Ask an Aspergirl

Pondering popular culture, generalized anxiety, and being Autistic

The contextual language of autism

I’ve previously written about how my lived experiences have shaped my interest in social-emotional supports for autistic women. Because of this research background, I find myself in conversations with strangers in cafes about the etiology and outcomes of autism. We inevitably talk about the seemingly increasing rates of autism diagnosis (and review correlation vs. causation) or about their neighbor’s quirky child (playfully mocking stereotypes about autistic boys who love trains). At some point in the conversation, I mention my interest in developing useful programming for autistic women and attempt to steer the dialogue away from my background.

In these impromptu autism discussions, I consciously use identity-first language — referring to autistic adults, rather than adults with autism. This is an intentional decision that reflects my identity formation as an autistic woman — a way for me to distance myself from medicalized language of deficits and pathologization of difference. I frame autism as another way of being that is characterized by social, communicative, and behavioral traits. Sometimes I give a brief explanation of the social model of disability.

In my department, I’m expected to use person-first language when discussing disability in an academic setting, including autism. When I talk with our program coordinator, I use person-first language (e.g., young woman diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder – ASD). The identity politics of labels rarely becomes part of such discussions; person-first language is assumed to be the most respectful way to talk about disability issues.

When I began exploring the possibility that I was on the autism spectrum, I reviewed the DSM-IV criteria  and realized I met criteria for Asperger syndrome (AS). Since I didn’t have a clinical label, I said I was an Aspergirl, using Rudy Simone’s invented term from her book of the same name. It felt disingenuous to say I was an Aspie or Aspergian since I was only self-identified (or as I prefer, self-recognized) as such. In online settings and among trusted friends, I started referring to myself as an Autistic woman when I studied the DSM-5 criteria for ASD and acknowledged these traits were consistent with my experiences.

I suppose my contextually-based use of identity-first language or person-first language is a form of code-switching. My word choice changes depending on the types of listeners involved. In professional settings, I use person-first language since this practice is embedded in Special Education culture. In personal settings, I use identity-first language because autistic traits deeply influence my experience of the world. I find the language of disability utterly fascinating, especially as I’ve begun researching the social worlds of autistic women like myself.

I remember writing my Twitter bio and wondering if I was allowed to call myself Autistic. Would I be appropriating the experience of people who’d received a clinical label after days of testing and sharing their story with a stranger? Was I expecting other autistic people to judge me as I made sense of my experiences? This summer I wrote a series of poems about exploring autistic identity. These pieces felt like a series of conversations in which I was giving myself permission to call myself Autistic, if those traits resonated with me. I remember reading these lines to the women in my writing circle:

These are your bits of narrative. Claim them. Embrace them. Feel them out. This is not a rejection of the self you knew — this is a renaming, an honoring.

Not weird — othered or strange — different perhaps, quirky — autistic in a way you haven’t all the way acknowledged. Every word but that one. Yes, this is a thing.

I’m still trying to figure out how to be Autistic. I read journal articles about people like me, as I continue my graduate studies. I continue to have conversations about the autistic experience, realizing that my narrative is both shared and my own. Sometimes I feel like I’m pretending, but I’m reminded,

Pretending is something you do when you’re working through what is, imagining what could be. Acting as if — as you become the person you know you are.

Serpentine hallways and waiting rooms

As I took the elevator to the private mental health clinic, I felt vaguely terrified. The hallway of the third floor office space was serpentine, but each entryway was clearly marked. Law firms, clinics, and assorted businesses lined the walls. I arrived early, hoping to avoid getting lost on my way to the clinic.

And so there I was, approaching the closed windowed help desk — ring bell, wait, and receive yet another stack of fun forms: what I sarcastically call intake paperwork. These past few years, I’ve filled out plenty of documents about my life. Intake feels like an exercise in describing everything that is wrong with me.

Who are you and why are you here?

