We Need More Depictions of the The Interior Experience of Autism
I recently finished the book, “The Kiss Quotient.” I don’t typically read romance novels or fiction, but a friend of mine recommended it to me because I’m autistic. The main character in the book is autistic. I was intrigued.
Within the first 30 pgs, I was so floored by the spot-on depiction of autism that I flipped to the author bio. This author HAD to be autistic. Sure enough, she was.
What this author, Helen Hoang, captured so well is the internal world of autism. She showed how the main character was painfully aware of her differences, and did her best to mold into the various environments she encountered. Movies and tv shows often focus on the exterior: the meltdowns, the overwhelm, the stimming behavior. This book depicted how she fought to prevent or mask some of those things.
I could barely sleep after reading the book because it made me think about my own interior landscape as an autistic woman.
One of the reasons I didn’t know I was autistic until my 30’s was because my external behaviors do not align with the symptoms in the DSM-5 for Autism Spectrum Disorder or the depictions of autism seen in movies and television.
Autistic people are frequently depicted with external behaviors, such as odd body movement, stimming behaviors, and visible stress and overwhelm. When depictions attempt to describe the internal experience, they are cast as immovable ways of being: rules for how things should be done (like social rules for behavior), rigidity in thought (always thinking in black/white and literal terms), and a necessary routine (having a sequence that MUST be followed).
I didn’t have anything hard fast like this. Yes, I had my preferences, but I could adapt them if the situation called for it. I’ve lived and traveled all over the world - if I could adapt my rules, rigidity, and routines in these different environments, how could I possibly be autistic?
In “The Kiss Quotient,” the autistic character has her own strong preferences, tries to adapt to new situations she encounters, and runs through the inner dialogue of how those situations and attempts at adapting impact her. Once her interior dialogue was revealed, I immediately identified. In one scene, she agrees to go to a club. Her entire week is spent preparing mentally for this experience and ensuring it is optimized. When she is at the club, she does her best to cope with the overwhelm, until the noise and crowds become so heightened that she has to remove herself.
THIS is the kind of autism I experience. When I’m going somewhere new, I think about it endlessly and plan as much as I can (where will I park, what will I wear, and more). I try to reassure myself, but the thinking happens regardless. Once I am there, it takes a lot to feel comfortable and I almost certainly need downtime afterward to rebalance my energy.
The same goes with routines. I am a morning person by nature. I love to wake up to the sun, clean my entire apartment, prepare food for my dog and I, go on a walk with my dog, and then come home and write. In that order. I do this because it is what optimizes my day.
I can go throughout my day without this morning routine, but I much prefer it. The rest of the day will be thrown off as I navigate a messy apartment, my energy levels without food, or a full mind that didn’t have a chance to pour itself on the page.
THIS is what routines looks like for me. It’s not a hard fast rule, but it certainly makes my life better.
“The Kiss Quotient” also captured the thinking patterns of autism exceptionally well. At numerous points in the story, someone would say something that would cause the main character to think of something else. Before she knew it, she had jumped to 20 different thoughts and had lost track of the present conversation. This happens to me frequently as well. It’s not a “rigidity” in thought, but more so an extremely active mind.
There are moments where the book depicts the main character making social missteps when she becomes curious about another person. These “awkward” moments depict how social difficulty is not typically fueled by “social rules” (you must behave a certain way) or lack of empathy, but an EXTREME connection and curiosity of others. It can be difficult to recognize when you’ve asked too deep of a question.
Lucky for me, I’ve chosen to be a therapist. It’s my job to ask deep questions. In fact, I’ve written about how life as a therapist is sometimes easier because it’s expected that I’ll ask deep questions.
Autism is different for everyone, but I think more women would be diagnosed or self-recognize they are autistic if they heard about the interior experience of autism. If it was commonly shared that the rules, rigidity, and routines associated with autism look more like STRONG preferences that relate to their energy levels, optimization, and interests.
Thank you for reading. If you're wondering if you might be autistic or need support with a new diagnosis of autism, I would love to work with you.
You can learn more here.