Learning about Neurodiversity and Autism as an Adult

Photo by Josh Riemer on Unsplash

This week is Neurodiversity Celebration week.

When I reflect on it, it was the heightened amount of messaging on social media that made me start researching around my own neurodivergency. This has culminated in me believing I’m Autistic.

So if you wanted an example of why these diversity weeks can be important, here’s a living, breathing example for you.

I had several people who have met me in the last month or two tell me that they already knew that I was neurodivergent in some way. I think the signs have become more obvious the further I’ve gone in living in a more authentic way.

In fact, I’ve found myself subconsciously gravitate towards people with ADHD/ASD, particularly over the last year. Whilst before I thought this was a coincidence, or simply my openness towards different people, it turns out this was me gravitating towards similar people. It’s only recently that I’ve connected the dots for myself.

I am self-diagnosed. I appreciate that in an age of 30 second Tik Tok videos and google, this can set off alarm bells to the (non-neurodivergent) friends around me. Yet self-diagnosis is actually rather common, particularly in in the Autism community. There’s also a difference between watching a short video and doing extensive research and online tests too. This isn’t any old condition either, the signs are quite specific with stigma attached. So the best way to sum it up is what many say in the Autism community – if you think you have it you probably do.

Many people do not get a diagnosis due to the price and difficulty of access – it would take me a few years before I could get an appointment through the public health system in Belgium. There is also a lot of failures within the system through misdiagnosis. Many people are told they are too successful to have a disability, because the traditional view is that people with Autism or another condition would be incapable to live life properly.

Women, ethnic minorities and genderqueer people do not fit the stereotypical mould of someone who has Autism (i.e – cold, analytical, very smart) which is more typically for a straight white Autistic man.

As a side note, Thursday was also the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and it is an important point that racism isn’t just in the form of visible racist slurs, but also the failure of our systems to treat people correctly. For me, this has meant a failure to properly diagnose my condition as a child.

That said, even if I was diagnosed, the treatment can cause more problems than actually help. The recommended treatment for Autism in kids is Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) using similar techniques to conversion therapy for LGBT+ people. The idea is that kids are coerced to behave ‘normally’ – they are punished for not displaying enough eye contact, or not being polite enough. A therapist may snap their fingers or even leave the room as a punishment. It is even still legal for a therapist to use an electroshock device to punish an Autistic kid. This can have a long lasting effect – in a study, 46% of Autistic adults who went through ABA therapy reported having PTSD as a result of the experience.

It makes me glad that I was not diagnosed as a child, as I think I would have been misunderstood and mistreated 15-20 years ago. Many Autistic people go through numerous healthcare providers with all sorts of diagnoses that can do more harm than good. Even certain therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which are generally seen in a more positive light have less impact for Autistic people.

CBT looks to tackle irrational fears – such as being left out or sensing danger in a social situation. The issue is that for Autistic people this fear is less likely to be irrational: I’ve spent my life having difficulty making friends. This has been the case even when I make the effort outside of my comfort zone. I’ve learnt that this is not an irrational fear, but instead a lived experience that people find it harder to relate to me – they often perceive me as intimidating due to the way I speak in an analytical fashion.

I’ve also been wondering about this question around how to ‘brand’ neurodivergence. Some people talk about flipping it from a disability and calling it a superpower. There is some merit to this – I’m now understanding that my pattern recognition and cognitive ability are a lot stronger than most people.

Yet disability is actually a useful label, at least for me. It’s not to say that there is anything wrong with me, instead it is highlighting that I am a neuro-atypical person living in a world not designed for me. This means I’ve suffered countless instances of not being understood or being properly treated throughout my life.

And you know what? Seeing myself as disabled has been very freeing. I’ve found the expectations and pressure to succeed melt away a lot in the last few weeks. I’m understanding my own limitations as a human being – I do not need to be everything to everyone and I’m allowed to take care of my own needs.

Most importantly, I don’t need to try so hard. I’ve been living a mantra where anything is possible if you try hard enough. Whilst that may still be true, I’m learning that some things are not worth the cost. A scary thing about Adult neurodivergency diagnoses is that they demonstrate how much people hide themselves to conform to the system.

For my whole life I’ve learnt to mask my own preferences and traits because I thought that was what I was meant to do. And I’ve done it for so long that I thought that these were my actual preferences. In reality, I’ve just hidden my truer nature to create a more palatable version of myself. Whilst this has gotten me this far in life, it’s not the recipe for long lasting happiness.

If this article has got you thinking about yourself, feel free to drop me a line. I cannot profess to be an expert on neurodiversity, yet there are some signs I’ve learnt to pick up on. At the very least, I can point you to some materials which might help you.

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