Recently Diagnosed as Autistic and Realizing My Own Prejudice

Person with hand in front of their face

My adult autism diagnosis doesn’t feel right. I feel “too good” to be autistic. I now recognize my denial as a subconscious prejudice I need to unlearn.

I moved to California in August. I started a PhD, studying engineering. And, I got diagnosed as autistic at the beginning of February after a series of panic attacks at the age of 24. It’s been a weird year.

Because of how successful I’ve been in my academic career, I don’t feel like I have a right to speak about autism via any public platforms. Claiming this label would seem like an injustice to autists who have faced more impairing obstacles than I, such as those with physical and communication impediments or those who cannot camouflage and were heavily bullied.

I also don’t want to create disproportionate representation, reinforcing the trope of the quirky academic.

I’m still a bit in denial about being autistic. I often find myself reviewing the reasons that make it true. I break it down by category: sensory issues [check], social difficulties [check], repetitive movements [check].

And yet, part of me still feels this is a lie.

If I do want to speak about my recent diagnosis, determining the appropriate language to describe autism is a challenge.

I feel a burden to sort my autistic attributes into neat diagnostic categories, which doesn’t feel comfortable since that ignores so much of my experience. Moreover, I’m hesitant to utilize jargon with broad definitions that could bias its interpretation (e.g. emotional regulation, sensory overload, executive functioning).

If the autistic experience is truly unique from neurotypicals, then accurately communicating the autistic experience is challenging in the same way as trying to describing a new color to someone who has only ever seen black and white (reference to the knowledge argument).

It is possible to convey, but it necessitates the use of specific and simple language, avoiding overgeneralizations.

One major reason coming to terms with my diagnosis has been challenging is the fact that I have no problems with identifying or displaying emotions. Granted, I’ve learned that this perception that autistic people are unemotional is a common misconception.

Another reason it’s challenging to personally identify with autism is that I have either grown accustomed to ignoring my autistic traits or I’ve normalized them to a point that perceiving them as autistic seems ridiculous (or even insulting). For example, I’ve had to ignore my sensory sensitivities so much that I’m often no longer aware of how they’re affecting me. Alternatively, I’m aware of being slow at switching between tasks and shifting my attention, but that is so normalized that it doesn’t feel right to identify as a struggle.

A third reason is that it’s impossible to isolate challenges that are singularly a result of autism. Autistic traits are inseparable from other aspects of myself, and so it’s impossible to pinpoint what behaviors results from autism or from a myriad of other influences. For instance, my most distressing difficulty is anxiety, but that can be caused by many reasons, several of which are common to neurotypical populations. This makes me feel normal, not autistic.

Because I cannot delineate between where the influence of autism begins and the influence of other routinely human problems interrupts, it feels like a lie to claim my anxiety is caused by autism at all. This makes it confusing to try to justify why I’m autistic to myself (or others).

I’ve read that non-male-identifying people tend to be diagnosed less frequently and older because they present more subtly with anxiety and mainstream interests as opposed to males who present with misbehavior and atypical interests. I wonder, how common is it for non-men on the spectrum to have trouble identifying with their autism diagnosis because their difficulties feel “normal”?

The other reason I feel like a liar to claim autism is because I’m intensely aware when people cross the bounds of social expectation.

When I see other people cross social boundaries, my stomach churns on their behalf. As an observer, it’s easy to make the snap judgement that the offending party must not be aware of the social rules I perceive. This imparts a feeling of social superiority. However, I know from experience that this assumption is often wrong.

At the times I have defied social norms, I am often intensely aware that I am acting inappropriately. For example, I love philosophy, and I had multiple office hours in which I would get very excited and invested in what I was saying to the point that I knew that the intensity of my interest exceeded the investment of the instructor.

Being aware of this only added to the nervousness I already experienced just being in office hours. So, in this self-conscious, anxious-yet-giddy state, when I attempted to discuss complex concepts, I ended up stumbling over my words, repeatedly losing my train of thought, until the overwhelm built up to the point that I would freeze and be unable to form thoughts, speak, or make eye contact.