I wonder that too sometimes, but I suspect you’re asking for my mental health history. “Describe in two sentences what brought you here today.” I don’t know if I can do that.

I’ve managed to fit my backstory onto a two-page document. It feels more succinct than the experience itself. I’ve grown familiar with waiting rooms. I know the rhythm of my usual therapist’s office, but the clinic was new (and therefore inherently scary). Preparing for new is still difficult for me. I spent the earlier portion of the afternoon at the neighborhood cafe. Routine is steadying on these sorts of days — when I can’t predict or plan for the events that follow.

In the half-hour before my session, I noticed myself fading away. I sat firmly in my seat. My brain wandered across town, filled with anticipatory anxiety about seeing the new therapist.

You know about autism. Perhaps you can help me in my sensemaking and workarounds. But maybe you’ll tell me I’m entirely wrong — invalidating my process, invalidating me.

That was the fear. The idea that my brain found utterly terrifying — hence its running and fading. Before leaving the cafe, I informed the kindly proprietor that I was feeling horribly distant from myself. I knew I could manage; I was already returning back to myself, but the feeling was still disconcerting.

The appointment itself followed the all-too-familiar script of first sessions: “Tell me about you and why you’re seeing me.” I talked. She asked questions. I attempted to respond, but often found myself lost in the dialogue. I stimmed through much of our conversation, as I wrapped green putty around my nail beds. By the end of session, new therapist informed me that although she has a special education background, she knew as much about autism as my primary therapist does. However another clinician in the building, Dr. M., has extensive experience working with autistic clients. In the meantime, new therapist agreed to help me apply to Disability Services at school.

My research background leaves me pretty skeptical of autism professionals, but I still asked to be placed on Dr. M’s waiting list for December. Perhaps she’ll have a cancellation, but until then, I’m in another waiting room. I left the clinic feeling proud of myself for going to the appointment and wrote post-session notes to myself. If I forget to summarize such experiences, my mind tends to negatively distort the details of session.

I wish there was a definitive ending to all of this. I didn’t get to leave the office triumphantly with an autism label in my hand. I still haven’t seen a professional with an extensive autism background. I know she exists, but mostly appears to see children and adolescents. I still feel like a unicorn. These in-between spaces are hard; I know I’m autistic — my social, communicative, and behavioral traits are consistent with an autism spectrum diagnosis — but I have yet to meet a professional willing to confirm my thought process.

For now, I remain “in this created space — creative space.”

We are ourselves, with little explanation. Needing no one else to fill in our gaps. We are our own. Here anyway. Coda. Yet this space, although not enough, is a starting point. Free from labels or to label as we wish. Existing together in a shared collage of narratives.

We are here in this place. We fit. We belong. And we are enough. Together.

Managing is an illusory concept.

Sitting in church, I wrote a poem about what it’s felt like lately living with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). My refrain remains that GAD can be exhausting, but for me, it’s a manageable mental health condition characterized by chronic — sometimes functionally impairing — worry. It is an anxiety disorder I experience as an excess of thoughts that refuse to leave.

Of course, today would be the waves passage. I’ve lived in this metaphor for such a long time. At times, it is utterly exhausting, but to verbalize it is liberating. Yes, this is a thing. In all of the pain and shame of living in the fear and worry loops.

When you fear the waves will overwhelm and pull you under. These waves don’t just lap at my feet, not anymore. I cannot tell if these anxieties have lessened or worsened — maybe both. And so I live in this coping, managing, becoming. Surprisingly well.

For the past month, I’ve worked on preliminary exams — the take-home, 5 essays in one kind. I submitted the entire packet of essays via email to my PhD advisor, along with a note describing its contents. July was an utterly exhausting month, but if I’m completely honest with myself, the GAD has been unrelenting for some time. Like many people diagnosed with GAD, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t worried about something.

