This is the 41st interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistics. Siski is a late-identified autistic. My questions are in bold and Siski’s responses follow in regular typeface.
What name do you use and, if you want to share it, what pronouns do you use?
Siski Kalla, she/her
How old were you when you learned you were autistic?
50 years old
How did you learn you are autistic?
My daughter was diagnosed with autism, and upon understanding why/how she presented autistic traits I realized that I shared many of those traits with her. I did the very typical autistic thing of launching myself into researching and investigating more about it, and the more I learned, the more I was certain I was autistic, too.
How did you decide whether to self-identify or diagnose?
I had people tell me I couldn’t be autistic (I had too much empathy, I was creative, I was sociable, etc.), and then I had other people telling me I was definitely autistic (unempathetic, cold, unemotional, anti-social). I knew I would never be able to say with certainty whether I was or not, without an ‘official’ diagnosis from a psychiatrist. I needed that official ‘stamp’ to feel confident when addressing people who doubted it and also for those who had already decided they ‘knew’ how or why I was autistic.
How did you feel when you learned you were autistic?
Brilliant! I felt relieved, delighted, and just so happy to know I wasn’t the things others had said I was (especially the negative things) but that I just take in and give out information in different ways than most people.
How do any of your identities (ex. gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc.) impact your late identification as autistic?
As for the impact on my gender identity, I learned very early on to people please, talk more, chit-chat, and smile when meeting people or talking to them, etc. (all things I think society tells girls to be and do). Due to my learning to mask early, I don't think my autism impacted me the way it might have done others. I was sociable, successful (in terms of career), had a family, etc. If you are doing ‘okay’ in societal terms, then people don’t question whether or not you are neurodiverse.
How did your friends and family respond when you told them you are autistic?
Several friends and family members also investigated their own potential neurodiversity as they could see autistic traits in themselves as well.
Some denied my autism, others viewed it as confirmation of my perceived lack of empathy/coldness/or whatever, but most were surprised but curious to understand more. I found it really interesting that people I believed knew me very well had completely opposite reactions – some said, ‘But you’re an empath! You care too much! That’s impossible!’ while others said, ‘Now I understand why you lack empathy.’ Similarly, ‘But you’re an extrovert!’ and ‘Aah, that explains you being such an introvert.’ People view autism as being very much about empathy and sociability, it seems. It is, but clearly not exactly in the way that many people view it.
I now understand that I am both those types that others ‘see’ – but perhaps not in the way they think. I know I am deeply empathetic, but I also know that there comes a point where I ‘cut off’ that empathy for my own emotional well-being and survival. I know that I am an introvert who has learned how to be an extrovert – and even enjoys it – until I simply can’t, and have to crawl into a dark quiet place to regain the energy I’ve lost by masking as an extrovert.
Did you seek out therapy, coaching, or other forms of structured support for autism?
Yes, I have sought out therapy. So far it’s helped me understand that it’s okay to not keep giving my time, thoughts, and emotional energy to others, even if they seem to need it. I need to look after myself, not just for myself, but also for my children. I think and hope I’ll be better at getting myself into friendships and relationships that drain me or worse, damage me.
How has learning you are autistic impacted your life?
Learning that I am autistic has improved my life immensely. I now know better how to manage certain situations so they don’t exhaust me (such as going to the supermarket or the mall, for example), and I’m aware of which kinds of social situations will leave me unable to be around others for a while, but the main thing that’s been wonderful is connecting with the neurodiverse community, or as I like to call it, finding my neurokin (although, I must add that it seems that a large proportion of my friends – and family – are also neurodiverse, whether they are diagnosed or not, so perhaps I was already surrounded by neurokin but I didn’t know it)!
In creative terms, learning that I am autistic has opened up my world. Growing up, I always felt I wasn’t and could never be a ‘true creative’ (whatever that means) because I didn’t feel like I had that deep passion, the highs and lows, the anger/desperate sadness/frustration that ‘real artists’ seemed to have and express in their work. It seemed like to be a proper artist you had to be kind of emotionally tortured. I know a huge proportion of late-diagnosed autistic women have depression and anxiety, but I haven’t and do not. I’m certain I’ve never been depressed, and I’m fairly emotionally stable. Sometimes I worry that I’ll suddenly fall apart, and then I’ll realize that I’ve just bottled it up over decades of time! Anxiety, on the other hand, I’m not so sure of. I’m so skilled at managing, controlling, and masking emotions that sometimes I have no idea what I even really feel. You can see how much self-doubt there is, sometimes I really feel like I don’t know myself or how I feel at all, but therapy is helping with that. In recent years, I’ve discovered that I absolutely can be a creative artist, because I share my joy and happiness in my illustrations, and that’s just as valid as sharing deep, dark, sad, or angry imagery.