Despite having had this experience, instances such as this are so rare for me that I still feel socially superior to the level of social difficulties that media has normalized as autistic. The degree of my social awareness makes me feel “too good” to be autistic. I now recognize this as a prejudice against the neurodivergent, a prejudice that unconsciously imposes shame on myself, but which I am making an effort to change.

I am ashamed of my prejudice, especially since I grew up with an immediate family member who struggled with a disabling mental illness. Counterintuitively, I think that experience actually increased the stigma I associate with neurodivergence.

I believe this prejudice makes it harder for me to identify with the autistic community.

Even if I can eliminate this prejudice, I don’t know if I’d want to grow invested with the autistic community. It seems like autism has been pathologized in a way that has dealt a serious blow to the confidence of many autistic people, and I fear that my perception of that mentality (be it accurate or not) might bring me down.

I believe part of me fears the outcome should I meet other autists and discover the degree to which I am wrong. Perhaps I could feel a sense of belonging with this group. But, if I learn to embrace my own neurodivergence, will others begin to treat me with this same prejudice? How would that affect my self-image?

I am typically a very confident person. I got into a PhD program at a great university. And at the beginning of April, I found out that I am a recipient of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, a prestigious national program that will fund the next three years of my education.

So, I’m doing alright by all external measures of success! Nevertheless, I want to learn more about the experiences of other people on the spectrum to combat my own prejudice such that I can be more accepting of the neurodivergent and of myself.

While admitting my prejudice is uncomfortable, I believe that calling attention to these feelings is the first step to combating them.

I cannot help but wonder, how common is it for people who receive an adult-diagnosis to experience such prejudice?

I’m curious to learn how others on the spectrum relate to my experience, so please feel welcome to share what you think (whether you were late-diagnosed or not).

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14 Responses

  1. Hi Andi, brave and open of you to speak out about one’s own prejudice.
    If the past couple of years’ experience in online forums for autistic adults, I would say it depends on the person.

    Some new people come to the groups saying things to make it clear they are the “high functioning” kind of autism.
    Of course that is what society teaches us, that one kind of functioning is more desirable or less unacceptable than another kind.
    Society in general teaches many of us our prejudices or judgements, too, right?

    Usually folks claiming “high functioning” get explanations that help see autism from other perspectives. Some are afraid to see themselves in a different way. I get the fears, most of us have been chastised, bullied, discriminated in one way or another against, for all of our lives. Change is hard, change is scary! Especially when you learn that you might be something that much of society has deemed “not right”.

    I always prided myself on my intelligence, but during diagnosis through neurological tests I learned that my visual processing is only in the 25th percentile and that my audio processing is only in the 35th. Those are extremely low functions indeed. It explains why i felt like I was not “getting” what everybody else ‘got’ and why I always felt “out of it”. I could not possibly keep up with social interactions, understand discussions, demonstrations, movies, speeches, etc in “real time” My neurology wouldn’t / will not let me! No wonder I was lost nearly all my life!!! The question I had at that point was “how did I make it as far as I have?”

    One can not separate “functions” and abilities from another to classify a person as being “this much” ( high, low functioning or “just a little bit” of autism) One is either autistic or they are not, and each of us is completely unique although some of us share certain struggles. Thanks for bringing up a difficult subject. I would be interested to learn the experiences and insights of others.

  2. Got diagnosed last year at 28 but had known it for quite some time, part of me are still in denial and I feel some prejudice against other peoples social mistakes but then I stop and think for a moment only to realize that the same person are ofter more well adapted in other parts of socializing than I am.