I’ve grown familiar with heightened anxieties as stressors increase. When finals week approaches or I have a major project due, I feel completely scattered and lost. My thoughts feel as if they will overwhelm me. My brain goes to the place where my social filter goes to die. Perhaps because whatever self-regulatory skills I’ve learned over the years have been forgotten. Instead I focus on coping with the present moment, so I can escape the inevitable worry loops that arise.

I imagine managing as an act that will somehow make the GAD easier to ignore. Really though, I’m learning to get through these days. I make task lists and daily schedules during particularly stressful times in the semester. I talk to myself as if I’m a preschooler, rather than a PhD student in her mid-20s. In these moments, I try to remember that I’m struggling and whatever I need to do to return to a steadier emotional state is okay. This is managing.

Show me the place where I fit.

I long for a land that’s free from explanations — a space that’s mine. The interwebs were a start, a collection of words transmitted across these bounded spaces — to women who understand because they’ve lived it too. To feel utterly isolated, but not know why is terrifying. We grow tired of all of the words necessary to feel heard — the explaining, reexplaining, the doing the best we can; not sure if it’s enough.

Knowing just how hard managing can be, still is. We become incredible self-advocates — keepers of our own stories — because we have to — to be ourselves; to find a measure of self-understanding. As we learn to believe ourselves. Of course this is a thing, she replied. It just is and you are thriving. Perhaps you’ll notice that too in these found, transformed safe spaces.

In text, in verse, in exchanges of retweets and favorited messages; we are found. We are loved. First here, then in real life. Can we really distinguish between these spaces? Safety. Communication. Assured mutual support. Perhaps that’s enough.

We’re not just practicing; we’re living, becoming ourselves — across timezones. In a series of 140 characters. In images shared. In complexities of thought somehow expressed in 2 to 3 lines. It’s another way of being, reminded we are “different, not less” — conventional pragmatics as a second language.

How are we doing this? Don’t know… but we are; she stopped explaining — leaving space to merely be. Watch me be — learn for yourself. Perhaps you’ll watch as intently as I do, trying to be heard; longing to understand, to be understood — across settings feels impossible. Too vulnerable. So I try in this series of spaces, hoping these verbalizations will stick.

Get off me, shame! You’re not mine. Sticks like magnets. I shake you off again. Hoping for an internalized sense of safety, I listen intently to your words, longing to believe them, knowing I will.

I am slowly becoming myself across these mediums — learning to find my fit. It’s not due to my lack of trying when you miss the point. These words are coherent, but not easily understood. Explaining. Rephrasing. Saying them again. Maybe I’ll be heard. And yet I’m not to blame for these misunderstandings. That’s not my shame. It’s yours. I shake it off slowly.

I am learning to be myself — slowly. There is nothing wrong with you. That felt sense of wrong isn’t yours. Never belonged to you. It was left for you by a series of short-sided, distant, emotionally distracted people. They tried, but it wasn’t enough. Never was. But you are, enough I mean. Finding you belong. Your own narrative in this collage of stories.

Getting unstuck is exhausting, but worthwhile work — out of the muck and mire, you emerge slowly. But in this process, you are enough. Continuing on. Learning to be, without pushing or pressuring. Speaking. Verbalizing. Waiting for understanding to stick.

It will, she said reassuringly. And it — and you — will be enough.

Details and gist: The interplay between cognitive reasoning and emotional reasoning

When I think about people I know well, I picture the first page of a script — the part listing their preferences and backstory. I’ve noticed that although I’m not particularly intuitive about people, I can make sense of them using intrapersonal details. Maybe that’s why I like television commentary. Television writers know how to analyze characters and scenarios in ways that make sense to their readers [1].

My memory for intrapersonal details helps me maintain relationships. I’ve read about the dichotomy that autistics can experience between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Although we have trouble figuring out what someone might be thinking or feeling based on nonverbal cues, we can make sense of their experience using reasoning skills. I’ve learned to think of back-and-forth interactions as a logic puzzle: Based on what I know about this person, what could I say next?

