By Kris McElroy
I found out I was autistic when I was 30 years old after over two decades of misdiagnoses, misunderstandings, and maltreatment. The diagnosis helped make so much more sense to me about myself and the world around me. It helped me understand I was having meltdowns because I was overloaded by something in my environment or cognitively overloaded. It helped me appreciate my love for routine. It also helped me gain insight into my struggles with social skills and communication.
Before my diagnosis it was harder for me to connect these things and experiences were happening to a part of me being autistic. Not having an accurate diagnosis until I was 30 also influenced the navigated negative external experiences and internalized the negative messages, I received about who I was.
As a result, I grew up believing I was difficult, challenging, emotional, a mistake, and that I was made wrong. Experiences of bullying, harassment, and abuse drilled these beliefs further into me. As a young adult, my relationships, education, employment, and community involvement were impacted. I felt lost, helpless, powerless, and haunted by these negative messages daily as they played on a repeated loop in my mind without any tools to know how to combat them as they influenced my addictions, self-injury, anxiety, and depression.
That’s why I embarked on a journey to gain tools to try and combat the negative messages and internalized stigma that I felt was in the driver’s seat of my life. A journey through self-care, trauma therapy, self-advocacy workshops, recovery, coping skills, and reclaiming my life – all so that I can live my best life.
While the journey continues, it has taught me a lot about myself including reframing what being autistic means to me including dismantling negative messages in the areas of stimming, sensory needs, routine, parenting, and relationships.
It took me a long time to discover stimming was helpful to me. Before discovering this helpfulness, I spent time being trained to not stim because I was taught it was dangerous as it put me on display, seen as difficult and strange, and compromises my safety. The experience of fighting the urge to stim would create an internal distress which fueled my self-injury, addictions, and depression. I had no idea until finding out I was autistic and embarking on this journey toward myself, that my stimming helped me regulate, express, and be aware of what was happening for me in the moment.
It’s taken me a while to feel free and comfortable enough in my own home to count, pace, watch the same scene repeatedly or listen to the same line on repeat. I am still working on how to stim in public and when around family. But I am confident I will get there one day. Just being able to refrain the act of stimming from something negative to something as a helpful part of who I am has made a world of difference for me.
It has been so freeing understanding I need a fabric break against my skin and that certain fabrics I don’t even bother with anymore because of the feel, weight, or fit. I now have noise cancelers and strategies to tell where my sensory level is at that moment to help decide what else I can engage in or if I need to pause. It helps me advocate for myself and I experience a lot less sensory distress because I am aware of this part of myself, why it exists, and how to engage with it so I don’t push myself too far into sensory overload as well as how to handle unexpected sensory overload experiences. It’s not perfect, but a huge improvement.
I used to think routine made me rigid and rigid was not described as a positive character trait to me, so I internalized it as something that was wrong with me that I needed to change. But it wasn’t true. I have learned how helpful routine is, even in managing my anxiety. I especially love routine with flexibility which makes room for what it means to live with chronic illness and being a dad, both that add unpredictability to everyday life. Self-acceptance combined with self-care and cognitive flexibility strategies has helped me refrain routine as a positive rather than a negative.
When I was growing up, I didn’t see many examples of parents with disabilities. As an adult I received the messages that I could not be an effective parent because I had a neuromuscular disease and was autistic. These messages were wrong. I wish there was more support resources centered on my abilities and strengths rather than what the larger society views are my “inabilities”. But everyday being a dad to my daughter proves these messages wrong. I am doing it and I love being a dad. Having a neuromuscular disease and being autistic enhances my parenting abilities rather than taking away from them.
I’m in a neurodiverse marriage (I’m autistic and my partner is not). Because of the internalized negative messages I carried, I didn’t believe I offered anything positive to the relationship in the beginning. I struggled to understand how a neurodiverse relationship would successfully work. But we are writing our own story together one day at a time with communication, some work, love, safety, boundaries, support, and giving space to honor each of us being our authentic selves – it is one of the strongest relationships I have ever had that has helped me grow and come more into myself seeing myself in all the strengths within who I am as a person, including being autistic.
Kris McElroy is a freelance writer, artist, and advocate. He is passionate about social justice issues and exploring race, disabilities, gender identity & sexuality, mental health, identity, trauma, and intersectionality. Born and raised in Maryland, Kris is an autistic biracial black transgender man with multiple disabilities who enjoys spending time with his wife and family. He received his Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Maryland and a Master of Science in Multidisciplinary Human Services from Capella University.