learning from my past

I know we can’t change the past. I know that things in our past help us become who we are, and that is often a really positive thing. I know hindsight gives clarity and we probably shouldn’t spend too much time looking back with regret. But I have to admit I’m feeling angry about something that has happened, and happens to lots of people, that has meant I missed out on something really good for a long time. Looking back could be dangerous if we dwell there and don’t move on, but if we are willing I think there is something to be learned from it. 

It was 8 years ago I was in a psychologists office when she said to me, “I know your focus coming here is to get L the help and support he needs, and that his autism diagnosis is a bit overwhelming. But it’s a good thing, and one day we should make time to talk about you.” I looked at her confused. She smiled kindly. There was a pause, and I moved the conversation back to L.

About 6 months later we moved an hour and a half drive away and I changed psychologists. I just remembered recently that this conversation had happened.

I didn’t remember it when G was identified as autistic. I didn’t remember it when I was struggling to balance overwhelm and depression with parenting 6 kids. I didn’t even remember it last year when I asked my new psychologist if she thought I could be autistic.

I remembered it when I was writing ‘becoming autistic‘. I didn’t document it then because I was slightly unsure I was remembering correctly. I mean, how could I have forgotten that? It should have been really significant, and I forgot it. I’ve been thinking about that a fair bit the past week, and I do want to document it, because I think I know why I forgot.

I forgot that my psychologist had said she thought I might be autistic because I dismissed the thought almost as soon as I left her office. Why? Because I believed it wasn’t possible.

I was not disabled. I was uncomfortable with the thought that the word disabled could be applied to me. I had not needed support to get through school. I was studying at uni for a second degree. I was married. I had (at that stage) 5 children. I didn’t have language problems. I wasn’t like “them”, the other autistic people I knew of. I had bought into the stereotypes and stigma around autism, albeit quite subconsciously, so that I honestly believed that could not be me.

The idea of myself as autistic was so foreign that rather than confront it I got busy ignoring the evidence. I ignored the fact that I dropped out of a subject of study at uni because the exam was going to be held in a place I had never been to and I couldn’t cope with getting myself there. I ignored the fact that I frequently had days when I was so overwhelmed that I spent the day in bed, then got up just before my husband got home from work, did a quick tidy and pretended I was fine. I ignored the fact that I had already started to use L’s needs as an excuse to not do things that I didn’t want to do. I ignored the anxiety underlying everything I did while trying to be what I thought other people wanted me to be. I let the lure of indistinguishability, and the pull of external expectations run my life. I ignored the fact that when I disagreed with something I routinely didn’t say anything about it because the thought of a conflict robbed me of my ability to articulate the words formed inside my head. And I missed out on an opportunity.

It would be another 3 years before I started to meet other autistic adults and begin to learn that autism in adults looks different than autism in children. It’s logical, so you’d think I’d have realised before, but I didn’t.

It took another year before I realised that autistic adult women are actually a lot like me!

It took another year before I was brave enough to ask about it in a therapy session. I was told “too high functioning”, so I put it aside.

It was 6 more months and many gentle prompts from caring friends before I was comfortable talking about it with them.

And here I am. 8 years after first being offered the opportunity to know myself better and allow myself to move into this liberating stage of self acceptance.

Why do I feel angry? Well, it’s because I lost time. It’s because I could have been learning all this great stuff about living well as myself years ago. It’s because it has taken so long for me be able to let go of the false ideas I had about autistic people. It’s because the ableism and untruths taught to me by society had me locked up in denial for so long and if I hadn’t been locked up my kids would have benefitted. It’s because I am not the only one.

I feel angry that we are so caught up in the falsehood of “normal” being better, that people don’t feel confident to express themselves honestly. I feel angry that diversity is feared instead of acknowledged as valuable and necessary. I feel angry to know that people were fighting to change these things long before that first suggestion was made to me, and I didn’t even know. I feel angry that people are still fighting and so many people still don’t know. I feel angry that many who do see neurodivergent people stand up for themselves will do all they can to get them to sit down and be quiet. I feel angry that so much of the public discussion about autism is conducted by people who are not autistic- people who say they want to help, but who won’t let us speak for ourselves to say what would actually be helpful.

