An appeal to young autistic people to see the vulnerable, lonely souls who belong to our community but don’t know it yet

Dear fellow autistics,

I am Jahnavi. As a child, growing up in India, I used to feel as if there was a glass wall separating me from other children, and I believed that the reason for the wall’s existence was that there was something essentially bad inside of me, so bad that it was immediately palpable to my peers, compelling them to stay away.

I did not (or dared not to) ask myself how someone could be bad without doing anything particularly bad, or even ask myself what bad really meant. I simply trusted that individuals became good or bad depending on how people around them responded to them.

I just fully believed in my badness because those around me seemed to not want to interact with me very much. I saw myself through their eyes and judged myself as being deficient and inadequate.

It is only now that I am beginning to realise that the problem does not actually lie inside of me but outside of me. The problem lies with the way things are ordered outside, in my environment. It is only now that I am starting to allow myself to feel unbad.

It is only now, and very slowly, that I am allowing myself to realise that the bad thing inside was not a bad thing at all; it was neutral— different from others, yes— but definitely not bad.

Had I realised this sooner, had someone talked to me or written letters like this one to me when I was growing up, I might have avoided a lot of anxiety and self-esteem issues, which have eventually resulted in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – now as fundamental a part of me as is my autism.

But I had no such support system and was deeply lonely in my divergence from my typical peers. The reason for my loneliness was that I was not as lucky as you all inasmuch as I had not been seen as or diagnosed as autistic for the longest time.

In my desperation, I, like many autistic girls, had learnt to hide my ‘badness’ in whatever way I could. I observed and learnt “appropriateness” from people around me, but continued to feel miserably inappropriate inside.

I grew so adept at pretending, that I have been behaving appropriately on the outside and feeling inappropriate on the inside for 37 whole years. So that now, after my recent diagnosis, it is very difficult to peel back the layers and see my self clearly.

I am writing this letter not to ask you to feel sad for me, but to feel compassion for those around you who might be going through similar debilitating conflicts in secret.

This is an appeal to those young autistic people who are able to forge new connections, to keep an eye out for individuals who continue to hide simply because they have been conditioned to hide.

These hidden gems could very often be women and girls, and for generations have been women and girls, but they could also be from any of the many genders that enrich and diversify the world.

You and I may have broken free to some extent, but we are, nonetheless, all-too-familiar with the crippling loneliness of being different in standardised environments, so I would ask you all to turn up your brilliant sensitivities and dazzling perceptual abilities to identify those of us who are, wittingly or unwittingly, still suffering under the yoke of the typical standard.

An ‘odd’, overly-withdrawn person, a sensitive, lonely child – we all know the signs, and we all know that these signs may or may not be associated with autism in that particular person, but what they definitely signal is a person who needs to be heard.

The most we can do as masters of experiencing loneliness is to move a little closer and talk to them. To be seen and to be spoken to by another person who felt as awkward as me in the world was, perhaps, all that I needed as a hidden autistic. And that is all we can offer to others like me: a genuine, heart-to-heart (devoid of small talk), and a little friendship.

I’m not asking that you co-opt people into our community unthinkingly, of course, because we all know how stigmatised autism still is in many countries and cultures, but to lend an ear, bestow a (consensual) hug or warm smile, and be present for support whenever needed.

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5 Responses

  1. Just inclusion for “young autistics”? I’m surprisingly angered by this post. I am going to be 59 years old in February and was diagnosed only a few years ago. In all of those decades I failed to make friends, alienated family, struggled with work environments, and had no idea how to behave in social situations. Because I was not diagnosed until late in life I was never taught how to navigate a world which is hostile to people like me, and seeing that other autists don’t want to bother including people my age is deeply troubling. I honestly belong nowhere.

    1. I am sorry that this post angered you. I am 61 and was clinically diagnosed when I was 55. I think there are a lot of older people who have not been diagnosed partially because autism wasn’t recognized as a valid diagnosis on the DSM III until 1980. By that time I would already have been 20. Another problem is that most tests are geared towards younger people. While 30% of everyone with ASD function within the normal range of intelligence, it’s possible for highly intelligent people to mask their symptoms making it even more challenging to confirm a diagnosis.

      Like you, I do not have any friends although I will admit that this has been a conscious choice because I find all in-person interaction including those with friends, to be extremely stressful. It likely does not help that by nature I am a reclusive introvert.

      My mother hasn’t had anything to do with me for over 40 years. I haven’t seen my father in 22 years. I also have a sister, two cousins, and an uncle who won’t have anything to me. I am completely mystified as to why. Given my reclusive mindset, I have not also not made a great effort to find out.

      I have been more successful at work but have had far too many jobs largely because I didn’t realize that my flight or fight response was kicking in when I had issues with work related stress or problems with bullying colleagues.. Now that I know that I’m autistic, I’ve been able to compensate for these issues and have now been with the same employer for 9 consecutive years.

    2. Yes, it does seem that us older autistics (I’m 53, self-diagnosed several months ago) tend to get overlooked somewhat, which is too bad, because we need support, too. I relate to both your lifelong struggles and now, on top of that, the sense of not fully belonging even in autistic spaces. But at the same time, it does seem extra important to look out for younger people.

      That said, this caring, compassionate letter speaks to me as an older person. That makes me wonder if I could’ve heard its message when I first started noticing my social differences, around age 11-12. Sadly, even well into early-mid adulthood, I probably would’ve rejected even the kindest, most affirming help recognizing my autism. I always liked being “different”—as in “unique”; but I dreaded being different in a way that didn’t feel like it was my choice, that others might’ve perceived as abnormal or defective, and that would’ve excluded me from full participation in society. Of course, it WASN’T my choice, I WAS seen by many as abnormal and defective, and I WAS excluded from full participation. But I was well-practiced at not seeing this and wouldn’t’ve wanted help seeing it. And I sure couldn’t’ve come anywhere close to acknowledging that horrible sense of badness that permeates me to this day. I would’ve resisted seeing that with all my might in my first few decades. Now, I think it’s wonderful to hear someone directly speaking about this.

      Hopefully today there are a lot more positive images and examples of autism to help young people feel ok about identifying themselves that way. Maybe if I was a young person in today’s world I could’ve heard the supportiveness of this letter??

      I sure love the thought of young people being spared a lifetime of that corrosive, insidious sense of badness.

  2. Hi, I agree with you all, 2 years ago I figured it out (41) and the difficulty for me was I have complex PTSD from my childhood difference and conditioning and 40 years of learnt masking. That is huge habit to break. The best analogie I have heard is, I was being taught to fly all my life and somebody walking past said “You have scales, you are a fish, go swim”. Life altering! Then I found myself at a decision point, do nothing, keep repressing emotions and be upset the rest of my life or choose to make change, fix my issues and do my shadow work. I found someone who has great experience with adhd, autism & cptsd and uses EMDR to rewire neural pathways in the brain. It’s very trying but amazing how much of difference there is in 12 months. What I have also realised is people did reach out to me when I was younger but I couldn’t hear them because I was in the freeze of fight/flight/freeze or completely dissociated/alexithymic. Once your eyes are open you will see it everywhere. I find intuition helps me quickly figure out when to step in and help, I can’t help everyone and some people aren’t ready for it, so I do what I can in the moment. Good luck to you all on your journey

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