Using cognitive reasoning to fill in gaps in emotional reasoning is probably a workaround I developed to ease myself into social situations. I don’t know what to say, so I imagine myself entering the dialogue before I initiate conversation. As a kid, I tapped adults on the shoulder to get their attention and asked questions before the time for asking questions arrived. I suppose after receiving negative feedback for these social behaviors, I learned coping strategies for this lack of social intuition.

The only problem with these sorts of workarounds is the inevitable reluctance to enter conversations that accompanies my process. Trying to find my place in groups feels like a game of conversational tetherball. I don’t know how to begin speaking without inadvertently interrupting the current speaker.

My memory for details at the expense of gist can be scary when I’m trying to navigate potentially unsafe situations. A few weeks ago, a seemingly creepy guy at the library hugged me without prior warning (certainly didn’t ask for my consent). I didn’t recognize how disturbing his behavior appeared until he was already encroaching on my space. I missed the prior cues that he didn’t respect others’ boundaries.

I’m learning to avoid blaming myself when I miss these sorts of nonverbal cues. Yes, maybe I could have seen the signals earlier and avoided a scary scenario, but it wasn’t my fault that happened. Sometimes I love my detail-oriented nature. I remember people’s backstories in vivid detail, as if they were characters in a rich narrative.

When I talk with people who have been through familial trauma, I know what to say to them (and what not to say): Partially because I have shared experience, but also because I can see their narrative as a concept map — how their present and past intersect. This skill helps me listen and accept what they’re saying without needless questioning.

As frustrating as it can be to miss the forest for the trees, I’m “practicing being proud” of my memory for details [2]. My passion for information (and probably my path to graduate studies) comes from the same place that leads to missing gist. I can acknowledge and accept both of these parts of myself.

  1. http://www.avclub.com/tv/in-treatment/
  2. http://www.thenthdegree.com/proudpoem.asp

Expressive mediums: In crayon, poems, and imagery

Intricate tree stims I write because it helps me make sense of the world. I’ve journaled for as long as I can remember, mostly to get the sea of words from my brain to the page before me. Writing helped me see my worried thoughts; they became real, even though I couldn’t slow them down.

I remember when I first started seeing my therapist, I could only discuss thoughts and ideas. Finding feeling words that described my inner reality was much harder. Help-seeking is incredibly difficult when you’re not even sure what you’re feeling beyond bad and muddled. I could talk about the emotional experiences of fictional characters, but struggled to talk about myself. We used the third person often in those early sessions:

“Imagine you as a nine-year old girl living in those circumstances. What would she have been feeling then? Maybe you can tell me about that.”

I discovered metaphors and imagery in the midst of finding long-forgotten feeling words. I didn’t know how to verbalize my emotional states, but I could write about them. Then I’d read aloud what I’d written during my womyn’s writing circle. I started going to circle during my first semester in the PhD program. What a rough transition. I thought I’d have an easier time after switching from an applied practice program to a research-oriented program. I’d forgotten how difficult transitions can be — and so I wrote about these experiences. I talked about utterly perplexing social scenarios and traumatic events by channeling these memories into poetry and then reading those pieces aloud.

These days, I’m making sense of what it means to be a self-recognized autistic woman with co-occurring generalized anxiety and lingering grief. I’ve cobbled together mental health supports and social networks on campus and at church, and yet being who I am is exhausting sometimes. I talked with my PhD mentor last week about trying to find my fit in a department where I feel expected to pass as typical.

“Most days, you’re ‘good’ quirky. That period when your [psych] meds weren’t working properly, you were concerning quirky. You’re in a field full of weirdos — just look around. If I ever thought you couldn’t do this [finish the PhD program], I wouldn’t have suggested you apply.”

After this conversation, I decided to let myself be more autistic. If I didn’t pass particularly well anyway — quirky (read as visibly autistic) on a good day — perhaps I didn’t have to try so hard to appear typical. I’ve learned to stifle my passions because they turn into monologues. I feel odd tapping my fingers when I’m overloaded. I started bringing my Tangle (a stim toy) to class and work. I sang to myself as I shelved and stimmed. I brought my 24-pack of crayons to church.

