Welcome to the inaugural post of Autistic Adult in the Wild. Whether you’ve come across this blog through word of mouth or you found the link some other way, hello.
Let’s start with a little bit about me, just to give you some context. I’m in my 30s, work full-time, drive my own car, and own my own house. I am also autistic.
This is my first attempt at a public blog, so I’ll go ahead and apologise now because I’ve already been told that my posts are longer than usual blog posts are. For a little over a year now, I have been writing blogs for the Site Autism Support Network (SASN) where I work, and while a couple of these have been posted to Facebook via the SASN and the associated Wellbeing Forum pages, the majority have only been viewable on the work intranet.
So in order to subject a larger audience to my inane ramblings, the first few posts here will probably be re-edited versions of those original posts (with added humour seen as this isn’t linked to my job and I can let my weirdness reign).
I’m still not advertising my autism to the people who I work with daily, but I’ve stopped hiding it. And honestly, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done; I feel more like myself, and it’s freeing.
In this post, I’ll give a not-so-brief overview of my life so far. Hopefully it should help make sense of some of the topics I’ll cover later on.
I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 30 (the whole process took just under 12 months), but my close family had believed this to be the case after my youngest brother was diagnosed at primary school. For the first twenty-something years of my life, there was no suspicion of me being anything but neurotypical (I’ve started using this term instead of ‘normal’ in order to avoid the inevitable chorus of “nobody’s normal/what’s normal anyway”).
Expect that I’ve always known I was different.
Where others seemed able to interact with each other effortlessly, intuitively knowing when jokes were being made (and if they were being made at their expense), when someone was happy or sad, when the teacher was in a good or bad mood; I struggled, and would become embarrassed whenever I got it wrong (which was often). It didn’t matter if the consequences of these mistakes were trivial (being laughed at) or impacting (being told off by an adult). I would feel bad.
So I did the only thing I could think to do. I started to pretend. I would copy the behaviours and language of others, both from real life and from tv. I developed a kind of lexicon of responses and small-talk scripts. Truthfully, I am still developing this, adding to it and refining it as I go through life and encounter new situations, circumstances, people, and even tv shows.
The down side to this coping strategy was that by the time I was finishing primary school I had developed an American accent, which reflected the viewing materials I was using to teach myself about social and interpersonal interactions. This is still slightly evident today as now some people have a hard time believing I’m from West Cumbria, because while I’ve tried hard to drop the American accent, I don’t always sound Cumbrian.
Secondary school was also the time where my social impairments became more noticeable. Where others would make plans to meet and do things after school, at weekends and during the holidays, I would barely leave my bedroom. It was my sanctuary, a place where I could read books and watch tv and films (often repeatedly). I didn’t feel the need for human interaction that others seemed to have. At the time, everybody who bothered to think about it simply assumed I was an introvert.
There were moments when I would get upset that I was treated differently by my friends, I was rarely invited to sleepovers or parties, never asked to spend time with them after school; they weren’t doing this to exclude me, but rather because they had gotten so used to me saying no to such invites that they found it easier to not bother inviting me. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I now realise that what I was really upset about was the fact that I didn’t actually want to do any of the things my friends were doing, and the feeling of isolation that brought.
By my late teens I had come to the conclusion that I was not normal, but that I would try my hardest to fake it, to camouflage myself and hide in plain sight. I would make excuses for why I couldn’t attend social events, lie about drinking alcohol because it seemed more ‘normal’ to pretend that I drank than it was to tell people that I hated alcohol.
I think it was this desire to try to fit in and get better and reading people and social cues that drove me towards studying psychology, resulting in me earning both a BSc. and later a MSc. in applied psychology. It also helped that I liked the structure of academics, the clear rules and expectations; but I know this is not the case for a lot of autistic children, as schools are a major source of stress and problems.
I have spent an awful lot of time, energy and effort in pretending to be like other people, to camouflage myself in behaviours and language that I have copied and adapted. I can count on one hand the number of people I feel like I can be my true self with.
When my youngest brother (there’s a 14 year age difference between us) was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder at primary school, my parents went to every class and course available, bought so many books on the subject, and met with other parents in support groups. Whenever they heard or read of an example of ‘classic autistic traits/behaviours’, they didn’t think of things my brother did; they thought of me.
When I looked into it and thought about it for myself, I couldn’t deny that it would explain a lot; and when my parents spoke to several professionals about me to see if it was possible that I was also on the autistic spectrum (and had simply ‘fallen through the cracks’ of the system, as it turns out many females with high functioning autism do) there was a general agreement that this was the case. At the time I didn’t pursue an official diagnosis because I didn’t see the point; I was an adult, able to pass for ‘normal’, hold down a job, and run my own household. I didn’t see a benefit of making it ‘official’.
For three years before I started my current job, I was a support worker for a branch of a care company which specialised in caring for adults with autism. Not a single person working there had any idea about me (or if they did, they never mentioned it). So when I say I can hide my autism from people, you can believe I was world champion at it.
It wasn’t until I tried to progress my career with my current employer that I saw the downside to hiding. My first attempt at a competency-based interview went so badly that the interview panel felt the need to add a section to my feedback report to tell me how bad my interview ability was. At first I beat myself up about this, tried to think of things I could do to improve.
I even managed to get hold of a document on how to prepare for and conduct yourself during an interview. It was basically a list of all the things an autistic person struggles with on a day to day basis.
This was my personal turning point, when I realised that by seeking an official diagnosis I would be enabling myself to say to people ‘look, this is how I am different, and these are the adjustments I need to minimise the overload I feel and help me be my best self’. I wasn’t doing it for special treatment; I was doing it in the hopes that it would allow me to be myself.
Once I had committed to the diagnostic process, which took 11 months start to finish, I received the official diagnosis in April 2017. Since then I have been spending a lot of time trying to raise autism awareness and understanding in my workplace, in the hopes that the work I do now will mean that things are easier for other autistic people who come after me.
I’ll try to keep these blogs structured and in some type of order, but feel free to read or ignore whichever you want. This is just me, sat at a computer, trying to think what might’ve helped me to read, and what might help others understand themselves and the autistic experience.
After all, there is so little support out there for autistic adults who don’t need full time professional support, it can feel like I’m an autistic adult in the wild, left to fend for myself and create my own pack.