How My Adult Autism Diagnosis Led to Self-Acceptance
Sitting in the psychologist’s office was proving to be more difficult than I had expected. This was the fourth “session” I had been through with him, but today, the unmistakable static sound emanating from his noise machine resembled something similar to a chainsaw. This was a new feature piece to the office, or at least the first time I was sharing space with the device while it was turned on. “At least the fluorescent lights were off,” I silently told myself. I was there to complete my evaluation for autism spectrum disorder and receive the results from the four hours of testing, not including the additional interviewing that had occurred during the same day’s meeting. It would be appropriate to say I was anxiously pensive.
After a week-long quest involving multiple phone calls to my insurance company and several providers, I had connected with a psychologist about my own potential diagnosis of what had formerly been referred to as Asperger’s syndrome. Sure, as an adult patient, it would have been easier to have a conversation and make a simple diagnostic pronouncement. However, my doctor agreed it would be good to fully evaluate rather than just make a casual diagnosis. After a momentary break the doctor returned to the room and handed me a document for review. Everything had come down to this moment. I immediately (and anxiously) opened the envelope and began to search through the folded paper for a definitive resolution. Within a few seconds, I found the sentence that answered my question. The clock stood still; I drew in a deep breath.
“Diagnostic criteria of autism spectrum disorder met.”
I was somewhat expecting this outcome, but still my heart felt washed, my experiences validated. Snapshots of pain from being the quirky and struggling kid were brought together and things made sense. I felt wholly whole and an anxious peace. I had always been the odd one out, not easily grasping the nuances of social complexities; struggling with environmental overload, trying to find ways to cope while learning to develop what I now recognize to be hidden stims and masking behaviors full of scripts. I’ve wrestled with the same questions many others in the autistic community have wrestled with as an undiagnosed autistic adult: “What is wrong with me, why don’t I fit in and why are things so difficult where they are so easy for others?” This office visit finally began the process of answering the question. Nothing is wrong, I’m just wired differently.
My emotional state stood in deep contrast to the doctor’s overtly casual and unfeeling demeanor. A brief conversation followed about why the diagnosis was now considered ASD rather than Asperger’s syndrome, what types of support would be available and how to process this new information. As I left the office, I felt largely overwhelmed but also felt an equal sense of release. I finally had language to define the cloud of occurrences, quirks and feelings.
Over the following weeks, with the help of a counselor, I began to observe my experiences from this new stance and it became an invitation to re-visit and re-evaluate my life through a fresh lens. It did and will take time. Time to revisit and time to heal as I give myself permission to just be me and let go of the efforts I subconsciously made to camouflage. It is about honesty and being malleable with my expectations as I re-learn “me,” though I often struggle with flexibility.
Receiving news that I am autistic at age 32 has had an impact on every part of my life. Many people comment about having their “life flash before their eyes,” when they narrowly avoid an encounter with a life-changing incident. I think I can say I’ve experienced a similar phenomenon following my diagnosis, but I wouldn’t call it a flash. My faith, marriage, children, family of origin trauma, education, professional work and experiences have all been poured out for grand review with pomp and circumstance and ceremonial fuss. And it’s OK so long as I continue to process them individually at the pace at which I feel the most at ease.
This is a journey of self-acceptance — or rather accepting the me that was always there. Not everyone knows I am autistic, and for many that don’t know, this may serve as somewhat of a “coming out” for them. If as a reader you are finding yourself struggling to process and engage with the content of what you are taking in, worry not. My experiences are mine and autism is a varied spectrum; everyone is very different. It has often been said that if you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.
Several of those I have shared my diagnosis with have responded to my disclosure with, “You don’t look autistic,” “How can you be a counselor and also autistic?” “You’re too smart for that diagnosis,” or, “It must be a very mild case of autism.” I get it, your expectation of what autism is supposed to be (or apparently look like), has not yet aligned with what you are encountering in me. And that’s OK. Questions are welcomed, as is an open mind.
I recall making the phone call telling my wife about my newly minted diagnosis while driving home from that final evaluation session. Her response was, “OK, I’m glad you are happy with the way things went. Can you get some milk on the way home please? Love you.” She might not remember that conversation, but it was a huge relief and encouragement that while I knew she would have significant processing to do on her own, she was (and is) for “us,” as a couple and “me,” as a person. She was receptive, she always has been — as were my brother, cousin and grandparents. I’m glad others will be as well. My autistic 7-year-old was elated that he was “the same” as his daddy, I’ll always remember the grin on his face and the frequent conversations that followed.
Having done some work to “figure things out,” I am proud to say I’m autistic. It is a part of who I am and provides a sense of belonging within the community of autistics. While it’s often hard for me to communicate my emotions (I’m still learning how to process them or even know they are there), I am also glad the sharing of my story can help put others at ease who find themselves receiving a diagnosis as an adult. Resources are limited for adults, but the potential for community surely isn’t when we are willing to contribute. Self-discovery is a process and I’m a firm believer there’s no such thing as too little too late.
Getty image by M. Gucci.