I never really know when to tell someone that I’m autistic.
Given that most people’s conceptualization of autism is based on movies/tv shows (like Rainman, Atypical, etc. Love on the Spectrum, etc.) and mainstream white boy autism (my term for how the symptoms for Autism Spectrum Disorder are primarily based on white cis-heternormative boys), there’s usually some shock and confusion when I tell people.
I’m a 36 year-old white cis-woman who runs her own business. I’m great at conversations and have excellent verbal and nonverbal communication skills.
Most people don’t understand how I could be autistic.
That’s because most of the impacts are internal, not external. Autism is a form of neurodivergence. My brain’s wiring is different from a neurotypical person. My brain functions, processes, and learns differently in key areas: sensory input, emotional input, thought formation, social interaction, and more.
For example, I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel more than average people.
Sometimes, this is great. I can see things very far away. I can smell delightful nuances in foods. I notice subtle differences in texture and enjoy filling my home with unique textures.
Sometimes, my heightened senses are overwhelming. Noisy environments make it difficult for me to hear who is directly in front of me because I hear everything else so well. Extremely bright lights lead to me getting a headache. I also get headaches from chemical smells like Glade plug-ins.
My heightened senses also apply to emotions. I feel emotions more strongly than neurotypicals (this is likely due to the wiring in my prefrontal cortex and amygdala, but we’ll save that discussion for another time).
My intense experience of emotions helps me to be more empathetic and in tune with others. It also helps me to care deeply about the environment, animals, social justice, and more. It’s likely why I’m a therapist.
Just like my senses, my emotions can also be overwhelming at times. I have to keep firm boundaries around how much I take in. For example, I limit the amount of clients I see in a day and I do not expose myself to the news. I also structure my schedule so I have time to decompress, which often takes the form of alone time without any emotional input.
Autism also causes my brain to fire quickly, leading to multiple thoughts instantly. One thought can trigger hundreds of related thoughts. I think this is similar to most people, the only difference being the intensity and that it happens all of the time. It’s great for learning new things, noticing patterns, or diving deep in thoughtful discussions.
It can also be difficult to focus at times when I have too many thoughts. I’ve learned not to multi-task and to provide myself with mental breaks where I’m not taking in new information (like when I do a puzzle).
The heightened emotions, senses, and thoughts also leads me to be hyper-observant and aware. This increases my ability to connect with people and sense when something is off. I can easily tell if someone’s words and body language align. It makes me a great therapist.
It also makes it difficult to navigate socially. I’m literally seeing, thinking, and feeling differently than the average person. I used to question my reality a lot since it seemed so different from others. It can feel extremely alienating and lonely (I’m happy to report this has improved greatly since understanding my autism better).
I think most autistic individuals would relate to my internal experience of autism. Where it differs for most people is in how we handle things externally.
Some autistic people cope with the overwhelm through ways that are externally observable to others, such as when they flap their hands (stimming), don’t make contact (limiting incoming information), make loud noises (expressing the overwhelm), take over a conversation (their brain firing on many thoughts that excite them), or physically run from an environment (escaping the overwhelm).
Due to socialization (how girls are treated and taught differently than boys), most undiagnosed autistic girls learn to “mask” what they are feeling. Instead of physically expressing when they are comfortable, they hold the discomfort internally.
I was a very depressed, anxious kid. I did not know how to cope with everything I felt and thought. Since I was highly intelligent and excelled in school, I flew under the radar.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I figured it out.
Learning that I am autistic was both freeing and terrifying. It was freeing in that I finally had an explanation and understanding for why I feel and think the way I do. It meant I could stop trying to ‘“fix” myself and learn to work WITH my brain. It was terrifying because it also meant accepting that this will always be my lived experience of the world - the amount of emotions, senses, and thoughts.
As I’ve learned more though, the fear has subsided into relief. I now see the strengths of my neurodivergence. I’ve also learned how to prevent some of the overwhelm (asking for seating that doesn’t have glaring lighting, wearing noise canceling headphones in airports, etc.) and setting boundaries that honor my needs (like saying no if I have too many plans in one day). I’ve also learned how to care for myself when overwhelmed (alone time, hot baths, etc.) and plan to have the downtime I need.
These are things I wish people knew about autism. That it shapes every bit of who I am and makes me a richer, more connected human. That it does include challenging parts, but that I am aware of them and actively working with them. Being autistic doesn’t make me less human, it makes me MORE human.
Thank you for reading. If you're a late-identified autistic individual or wondering if you might be autistic, you can learn more here.