I live and work in autism land — that’s my way into this conversation about the autism spectrum and my life as a graduate student. I am an autistic woman completing her PhD in Educational Psychology. Almost three years ago, a professor who knew me relatively well, and also worked with youth with developmental disabilities, asked me if I could be on the autism spectrum.
“I don’t know,” I thought. “But why did she ask?” I felt taken aback. “What is she seeing in me that I have missed entirely?” I wondered whether pursuing an autism spectrum diagnosis could help me — in what was then my early 20s — or rather Asperger syndrome; this was before the DSM-5’s publication.
Now I know I live in autism land. But first I needed to explore the landscape. What did, to use the formal language, meeting diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), mean for how I understood myself? I began by researching — reading the formal criteria for ASD and considering whether it felt applicable to me:
Autism Spectrum Disorder (APA, 2013)
– A developmental disability characterized by social and communication impairments as well as restrictive and/or repetitive behavior, including atypical sensory experiences.
– Condition must begin in early childhood, but may not be noticed until later in life, when expectations exceed the individual’s coping abilities
The first book I read about women on the spectrum was Rudy Simone’s Aspergirls. My notes filled a Word document; I kept recognizing similarities between the women who Simone interviewed and my own experiences. My typing became a chorus of me toos.
I finally registered with Disability Services this past April after receiving my documentation from the only clinician in my college town who does adult ASD evaluations. I learned to believe myself long before I had this documentation. I recognized autistic traits in myself long before entering the formal diagnostic process.
I once told my statistics professor I had enough anxiety to power a small city and alluded to how that condition made it difficult to work under pressure. The further I got into graduate school, the more I recognized my need to self-accommodate. Without access to Disability Services, I developed ways to describe my impairments in as non-threatening a manner as possible. But whenever I struggled to organized my time or missed a course deadline, part of me wondered if I belonged in graduate school.
I’ve learned to name these “not enough” feelings: it’s shame about being visibly disabled. When I become convinced the tasks that my disability makes more difficult — planning my time efficiently, remembering pertinent items, or knowing when to stop speaking — are things with which I should not struggle. Shame says to me, “Why don’t you have your shit together? What’s wrong with you.”
The answer to that question is “Absolutely nothing.” I’m autistic, but that merely is. It is neither good nor bad. It comes with strengths (the depth of knowledge I possess in particular subject areas; my attention to detail) and impairments (having lots of words, but getting lost in a conversation; getting easily overwhelmed).
I’ve developed workarounds for when my impairments make schoolwork difficult. I joke that I’ve outsourced my executive functioning (my brain’s ability to plan and organize tasks) to externalizer systems: apps, lists, phone alarms, and planners. For me, self-acceptance is a process. To see my struggles and ask for help when I get stuck. To merely notice shame, without judging myself any further.
I often tell people, Autism just is. It is neither good nor bad. I cope with the impairments and utilize the strengths to my advantage. Knowing I’m autistic helped me to better understand myself and how I function in educational settings. Autism became part of my explanatory narrative. I continue learning to accept my own kind normal.