Neurodiversity Opened the Door for Me to Feel Deep Compassion for Myself
This is the first interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistic Folx. For this interview, I provided the individual with a list of questions that shaped their essay below. This individual requested that they remain anonymous to maintain privacy.
I have today.
Last year, a month or two before I turned 65, my husband commented that one of my adult children and I share some autistic characteristics. I felt relief. Who I am was seen and acknowledged.
I don’t know exactly where I fit in the neurodiverse world. Or, perhaps more accurately, where I fit as a child, as a young woman, as a middle-aged person, and now as a 60-something. Like everyone, I have grown throughout my adult life and developed skills that I did not have when I was younger. I do know that before and after my husband’s comment, I have done online autism spectrum screenings that suggest I might choose to pursue additional screening and diagnosis.
I have also started to explore and read more about neurodiversity in women. It was a start and stop process. I did not identify with some aspects of the experience. Other insights slashed directly to deeply held points of pain, and I paused for weeks or perhaps months before going further. I am still learning and sorting through what is helpful for me and what is not and how that might change.
As I write today, I continue to experience many emotions around neurodiversity on a nearly daily basis. Anger. Rage. Relief. Joy. Gratitude. Appreciation. Annoyance. Stubbornness. Softening. Compassion.
I had always been mystified about why I was different from most people – and particularly from most women. I have generally had a few, closely cherished, friends, but I’ve felt awkward in most social situations. When I became a mother in my thirties, I discovered that at last I could quickly engage with women in conversations about our children. I had finally found a key to casual and enjoyable conversations among many women. Finding that key, and a few others, is important to me; without them, I’m perhaps happier being quiet with other people.
When I was first diagnosed with PTSD in my forties and with complex PTSD a few years later, I felt relief. Finally, I knew why I was different. I thought if this was healed, I would feel normal. And yet, after working through effective therapy and healing in many ways, I realized that I still did not feel or behave the same as other people – even those who also experienced CPTSD.
When I was in therapy for CPTSD, the therapist encouraged me to care for my inner self – the toddler, the teenager, who was traumatized. This was hard for me; it felt strained and not genuine. In addition, I was never able to answer “What happened to you?” I only knew that as a toddler, I was aware that inside, I was a “bad” person because of my behavior. The responses to my meltdowns, which were worse than my older siblings’ tantrums, made me feel that my behavior was bad and so I was bad. This planted a seed of shame about who I am. My later social challenges were interpreted as “shyness.” My mother’s response was to push me to be different than I was, rather than to support me to learn some helpful techniques. I learned to mask and do my best to follow external rules, and I was able to do very well in school.
I carried this deep feeling of shame about myself until eventually I found effective therapy for CPTSD in my fifties. More recently, when I circled back with the therapist, she commented that she felt I had always resisted her. This puzzled me, because I had tried my best. And yet, I seemed not to have behaved as she expected.
Today, the more I learn from neurodiverse people, and particularly from women’s experiences, many of their stories resonate with me and I finally feel that I belong. My compassion for myself and for others close to me is growing. Learning about neurodiversity and the internal experiences of more women with autistic traits helps me to recognize my patterns and experiences. It enables me to answer the “What happened to you?” question that is critical to trauma work.
I am also deeply relieved to better understand sensory overload and masking. Before, when the bright flickering lights, the noise, the crowds, and the demands of interacting with people overwhelmed me, I thought something was wrong with me in particular. I thought other people were experiencing what I was experiencing and somehow they were better at managing it. Understanding that my experience of overload is different than the way many other people experience the same environment is supportive. I am not less capable than others or more flawed. I am different, and a smaller subset of others experience what I do.
And masking! I am really good at it and it takes so much energy. I can mask my way through all kinds of interactions, and, honestly, combined with my love of learning about human behavior, I think my masking skills open some doors. And yet, masking is so energetically demanding. Naming it, recognizing it, is a relief. Now, I feel that I can mask as I wish, be open about myself when I wish, and remove myself from a situation when that seems to be the best course of action.
Learning about masking helps me understand why working from home during the pandemic has been a blessing for me. Yes, less time spent commuting and greater flexibility is positive. Yes, I miss those face-to-face interactions with people I work closely with or share a particular interest with. But the required casual socialization on an ongoing basis in an office and around meetings was draining. It sapped my energy. Working from home is better for me and for my work.
My husband was accurate. I share autistic traits with one of my children. I believe my father shared some of those traits as well. In behavior and personality, I always felt more like my father than my mother.
My mother was a good mom, especially to my siblings. People in the community would comment about what a nice person she was. She successfully and cheerfully combined a career, mothering and homemaking in an era when many women did not. And yet, I experienced aspects of her approach to me as harsh, shaming and destructive. My most difficult challenge in life – to date – has been to heal from this.
The insight about my neurodiversity and the understanding of its patterns have opened the door for me to feel deep compassion for myself at younger ages and to appreciate my trajectory in life. I am now able to understand and appreciate, from an adult’s perspective, what happened to me as a child. Neurodiversity gives me a way to recognize and value how I live in this world. The last bit of masking to myself has crumbled. I can love who I was, who I am, and who I will be.
Today, I feel relief, increased compassion, and also hope for insights and growth that the neurodiversity perspective promises. As an individual, I experienced the diagnosis and treatment for PTSD in the 1990s. Diagnosis and treatment for Complex PTSD in the 2000s was even more effective. As a professional, I have seen the growing community awareness and understanding of trauma -- that shift from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” And in the past decade, I have seen the explicit awareness and supports for trauma spread in my work setting.
I wish that I had not experienced what I did as a child. And I am hopeful that like the understanding of trauma, the perspective and field of neurodiversity will grow and spread. A conceptual understanding of neurodiversity is helping me to thrive. Should I have a neurodiverse grandchild, knowledge of neurodiversity and community supports may benefit that child and our family even more.
If you would like to be interviewed about late-identified Autism,
please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org