    I once thought that I didn’t stim just because I didn’t flap my hands and such but then remember that nail biting, hair pulling and lip biting are very much the same and I kinda do all of those. 🙃

  3. I can somewhat relate. I went through my childhood being identified as “gifted” but very quiet and shy. I added on highly neurotic through my teenage years with severe anxiety and depression coloring my lens of myself. I went to college and was less “functional” in comparison to my peers. I did obtain my Masters and work full time, but continue to experience periods of burnout and flare-ups in my health conditions. I still struggle to identify my limitations, support needs, and how to manage my activity to prevent crashing. I struggle to commit to getting help, feeling like “I’m not disabled enough”, especially with my experience of seeing family members with what I perceive as greater needs going with very limited assistance for decades. I have found immense value in reading the work of neurodivergent people and connecting with them. I’m still working on reconciling my autistic identity with the other perspectives I’ve had of my life, which are always less kind than I’d have of any other person with similar characteristics/tendencies.

    1. I want to like your comment five more times but the site only lets me do it once.

  4. I diagnosed myself in the past year after my sister suggested I might be autistic. I was devastated and offended. I equated autism to being insufferably uncomfortable to be around and completely socially unaware. I desperately wanted to be liked and suffer secondhand embarrassment around people who struggle or misstep in social situations. I didn’t want to be one of “those people,” but knew the instant she said it that my sister was right. I didn’t even really know what autism was at the time. After tons of in-depth research, I have a much better understand both of myself and what it means to be autistic. I feel like I can be proud of who I am for the first time in my life. I know why I do the things I do and what makes me different from typical people, and I no longer have to apologize for it. I still struggle with my judgmental nature, but this is a big step forward.
    I feel a little separated from the community because of my late (and self-) diagnosis. But so much of what I see online explains my experiences so well. It also gives me examples I can rely on to help explain myself to other people. I’m just glad I’m finding it easier to know what I need and ask for it from other people without hesitating.

  5. Wow. Smug does not even begin to describe the use of pfl in an autistic space. Well, I guess it tells us a lot how you really view autistic people.

  6. Wow. Thank you for writing this. I can relate to a lot of it but have barely allowed myself to acknowledge those thoughts internally as it seemed just….not right. Thank you

  7. When a doctor told me I might have Asperger syndrome, I said that wasn’t possible because I had empathy.

    Luckily, I read from the #ActuallyAutistic community and then I learned better. I think I’m lucky in some ways because I’m a bit oblivious to certain things, and that can mean being more oblivious to cultural prejudices (and thus not absorbing them as much).

  8. I’m a tentative self dx of autism+adhd and ive been wondering about the hyperjudgementality I experience. I can be socially oblivious sometimes, but I’m also often overanalytical to the point of coming up with rules that actually don’t even make sense in a nuerotypical way I’m pretty sure, or that could at least be broken without anyone batting an eye but me. I think it’s a kneejerk pendulum response in a way? As a kid I would get called oblivious and I was very sensitive to rejection, so I think what happened is I worked overtime to identify social norms to the point of overdoing it in some arenas, and still failing sometimes. This perpetual feeling of “did I do it right? Am I reading peoples responses right? I think I am but I’ve been wrong before, there’s this sizeable ambiguity to everything that’s impossible to parse, so I’ll keep in mind the worst possible parsing just to be safe” Social ambiguity is something I think everyone experiences to a small extent but it feels significant and overwhelming to me. There is also I think an element of envy underneath it all. “I wish I could just let go and do things that go against the norm but make total sense.” In other words, unmask. I think just recognizing that I can be over-judgemental and focusing on allowing myself to celebrate harmless behavior in myself and others goes a ways. Allow the embarrassment to turn into subversive pride. Of course there is behavior that genuinely needs to be changed, behavior that is harmless but that I still feel unsafe showing, behavior that I have no choice but to show, and all sorts of finicky stuff, but the leaps of faith I can bear? I’m trying to make them. Anyone else experience this expression of hyperjudgemental reaction? I’m very curious.

  9. I remember feeling this way in my first year after diagnosis. I think it is normal. I got a self-diagnosis professionally verified at age 39. I had already graduated college, had been a certified teacher, married with several kids before I had any clue about autism. A year of reading the real experience of autistics, and vloggers who also don’t look or sound autistic, helped me. I’m more at peace now, even though no one who knows me in real life acknowledges my autism.

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