Discovering Your Autistic Identity as an Adult: What Next? 

Written by Emma Marsh and Dr Melanie Heyworth

Whether you’ve had a “light bulb” moment when reading of other Autistics’ lived experiences or have realised that you share an uncanny number of characteristics with your Autistic child – Welcome! from a community of people who will understand and accept you for who you are. 

It can be incredibly liberating to finally get an explanation for all your differences, however, it’s not uncommon for a period of grief and regret to descend: grief for what could have been if education and medical professionals or family members had realised earlier. Grief for a lifetime of feeling misunderstood by others and receiving no support. Grief for constantly falling short when we were measured against neuronormative standards. Regret for all the mental anguish that could have been avoided if only we’d been aware of something so integral to our sense of self.  

Suddenly having validation of your entire existence can feel overwhelming, and you may be left wondering what to do next. Here are some useful first steps based on the experience of the Reframing Autism team. 

Firstly, take time to pause and catch your breath.

Nothing has changed. You are exactly the same person as you were yesterday and have always been. You were born Autistic. Because today you have a greater understanding of yourself, doesn’t make you any less of a person than you were yesterday. Identification offers the precious opportunity for growth and wellbeing, the opportunity to finally work with your neurology – not against it. 

Be kind to yourself and heal your trauma.

Reflect on your childhood and look at it through a new lens – an Autistic lens. All those times you were labelled ‘lazy’, ‘defiant’, ‘disengaged’, ‘disorganised’ or ‘weird’. All the trauma you experienced when failing to cope in a world that assaulted your senses. The daily struggle you faced to survive an education system not designed to accommodate your differences. The pain you felt from being treated as ‘less than’. The sacrifice you made to your sense of self when you constructed a mask and adaptively morphed to cope with social threat – then lost your sense of self behind it. There is a lot of trauma to heal, and it starts with self-acceptance. Read JayJay Mudridge’s article on Flourishing Authentically for a greater understanding of the path to radical acceptance. 

Accept that none of this was your fault.

Accept that you are not a failure, but that living in a society that accommodates for the neuromajority and denounces your differences as deficits, has failed you. Then forgive yourself and treat yourself with the kindness and compassion you deserve. Being able to view your Autism as simply different, and not disordered or defective, is a vital step to self-acceptance. 

Learn about the neurodiversity paradigm.

The neurodiversity paradigm is a different way of thinking about Autism. Coined by Australian sociologist, Judy Singer, it describes Autism as a part of the range of natural variation in human neurological development. Just like biodiversity helps to create a healthy and sustainable physical environment, neurodiversity helps to create a healthy and sustainable cognitive environment. The neurodiversity paradigm offers us a framework by which we can celebrate who we are, how we exist, and what we have to offer. Neurodiversity allows us to be our whole authentic selves because of our differences, not despite them. Learn more about neurodiversity here

Acknowledge your strengths.

You are strong. You are a survivor. And you have many strengths. You may have a strong sense of social justice, a curious mind or an unconventional creativity. There is a terrific website that analyses your strengths called the VIA Character Adult Survey. Go to www.authentichappiness.org and register for free by going to “Register”. From the Questionnaire Center, scroll down to “Engagement Questionnaires” and complete the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. Once you can identify your strengths – you can start to play to them and feel valued. 

Accommodate your challenges.

Your sensory differences are real and your need to play differently, communicate differently, think differently, love differently – nee exist differently – is a valuable and valid form of Autistic expression. Embrace and accommodate your differences. Explore what works for you whether it be noise-cancelling headphones or stim fidgets, communication accommodations or time to explore your gender or sexuality. The spectrum is infinite so all elements of your current lifestyle can be up for review.  

Discard stereotypes.

Autistic people sense the world around us differently to non-autistics. That doesn’t mean that we don’t feel empathy or want friendships. On the contrary, many of us feel intense, overwhelming empathy that is unrecognisable to neurotypicals but understood and reciprocated by other Autistics. Read up on Milton’s Double Empathy Problem and Jaswal and Akhtar’s findings on Autistic social motivation to learn more. You will see we have the same innate need for connection, love and welcome as any other human – it just looks different. 

Start to recognise and deconstruct your internalised ableism.

Ableism is discrimination against disabled people and is based on the belief that there is a correct way for bodies and minds to function, and that anyone who deviates from this norm is inferior. Ableism can be intentional or unintentional and all of us have a certain amount of internalised prejudice about disability … society has conditioned us that way. It becomes apparent in our language such as calling something “dumb” or “lame”, or making a declaration like, “We’re all a little bit on the spectrum,” or “I’m so OCD!”. Though these might feel like innocent exclamations, they still do damage, so you might have some unlearning to do.  

Surround yourself with allies.

Healing the trauma of years of disconnection from your authentic self, starts with establishing safe relationships. You will start to thrive when you have people around you who understand your strengths and your struggles and support you in those without judgement. We have a Manifesto for allies adopting an acceptance approach to Autism and a Letter on using neurodiversity-affirming language you can share with your support network. 

Connect with your neurokindred.

It is well documented that Autistic individuals who feel connected to the Autistic community have improved self-esteem and wellbeing, and lower depression and anxiety. You may like to follow these Australian or international groups.

Put down your mask (if it is safe to do so).

As Autistic psychologist, Dr Erin Bulluss, says, “Choose to be authentically Autistic. Make space for stimming, let your body move the way it likes to move, spend time in nature, spend time with animals. Do the things that fulfill you as an Autistic person.” For more tips on exploring the process of ‘unmasking’, read Abby Sesterka’s and Dr Bulluss’ article, ‘When a Late Diagnosis of Autism is life-changing’

Learn to self-advocate.

For tips on how to self-advocate for your Autistic needs, read Autistic advocate and researcher Katharine Annear’s article, ‘Self advocacy: from the personal to the political’ and Autistic lawyer Justine Field’s article on ‘Establishing workplace adjustments: How I learned to advocate for my Autistic needs’

Embrace and accept your authentic Autistic self

Autistic people are worthy of love. We belong in this world as we are. We deserve respect and dignity. So go forth and start living your best life, Autistically. 

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