found it hard to find characters that reflect my own experience, as it is very often young boys or men that are rightly or wrongly represented in the media - but a couple of good examples I can think of are Sarah in the movie Keep the Change and Amelie Poulain in the movie Amelie.
Do you have any websites or other creative ventures you would like to share with others?
I am on LinkedIn, and I have an Inclusion and Diversity coaching and consulting business which I have recently started, called the Inclusion Architect. I also work with an amazing online learning platform called Cahoot learning to deliver courses for leaders on Inclusion and Wellbeing.
I also do some digital art as a hobby, and have created a series of animal characters with neurodivergent traits and I will be exhibiting at Adelaide Women and Children’s Hospital next year.
Thank you for reading. I am looking for more late-identified autistic folx to be interviewed for this series. If you would be willing, please email me at email@example.com