Growing up unaware of my autistic identity

The neurodiversity movement allowed me to accept who I am

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The infinity neurodiversity symbol with eight people around it reaching for it or holding onto it. The symbol spans the whole area diagonally with the middle in white and the edges of the image to the outline of the symbol being multicoloured.
Increasing awareness of neurodiversity helps reduce the stigma and help people feel less alone. ILLUSTRATION: Angela Shen / The Peak

By: Olivia Visser, Staff Writer

The concept of neurodiversity was not widely discussed when I was growing up. People were either normal or they were weird. There was no nuance to this conversation, nor any way to approach our differences without creating an “us vs. them” dynamic. When I was diagnosed with autism at 21, I realized all the quirks I saw as alienating me from society were just differences that make me who I am — differences that are actually shared by many of my peers. 

The word “neurodiversity” simply refers to the existing variation in human brains. Someone who is neurodivergent is someone who does not fit into the “typical” neurotype — the ability to navigate situations the general population has deemed “normal.” This word is commonly used to describe people with autism and ADHD, but it applies to all neurological differences, from learning disabilities to personality disorders and beyond. Neurodivergent people account for roughly 15 to 20% of the world’s population, but they lack support and representation because of the outdated belief that neurodivergence is an affliction to be overcome.

All throughout my childhood, I recall having felt a nagging sense of disconnect from the rest of the world. I’d watch from the outside while kids my age played together, never quite grasping how others seemed to so effortlessly just open their mouths and talk. I was a quiet kid in elementary school: polite enough to stay out of trouble and capable of getting decent grades without putting in too much effort. I was diagnosed with ADHD at 11, once I started struggling to keep up with increased workloads. Parents and teachers were well meaning yet dismissive, attributing my struggles with schoolwork and making friends to self-esteem problems. According to adults, I just needed the time to grow into my own identity.

But I didn’t know what my identity was. I had gotten by in life by copying the mannerisms of those around me. I know now this is referred to as “masking” or “camouflaging” and it’s incredibly common for autistic people, which is why we often go undiagnosed for so long. This is also what contributes to autistic burnout for many young people who reach a breaking point in managing the high demands of adult life. I experienced this after the shift to my first year of university, having increased difficulties with memory, energy, and overstimulation. At the time, I didn’t realize why it felt like I was losing my social and self-care skills. Now I know that the expectation of trying to fit into this neurotypical world is often what contributes to periods of additional stress for autistic people.

Without this terminology, though, as I grew up, I only knew that socialization did not come naturally for me. Adults viewed what they saw as shyness as something to be overcome, so I felt shame for still struggling as I approached adulthood. The few childhood memories I have of openly being myself ended in bullying. To peers, the “real me” was too loud, too weird, and too direct. Because of these experiences, I shut myself in, preventing my classmates from truly getting to know me. I didn’t know much about autism at the time, so I thought my difficulties with communication were because of something that needed to be fixed.

When you’re unaware of your autistic identity, you have no idea why the ins and outs of daily life are so terribly exhausting. For one, masking only gets you so far. I could spend all day rehearsing a conversation and practicing reciprocity in my head, but once things go “off-script” I’m always a deer in the headlights. I can remember moments from retail jobs where I’d completely shut down due to stress and find myself unable to speak. Other times, I’d miss customers’ blatant jokes or find it painful to look them in the eyes. I developed a persona as a clueless and clumsy young adult, and eventually discovered that subscribing to this naïve façade was the easiest way to get by in social situations. This absolutely devastated me because all I wanted was to fit in while being myself.

I realized I might be autistic while viewing a presentation put on by SFU Autistics United as a part of the training for a summer camp I was volunteering with. The presenter described the autism spectrum as a colour wheel instead of a linear line, and a light bulb went off in my head. According to this analogy, the way autism presents is varied depending on individual differences. Instead of having “severe” or “mild” autism, someone may have significant sensory processing difficulties but high social skills. Alternatively, someone may be fully non-speaking with restricted interests, yet might not have too many issues with overstimulation or social anxiety. There are endless ways to be autistic, just as there are endless ways to be human.

Autism is a developmental disability that over 1% of people are estimated to be born with. Our understanding of the condition has grown from the belief that those with autism require 24/7 support to recognizing autism is a spectrum where each individual requires varying levels of support.

For instance, I have trouble reading people’s intentions and difficulty initiating conversation. If an article of clothing bothers me, it feels like that sensation is amplified compared to my surroundings. I can’t talk straight or focus on anything else and it will likely take me a day to mentally recover. On the other hand, I have an impeccable memory, good analytical skills, and find it really difficult to be dishonest. All these traits are part of who I am and I’m proud of that. I don’t need my identity reduced by others telling me they can’t tell I’m autistic because I’m so “high functioning.” It’s not the compliment you think it is.

Because of the “high functioning” label, I missed out on a lot of crucial support in school and following my autism diagnosis. Traditionally this term was used by doctors to describe autistic people with an IQ over 70. Nowadays it’s often used to dismiss people’s struggles by suggesting that “fitting in” well enough is more indicative of the autistic experience than an autistic person’s own perspective. Nobody sees what goes on inside your head, so if you smile and nod believably enough then others will think you don’t need additional help when you ask for it. For a while I even identified with this term because I thought that if I wasn’t perceived as “high functioning,” I’d be seen as incapable. Sometimes all you want is for someone to recognize that you have limitations and be willing to work within them.

I avoided reaching out to a psychologist for years, because part of me was worried that I had things “too easy” to actually be autistic, denying myself the fact that suffering is dynamic and not a competition. Once I finally did reach out, the psychologist was certain I was neurodiverse. This diagnosis was simply a pricey confirmation of what I’ve always known deep down. I knew that something was different about how I think and socialize but could never pinpoint what it was.

Confirming my diagnosis was like finally giving myself permission to be who I truly am. It’s still a work in progress, but I don’t feel the weight of trying to be like everyone else so strongly anymore. I don’t even bother anymore to make eye contact when I don’t feel comfortable, because I communicate more effectively and genuinely when looking away. I’m less ashamed to have interests that don’t match my peers, and I know that the friends who are worth my time will be up front about whether they want to listen to my info-dumping, instead of making fun of me.

Understanding who you are is one of the most liberating feelings there is, but recognizing neurodiversity is only the first step in making our society fair and accessible. In recent years, the neurodiversity movement has turned into a self-advocacy movement led by neurodivergent people, intersecting with the broader disability rights movement. This is a valuable step towards inclusion in our society, as neurodivergent people are the best source of information on how to accommodate our diverse needs. Seeing and listening to us is the most effective way to show you care. Although I didn’t know what neurodiversity was as a young teen, I’m hopeful about the media’s increasing representation of disability justice. I hope more young people grow up aware of the fact that there really is no “normal.” Beyond that, I hope we work to embrace differences in communication instead of making personal judgments.