Your Current Life
How have you modified or adapted your life since learning you’re autistic?
I wear headphones in the mall or supermarket. I listen to blue or green noise in the car and also at night. I don’t plan to do any work or anything else on days when I have to go to the supermarket or mall as I know it’ll be too difficult.
In what ways does being autistic enhance your life?
I’m not sure if this has to do with BEING autistic or KNOWING that I’m autistic, but either way, I now feel more ‘permitted’ to wear what I want, be how I want, and decorate the house how I want. Obviously, I could’ve done these things anyway, but I didn’t, and now I feel more confident in doing so. I’m 51 years old, so wearing rainbow-coloured cardigans isn’t exactly ‘normal’, but I do own one now that I love. I’ve also added pink things and pretty lights into my home. When I see glittery, pretty, colourful clothes, shoes, make-up, and jewelry that I wouldn’t have considered owning before for being too ‘childish’ or even too 'girly,' I now just think, if those things make me happy, that’s all that matters!
What are some of the challenges you face in being autistic?
For me, autistic challenges include avoiding people who are likely to hurt or damage me in some way. I’m still not certain I can figure out which people will end up bringing me down, draining me, or just making me feel awful without me being able to stop it or end the situation.
I love social situations but they are also a source of anxiety or nervousness, sometimes to the point where I wonder whether I should just avoid them. In the past, I’d rely on alcohol or other substances and I actually think that helped me overcome my childhood shyness and become what some people describe as a sociable, outgoing person. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, obviously, but I think it’s what helped me understand that social situations weren’t THAT scary. My therapist believes that being able to take the leap to experience the thing that terrifies us is sometimes all that’s needed to make our minds and bodies realize that, no, it’s not going to kill us, and we can survive it. I think the alcohol helped me realize that in the past. Now I don’t need alcohol but after a couple of hours of socializing with people who I know (but not well enough to just go and nap in a corner), I start to zone out, words form a kind of cloud of buzzy talking, and I start to disengage.
In what ways have you noticed you’re different from neurotypical people (behavior, preferences, communication styles, etc.)?
It amazes me how people can carry on without freaking out or getting stressed when there are so many noises going on all at once. If I go to a mall where there are people talking, speakers with music, announcements for sales, other beeps, and sounds that I can’t even pinpoint the source of, I can feel the lifeblood draining from me. I can imagine walking into these places as a healthy, colourful person and then, as I walk around with the sounds coming at me (and the smells, oh, the smells too!) along with the bright lights and colours, the whole experience just sucks the colour right out of me until I’m left standing there looking and feeling like a shell of my former self. When I go home, it will take me an entire afternoon and maybe even a night’s sleep to get back to some kind of normal. During those times, I cannot bear any kind of external demands or pressure or I’ll snap or break down in tears or anger.
I’m also acutely aware of conversational styles (and now, acutely aware that I’m acutely aware of it)! I notice other people’s styles, how often they interrupt, how often they nod their head, and how they change the conversation or continue it. Now, since I have come to understand that this is an autistic thing, I marvel at how allistics just do all that without even thinking about it consciously or analyzing it afterward! That must save so much mental energy!
If you work, what do you do for work? How does your autistic identity impact your work?
I’m a children’s book illustrator and I think being autistic has been key in helping me illustrate people's and animals’ expressions. That might sound counterintuitive (after all, autistic people are supposed to find non-verbal communication tricky), but due to decades spent being hypervigilant about people’s expressions, movements, eye contact, posture, speech, etc., I think it made me more aware and that translates to me being able to express emotions in an image. I’m not sure I was capable of this when I was younger. Interestingly, when I look at a lot of the art I made back then, my pieces didn’t involve many faces, people, or even animals.
What helps you prevent or cope with moments of overwhelm?
