On the inside looking out: Life as an autistic adult

Imagine knowing your whole life, from early grade school, that you’re different from everyone else but not knowing why. Everyday interactions and activities that come so easily to other people are agony. Feeling like you are on the outside looking in. Or more accurately, on the inside looking out.

Social situations, with all but a few close family members or friends, are excruciating. You are guaranteed to blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong time, so it’s easier to stay silent but then you’re regarded as antisocial, weird. You struggle to look most people in the eye or meet their gaze for more than a few seconds.

You are dismissed as “shy,” but you know deep down that shy doesn’t quite explain you.

Having to get up in front of a classroom and have multiple pairs of unfriendly eyes trained on you makes the prospect of death appealing by comparison. Team sports are torture.

And this is before you are even in high school.

Only it doesn’t go away after high school or even college. That time when you’re supposed to enter young adulthood with a developing sense of self and your life is supposed to start “falling into place,” whatever that means. Except things never fall into place like they seem to for other people. Maybe on the surface they appear to: First job, first apartment, all those things. But you never fit in anywhere. Even with your family. You feel like a child in an adult’s body, going through the motions.

You are in a never-ending awkward phase. What’s worse, your mental suffering begins to take a toll on your body and manifest itself in alarming physical symptoms.

Imagine growing up and coming of age with a condition virtually unknown to your time and place. One that was first identified and documented by an obscure German psychiatrist in the 1940s, whose work was not even translated into English or recognized in the United States until forty years later. And even then, for a long time only diagnosed in young children.

Even if you had parents who approved of and could afford adolescent psychiatry, which many of us did not, a shrink still could not have helped you. They might, in the unlikely event your parents consented, put you on an antidepressant regimen that might alleviate some of your symptoms but not treat the root cause of what ails you. Because there is no cure, and still is no cure, for that.

The counselors and therapists you see when you’re finally old enough to make these decisions for yourself are also limited by the prevailing wisdom in what they can do for you, so it’s still antidepressants and perhaps ADD medication. But no pill can fix you.

This is the life of someone diagnosed in middle age with Asperger’s syndrome. This is what it’s like to find out, well into mid-life, that you are autistic and have been your whole life. It’s learning that, contrary to what you believed, people with autism can excel in school and earn advanced degrees and pass the bar exam, because you did. Or become physicians, engineers, found tech companies and even become billionaires.

This happened to me in 2020, the year my entire life finally had an explanation. I learned there are others like me, who have suffered like me. That my brain is simply wired differently, through no fault of my own. I was never lazy, stupid, careless, or otherwise flawed in character. How I could have used that information thirty years ago.

Finally understanding why you are the way you are provides great relief, but it doesn’t make your condition go away.

I’m only at the beginning of this journey of self-understanding, healing and growth. But one thing I already know is that no two people experience Asperger’s (Autism Spectrum Disorder) exactly the same. It is a condition comprising many characteristics and traits that don’t impact each person who has it to the same degree. I don’t pretend to be an authority on the condition or speak for everyone with it. I am an authority on me, and how this has manifested itself in my life.

My future posts will deal with different aspects of living with ASD including some of the growing resources out there for coping. Next up: Why I hate “the autism spectrum” and other terms.

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