I feel angry that, because our society devalues and silences diversity, I missed out on knowing myself. I feel angry that I contributed to my own silencing for a time. I feel angry that so many people are still in the position I was, and it’s really not their fault- they just haven’t been able to receive the message yet because it is really really hard to, when all the other messages are so incredibly loud.

I’m sharing this for two reasons. One is to document my journey and process my feelings. The other is to share what I have learned form my past, and to say to you,…

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….if you are wondering about neurodivergence, if someone is suggesting, if you are just not sure- keep looking, keep exploring, keep asking. Don’t dismiss it in favour of accepting the stereotypes. Don’t let the stigma put you off. Don’t let misunderstanding, outright denial, or fear of the truth, stop you from recognising yourself. Knowing yourself is more important. Understanding who you are is worth it. Being angry about the tyranny of expectation of normality is justified and right.

It has been hard to confront all these thoughts and memories from my past. But it is worth it. I, and my right to live my life well, are worth it.

You, and your right to live your life well, are worth it.


This post is part of my emerging autistic identity series- read them all by clicking here (clicking link will open a new window, posts are in reverse chronological order- first at the bottom) 

7 thoughts on “learning from my past

  1. Thank you for sharing. I’m so glad you are coming to that place of acceptance, and discovering the world that is out there now that you know your strengths even better.

  2. Michelle, your blog above made me cry.
    First of all it’s good to know I’m not alone in this, because éverything – apart from the kids, I have none) – you wrote cóuld have been written by me. (IF I’d been able to put it in words as well as yóu just did)

    Secondly because I só understand your anger at yourself, but also at the society in which we’re brought up in just doesn’t ‘do’ a bit older people being diagnosed with autism.
    I was diagnosed last year, (at the tender age of 62 😉 ) after having been in and out of psychologists’ offices since the early 70s.
    In hindsight the signs were there, but in those days psychologists were not aware of ‘older’ people possibly being autistic, let alone a woman.
    They tried to find the cause of my many depressions (about which, of course, nóbody in the outside world knew anything because hey, we don’t talk about stuff like that, right?!), and when they couldn’t they resorted to just fighting the symptoms of the many depressions. (and yes, for many years I just kept on working my job, nobody there saw I was having problems, I took care of that … LOL, guess if there were Oscar for that, I might have been nominated for one)

    And like you, when I finally DID get diagnosed (after having done weeks of all kinds of tests, and documenting my childhood until 62) I thought they just hád to be wrong because hey, elderly women do not suddenly get autistic, and hey, I had nóne of the symptoms I too falsely attributed as being ‘typical’ autism systems.
    Took ME another 8 months to finally realise they had been right after all, because I suddenly started understanding why I reacted the way to life the way I did.

    Só much time lost indeed, and sure, it hurts … big time.
    But it nów it also feeling like the start of a liberation, and it feels good.
    We can still léarn to understand the many pitfalls on our ‘autistic’ ways, and we certainly can léarn how to turn this knowledge into a learning curve to make our lives easier.

    Thanks for your article, it so helped.
    I wish you áll the best possible.

  3. LOVE this post. I relate so strongly to what you’re saying. I had the same stereotyped beliefs around autism that prevented me from seeking a diagnosis, the same dissonance around “becoming” disabled, and I feel the same anger in response to every one of the points you mentioned. I also feel anger and grief due to the fact that, after spending so many years unknowingly autistic and “pretending to be normal”, I now find it so very difficult to be authentically, autistic-ly me. It’s as though I have lost, or forgotten, many of the autistic parts of my identity – like they have been erased and replaced with learned imitations of neurotypicality. I so regret having lost those parts of myself.

    1. I feel he same frustrations Jac. I also notice myself thinking some really unhelpful thoughts when I do make the conscious decision to do things that meet my own needs (“don’t be lazy”, “you should be able to manage this”, etc.). At other times I see myself doing things because of habit or the knowledge it is expected, and I feel frustrated with myself, because I do know better now what I need, so why do I still find it hard to act on that? Hope that makes sense.

      1. Absolutely, that makes perfect sense. I have the same difficulties. Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences – it’s comforting to know that others live what I live.

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