I’ve documented this process of letting myself be autistic in a series of poems and images that I decided to call stimmy art. I drew the tree and accompanying poem during a church service in which I felt triggered. Drawing trees is a grounding experience — a series of repetitive movements that becomes a vibrant picture. I can keep adding branches and foliage until I’m ready to stop.

In these expressive mediums, I let myself be what I need in that moment. I hope to feel decreasingly self-conscious when I engage in self-care. Laura Hershey — poet and disability activist — reminds me, “Remember, you weren’t the one who made you ashamed, but you are the one who can make you proud. Just practice” (1).

  1. “You get proud by practicing,” a poem by Laura Hershey — http://www.thenthdegree.com/proudpoem.asp

My writing process: A blog tour

Randle of CrandleCakes, a blog in which she talks about food and life, invited me to participate in the My Writing Process blog tour.  I met Randle at a gathering of fellow writers and enjoyed hearing her personal essays and short stories. I still find it fascinating how she intermingles narrative and recipes in her blog posts.

So with that introduction complete, I begin this discussion of my writing process:

1) What am I working on?

I write once a week on Ask an Aspergirl, a personal blog where I discuss my life as an autistic woman with generalized anxiety. Sometimes I write about my fondness for particular films or television shows — how these forms of pop culture have served as emotional mirrors.  I’m still working on a series of posts about seeking an autism spectrum diagnosis as an adult. Since I started the blog, I’ve been trying to figure out why seemingly easy things are hard for me and seemingly hard things are easy for me.

2) How does my work differ from others in its genre?

My blog explores how various aspects of my life interact. As I often say when asked to describe the various parts of my life, “It’s in the overlap.” I write about how my lived experiences influence my graduate research. Sometimes I post poems that capture my experiences in a given week. My writing is at the intersection of “I’m pretty sure I’m autistic; oh yeah, I’m a worrywart too; and growing up, things at home were hard.” I write about these pieces of my life all at once.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I write to connect with other women like me — maybe I’m hoping that if I share my story, it will feel real. I think about what I’m feeling and why I could be feeling that way, and then I write about this experience. Sometimes my life feels ridiculously meta, as I try to make sense of my social world and emotional life by looking for patterns in what happened. Writing keeps me from becoming isolated because it gets me out of my own head. Somehow reading my thoughts aloud is validating. I write hoping I’m not the only one describing this experience.

4) How does my writing process work?

I usually choose a particular theme or concept that’s been reverberating in my head all week. If a phrase or sentence comes to mind, I’ll text those words to myself. Sometimes I jot down little notes on the pieces of scrap paper I find at work and then doodle in the margins. I draw from conversations I’ve had, books I’ve read, or television episodes I’ve seen lately. I joke that I should come with footnotes since most of my posts are a combination of my experiences and the media I consume.

After gathering all of these ideas in my head, I sit down at my desk and start writing short notes about what to include. Then I write my narrative: What happened and how did I feel about it? A friend of mine says to “write at the wound” because this is where we find powerful pieces — in the scary, painful places. Sometimes I’m brave enough to go there. Other times, I let myself get gradually closer to these vulnerabilities.

Next week’s bloggers

I’d like to introduce you to several bloggers I’ve enjoyed reading, so you can learn about their writing process:

Alana of Sleep Wake Hope and Then

Alana writes about “adventures with her autistic mind.” She is a graduate student getting her Ph.D. in a biology-related field. She writes short essays and poetry about her experiences. She says, “This blog is the story of my adventures with science and learning about autism and figuring out how that makes me me.”

Georgia of Feminist Aspie

Georgia writes about the intersection between feminism and autism, as she states, her blog “does what it says on the tin.” She also references Doctor Who in her posts and offers people virtual cups of tea. She wrote a wonderful ode to fangirls last November.

