I tried to "come out" about my autism today, but my counselor seemed skeptical... or maybe it was in my head? I am apparently not that great with body language. I didn't know if I was wanting validation or not, and I don't want to pursue the official diagnosis at this time. So what was I looking for? What kind of response did I want when I blurted out that I am 100% sure about my autism?
I learned recently that I am on the autism spectrum. Today, I am autistic.
It has literally been about three days and that phrase still feels like a complete joke. I'm 32 years old. Surely I would have known if I were autistic? I have always felt different, and known that others considered me strange and eccentric. I have always had difficulties relating to social norms. But autism? It just feels unreal, unlike my ADHD. When I realized I had ADHD, it seemed like I could embrace it easily. It was like a hat; see my ADHD hat? Yes, of course you see my blaringly obvious hat. It's flamboyant and awkward and it's so hard to miss. I don't have to convince people that I'm wearing this hat. They may be in denial about the existence of hats in general, but they can still see my hat. My ADHD is worn like an accessory that accentuates how the external components of our personalities manifest.
My autism is different.
It's more like my blood; you can't see my blood, and you can't experience it directly. But you know I have blood, right? I am walking, talking, and otherwise existing and that means there is blood in me somewhere. Even the simplest human can grasp that logic - and if there is one thing I relish, it's logic.
The rest of the world feels differently, as I am beginning to understand. I can't just tell people that there is finally a way to verbalize what's different about me. If something can't be readily seen, it is often hard for some to simply deduce the reality of its existence from the evidence.
That's fine... but it sure sucks when you are going on 33 years of being misunderstood.
I have spent the greater part of my life assessing, interpreting, analyzing and questioning everything about my self. It's an innate habit that some people can't grasp. No, it's not something everyone does, and yes, it is an overarching theme in my life that infiltrates every single moment of every single day.
You are a hypochondriac.
I have heard that plenty of times. I can't wrap my head around the motivation others must be anticipating when they accuse me of this. So, you think I am searching out things to be wrong with me? I always just assumed that I was a little more in tune with myself than the average person otherwise they would be able to effectively diagnose themselves the same way. I am aware now that my ability to snapshot every detail and store it in the collection that is my brain and simultaneously connect every dot I have ever created all at once is not a typical trait that everyone has, and it can be a blessing and a curse.
Also, that's technically not what hypochondria is or how it presents, but I digress. It's not your fault you are quick to throw out words that you don't understand the meaning of.
Staring at my phone with a whole list of traits that shook me to my core left me feeling like the stars had aligned for me . I could not only relate to each of these, but they painted a very concise picture of exactly who and what I am; the embodiment of my entire existence.
Almost everyone I know who has received an ADHD diagnosis has felt relief. It is basically as if someone says, "this is why you suck at life," and then you move on to fixing these things to the best of your ability. I honestly haven't seen much in the way of people saying, "no, this can't be right. I don't have ADHD." Most of us embrace it because the validation is needed as is an explanation for why we have these struggles.
Finding out you are on the spectrum seems to be similar. You aren't going to argue it - when you see a long list of traits that you assumed no one else would ever understand about you listed as diagnostic criteria, you just know. There is no question there. These weird thoughts and ideals and insistence on the principles behind the rules you have enforced upon yourself are tangible. It's the idea behind autism and the misgivings we have about it that cause us to question ourselves when we really do know.
And then you have your "oh shit" moment when you stumble upon a little thing called masking.
Art of Masking: Women with Autism:
The motivation for masking is foremost of the desire to fit in and create connections with others. Masking can contribute to achieving socially desirable outcomes such as making friends, improving social status and perform better in job interviews (2). Camouflaging or using social imitation strategies include imitations like “making eye contact during conversation, using learned phrases or pre-prepared jokes in conversation, mimicking other’s social behaviour, imitating facial expressions or gestures, and learning and following social scripts” (1). These masking or compensation strategies are often very exhausting for the individual to perform and comes at a cost. Masking requires a substantial cognitive effort, which can be exhausting and may lead to “increased stress responses, meltdown due to social overload, anxiety and depression, and even a negative impact on the development of one’s identity” (1).
Even my husband (pretty much the only person who gets me) pointed out, "I remember that. You wouldn't make eye contact with me when we were dating. I bugged you about it, then you started doing it regularly."
All the things that I have "taught" myself in order to fit in and be socially accepted are things that, apparently, neurotypical people don't have to teach themselves.
