You know yourself, right? I was sure I did too. After all, I’d lived. Forty-two years, two successful careers, awards, magazine covers, and friends in high places, as they say. I was a rocketship. If you would’ve said, “Autism.’ I would’ve said, “Wut?”
I promise you. It’s not just me. Even people who should know — psychologists, medical doctors and other who’ve dedicated their professional lives to the field of autism — had no idea that they themselves were autistic.
If the people who should know missed it and I missed it, you might be missing it, too.
How can a whole grown adult not know something that profound about their own damn selves?
- No one is looking.
- If they are looking, what they’re looking for doesn’t look like you.
- Even when you’re sure, no one believes you because #1 and #2.
Hiding In Plain Sight
If we’re truthful, life is about appearances. Most everyone adjusts their private selves to fit different circumstances, right? When at the office, you put on your office persona to make sure you keep your job. When you’re with your gran, you put on your family visit persona to make her smile. Historically, and far more consequentially, people have passed as white, straight, male, wealthy, and other non-minority groups who are not disproportionately disadvantaged or endangered just by being. Curating how we present to others can be a nicety of social life and a critical part of survival.
When you’re autistic and don’t know it, you’ve unwittingly taken personas to a professional level. You’re performing behaviors learned over a lifetime that ensure you blend in more than you otherwise would, that you receive more equal treatment, that you aren’t punished in some way for being different.
You’re passing for normal*.
*We’ll talk about being “normal” in sec.
You learned this protective passing behavior — this “masking” — after much rejection, bullying, and painful trial and error. You witnessed the consequences endured by kids who weren’t able to, or who chose not to, suppress their natural selves.
So you adjusted.
Maybe after observing other young people struggling to find themselves and their place in the world, and maybe after one too many vampire-based teen dramas, you incorrectly assumed everyone else was masking too.
But they weren’t and they aren’t now…at least not in the same way you might be.
Put On Your Game Face
Without fully realizing what we’re up to, autistic public personas can be deeply researched and minutely planned. We may study fashion, movies, and influencers seemingly like everyone else. Only we’re in it to win it. The stakes are higher than getting invited to the right social events. We can work so hard planning and executing our family, social, and professional lives that we’re frequently wiped out. Sometimes for days.
And if we pause to wonder why it’s so difficult being in the world, we hear about having “a case of the Mondays” or being hungover enough you need to stay in bed all day. So we figure no big deal, everybody feels exhausted after a big day. When people complain about the screech of sirens going by, we figure no big deal, a noise like that puts everybody on edge. When relationships break down and we don’t understand why, there’s plenty of advice about avoiding “toxic” people.
So we push on, day after day, year after year, never realizing that the way we experience the world is fundamentally, at its core, very much different than most.
I mean, how are you to know what everyone else’s insides are like? How do you even know to ask?
Now’s a good time to interject. The experiences of autistic life I’m describing here apply to *some* autistic people. Not all. Clearly. That said, those of us this does apply to are not more or less autistic than anyone else though we may generally require fewer daily supports than others, for a variety of reasons.
The Irony Of Autistic Life
Autistic life has largely been defined by how we are observed by others. Those of us whose strengths allow us to excel at blending in may not even see ourselves.
We’re unseen as being autistic because of our autism.
The field of autism study is in its infancy. The stereotypes and misinformation that dominate our collective understanding of the different neurologies out there is so thick, so pervasive, that not only do we not recognize ourselves and overlook enormous swaths of people but the professionals we rely on to give context to our lives don’t see us either.
You may be an introvert. You may be a “highly sensitive person” or an empath. You may be a perfectionist and have high expectations. You may be seen as creative, artistic, nerdy, or eccentric. People have seen all of these in me at one time or another. So have I. You know what no one saw until I made them see?
That I’m autistic.
Still Not Convinced?
You thought autistic people were obvious, right? That you could pick us out in a crowd because we look some kind of way. You thought autistic people know who we are because how could we not, right?
How do you know that you’re not secretly autistic and passing for “normal”? As any minority group will attest, there really is no “normal”. There can be a majority and there can be an average shared experience within a particular context. But even that will be highly varied depending on culture, belief, heritage, geography, gender, and countless other factors. This is part of why it’s so hard to see who you truly are.
Autistic people are unique individuals just as neurotypical people are.
What about all those autistic things autistic people do? You don’t act like that so you can’t be autistic. Let’s see. Do you bounce your leg or twist your hair when you’re anxious? What about relying on your schedule to get you successfully through your week? How about needing some down time after a family gathering?
All of these are parts of autistic life that can look very much like non-autistic life. This is how we slip by, hidden in plain sight. This is why when people find out we’re autistic, they tell us we must be wrong. This is why researchers and the general public have a very skewed — and ultimately broadly harmful — understanding of who autistic people are. Autism happens on the inside.
The most readily available way to begin learning whether or not YOU are autistic is to learn about autistic life from autistic people. When you see yourself reflected in others — often a rare happening for late-identified autistic adults — you’ll begin to unwrap the truth of yourself.
Social media has changed the landscape for our community. We have access to each other’s stories and we’re eager to share them with anyone searching for their own answers. If you choose to pursue a formal diagnosis, it will be a validation of what you’ve come to know on a very deep, meaningful level, about who you are.
Like being tall or short, left-handed or near-sighted, pansexual or Two-Spirit, being autistic is a natural variant of life that applies to a small percentage of the population. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It just is. As the founder of the term “neurodiversity”, Judy Singer, says, “No two humans on the planet are exactly alike.”
This is where those who have met or care for autistic people who need daily support get a little hot. It’s true, life can be incredibly challenging when you are autistic and live with a host of conditions. Living with fewer conditions doesn’t make anyone less autistic. Autism is a spectrum of diversity.
We, the autistic minority, have our own culture, our own ways we enjoy socializing, our own ways we experience and interact with the world, and our own shared horrific history as a people. Just like people with ADHD or dyslexia, autistic people exist intersectionally in every single facet of everyday life.
However we appear, whatever co-occurring conditions travel through life with us, autistic people share our fundamental nature and recognize ourselves in each other. But there are so few of us, and even fewer who know who we are, we don’t often get that chance.
Finding your people is part of living a fulfilling life. You owe it to yourself to learn your neurotype. Find out what you’re missing.
What This Means For You
If you’ve read this and wonder if I’m talking about you, good. You should, especially if you’re a woman or non-binary or transgender person over forty. Extra especially if you’re a person of color living in any country around the world. You were likely overlooked as, for better or worse, the campaigns for autism awareness took hold.
Some of us may not look like the images of distressed children now taken to be synonymous with autism. That’s the danger of the single story.
When we don’t see ourselves represented in the world, we’re in danger of not seeing ourselves at all.
If you’ve felt different all your life but explained it away, if you’ve found it tough to fit in, stay employed, maintain relationships, or be comfortable in environments where others thrive, it’s worth asking if the autistic neurotype might apply to you. Even if it doesn’t, it can’t hurt to learn more about people you’re guaranteed to meet or already know in your life.
If it turns out that you’ve been autistic this whole time without realizing it, you might be opening the door to freedom.