Dogs. And more dogs. Probably cats too, although I don’t have one. Burying your face in warm fur, the dog completely accepting and nonplussed by whatever you might be saying or doing (as long as you’re not shouting!) is just wonderful and calming.
How did being an undiagnosed autistic child impact your childhood?
Being extremely shy to the point where I might start crying while visiting a school friend’s house and wanting to be picked up by my mum (even though nothing bad had happened) made me feel silly and I didn’t understand why others didn’t seem to have any issues with it. At the same time, I was perfectly capable of taking charge of the entire class to perform a play and be ‘bossy’ by ordering everyone about! I don’t remember it as being a terrible thing. I think I just bumbled my way through school, not really ever feeling ‘part of the popular gang,’ but not really minding that much either. In my teens, things changed, and being a bit odd was almost cool (thank you, Ally Sheedy from the Breakfast Club!). I also had a couple of friends who were just as completely accepting of me as I was of them. I do wonder now if they were/are ND too, which might have been what made our friendship so easy.
In what ways did you camouflage or mask?
At birthday parties or other events with lots of people, I’d pretend to have a stomachache or tell people I didn’t like cake and ice cream just to avoid the nightmarish scenario where I’d have to engage in the receiving, taking, please, and thank you back and forth. Somehow that seemed worse than not eating the lovely-looking ice cream and cake. The stomachache routine continued right up until my 20s and even early 30s. I’d avoid going out to dinner with my boyfriend’s friends, or to parties, etc. At the time, I didn’t even really know why I was so desperate not to go, and certainly didn’t feel able to simply say, ‘I don’t want to.’
Talking to Others About Autism
Are there any autistic characters in books, tv, or movies that accurately reflect autism? Which ones?
Chloe Hayden’s Quinni on Heartbreak High is just brilliant. The clothes she wears, her make-up and hair, the excitement, the under-the-duvet hiding in the dark, and the sensory overwhelm she experiences in certain situations are all depicted brilliantly.
I’m also working on a children’s book to be released next year where the autistic character is a dog named Gertie and a little boy tries to be her friend. Gertie doesn’t do the same things as other dogs, and she doesn’t react to ‘dog things’ in the same way either. Being a dog makes it easier to empathize with her, I think, because you’re not trying to identify AS her, just trying to understand her way of being. In theory, the book should be enjoyable for and (I hope) help both autistic children and neurotypical children to be more understanding. It’s also just a very sweet book about accepting others as they are, even if they don’t fit your expectations.
Are there any autistic activists, autistic entrepreneurs, or autism groups you would like others to know about?
I listened to the Autistic Woman podcast before being diagnosed and found it so insightful and calming. If you’re over 30-ish and a woman, you might find it interesting, too.
Additionally, Nicole Flippone is a fabulous autism advocate and has published several books that are great for families with autistic kids. Her work can be found at https://www.nicolefilipponeauthor.com.
Connecting with You
If someone would like to connect with you, how can they reach you?
I’m contactable via my website www.siskikallaillustration.com
Do you have any works, websites, or other creative ventures you would like to share with others?
After my years in journalism, I started writing children’s books, then illustrating. I love children’s books with a passion and firmly believe there should be more picture books for adults (I’m working on it)! Two recent books I have illustrated were written by Becky Hemsley whose poem, Breathe, went viral during the pandemic. Both Breathe and Starlight (the other poem I’ve illustrated of hers) speak to me on a deeply personal level.
Breathe describes how it can feel when the world is always telling you you’re too much of this or not enough of that, and I think autistic people often feel that way. It also shows how it’s fine (and good) to grant yourself a sense of peace and calm, using whatever method you might need, to shut out those voices.
Starlight is about a dandelion boy who has magic that not everyone seems to be able to see. Again, this feels a bit like being autistic or neurodiverse – you might feel you have something to say or something to give to the world, but that others don’t want to see or hear it. You might feel like you don’t fit in, but in your heart, you know that you’re a good person, funny, imaginative, generous, clever, or whatever, even though others don’t seem to see it and you can’t understand why. Dandelion Boy finds ‘his people’ in other flower children and they enjoy the magic he spreads by being around him.
Thank you for reading. I’m looking for more late-identified autistics to complete interviews just like this one. I’ll send you the questions and you can complete them on your own time. Please email me at email@example.com if you are interested.