Basically, I have morphed into a completely new person through mimicry and study. There are so many parts of myself that I have "corrected" to make others comfortable and in the process, I am constantly anxious, exhausted, and completely overwhelmed. My sensory issues have gotten worse and worse over simple things like forcing myself to use spoons. That is such a silly example, but it epitomizes everything for me. I friggin hate spoons. They gross me out and I have severe sensory issues with them - but over the last few years, I have trained myself to use them anyways and just "deal with it" and get through the meal because too many people became aware of my aversion to spoons. It seems small but it comes at a cost, and I realize that now.
I am currently doing everything I can to allow myself to be MYSELF.
I am learning to put on headphones and block out the noise when I need to, rather than putting on a happy face and having a full blown anxiety attack later.
I am learning to spout off whatever random fact pops into my head, because it's who I am and those compulsions keep me from feeling like I have no connection to anyone around me.
I am learning that if I need to make weird faces, sit in a weird position, tap my fingers, pick at my sleeve, feel my cuticles, touch my socks, cover my head with my hood, or wiggle around... those are ALL acceptable. Fighting my stimming compulsions leads to nothing good, except scrolling through facebook for hours and digging holes into my scalp.
Harder than learning that being me is acceptable is learning about all the things that are actually not me.
I would have assumed I was great at recognizing emotions in others. Certain diagnostic tests have shown me otherwise, though. I am seeing a trend in my ability to use logic to determine the motivation and thought processes of people, but emotions just completely baffle me. I will definitely need to work on that.
I thought I was a social butterfly at heart. I must want a circle of friends and someone to hang out with and blah blah blah. That's what every girl wants, right? But why do I pull away so harshly from most social situations and people who want my time? Why do I feel like I am often phoning it in when someone tells me about their personal life and I go through the motions, responding with the material I've learned to parrot - but deep down, I feel like I am not really able to care like I should? The problem is that I have learned those responses but they aren't always real, and that's not fair to the person I am interacting with.
I am taking time now to stop and ask my husband what is really going on between us as far as emotions and body language, because I just assumed I was right in my observations and he was wrong. As it turns out, and it kills me (all women can relate, not just the neurodiverse) to say that I am the one who is usually wrong in that capacity.
On that note, it has felt great to give myself permission to step away from this world and spend time inside my own head. No wonder the sound of anyone speaking has been grating at my nerves; I don't remember the last time I went into my own little world fully and just embraced the awesomeness of me, myself, and I. It's the much-needed refresher that used to get me through all the complex exchanges I am engaged in throughout the day.
I feel like this would be a great time to check in with my audience.
Are you reading this and shaking your head, thinking, "What in the world? You are not autistic, Abby. Jeez." That would be reaching, wouldn't it? This girl who had only one good true friend at any given point in her entire life, one real boyfriend ever, but now has amassed hundreds of online friends who truly care about her and interact with her daily? No, that doesn't line up at all. Ha!
On one hand, I feel like my whole life has been a lie. Much like finding out I am intelligent, it is hard to accept that Autism is a legitimate part of my reality. I still remember my initial sense of shock being told my IQ is 127, probably even 130 when my processing speed is slowed (thanks, Adderall). I didn't feel flattered - I felt cheated. Why did I behave my entire life as though I am stupid when I am, as confirmed by a psychiatrist, gifted and capable? I could have easily gotten a college degree instead of dropping out of school at 14. Why did I slip through the cracks?
One thing I have fondly come to realize is that your perception of autism in females is PROBABLY COMPLETELY WRONG. There is so little to base diagnosis on with women because we are masters at masking and hiding our symptoms, training ourselves to fit in, and forcing ourselves to live up to the stereotyped female existence. Men simply don't do that. The overwhelming majority of professionals won't even properly diagnose women on the spectrum. The absolute best resource you are going to find is going to be anecdotal evidence from other women who have been diagnosed. That seems fallible, but when you think about it, females on the spectrum are the masters of assembling facts and figures and compiling it into a thorough and expansive self-assessment. I trust my aspie sisters.
As I was leaving my appointment this morning, I spotted a rainbow emerging from the bay and disappearing into the clouds. It is supposed to be a reminder that God won't flood the earth and all that... but it made me think about God's reminder to me that He created me as a beautiful little weirdo who has no filter and is not afraid to be transparent. My gift is best used spreading awareness about things no one wants to talk about, and I am content to sacrifice my comfort for that, always. So, I will leave a few links here that changed me for the better. If you suspect, after all of this, that a female in your life (or you!) may be on the spectrum, please take the time to visit the possibility. Women with autism seem elusive and invisible, but we are actually hiding in plain sight.
:Multiple ASD-related tests:
The Aspie Quiz
The Unofficial Asperger's Checklist
The Autism Dilemma for Women