I look forward to hearing more about both women’s writing process.

The self-criticism machine

The self-criticism machine is sneaky. I can hear its gears slowly turning as words enter my brain and escape out of my mouth. I remember my first session with Dr. W (therapist lady) and the preface I expressed:

You’ll notice as we meet together each week that I interpret everything as criticism. No, seriously — everything. That neutral piece of feedback you provided, I will somehow interpret as “you are a deeply fucked up person who needs to change everything about herself.” This is how my brain works. I have no idea how to control its functioning.

Let me introduce you to the self-criticism machine:  Insert neutral statement into its cogs and watch my automatic thoughts about myself (“I am wrong.” “I don’t fit.” “I’m going to get stuck.”) spin these words into a deeply critical treatise on how flawed I am. This will subsequently be reinforced by actually critical things people have said to me and I have internalized — the casually spoken remarks that have chipped away at my sense of self. Perhaps you meant to sound constructive. Maybe I even needed to hear what you had to say, but your words will stay in my brain as a deeply critical statement about my being:

“You are wrong.” “You don’t fit.” “You’re not trying hard enough.” “I can’t believe you missed that.” — rinse and repeat

Unsurprisingly enough, I’ve learned to slow down the self-criticism machine using a combination of cognitive-behavioral strategies and a series of affirmations:

“You are enough.” “That thing you’re doing is so hard. I know that, but look at you. You keep trying and working, even though it’s difficult.” “There is nothing wrong with you.” “You are known and loved — because of, not in spite of — yourself.” “There are people who care deeply about you. They’ve stated that both directly and indirectly.” “You can do this.”

In the midst of all of this, I wonder, “How did I become so critical of  myself?” Perhaps in having to pass as relatively neurotypical (or at least quirky), I internalized a sense of shame about who I am — an autistic young woman who is visibly different. I’m so afraid of not finding a place where I fit — maybe because it’s hard to keep pretending to be normal (whatever that means). Passing is exhausting. I think I’m feeling the effects of this process as I enter my mid-twenties.

I’m learning to refer to myself as autistic in everyday situations — to mention my autistic traits in my day-to-day conversations — and I’m gradually shedding this internalized sense of shame. As I tap my fingers together in the local cafe, I’m giving myself permission to stim when I feel overloaded. When I send my PhD mentor or chaplain friend blog posts I’ve written about being an autistic woman in an NT world, I’m sharing the person I’ve always been. When I openly admit how hard it is to engage in small talk, I let  myself acknowledge that I’m struggling.

It’s okay to struggle, and in these conversations, the kind people I know — the ones with whom I can share my vulnerabilities — remind me they’re proud of me. They tell me I’m growing and strengthening. I’m becoming the autistic woman I’ve always been. She is freeing herself from the gears of the self-criticism machine as she inserts love into its cogs.

Autistic in academia (or how I ended up inadvertently studying myself)

“Many of us will become interested in psychology and the helping professions along the way, either because of our diagnosis or in search of it. We find we want to nurture and help others in their journeys because we know how hard it can be.” ~ Rudy Simone, Aspergirls

I am a PhD student whose primary research interest is the social experiences of autistic young women — the supports available for them and their everyday experiences. I am also an autistic woman — this is not a coincidence. In undergrad, I remember writing my freshman seminar paper on the consciousness-raising groups of second-wave feminism. These second-wave feminists spoke of how “the personal was political.” They saw how their individual experiences were reflective of community-wide issues.

For me, the personal has become academic. I first started reading about autism, specifically Asperger syndrome, because a friend of mine in undergrad had mentioned her diagnosis. Rather than be the person who asked nosy questions or said something unintentionally offensive, I decided to pick up Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome. I read it cover to cover, and then began collecting blog entries and online articles in a folder on my computer. Perhaps I identified with the experiences of individuals on the spectrum, but I don’t think I realized that at the time. I just found the subject fascinating.

