Learning you are Autistic (or any other form of NeuroDivergent) in adulthood can be a jarring experience. It can also be a freeing experience… where we stop catering to NeuroTypical expectations.
For many of us, learning the truth about our brains can change our perspective and how we think about ourselves, others, and the world around us.
When I was diagnosed “with Autism” at 29, it helped me develop an essential skill that had evaded me previously – self-compassion.
Growing up in the NeuroTypically driven world and using non-autistics and other NeuroTypicals as my template for success, I felt the weight of our differences crushing me. Milestones, most of them smashed with ease, I struggled with long after my peers would achieve mastery (like tieing my shoes, riding a bike, or being able to sit still and quiet in class).
Even though I had strengths (musical and artistic abilities, advanced reading and writing levels), I couldn’t recognize how I was brilliant because all the ways I felt I didn’t measure up obscured my ability to see it.
Despite not knowing “it” was Autism that explained my uncommon weaknesses (and strengths), I always knew I was different. Not knowing “different” was Autism meant I thought my difference was something “bad.”
Without giving “it” (the Autism) a name, I’d tried to “pack it away,” hiding anything about myself that drew too much attention or that I thought other people would find weird or wouldn’t understand.
I made myself small to avoid taking up space (I felt unworthy of taking) and keep myself safe from judging and unkind people. Without knowing, I’d hidden “my Autism” for most of my life, my joys, struggles, weaknesses, and anything that would make me stand out.
Presenting only the most “socially acceptable” version of myself to the world was like living in a self-imposed cage, constantly checking and scolding myself for every perceived misstep or failure.
Our best is all anyone can give, but these standards are frequently different for NeuroDivergent People.
Growing up, I would frequently do my best at a task, only to have someone in authority tell me I needed to “try a little harder next time,” “apply myself,” or “stop being lazy.” I’ve always been the kid who pours my heart and soul into everything, and I am still an “all or nothing” kind of person. I wanted so desperately to be “enough” but couldn’t meet the expectations set up for me. The goalposts were always just out of reach.
Being told my best “wasn’t enough” repeatedly triggered an unhealthy level of perfectionism in me. Even now, more than six years post my diagnosis, one of my biggest struggles is knowing what my own limits are or should be.
When most people would stop (because they were working or stressing themselves sick), I kept going because people always asked encouraged me to ignore my needs and limits, asking for “more” when I was already trying my hardest.
Acting as I thought I should act (and not how I wanted to act) meant agreeing to things I didn’t want to agree to, not speaking up for my needs, or asking for assistance when I needed help. It meant being overly permissive with my boundaries, allowing people to walk all over me, and being isolated (because “the socially acceptable version of me” wasn’t ME).
I kept the real me locked so deep inside because I thought that version of myself wasn’t desirable, wasn’t good enough, and was someone to be ashamed of. This shame ate at me for years, and my Autism diagnosis (and the self-compassion that came from that diagnosis) were tools that helped me heal from that shame.
Learning I’m Autistic, realizing Autism wasn’t something I needed to be ashamed of, was like a key, opening that door. I was free, and not longer cared to “hold in” or hide my Autistic traits.
To onlookers it may have seemed that I was “acting more Autistic” since my diagnosis, but in reality I was done with the shame, hiding my Autistic traits, and done acting NeuroTypical.