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).