As a kid and young adult, it never crossed my mind that I could be autistic. The education I received about autism in graduate school for mental health counseling was all based on the DSM-5. I envisioned inappropriate meltdowns, difficulty with eye contact, inability to socially connect, and overt stimming behaviors.
That wasn’t me.
That also wasn’t an accurate picture of autism.
When my art therapist suggested I read “Neurodivergent Mind,” I only read it because I trusted her recommendations. I did not expect the book to relate to me. But as I read the pages that described how autism presents in people who were raised and socialized as girls, it sounded A LOT like me.
The sensory sensitivity to light, sound, texture, taste, smell, and more
The difficulty with body coordination, interoception, proprioception, and more
The constant self-monitoring of my conversations and social interactions
The ability to mask and camouflage, but underneath it all a deep sense that I was different than others
The way my brain takes a day or at least a good night’s sleep to fully process things
How my brain can think of a million things at once and ruminate endlessly about something
My laser-like focus when I’m working on something I love, coupled with my agitation if that gets interrupted
The overall feeling of hypervigilance to my surroundings
Difficulty discriminating voices in a crowd or not getting distracted by things in the environment
The amount of emotional exhaustion after interacting with people
My need and love for significant amount of daily time by myself
Gut sensitivity I dealt with my entire life
My extreme ability to empathize and read other people
My love of deep, significant conversations, in contrast to my distaste for casual socializing
My ease with making new friends, and the genuine struggle at maintaining friendships
Each of these things were insignificant as stand alone facts, but when laced together, I could see they were the same thread: autism.
I spoke with my therapist about it.
It took a lot of conversations, research, and personal processing to accept my identification as autistic. I had to dismantle the inaccurate narratives and portraits of autism I had constructed in my head.
I thought being autistic meant you weren’t empathetic. I am extremely empathetic.
I now understand my autistic mind takes in a LOT of information at once. It helps me to pick up on subtleties on people’s facial expressions, body language, tone, and more. I can quickly sense how someone is feeling and feel deeply connected and empathetic to that.
For others, the inflow is overwhelming, they shut down, and disconnect from others. What is happening underneath is the same, but how we cope, process, and express is different. Some autistics are extremely empathetic and others are not.
There were many more inaccurate stories I had concocted about autism (largely thanks to depictions of autism in movies and tv shows) that I had to dismantle through education and processing them with a therapist.
I also needed time to understand what was autism, what was masking, and what was just normal human behavior.
For example, I’m great at looking at someone when they’re speaking. My mother taught me how to show someone you’re interested in a conversation, which includes maintaining proper eye contact. Throughout my entire life, I’ve vigilantly monitored the amount of eye contact that I provide someone when they are speaking.
When I learned about autism, I realized that neurotypical people do not have the same vigilance. They just maintain eye contact. I have to think about it because it’s not what comes natural to me. I’m using eye contact to camouflage - to fit in socially and send the right cues to other people.
With some of my close friends who know me well, I close my eyes when I’m listening. It helps me to listen better. I also struggle to maintain eye contact when I’m speaking - that’s one thing I’ve never been able to control.
Learning I’m autistic has been a slow process of examining and understanding myself better. I’m rewriting old narratives and constructing new ones. In a previous essay, I shared about how I used to think I was broken. I used to think some of my differences meant there was something wrong with me.
I now know there’s nothing wrong with me. I can understand and appreciate my differences. I honor my unique needs better. I also honor my unique strengths better, such as taking the time to write essays like this one.
If you suspect you might be autistic and are struggling, I suggest you self-educate in whatever way your brain absorbs information best. For me, it was books. For you, it could be podcasts or YouTube videos or research articles.
Then, find someone knowledgeable about autism who can help you sort it all out. Some people want a formal assessment and diagnosis, which you can get by reaching out to a psychologist who provides autism assessments.
A formal diagnosis is not necessary to know you are autistic. In the neurodivergent movement, we affirm that you are the authority of your own self and you can choose to self-identify.
Furthermore, depending on the assessor, formal assessments can also miss the unique ways that autism presents in women. For example, I have an autistic colleague who went for an autism assessment and was told she did not meet the diagnostic criteria. However, given her work experience in mental health and neurodiversity, she knows she is autistic.
Some people find it helpful to meet with a coach or therapist to learn more about autism and explore if they might be autistic (you can read about why in my essay 8 Ways Therapy Helps with Late-Identified Autism). Others choose to self-identify after doing their own research.
No matter how you come to your self-knowledge about autism, it is a journey worth taking. It redefines how you see yourself, your past, and your future. It brings understanding and hope.
Thank you for reading. If you would like support as you explore your autistic identity, you can learn more about working with me here.