I could have explained exactly how I experience the world from the moment I could talk. In fact, I frequently did! The trouble was, my world, and my normal was not the normal of my typically developing peers. In the 1970s and 1980s, autism wasn’t really mentioned – and certainly not in relation to girls – particularly those who were academically bright and able to just about pass off as normal enough to get by. Well, normal enough for adults to not have too many concerns. My peers on the other hand could spot my autism a mile off! Neither they, nor I, knew there was a name for this – we all just knew there was something fundamentally different between the way I experienced the world and the way they did. No amount of masking my autism or trying to fit in was convincing enough to others to prevent them from noticing, and deep down inside, I always knew there was something different about me too. It took many years and many misdiagnoses to find out what that fundamental difference was called.
There are pros and cons of having a formal, or medical diagnosis of autism. For me, I already had some diagnoses. I disagreed with many of these, or felt they didn’t describe the full picture. I needed to get the right label, to slap firmly over the incorrect ones. For others, a diagnosis is not necessary or needed, or even wanted. I can’t say a diagnosis in itself, has opened up support or opportunities, or in any way practically advanced my life, but for others it certainly can. However, the freedom to accept myself following my diagnosis has changed my life. Deciding to seek a diagnosis is an entirely personal choice and I believe that anyone who looks at the diagnostic criteria or listens to an extensive range of first hand autistic experience and honestly thinks to themselves “that’s definitely me” is autistic. A formal diagnosis is a label or description of something that is already there. Good people who always accepted me remain good and accepting. People who didn’t listen or even try to understand, remain unchanged.
My diagnostic assessment was based upon the DSM-5 criteria. (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) My thoughts on whether autism is a mental disorder (it isn’t) or whether an assessment based upon deficits is the best way of assessing whether someone is autistic (it isn’t) are irrelevant in some ways. This is the standard way of assessing Autistic Spectrum Disorder and getting this changed is a battle for another day. I will use this blog to look at the assessment criteria and describe what is going on for me when it comes to each of these manifestations of autism the clinicians look for when making a diagnosis.
The particular ways I demonstrate my so-called deficits aren’t that important. What is important is that people understand the diverse range of ways autistic people show or hide their autism. I will explain what is going on underneath the surface of some of my presenting behaviours. Each autistic person is different so I speak only for myself.
I have learned how to understand people and situations and have tried to study and find a script for every possible scenario that may happen on earth. This is clearly impossible and also extremely exhausting. I have learned to script conversations in my head and I am constantly second guessing what may happen. I understand body language – I can use my hands to add emphasis to a point I am making, I understand which words are appropriate to use in which contexts, and I have lots of stable and respectful relationships – but only within very strict frameworks like relationships with colleagues or family, where the boundaries are clear and expectations are laid out up front. Put me outside of my comfort zone where I have no script or framework with rules to refer to, and I struggle big time.
Of course, trying to take my scripts from one context to another doesn’t always go smoothly – no wonder I may use stereotyped speech or avoid social situations. As a child I would appear incongruously grown up for my age and talk like an adult. This was like handing my typical peers a double edged weapon to hit me with. Not only was I weird, but adults thought I was very grown up for my age too and my peers assumed I was showing off. Both things were worthy of teasing, bullying or disdain. Responses that further hindered my ability to interact with others and ate away at my self-esteem. I’ve got quite clever at using my scripts, I know how to add variety and ask open questions so that people talk about themselves. I can see patterns and go for a close match in conversation, rather than repeating the same conversation I’ve already had with someone. This has helped me build relationships and the more comfortable I am with people, the less self-conscious I feel. I don’t need to put as much energy into getting it right, and the conversation begins to flow naturally sometimes. Learning things in this way means I can give and take in relationships – it may feel clunky or robotic at times but is my best effort.
I’m certainly a caring person, so why the problems with emotional reciprocity? My interoception – or knowing how I feel inside, is frequently muted. The processing speed of my emotions is typically very slow. Have a read about my experience of empathy, it will explain this in more depth.
When I am having a conversation with someone, I am concentrating hard to understand what they are saying, to read their body language and work out the correct response. If this is someone I don’t know well or who uses lots of sarcasm or vague language, I have additional processing to do. I don’t get a gut feeling about things, I have to use logic to work things out. Very often I don’t really know what I like or dislike. This means that if someone tells me something about themselves e.g they experienced an accident, I know that I should say something sympathetic and not just ask lots of questions to seek clarification. But do I actually feel anything about their experience at that point? Well, no.
Later on, when I have had a chance to process what they told me, I can begin matching their experience to my own experiences to see what I think and feel about it. I might think then that their accident sounded awful and I may consider how I would feel in that situation. In my head I am looking for a pattern to match their experience to so I can understand it and say the correct thing in response. Too often, I get this wrong and what I believe is empathy, actually looks like I am making it about me and invalidating the person’s experience. Or it may look like I am not genuine, because my emotional response is delayed. I did ‘feel’ bad about the aforementioned accident, just so much later it would have looked weird if I had shown it.
This means it is often easier to avoid relationships because they are hard work. I don’t come across like typical people. I can offend people or appear to be self-centred or only interested in my own hobbies. I know this and try my best to not be like it, sometimes it’s easier to just avoid people rather than get it wrong. Not having a sense of liking or disliking things and people means I don’t necessarily get a lot of reward from relationships.
