Seeking narrative and secondary characters
Last week, I found myself in my therapist’s office, trying to explain why oral exams are utterly terrifying. These comps feel like a manifestation of my disabilities — the delayed auditory processing and pragmatic language impairments — not a demonstration of everything I’ve learned in the PhD program. There’s a gap between my written and oral language, between the thoughts in my head and what I’m able to express — especially when I get anxious. In these moments, I feel so lost — stuck in a space I’m only beginning to understand.
I’m learning to be visibly Autistic and slowly finding allies in my department. The professors who will acknowledge their own vulnerabilities feel safest. In these conversations of invisible disabilities, I feel less alone. We reach a point in these talks when I realize I could continue to remain at a professional distance — talking about my research, not me — instead of showing myself. It feels like a painful kind of show-and-tell. These are my struggles; I’m learning to live with them. How can you help?
The few professors I’ve told I’m autistic, those with whom I’ve shared my narrative, have been surprisingly supportive. So far, my allies consist of special education professors and a statistics professor. In these offices, I feel heard — like what I’m saying makes sense, that it is true, that the supports I’ve requested are reasonable. They are making room for me.
This past week has been a series of phone calls and meetings with helping professionals who will support me in the accommodations process for Orals. A few days ago, I had my intake interview with a student clinician at the University Assessment Center; I began the 4-6 week waiting process for an ASD evaluation. I met with the accommodations coordinator at Disability Services later that afternoon.
So how am I feeling in this flurry of scheduling and questions about how I know I’m Autistic? In between the waves of overwhelm is a sense of relief, a slow dissipation of fear. I remember sitting in the tiny conference room, with a round table, two chairs, and a whiteboard, being utterly terrified. Waiting for the phone to ring, readying myself for intake, I spread my notes and diagrams before me. This is me; this is my story; in 30 minutes, I will recall two years of manifested ASD traits. I felt I needed to defend my narrative; fearing I wouldn’t be believed, I presented a litany of evidence.
I can recite portions of that DSM-5 entry nearly from memory: when demands exceed the Autistic adults’ coping skills; this is when people like me fall apart. When we convince ourselves we are broken and wrong, developing shame as we learn to hide. Before we found there were others Iike us; we thought that we could get better, if we kept pushing ourselves.
For me, help-seeking is a recent practice. I’ve learned to send texts or show up familiar places when I’d much rather hermit. In these moments, I’m asking others to accept me in the midst of stuckness — in the shutdowns when I talk at a friend, trying to transfer the flood of words in my head to the space between us.
Self-acceptance is a strange process. I notice my quirks, the traits that make me noticeably Autistic, and feel so weird. Othered by a tendency to get lost in my thoughts and completely forget why I entered a space — forgetting about time and place entirely. Noticing shame doesn’t dispel it. But I’m learning to have these conversations that create space for myself. To check in with friends mid-monologue, to try not to apologize for who I am — my way of being in the world. It’s hard.
Sometime I don’t believe myself when I say I’m Autistic. Perhaps because I lived alone in this narrative for so long, not even able to claim it as mine. A story of finding workarounds and people like me in an ill-fitting context. To realize all of the reasons I struggled in clinical work are why I thrive in research. To let myself be odd. To stand in a crowd, amazed as the music of that evening’s concert surrounds us and the room is stimming. We move in the rhythm of that space.
I am learning to accept myself in community — to practice being proud and let others in to see my process. In the hurt of being myself, I am learning to let others support me. As I openly acknowledge that I had a shutdown earlier that day and let myself feel the surprising support that follows. I’m learning to cope, even though my circumstances are still exhausting at times. I’m passing less. I’m letting people help me. Perhaps in this interwoven narrative of why did no one notice is another strand: How to manage, even thrive now. And so, I keep practicing.