Almost every autistic I know has at least one friend or family member who views their autistic self-identification with skepticism.
It shows up in many ways.
The family member who remains silent when you tell them and then changes the subject (this actually happened to me, which you can read about in A Letter to My Family Who Doesn’t Believe I’m Autistic)
The friend who peckers you with questions like, “But what about…”
The parent who outright negates you with the comment “You’re not autistic!”
Many of these experiences are rooted in a common cause: ignorance about autism. It’s not their fault - most people don’t have an accurate understanding of autism. They’re used to the standard stereotypes of flapping hands, inability to maintain eye contact, and inappropriate outbursts. Their experience of you doesn’t match those stereotypes, so in their minds you couldn’t possibly be autistic.
If these individuals are willing to learn more about autism, they often are able to see you as autistic and even become supportive.
Sometimes though, there are other causes at play.
The first is rooted in misjudgments of unidentified autistics. Autistic people have a higher frequency and intensity of sensory information, emotions, and thoughts. It’s a lot to grapple with. When children don’t know they’re autistic and have to conform to a neurotypical world and standards, it can be extremely difficult. They’re often unfairly judged as “dramatic,” “emotional,” “attention seeking,” and more. Family members don’t consider that their child actually is experiencing more emotions and thoughts than the average person. The child is not inventing it for attention or adoration.
However, the family members think the child always “overreacts” or respond too strongly. It becomes the norm to doubt the lived experiences of the undiagnosed autistic child.
This continues into adulthood. When an adult discovers they might be autistic, their family members can fall into old patterns of thinking the autistic person is just being “over-dramatic” or “exaggerating” what is happening. They don’t think their self-assessment could possibly be accurate - for when are they ever accurate?
It is extremely hard to convince or educate individuals who have fallen into this pattern. Many autistics know it is simply not worth their time or the ensuing pain of trying. They could provide the most eloquent explanation, and their family would still not believe them.
The second cause is one that lives on a subconscious level. I think some people reject a self-identification of autism because it subconsciously invalidates their own feelings and needs.
Let me explain with a parallel topic: privilege. When black individuals explain that white individuals have privilege, many white people become furious: Privilege? How could I possibly have any privileges? I’m poor and I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve ever wanted in this life? And what about all of the abuses and wrongs I’ve experienced?
Privilege doesn’t actually negate any of that. White privilege is separate. It acknowledges that there are systemic benefits a white person receives simply by being white, such as how they are treated by institutions.
I think our world is full of many, many suffering individuals. I also think these individuals don’t get the support they need. Our systems are not designed for it and many people are hobbling along.
When someone then comes and says, “I’m autistic, life is harder for me,” it brings up that deep wound that cries, “What about me?! What about my pain and suffering?! Do you not think my life is hard? Do you not think that I also face challenges?”
Identifying that we have a neurotype different than the norm does not take away anyone else’s lived experiences or pain. It does not place us higher or lower on the suffering scale. It simply acknowledges we have a neurotype that causes us to perceive, feel, and think differently - which comes with strengths and challenges.
Unfortunately, many people cannot conceptualize on that level. Their old wounds take over. There is little an autistic person can do to reach a person in such pain. Further conversations about autism are usually unfruitful.
I share these three causes of doubt because most late-identified autistics will brush up against them at one point or another. I know I have. It can be incredibly painful and frustrating. It can lead us to think that we are the reason they don’t believe us. We can analyze our conversations to death with thoughts like, “Well if I had just said this…” or “Maybe if I had explained it this way…”
In reality, it may have nothing to do with our delivery. It may be something entirely outside of our control. We can free ourselves by knowing it is not our fault and we indeed did our best to share our truth.
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, sign up for my FUNletter. If you would like to explore your autistic identity with an autistic therapist, you can learn more about my therapy services here.