My research on autism has helped me reach a peaceful state where I can fully be myself without shame.
By Myranda Uselton
The irony of being a self-diagnosed autistic adult can’t be ignored. We’re expected to properly explain and defend our neurodivergent brain. Of course I can’t explain it coherently as I struggle with communication skills (I’m autistic).
I excel in masking my personality quirks and emotional needs. Among the autism community, most individuals find it easier to express themselves in writing; it is the same for me. I’ve had to succeed as an adult in a neurotypical world.
I’ve compiled here a comprehensive defense of my hypothesis as to where and how I fall on the autism spectrum. My hope is for this post to solidify my decision to identify as autistic, gather information for my family members and loved ones who want to learn more about autism, and provide support for others who are or suspect they may be on the spectrum.
Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM
Let’s first consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, the psychologist’s Bible. You can view the full autism diagnostic criteria here.
To paraphrase, the DSM classifies autistic individuals as having impaired social communication and interaction, ranging from difficulties making friends to the complete inability to relate to others. Second, autistic individuals have restricted interests and activities, typically comprising of repetitive movements such as rocking or shaking, strict adherence to routines, intense interests or obsessions, and extreme reactivity to sensory input.
These symptoms must be present in childhood as well as adulthood. However, the DSM allows for the individual’s masking of symptoms due to learned strategies. (Editor’s Note: Masking of autistic traits is especially common among females).
Autism vs. Asperger Syndrome
As I hope you can infer from this blog post, I have done extensive research on ASD.
I see autism in my constant struggles experiences each day, specifically related to what was previously known as Asperger Syndrome. Although Asperger’s was previously thought a separate condition, the DSM-V incorporates it into Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This condition is difficult to diagnose in females because mental health professionals are taught about and study primarily males. Confusion such as this has resulted in a significantly larger number of diagnosed men than women, and many women living undiagnosed until adulthood, if ever (me).
My Autism, Explained
As the DSM describes I am completely baffled by most social situations and struggle to start or continue conversations, especially in small-talk or topics I’m not interested in.
Socializing feels like a (terrifying) game where everyone knows the rules except for me where I’m forced to improvise. Being a chronic people-pleaser, I’m incredibly stressed by these social situations because I don’t want to hurt or offend the other person, so I try to appear completely normal (unfortunately resulting in the covering of my true personality). It takes months, sometimes years, for me to consider someone a friend around whom I can relax.
Even among close friends, I find it extremely difficult to disclose or even identify my feelings. It’s much more natural for me to dump facts on somebody. I become very excited to share a neat trivia fact related to the conversation rather than voice my opinion on some matter. This struggle to classify emotions applies to my interpretation of other people as well.
I used to think I was skilled at identifying how someone felt; I am not.
My extreme urge to please people results in my anticipation of how they might react to my actions or words. To err on the side of caution, however, I frequently (eventually always) assumed a negative reaction such as anger or hurt. I became like a smoke detector constantly going off in case there might be a fire.
My Sensory Issues
The clothes I wear are dictated by how they feel: the softness of the fabric, absence of bothersome appliques, looseness of the fit (especially around my arms). “Bad” textures make me gag or very stressed. There are entire pillows at home that I avoid because of the way they feel.
Most of the foods I don’t like are purely based on texture as well. I strictly avoid a myriad of food with certain textures. Many family members call me a picky eater, but I insist there is a pattern to it. Although it doesn’t happen often, I sometimes skip meals because I can’t stand the feeling of food in my mouth.
In addition, I am sensitive to sounds and cannot tolerate loud noises. This includes music, fireworks, cars, and yelling.
A trademark of autism is intense interest in specific subjects.
These interests can take the form of a lifelong talent as well as shorter-term obsessions. I cannot stress enough how prevalent this is in my life. Despite being a chemistry major, I have studied and excelled in clarinet performance and plan to play for as long as I can.
My struggle in school has never been how to study but rather what to study.
I have varied interests ranging from math and computer science to animals and nature to cooking and crocheting. The intensity of each interest varies and usually lasts for weeks before subsiding and being replaced by a different obsession. This might be my favorite quality about autism, as it allows me to hyperfocus on subjects I truly enjoy. I barely notice the passage of time when I’m engaged in one of my special interests.
Other traits that are important but do not necessarily require an entire paragraph: constant rocking or shaking, reduced ability to understand or remember verbal instructions, strict adherence to schedules and rules, nonconformity to and rejection of gender roles, little attention regarding personal grooming and appearance, comorbid diagnosis or misdiagnosis of anxiety and sleeping disorders, urges to hide under blankets or tables, and mumbling.
Looking Back: ASD in my Childhood
Of course, none of these attributes suddenly appeared when I entered adulthood. The symptoms were present throughout my childhood as well.
As a young child I showed signs of hyperlexia (the ability or urge to read without prior training), which is very common among autistic children.
I was held back in preschool for poor hand-eye coordination and balance, another characteristic found in autistic children (anybody that knows me also knows of my constant clumsiness even today). I also struggled with expressing myself verbally from a young age. It was not natural for me to talk about emotions, and I found it difficult to handle people being angry with me. Any slight sign of anger, and I would have a meltdown. I preferred to be alone and read books, and in middle school I only spoke when it was imperative to do so (such as answering a teacher’s question).
Looking Forward: Coping Mechanisms and Handling Stress
Autism (when “high-functioning”) is not in itself a debilitating disability.
Rather, the stress associated with ASD mostly stems from being judged based on non-autistic standards. Realizing my strengths and weaknesses within those standards and crafting coping exercises greatly improves my self-esteem and quality of life.
It’s important for loved ones and family members to recognize the needs and limitations of an autistic individual. For example, before a social event, I require significant amounts of time to prepare and recover. This can take the form of waiting in a parking lot for ten minutes before entering a building, calling someone who soothes me such as my mom or boyfriend, or laying in bed after returning home.
Even family visits can cause stress because of a change in routine, new noises, and more socializing. Stepping out for a bit to clear my head makes me much happier in the long run.
Many people focus on the “bad” side of being autistic. I choose to see it as a gift.
I’m happy to reach the conclusion that I’m on the autism spectrum. I have finally found a like-minded community where my quirks no longer seem so ostracizing. After learning about ASD, I have uncovered so many resources and strategies for handling stress and preventing meltdowns. I now know to tell myself, You have sensory overload. Take a break for a bit. I give myself some time in between events. I tell myself to rest.
As a result, I no longer feel guilty for not being able to handle situations while my peers seem fine.
With all this information why don’t I get a formal diagnosis?
For one, it’s very expensive (around $3,000) and extremely difficult to find a doctor that will evaluate adults.
For another, I don’t feel the need to have a doctor tell me something I already know about myself. There is no medication or treatment for autism, just awareness and strategies for living a happy life.
Finally, autism doesn’t change me. It merely changes my perception of myself and how I relate to those around me. If nothing else, my research on autism has helped me reach a peaceful state where I can fully be myself without shame.
I am not deficient; I am different.
Throughout my autism journey, I consulted a vast number of resources, both online and in print. If you want to learn more about autism spectrum disorder, see the following texts.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
Simone, R., & Willey, L. H. (2010). Aspergirls: Empowering females with Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Aspie Quiz: http://rdos.net/eng/Aspie-quiz.php
Myranda is a twenty-something Aspergian attending school for computer science and data science. She has had many exciting experiences, such as interning for NASA and working for a mission in New Orleans. Her special interests include chemistry, clarinet, and cats.