This is my 8th interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistics. Sam Farmer is a late-identified autistic. My questions are in bold and Sam's responses follow in regular typeface.
How old were you when you learned you were autistic?
How did you learn you are autistic?
My book A Long Walk Down a Winding Road tells the whole story around this. It started with curiosity about whether there might be more to my challenges than my learning disability (I now look at this as a learning difference - words matter!), which had been diagnosed around age 3. My discussions with a local talk therapist about this eventually led to a neuropsychological evaluation which led to my Asperger's diagnosis. Today, I identify as both autistic and neurodivergent.
How did you decide whether to self-identify or diagnose?
At the time, the concept of autism self-diagnosis was unknown to me. Even if I had known about the possibility of self-diagnosis, I would not have pursued it because I believe that seeking a diagnosis from the appropriate clinician makes more sense. That belief stems from the fact that my father was a doctor and my mother was a social worker and talk therapist.
How did you feel when you learned you were autistic?
Initially, it felt like a gut punch. It was as if the word "Asperger's" quickly jumped off the page in the report detailing the conclusions of the neuropsychological evaluation and slapped me in the face. I had a difficult time reconciling what I knew about Asperger's and autism at the time with what I had just learned about myself. As I learned more about what Asperger's and autism entails, unanswered questions that had bothered me my entire life up to that point were finally answered and I was able to come to terms with and accept what I had learned about myself, knowing that if I could not accept what I had learned about myself, my self-esteem would suffer and I would never find true happiness. I regard attaining self-acceptance, and ultimately self-love, in the wake of learning that I am autistic, as being among my greatest accomplishments.
What is your gender? How do you feel this impacted your journey as an autistic individual?
Male (he/him/his). No impact whatsoever. I draw a hard line in the sand between my neurology and my gender. These are two separate and distinct aspects of who I am. I know that for many others on the spectrum, their autism and gender identity are closely connected, and I validate that, even though I don't hold this view for myself.
I do acknowledge that as a man, I am privileged in society. This might at least partially explain why I have been able to find happiness and success in life in spite of all the challenges and adversity I have faced. I think this is wrong. I should not be in a privileged position simply because of my gender. I have often advocated for a level playing field for all of us, regardless of gender identity.
How did any other of your identities (ex. race, religion, sexuality, etc.) impact your late identification as autistic?
No impact. As with gender, I make firm distinctions between my neurology, race, religion and sexuality, though I do view all of these identities as being core to who I am. I believe, as with gender identity, that identities in general should not be used as a basis for privilege or discrimination. Again, we need a level playing field. What is inside matters most: who we are, how we treat ourselves and others, what is in our heart, mind and soul.
How did your friends and family respond when you told them you are autistic?
They reacted as well as I could have hoped for. They gave me no grief, they did not question the legitimacy of the diagnosis and continued to relate to me in the same ways that they did prior to the diagnosis. I told them, and they agreed, that I am essentially the same person I always have been, just with greater self-knowledge since having learned I am autistic.
Did you seek out therapy, coaching, or other forms of structured support for autism?
Yes. I worked with a few clinicians after being diagnosed with the goal of learning more about Asperger's and autism as well as working to address certain challenges I decided I wanted to address. We worked on greater self-awareness, awareness of others (including perspective taking) and non-verbal communication skills, for the most part.
How has learning you are autistic impacted your life?
Profoundly, and for the better. The diagnosis led to greater self-knowledge, self-esteem and inner strength. It marked a turning point in my journey toward self-love. It empowered me to become the neurodiversity community advocate, writer and public speaker that I am today. In short, learning about my autism was transformative!
How have you modified or adapted your life since learning you’re autistic?
In what ways does being autistic enhance your life?
I view my autism profile as bringing many strengths and unique attributes: creativity, attention to detail, "outside the box" thinking, analytical thinking and the ability to hyper-focus on a task for long periods of time come to mind.
What are some topics or activities you’re passionate about?
Music (piano, singing, songwriting), politics, environmental stewardship, my neurodiversity community advocacy efforts, writing and public speaking.
If you work, what do you do for work?
I am a full-time information technology solutions architect and the lead self-advocate for a company called Floreo, a virtual reality technology company focused on teaching all kinds of life skills to neurodivergent individuals.
What are some of the challenges you face in being autistic?
The challenges I face were more acute when I was younger than they are now. I’m referring to challenges around self-awareness and awareness of others, processing and using non-verbal communication, relatively extreme sensitivity to confrontational and generally toxic situations, and repetitive behaviors (to the extent that many long-standing habits I'd like to change feel next to impossible to change), to name a few.
What helps you prevent or cope with moments of overwhelm?
