Being Undiagnosed Autistic can Lead to Learning Who You Truly Are Much Later in Life

I have a theory that we are all essentially living the same life. We are born into circumstances that we do not choose. We are raised, more or less, by our families who do the best they can. We learn in and out of school what is expected of us in society, based on other people’s perceptions about what we have to offer. We generally perform those expectations, while learning that they may or may not have been all that accurate or useful from the get-go. We engage in interpersonal relationships in order to learn more about ourselves. We struggle to be recognized for who we really are, rather than who others believe us to be. We grow wiser. We share that wisdom with others in our family, our community and the world. And we hope to have left something lasting of ourselves when we pass on to the next life.

We all have so much in common!

The details within each individual life matter way less than we think they do. Whether or not you went to school or for how long, what you do for a living and how much money you make, whether you get married and have a family matters less than the common human struggle.

But, while we are all on the same general path, different steps take place in a different order for different people. As you probably know about me, I was only diagnosed autistic in my early 40s. Prior to that, what I had learned about myself through my relationships with others was skewed. All of the positive feedback I got in school was based on my “appearing” to be “normal,” whatever that meant. I learned how to get the right kind of attention, and that didn’t always involve sharing my most innovative thoughts; teachers generally don’t care for students who point out that their syllabus has a series of loopholes that allowed a good test-taker to get an A without actually learning anything in the class. I definitely exploited that one and I’m certain nobody noticed. Because I was not noticed, I was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing. No negative feedback.

The teachers who did notice or pay attention to me generally considered me smart and precocious, but perhaps lazy; I did not care for busy work and had no interest in proving to anyone that I could do something their way when I already knew my way was faster. The feedback I received through grades, etc., led me to believe that the most valuable skill I had was not causing a stir and while I was generally a good student, I would apply more attention to finding creative ways to get through school doing as little work as possible while still getting good grades. Luckily for me, I was smart enough to pull it off with around a 3.5/4.0 GPA.

What I didn’t learn about myself was that I lacked ability to actually pay attention in class, especially if I was not interested in the lesson or had already learned the topic through self-study. For example, once I learned parts of speech in early elementary school, my brain would automatically diagram every sentence I read in the books I was reading, just for my own entertainment. So when we revisited the same lesson in high school, I was bored out of my mind. The only reason I was able to stay awake in class was that the teacher would write what I thought to be HILARIOUS sentences for us to diagram, such as “Elmo ran his brand new sports car over his girlfriend’s face.” Clearly, this wouldn’t fly nowadays, but in the early 90s, this was hilarious to me. I was never concerned about the feelings of those involved in these short sentence-stories; I just found it so funny that a teacher would write that. Ah, patriarchy.

But I digress. In all my time at school, the lessons I got while everyone else was learning algebra or chemistry or US history were that in order to get along, I needed to rein it in, to slow myself and my brain way down, not to ask too many questions outside of the lesson being given and not to be a distraction to others because they needed to learn the actual lessons being taught. I knew I was “good” at doing school, but I didn’t understand why I needed to be there. It was just my “job.”

The skills I had that did get me through 16 years of school without really trying were my gifts of autism: exceptional auditory processing (so I could retain information from lessons and lectures with ease), photographic and auditory memory (so I could recall those lectures, as well as charts, graphs and equations to regurgitate on a test), deductive reasoning skills (so I could narrow down choices on a multiple choice test easily) and lust for new knowledge (which kept me interested enough to read on my own, challenge myself to write thoughtful papers, etc.). These traits made up for what I lacked in note-taking and study skills, my poor organizational abilities, my procrastination and challenges with time management, my horrendous “executive functioning” skills, my difficulty making friends (I never had more than one or two good friends) and my general disdain and disinterest in self-discipline or long-term planning or goals.

I harbored a lot of shame for the things I wasn’t good at and tended to avoid doing them whenever possible. Even at a young age, I had the wisdom to work with my strengths and avoid putting a spotlight on my weaknesses. Apparently, I was also good at that because I don’t think many people know what a terrible student I actually was. I could still get the “gold star” without challenging myself or growing in areas where I was weak. Knowing what I know now, I think I was born with a certain form of inherent curiosity and understanding that made me wise beyond my years (something I was told with relative regularity as a child).

But what I know now is still not “common wisdom” among the masses. The neurodiversity movement is growing, but it is not yet understood by most people. Having autism is one of the greatest gifts of my life, but that’s not what most people saw of me and not who they perceived me to be, if they had a perception of me at all. As long as we all go through life judging and evaluating each other by the impressions we have and the observations we make through our own internally biased lenses, we believe we know what others are like and what they are capable of. We don’t ask, ‘what might this person need help with to exceed expectations or really do something amazing?’ The thought of the profound effect YOU could have on someone else’s life is rarely understood until much later in life. I recall thinking that as long as I stuck to my lane and kept my mouth shut, at least I won’t hurt anybody. That was what I was capable of: neutral to negative affect on others. Nobody told or showed me how I could use my skills to be a force for good, how I could help others by sharing my gifts. Indeed when I tried on my own to do these things, I was discouraged from doing so and went back to being invisible.

I am still trying to figure out who I am. My entire life has been filled with me asking other people for permission or approval for my actions. I don’t ever want to hurt anyone, so I would rather stay small and out of the way. I do not consider myself to be a leader because I would never think to command followers. I am defined entirely by what others have reflected back when they have looked at me and told me what they see. But I don’t think anyone has actually seen me, at least not the real me. I am still a caterpillar and have been my whole life, waiting to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. The pandemic has been a sort of chrysalis stage and, while I have not yet emerged, I feel it is forthcoming. I just need to ask for the help I need and a direction to point my energy toward.

You will all see how exceptional I am. As soon as I figure out how to show you.

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