Whenever I write about my experience of being on the autism spectrum, I always get a cluster of emails saying, ‘That sounds just like me.’
Sometimes it’s, ‘Hang on, that sounds just like me. I’m normal, so that means you’re fooling yourself. There’s nothing remotely unusual about you.’
It’s hard to know where to start with that one. In the first place, it reveals a belief that being autistic represents some kind of power-play for sympathy and attention, which is restricting everyone else’s oxygen. This is nonsensical in and of itself, but it also ignores the depth of the experiences I’m describing. Nobody comes to believe they’re neurodiverse after having a single, difficult day at a music festival or a fall-out with a friend. This is about a consistent and damaging pattern of dislocation and overwhelm across my entire life. If you’re experiencing the same, then for heaven’s sake get some support, rather than telling off strangers.
More often, though, people say, ‘My god, I recognise that. Does that mean I’m autistic too?’
Well, hmm. Okay. The answer is, I don’t know. I mean, seriously, don’t ask me – it took me 38 years to even have an inkling.
The word ‘spectrum’ is important here. The cluster of impairments that make up autism are all found in neurotypical people too: the general population experiences difficulties in relating to other people, deep (wonderful) obsessions, sensory overwhelm; ‘normal’ people engage in stimming behaviour sometimes; they have meltdowns and retreat into silence. Common-or-garden introversion can look a lot like autism.
What I mean to say is: don’t fret. It might just be that you’ve realised that autism is profoundly human experience. Don’t feel bad about that: all we late-diagnosed people have been through the same.
But perhaps you are recognising an awful lot of these traits, and, like me, are stringing together all the times that life has felt like a near-miss with the world that everyone else inhabits. Well, then you might be learning a new and axis-shifting truth about yourself. How did you miss this for so long?
The plain fact is that we’re hearing the voices of autistic people for the first time ever. We’re finally learning to recognise how autism is experienced from the inside, rather than how it’s observed from the outside. The shift is enormous, and it’s inviting new people – especially women – to say, ‘Yes, I recognise that. This is me, too.’
So, if you read my letters and recognise yourself, maybe you’re just realising that autistic people are not so ‘other’ after all. But maybe you’re about to join us. Great. We’re recruiting.
See you next week,