It wasn’t until grad school, after I was asked if I ever wondered about being on the autism spectrum, that I started to consider the possibility that I was autistic. I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, so my first concern was that I’d somehow convinced myself that I was autistic: “What if I have psych major syndrome?” (like medical student syndrome – when med students become convinced they’ve contracted the ailments discussed in class – but for mental health conditions).  I called my friend who was a special education (SPED) graduate student while I was in undergrad.

Me: When you first met me as a freshman, did you ever wonder if I had Asperger syndrome?

SPED Friend: That thought crossed my mind, but I noticed how well you got along with the students I mentored, so it didn’t really matter.

During the spring of 2013, I read everything I could find about the experiences of autistic women, starting with Rudy Simone’s books and later finding autistic adults’ blogs. That was also my first semester in the PhD program. As I read about autistic adults’ experiences, I suppose I was weighing them against my own. I remember talking with my SPED friend and her noticing I seemed less afraid of identifying with the Asperger label.

It was a strange time because from reading the academic literature, I knew Asperger syndrome would be absorbed into the autism spectrum that summer. What would I call myself then? I settled on Aspergirl — it was safe, perhaps because it was never a clinical label. It was a portmanteau (Asperger + girl) created by another autistic woman. I kept writing for myself, while I read about the experiences of autistic young adults in my coursework.

This summer, both of my research projects concern the social-emotional experiences of autistic women. When asked how my research interests developed, I’m running out of  ways to allude to my autistic self. At most, I can mention my friends with Aspergers or how I identify with this population when I talk with fellow educational researchers. I wonder if it would be easier to be ‘out’ (of my autism closet) if I had a clinical diagnosis.

There’s one person in my department — my PhD mentor — who knows I’m autistic. She has been amazingly supportive, but sometimes I imagine what it would be like if I could openly acknowledge this part of myself.

“I am an autistic woman whose research is directly informed by her lived experiences.” Now if only I could say that aloud more often.

On labeling myself and wondering why I feel silly

Of course they are

“So that happened. I felt scattered all over the floor by the end of session:  ‘I just want someone to acknowledge that these things I’m experiencing are actually things!’ And of course they are.” <– text to a friend sent post-therapy

“In the space between weird and clinical label is a lot of self-acceptance and working through these hard moments (very real things).” <– note to self

Silly is dismissive. Silly says conciliatory things like “I’m sorry you feel that way.” And yet sometimes I feel silly when I label myself. I need to hear someone outside my own head say, “I think you’re right. The characteristics you’re describing are consistent with the experiences of an autistic person. You’re autistic.”

Last week, I finally talked with my therapist about realizing I’m an autistic woman and wondering what to do with that information.

“I hear your experiences. I know they’re real, even though I’m not here to label you. But I’m here, and we’ll talk. I want to honor your narrative and self-definitions”

“What if someone in this room could tell you who you are — because you can. I see how hard you’re working to understand yourself.”

As I described the ASD traits I’d seen in myself and how I felt like I had to prove I was autistic, my therapist noticed I was growing increasingly anxious. I looked down at my shaking hands, reminded that my body tends to know I’m anxious long before my brain does. I’ve been seeing the same therapist for long enough to know that she won’t invalidate my experiences and yet finding the words to have this conversation felt terrifying.

My sister was one of the few witnesses to my growing up since my parents were distracted by their own issues. She lovingly reminds me that I was a quirky kid who wore a lot of sweater vests and used unusually large words for my age. I wonder if my autistic girlhood went largely unnoticed.

Maybe I’m waiting for someone else to confirm these experiences — to hear my narrative and help me make sense of it. Part of me still worries that I’ve created an unnecessarily elaborate explanation for why I have trouble fitting in with others. But last session, I asked my therapist to piece together a list of clinicians who evaluate adults for ASD. I think I’m ready to see where this process goes, even though it’s scary.

I’m learning to trust my own thoughts and feelings as I find the words to describe myself. They are real and certainly not silly.

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