Deep breaths in and out work wonders for me, particularly when I imagine all of the stress inside my body being released as I exhale. Walking away or distancing myself from overwhelming situations so that I can clear my mind and engage in "emotional housecleaning" also helps. Stimming as well, which I am somehow able to restrain until I am in a private setting.
What skills or strategies have helped you to work with your autistic mind?
I work with my autistic mind simply by being who I am. I feel very fortunate that I am able to do so without significant consequence. Sharing my lived experiences with autism via social media, my writing and my public speaking nurture my autistic mind as well.
What is your experience with medical systems? Are there ways you feel they can be improved for autistic individuals?
Mostly positive with respect to medical care. Mixed experiences with respect to behavioral health (some of it was helpful, some of it useless, and some of it toxic). Yes, plenty of room for improvement, particularly with respect to clinicians' level of knowledge about autism as well as the need for greater consideration of each autistic client's specific wants, needs and sensory sensitivities.
How did being an undiagnosed autistic child impact your childhood?
Lots of hardship with respect to low self-esteem, feeling socially isolated, bullying and lack of self-acceptance in terms of knowing I was different but wanting to be like everybody else. In addition, I was frustrated about not being able to understand why I faced the challenges that I did, until I was diagnosed at 40. In this regard, the diagnosis was hugely beneficial.
What ways did you camouflage or mask?
I wore the mask of a people pleaser, mostly because of my need to avoid confrontation/conflict and my mistaken belief that I would be liked and would "fit in" better if I were to be as others wanted and expected me to be.
How has your identification as autistic changed how you view your childhood or earlier periods of adulthood?
I now view my childhood and earlier adulthood as a mixed bag: the struggles I describe earlier as well as a number of positives. I was able to make friends with those who were able to look past my social skills challenges and personality quirks and see the good in me. I made good grades and was accepted to my 1st choice college. I was able to cultivate talents and abilities which I enjoyed and at which I was proficient, including music, tennis and distance running. And, I was most fortunate to have been raised by parents who understood my sensitivities and vulnerabilities and were able to position me for future happiness, success and a strong sense of self. My book A Long Walk Down a Winding Road delves more deeply into my lived experiences as a child and younger adult, told through my autistic lens.
How do you describe autism to people who are not familiar with it?
As an alternative neurology which is reflective of the natural neurological diversity inherent in the human population. As a difference that is worthy of acceptance and appreciation, NOT as a disorder, disability, condition or pathology that needs to be fixed or cured.
What do you wish others knew about autism?
That there is considerably more to autism than challenges and adversity, that it brings all kinds of strengths and unique attributes. I'd like more people to know that there are all kinds of smart, talented and successful individuals who are autistic or believed to have been autistic, including many celebrities, great thinkers, C-level executives, doctors, lawyers, entertainers, engineers, professors and other highly regarded professions. And, as I say above, that autism is a difference, not a disorder.
What is your advice for someone who thinks they might be autistic?
Be who you are, regardless of the challenges and adversity you are facing, even though this is often easier said than done. Also, to tell your story and share your lived experiences, even if doing so seems risky or provokes anxiety. Again, easier said than done, but nonetheless important, if we are to lessen the stigma and flip the script on autism and neurodiversity to one of greater understanding and acceptance.
Are there any resources (books, articles, videos, etc.) you would recommend for people who just learned they’re autistic?
My book, A Long Walk Down a Winding Road, is a good read with respect to ideas and insights as to how one may achieve greater happiness and success in the face of challenge and adversity. I also share many stories around my lived experiences as an autistic which give context to the self-help material. In addition, I have written many published articles covering a wide variety of topics of relevance to the neurodiversity community. Links to my best articles and more information about the book can be found on my website, www.samfarmerauthor.com.
Pretending to be Normal by Liane Holliday Willey and Beyond the Wall by Stephen Shore are two other books written by autistic authors which strongly resonated with me and from which I learned a great deal about autism soon after I was diagnosed. These books shine with respect to the kinds of lived experiences these authors share, through an autistic lens.
Lastly, a book entitled Pain and Shock in America by Jan Nisbet is a very intense, disturbing yet very well written and compelling read which I recommend with caution in that it deals with electric shock "treatment" and other aversive behavioral interventions being used, legally, on autistic and other neurodivergent individuals. I'm bringing up this book because more people need to know this story than who already do. If we as a community are going to work towards re-writing the narrative on autism and lessening the stigma, we need to be aware of the injustices which have contributed to the narrative we are trying to re-write and which have fueled the stigma we are trying to lessen.
If someone would like to connect with you, how can they reach you?
I invite anybody who wants to connect with me to do so via the contact page on my website, www.samfarmerauthor.com/contact.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org