Being a late-diagnosed autistic woman in a neurotypical world is a journey to say the least. Being able to look back at my life through an autistic lens means there is an explanation for so many of the struggles I have experienced along the way. It allows me to offer myself more kindness and compassion as well as feel a sense of greater acceptance of myself. Furthermore, it means I can now navigate life and my own self-care in a way I could not before I knew I was autistic. Coming to know that you are autistic later in life (as the majority of women do), whether by formal diagnosis, self-diagnosis or exploration around this as an identity can bring up a range of feelings and emotions. As autism presents so differently in women than in men, it is vital to know some of the signs. You can read more about the signs of autism in women at https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/women-autism-spectrum-disorder/ 202104/10-key-signs-autism-in-women However, once you have a diagnosis or identify as autistic, it can often feel like you’re on your own in exploring what this means, how to navigate caring for yourself, advocating for your needs and unmasking (showing more of your true self to the world). In this article, I offer some ways to support yourself in the world as a late-diagnosed autistic woman.
1. Know yourself really well
Who are you really? This may be an incredibly difficult question to answer if you’ve spent your entire life masking and trying fit in with the expected social norms of this society. Taking off your mask is a vulnerable process but getting to know yourself when you’re by yourself can be an easier and less daunting first step. What do you like to do in your free time? What do you like/ dislike? What are your interests? What brings you joy? What makes you excited? What makes you sad? What makes you angry? What makes you anxious? What brings you calm? Who do you like to be around? What does your ideal day look like? Knowing yourself well can help you navigate situations that you find yourself in, or help you decide whether you want to be in them in the first place!
2. Don’t be afraid to put in place accommodations and ask for support
After a lifetime spent masking and pushing through, you may not even be aware of the accommodations or support that you may find helpful. Taking a clear look at the ways you function or what you find difficult in daily life can help you identify where you can bring in assistance and ask for the support of family, friends and colleagues. It could be as simple as letting others know you are overwhelmed and that you need some time for yourself. You could ask family to take over more of the house chores for a while. Or colleagues to respect your need for quiet. Or let your boss know you process information differently and need a bit longer on a project. Putting in place accommodations for yourself can be empowering and give you a sense of control in what often feels like a chaotic world. For me, making sure I do my food shop on a weekday morning has transformed the experience from being an overwhelming one to bearable. I also very rarely leave my house these days without my headphones to listen to music. This helps me remain calm and regulated in stressful and busy environments. It may sound strange after a lifetime of struggling through, but you don’t need to suffer.
3. Indulge your interests and hobbies
Your interests and passions are a powerfully supportive resource in your life. Think of how you feel when you indulge your hobbies and spend time with your interests. You may become aware of a deep sense of peace or calm. You may be able to identify your skills and talents in this process, which can bring about a deeper sense of confidence in yourself.
4. Create a schedule that works for you
As mentioned in point number two, you don’t need to suffer or struggle through. Most 9-5 jobs are not suited to neurodivergent people who need a lot more rest, quiet and downtime than such a work schedule allows. You may realise you need a quiet space to focus and that an afternoon walk in nature or a nap helps you regulate your nervous system. You may find that you can utilise your ability to work alone and focus for long periods - as well as your creativity, passion and interests - to create a business of your own or at least create a good case for flexible working.
5. Learn to say no
Boundaries are essential. You do not need to put yourself in social situations you do not truly wish to be in. Learn how to listen to your clear ‘yes’ when deciding whether to do something, and if you don’t hear it, you do not have to force yourself to please others. Honouring yourself and your needs develops your sense of yourself and, in turn, sends a message to yourself that you are worth taking care of.
6. Surround yourself with as much comfort as possible
As women, we often learn from a young age to forgo comfort for the sake of fitting in and being ‘fashionable’. The sooner you can give up caring what others think and embrace what your body and skin truly likes, the sooner you will be able to drop a whole load of unnecessary tactile stress and better regulate your nervous system. I surround myself with soft blankets, cuddly toys and (fake) sheepskin rugs and wear soft clothing materials and shoes with a comfortable fit.
7. Do not compare yourself to neurotypical women
This is a difficult one but understanding you are autistic can help drop the comparisons. Neurotypical women may seem to be better able to function in this world, however, you never know their own struggles. Dropping the comparisons and learning to like and embrace who you truly are can help you avoid the trap of living a life that society deems you should live, in turn helping you create one that is on your own terms and that feels good from the inside.