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Embracing My Identity as an Autistic Woman

At age 53, I was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, so I’m ‘AuDHD.’ That last part of my identity was the key to understanding, self compassion, healing, self-confidence and leaning in to my strengths.

I’m a middle-aged-ish white woman, descendent of Irish, English and Norwegian settlers on Turtle Island. I was born and raised in Mohkinstis (also known as Calgary) near the Tsuut'ina Nation on Treaty 7 territory. My prounouns are she/her and they/them.  I’m live with my Hubby and Bestie with 2 big dogs and 3 cats. I obtained my B.Ed long ago (in French) but work as a support staff member in technical support with online learning. Like many people who weren’t diagnosed until later in life, I struggled with the demands of my career in spite of excelling in university. My volunteer experiences bring me joy and include an animal shelter, and working with equity deserving groups such as the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, the Autistic Community and taking action on Reconciliation with Indigenous communities.  I’m bilingual in English and French with just enough Spanish and German to get around as a tourist. Languages open doors to understanding concepts beyond just what is available to English-speakers.

Like many Autistic people, I have a spiky profile, where I’m good at some things and struggle in other areas. I’m Autistic without intellectual or language support needs, but with level 1 support needs elsewhere. Here is what my profile looks like.

I’m hyperlexic, so I enjoy reading, writing, and speaking in multiple languages. I can read and understand large quantities of text very quickly. I can volunteer to help others with the things I’m good at. 

I have a learning disability called dyscalculia, so I can ask now for support without shame regarding time blindness, struggling to visualize dates and maps, and remembering numbers long enough to write them down. As a kid, I struggled with memorizing my 'basic facts' of addition and multiplication. Nobody recognized that I had this learning disorder so I was given daily homework practice of flash cards and an electronic gamified version of math flash cards. It truly didn't help and just resulted in internal meltdowns and external nosebleeds.

Today we would offer someone with a math learning disability a tool to support them such as a calculator. This is how we achieve equity. We give short people a step stool so they can reach the glasses on the top shelf or see over the fence. We don't make them try to jump higher and higher all their life.

image source: 

The autism spectrum isn’t linear, like ‘mild to spicy’ in intensity. Support needs vary over time, even in the same person. We may need more support as children, as seniors, in educational settings, in sensorily overwhelming settings, as we deal with hormonal changes, in our teens, during pregnancy, and around perimenopause. We may need more time and planning to complete tasks, for daily living activities, in exams, or to understand conversations.

source:  Bibi pins

It’s possible to view these as differences instead of deficits. The world needs neurodiversity; different kinds of minds with diverse ways of problem-solving and communicating. There’s no shame in advocating for our support needs. The opposite of shame is pride. June 18th is Autistic Pride Day each year. April is Autism Awareness Month each year. Some call it Autism Acceptance Month. Many Autistics stay off social media to avoid the onslaught of well-meaning 'raising awareness' and links to charities that have caused harm to our community in the past and continue to control the research priorities and narratives due to their huge power and influence from millions of dollars. Content warning ableism: Google "I Am Autism" the TV commercial from A$ if you are not Autistic. My hubby just watched it and was shocked.

Language matters. Can you hear the difference?

  • Awareness - sounds like something rare or scary.

  • Acceptance - feels like tolerance, not inclusivity.

  • Pride - where we acknowledge, embrace, and celebrate our traits.

Not everyone feels that being Autistic is something to be proud of but I am proud to be Autistic. . I believe pride is not about showing off, but rather about making ourselves visible, so that others who may be suffering by feeling like they are alone, broken, or bullied, can see themselves in us. So they know they are not alone, and find a community of people like them. For me, this applies to autism as much as to queerness.  

I’m learning from others in my community how to begin to advocate for myself, set healthy boundaries, and expect respect. That can be as simple as wearing noise-cancelling headphones as an accommodation, to block out the multiple conversations around me at work so that I can focus and be productive. I’m not alone in this.

I don’t speak for all Autistic people, but it’s common for us to experience low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, panic, masking, taking longer than others to accomplish most things, and being misunderstood. 

I tried so hard to belong and be accepted. I found it exhausting, but continually felt like I had never tried hard enough. Eventually, I burned out and needed time off work to recover over and over. Everyone including me thought it was garden-variety depression and anxiety. I took up running and triathlon to fight it on my doctor's advice to 'be more active' to help with depression. It wasn’t enough even after getting my Ironman medal in 2017.

Finally, I understood that I went through life as an undiagnosed Autistic, and now realize that I am good enough. I have tried hard enough. I am not alone. 

Meeting others like me has brought me so much joy, finding ‘my people’ in the Autistic community, and knowing who I am. It’s so easy to be around others like me. We just ‘get’ each other. Communication flows easily without awkward pauses, without walking on eggshells, without judgement, without second-guessing the speaker's intent. We swap ‘me too’ examples, not to compete, but to demonstrate understanding and empathy.  

Autistic self-advocates take back the narrative from the medical community, and others, who use terminology such as ‘suffering’ from autism, and refer to our differences as a ‘disorder’. That is still the language of the DSM-5 TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition / Text Revision), and is required for an official diagnosis. However, as more Autistic researchers, medical students, and professionals come out as Autistic, the language is gradually shifting to be more about differences and less about disorders. More about the social model of disability and less about the medical model. More about how when society tries to make us all conform, the majority may be comfortable but that environment can be disabling for those of us who become easily overwhelmed in loud chaotic environments for example. No wonder my first job where I was happy was working in a library. You can learn more about the ‘neurodiversity paradigm’ and definitions of neurodiversity from  Nick Walker, here.

I’m still learning, as I begin to view my life through this new lens, and I’m happy to share my journey with you. I used to blog anonymously but I'm finding my authentic voice and am gaining confidence in using it.


PS: An older version of this updated article was originally written and shared in Autism Around Alberta newsletter by Autism Society Alberta here: