May not have a strong sense of identity, and can be very chameleon-like, especially before diagnosis.
Questions place in the world.
I read those sentences on a couple of long lists of traits which are common among autistic women((The most comprehensive ones were Rudy Simones lists of female Asperger syndrome traits, and Samantha Craft’s “Females With Aspergers Syndrome Checklist“.)), but which are not necessarily diagnostic criteria. I found myself going over those lists again and again, eyes twitching across the page as my thoughts raced, seeking patterns and explanations. Words were suddenly put to a strange emptiness I’ve long sensed inside me.
Ironically, reading those lists, and seeing comment discussions where other people exclaimed how they described them so perfectly, my sense of disconnect and outsidership was made worse. That’s not me, I thought as I read something that didn’t fit, That’s not me either… And then every now and then, sentences like the ones above hit me like a fist in my stomach, leaving me reeling.
Who am I even?
I have always battled that feeling of being an outsider. That life is a party I can’t seem to join even if I was invited and wanted to go. I stand outside, looking at the rest of you with my hand pressed against the window. Occasionally, someone steps outside and joins me in my world, and then I’m less lonely for a while. But in the end, I carry a conviction within me of being fundamentally separate from the social world that surrounds me.
I don’t want to be alone. I want to be part of something.
I try not to shame myself for this longing I have to fit in, if not with normative society then at least some sort of tribe. But it’s sometimes difficult. I always thought of myself as an individualist — in fact, if there was ever a label I identified with, that would be it. Seeing the “normal” people around me as enemies while I grew up seeded an intense desire to distance myself from them, from everyone. To swim against the current, not because it wasn’t taking me where I wanted to go, but simply for the sake of it.
Because I had no idea where I wanted to go. I knew what I didn’t want for myself, but not much more than that.
I realise this is rather abstract. So let’s take style, for example. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I happily let my mother buy my clothes. Her ideas of how I should dress were slightly eclectic but in no way extreme, and that suited me just fine. I liked being different and getting acknowledged for it.((Besides, clothing stores gave me some pretty severe anxiety, although I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. All I knew was that I was completely incapable of going into one, looking through the racks, deciding what to try on and then deciding if I wanted to buy anything, because it was all just overwhelming.))
The thing is, I was never sure if something I thought looked good actually looked good. And despite this idea that I was an individualist, that I did things my way, up until the last few years I could never wear an outfit I wasn’t absolutely sure was acceptable to others — not unless it had been explicitly approved by someone else. Letting someone else buy my clothes was simply the easiest option.
I don’t need my mother to buy clothes for me anymore. But the fact is that even as an adult, every major shift in my personal style has been precipitated by me finding new people who inspire and encourage me to try something out that I previously didn’t quite dare to do.
Noticing this pattern, not just in dress sense but in how my interests, hobbies and overall focus in life has shifted over the years, has left me with a feeling that I lack … substance. Of course, I see “personality” not as a thing but as a constant, ongoing process. We are all being shaped and reshaped by our past, other people, our surroundings, circumstance, the world we live in, and so on.
I’ve identified with a lot of things in the past. Particularly movements; at first atheism and natural science geekdom, then humanism, then skepticism — never leaving the previous identities behind, but simply shifting focus. I’ve identified strongly as a beekeeper, as well. Then I spent a few years identifying as a kinkster.
And now? Now I don’t know. I’ve left all those lives behind, if not the interests and opinions. I have picked up a number of new labels for myself: Nonbinary, relationship anarchist, programmer, neurodivergent, gardener. But none of them have become my “primary attribute”, and I feel insecure about many of them. Insecure whether I fit in, whether I’m truly allowed to use them about myself. This despite my own very strong ideological viewpoint that labels of identity is something that each person must be allowed to pick for themselves.
Pop culture tells me that you’re supposed to have a strong sense of self that is more or less constant. That there’s supposed to be an unchanging core that is you. And, well, I don’t think I have one. I don’t know, because just like I’m not sure what it’s supposed to feel like to have a gender identity, I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like to have an identity overall.
Which brings me back to autism.
May not have a strong sense of identity…
I think it hit me so hard because it dawned on me that there might not be an answer to the question of who I am. That I might be navigating this labyrinth trying to find my core, only to find that it’s empty.
The fact is, I very much would like to be diagnosed with ASD. I can’t get rid of the notion that it would allow me some respite from the background buzz in my head: Who am I? Why am I? Why don’t I know these things already? It’s hard not to shame myself for it. I question my need for labels. Why should I need labels to know who I am?
But I do want a word for what I am. I want an explanatory model.((It does not escape me that this desire to categorise and label myself could very well be seen as a symtom.)) And I want it to come from outside of myself, because apparently I can never, ever trust myself to do things right on my own. I want someone with a degree to hand me a piece of paper saying I’m allowed to use this word about myself.
At the same time, on a different level, I really don’t care. Right now, I am so wrapped up in the process of being, that most of the time I don’t mind that I don’t know what that actually entails. The other day, I thought to myself that I feel like I have grown up a lot over the past year, but then immediately changed my mind: I don’t think there is such a thing as “growing up”, because that implies that we are all reaching for some sort of finished state. As I said, I see personalities as far more malleable than that.
Personalities, to use a gardening metaphor, grow like long-lived perennials. We’re modular and resilient, changing shape and direction depending on what goes on around us. I guess I used to think that everyone was a tree and that I had to be a tree too, but now I feel like maybe I’m a climbing vine, or something else entirely.
More importantly, it doesn’t matter in the end. Because a plant doesn’t need to know its shape or heritage to keep on growing.