As an autistic art therapist who works with autistic clients, one of the pleadings I’ve heard every client express is, “Please trust my lived experience.”
An autistic individual experiences the world differently from neurotypicals. One of the most obvious differences is in sensory input. Certain noises (such as the humming of an AC), types of light (such as fluorescents) or smells (such as chemical cleaners) are debilitating. Most neurotypicals don’t even notice these things, and thus often don’t believe the other person or assert that they are “too sensitive.”
This can be extremely frustrating for someone who is in literal pain, such as a headache brought on by sensory overload.
It can cause an autistic person to turn the invalidation inward, developing feelings of shame and that something is wrong with them or broken.
This can be driven deeper when an autistic person’s differences in processing and thinking are questioned. For example, an autistic person frequently needs to process new information in their own way. This often involves personal research or their own system (for me, I need to write about things and typically need 24 hrs to sit with something). If someone does not allow for this process (such as time constraints or forcing them to only learn from the school book) or tries to “teach” them a different way to do it, it inhibits and invalidates the processes an autistic needs to learn. While the teacher may be trying to help, they simply do not understand this is simply how the person’s brain works and that the system they use is the most expedient for their brains.
It’s difficult for autistic people to explain to others why they do things the way they do. They may not know why - they may just know it's what they need to do or that it feels better that way.
Neurotypicals typically want to know why. When someone asks why I need 24 hrs to sit with new information and then process it through journaling, I don’t have a satisfactory answer as to why I need that. I typically respond, “It just doesn’t all make sense until I sit with something and have time to write about it.” Even though I don’t have an adequate response to why, I’d like someone to trust that I know what works best for me.
This is similar to emotions and burnout. When I hit the point of emotional exhaustion or autistic burnout (when all of the input is too much and a break is needed), I NEED A BREAK NOW. While it may not make “sense” to someone else, I know myself well enough. I take a break otherwise I know it will only get worse if I don’t.
When individuals, and especially children and teens, don’t know they are autistic, it can be difficult to get the space they need. Misunderstanding parents or adults may chastise their kid or tell them to keep it together. It may also be disruptive from the day’s schedule to give the child a break. Autistics are often shamed for not being like other kids.
Many times, we wish we were. We wish we had the energy to go anywhere and socialize comfortably. It’s simply not our lived reality.
Once we begin to trust our lived experiences, we can see and honor what we need. When others begin to trust our lived experiences, we feel we can fully ourselves and share who we truly are with others.
Thank you for reading. If you would like to explore your autistic identity in therapy or become an art therapy client, you can learn more here.