I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until right after my eighteenth birthday. I remember this because it was my first medical appointment where I had to sign a release form for my parents to access my records. Eighteen years is late for an autism diagnosis, but it’s not that unusual, given that I’m female and fairly good at passing for neurotypical. I also strongly suspect it might have something to do with me being educated outside of the public school system. My assessment was a lengthy appointment (several hours), but I’ve heard worse horror stories. It involved a lot of forms and tests, and finally an evaluation with a psychiatrist. At the end of it though, I had an answer: I was autistic.
That day, nothing really changed about who I am. Seemingly, I was the exact same person I was before. Except, I wasn’t. Knowing I’m autistic produced a different way of understanding myself. I know some people are prone to telling me that it’s just a label, but it’s really more than that. It’s knowledge. It’s a way of making sense of how I experience the world. Knowing I’m autistic helps. It’s slightly counter-intuitive: I feel less weird, despite being “atypical.”
I didn’t know much about autism. When it was first mentioned that I might be autistic, I started the project of researching. What I learned was that the seemingly isolated incidents of my life actually formed a pattern. My social anxiety, my difficulty forming relationships, intensely focused interests, the childhood hand-flapping that I had since been taught not to do – taken separately they seemed unremarkable, but they meant something when put together. The months pre- and post-diagnosis were spent learning more about this new potential identity I found resources created by autistic people, and I learned new vocabulary to describe my experiences. It was wonderful to find people that shared my experiences, and I learned that perhaps I wasn’t quite as odd as I thought.
Becoming autistic didn’t happen overnight. Though I had little doubt about the accuracy of the diagnosis, I still had uncertainty about not being “autistic enough.” Most of the diagnostic criteria fit, but did I really have a “disorder,” or was I just bad at being “normal?” As socially-constructed and loaded as these terms are, I found myself in some in-between space, not unsure if I deserved to claim the label of autism or if I just needed to try harder at fitting into the label of neurotypical. None of my hesitancy stemmed from believing that autism was a bad thing (in fact, confirming that I was autistic seemed like a great thing), but from not trusting my experiences.
As time went on, I started seeing myself as autistic. When something happened that I might otherwise brush aside, I could see it as an autistic trait. It became a bit of an experiment: Was I actually autistic? If I did an “autistic” thing, how did it feel? For the first eighteen years of my life, I didn’t know I was autistic, so it’s no surprise that it wasn’t an immediate transition. For a time autism felt like something I was stiffly performing; now it’s an identity I slip into much more easily – though rarely unthinkingly. So, while I’ve always been autistic, being consciously autistic is a relatively new experience. Ultimately, it has brought more self-acceptance and confidence. I feel as though I know myself better. I know my strengths and weaknesses, when I can push my boundaries and when to respect them. The diagnosis helped.