Small talk is tricky. It is full of statements that are not meant to be taken literally. “How are you?” is not meant to be answered honestly. To play along with the rules of small talk feels wasteful and dishonest to me. I appreciate it is part of what neurotypical people do to make their social interactions work – I view it a bit like when animals ‘play’ but are actually practicing asserting their dominance or place in the pack. I don’t really know why it is valuable in humans when they have the self awareness to just get on with being honest and not play games – it is not valuable to me. I would rather get straight to the point. It is like the foreplay of relationship building though, and by finding it difficult and avoiding it, it means I am less likely to get to the stage where relationships feel meaningful. The meaningful relationships I do have tend to be long lasting, loyal and strong. I have no difficulties with them at all.
Social interactions are also affected by my sensory processing. Eye contact in particular, involves masses of visual processing. My tactile aversion is triggered because if I am close enough for eye contact, I am probably close enough for touch. My sensory processing works very differently to my typically developing peers. If I am having a conversation, I will be consciously processing all the aspects of social contact I have just described, as well as the smell of the person; the sounds I need to focus on and the sounds I need to ignore; plus my proprioception and the need to stand or sit still, use my body appropriately to make the correct gestures, and adapt my tone of voice.
I may give the impression that I don’t socialise much because I don’t like people – not true. Or because I don’t understand how to interact – definitely not true, I probably understand it better than many people. I can’t see where the deficit actually lies. In fact, maybe it isn’t a deficit – I am genuinely having to process much, much more than neurotypical people have to process when interacting socially. No wonder it’s difficult!
I have touched on why I may be repetitive, and also on how my sensory processing is very different to that of my typically developing peers. When you begin to understand how my brain processes sensory information and how some of this is muted, and some of it is so intense it is painful, or so distorted it is not recognisable as being like that of my peers, you may get a feel for how challenging my world is to live in.
My need for predictability and routine becomes easier to understand. Rituals bring an added sense of control and familiarity, and repeating routines enables me to have some sense of being able to influence what is happening inside and outside of my body. My world is not predictable – my sensory processing fluctuates depending on how much I am having to process externally – e.g. in busy environments. Or internally – e.g. an illness I may not be feeling, or bodily functions I have to mentally search for in order to notice. Repetitive actions in themselves may feel very regulating or soothing to my senses, which is why I do them more when feeling under pressure.
Others may view my reactions to sensory input as hyper or hypo reactive. Believe me, my reaction is perfectly proportional to the reality I am experiencing! My unusual sensory interests are perfectly normal to me. I find it unusual that other people don’t hear music in colour or are so preoccupied they miss all the beautiful tiny details in nature that I see, hear and smell.
I am able to focus on subjects that interest me with an intensity that many others don’t possess. My lack of interest in what I perceive as an unnecessary focus on hierarchies and conformity in society, means I choose whatever it is I like to be interested in with an open mind, and frequently approach the subject in an innovative way. My interests provide me with consistency, predictability, and an escape from the stresses and strains of life. They enable me to be good at something in a world where I am frequently seen as deficient. They are a safe ‘go to’ when I need to place my mental energies somewhere.
Pretty self-explanatory – and a good test for anyone considering whether they are autistic or not. My autism was present before any of the other factors that shadowed me getting the correct diagnosis.
My functioning is impaired when I am in environments or communicating with people that are not accommodating of my autism. I thrive when I am in environments where my needs are met. My autism is exactly the same, I haven’t suddenly developed social ease or typical sensory processing. Of course, a medical diagnosis will be based on the medical model and not a social model of disability or illness. I always process the world in an autistic way. How big a problem this is depends on more than just me. It is up to you too.
Receiving a diagnosis has been positive for me. I understand my life experiences, challenges and strengths much more realistically. I feel able to be myself and I have more confidence. I hope that autistic people are listened to more readily, so that future diagnostic criteria for autism focuses on authentic autistic experience, and not just on how this looks to non-autistic people.
The examples I have given are my own personal ones. If any autistic people wish to add their own examples to the comments section, I would love to read them. Every person is different. The diagnostic criteria is based upon the manifestations of a person’s autism when it is observed in a non-sympathetic environment, or by professionals working within a system which views their own particular experience of the world as normal. I find the focus on deficits hurtful. I have spent a lifetime feeling deficient – and now its official! I don’t view myself as defective, and neither do other people who know me. Whilst the medical focus is on what autistic people can’t do, progress towards acceptance and understanding of autism will be hindered. And certainly there is no way of truly valuing us. I do not believe it is as simple as turning the deficits approach to diagnosis into a strengths based approach. I do struggle with things. We do live in a world where the majority of people are not autistic so that will inevitably mean I am different. Every autistic person will have different strengths, in the same way as they have different challenges. We are all unique. In the future, I would like to see clinicians developing an understanding of “why” and not just “what”. This will ensure that people who slip under the diagnostic radar due to their ability to mask their autism or who don’t fit the stereotypes will be able to be taken seriously when contemplating a diagnostic assessment.
I was diagnosed by clinicians who understood “why”. Their approach towards me was compassionate and interested. I was not made to feel deficient. I am not convinced that all clinicians understand the “whys” behind an autistic person’s presenting behaviours. Please share this article with whoever you feel needs to read it.