My strengths as a late-diagnosed autistic woman.
As my eyes scanned the seven-paged PDF file titled, ‘Confidential Psychological Assessment Report’, I knew I was going to finally find the answer for why I felt out of place. Paragraphs of medical terminology, ‘social cognition’, ‘behavioural observations’, ‘algorithms’, interspersed with my name and childhood memories. Reading my Autism report was one of the toughest things I have ever had to read; not because it is riddled with scientific jargon, but because it’s about me. All of my brain ‘deficits’ that I thought were once cute little quirks were now ‘idiosyncrasies’ that needed to be put under the microscope and picked apart like a speck of bacteria on a petri dish, all because I ‘needed answers’ to something that I wasn’t quite sure was even a part of me.
One thing that stood out for me once I finished reading my medical memoir, was that the word ‘deficits’ was mentioned 21 times, (yes, I counted. After all, I am going to be a Clinical Psychologist and we like data). Being ‘deficient’ means a lack of something. Whether it be iron, energy or sleep. The things I lack, according to my report, are communication skills, friends and empathy. Of course, it’s not that straightforward. We don’t necessarily lack these things, it’s just that we present ourselves differently and communicate differently and as a result, our actions and intentions are misinterpreted by neurotypical people.
I have been doing a lot of self-reflection over the past few months, and being able to swap stories with other autistic people has unearthed some strengths that I didn’t know I had. No, I’m not talking about the stereotypical ‘Autism superpowers’ that Psychologists used to write case studies about, these are strengths that I have developed over time that have helped me navigate life as a (then) undiagnosed autistic person. These are my strengths…
I am one hell of a determined woman. I’m not sure whether it’s because us Auties love routines and despise any kind of interruption to our plans, but I have the determination and stubbornness, of…well…an autistic person who has been repeatedly fired from jobs and changed careers three times (true story). I’ve spoken to a few late-diagnosed autistic women and we’ve had our fair share of knock backs as a result of trying to ‘function’ in a neurotypical world, but we’ve managed to find our way back up. I will carry this determination with me wherever I go, be it when I’m doing burpees at the gym, to when I’m writing my master’s thesis.
I can focus for hours. Hyperfocus, being able to focus on one task for a long time, is very common among us autistics, but doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. When I’m researching my special interest (neuroscience, psychology…brains…you get the gist), I can pay very close attention for several hours. Nothing will distract me. I often find that other people find it hard to focus on one particular task for too long before they are scrolling through Instagram, so I count myself lucky that I have this skill.
I like discipline and order. Okay, this makes me sound like a police officer, but it’s actually a skill to be disciplined and follow a plan through to its end. One common autistic trait is that we like to stick to routines and structure, which can sound like hell for some people, but for us, knowing that there are rules to stick to, makes us feel safe amidst the chaos. My disciplined nature has encouraged me to stick to a budget and save money for university, it also helps me to stick to my healthy eating and exercise routines. I do not, I repeat, do not, skip a gym class under any circumstances (unless I am rushed to hospital, again, a true story.)
I’m discovering new strengths everyday and I write them down in my journal to remind myself that I am a courageous human being with untapped skills. It’s also a reminder that many late-diagnosed autistic women have wonderful skills that aren’t being recognised by the workforce and wider society. I hope that all of us can pursue the things that bring us joy without the anxiety of being ‘deficient’ in anything.