Sunday, March 27, 2016

Imposter Syndrome and My Late Autism Spectrum Diagnosis

Andrea Michael
andreamichaelart.wordpress.com


Django of Cacharel
[image: black-and-white drawing of a dark horse
wearing a bridle, with a windblown mane.]
I wasn't prepared for the imposter syndrome that set in after my autism diagnosis. Why? Possibly because, after my diagnosis, I scoured the Internet for autism material, found too many opinions that my version of autism wasn't "real autism" -- and heard more often than not that if I was late diagnosed, that meant I was at the very edge of the diagnosis, just a mild case with no "real" challenges.

At the time of this writing, I am in my thirties. I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum three years ago, after seeking answers for troubles that had been ramping up since my childhood. My diagnosis of extreme chronic anxiety as a teen, then one of depression (later extreme chronic depression) in my twenties, while true and correct, were not the entire story: being autistic was.

So, I am autistic. I wish to be an advocate, and I also wish to become known as an artist on the spectrum, to be able to make an independent living from my art, one of the great things being autistic gives me.

But I still struggle with imposter syndrome, with feeling like my successes are fake, that I am a fraud, and that it's only a matter of time before someone catches on, and calls me out. I don't consider having autism as a success or a failure so much as something that just 'is,' but I feel like a phony.

That is why it took me a little while to be open about my diagnosis beyond immediate family -- I was scared of what reactions might be. But as I feel a great need to be 100% truthful in my interactions with the world -- being secretive about parts of myself creates this awful internal conflict that I can't resolve -- I decided to be open despite the fear, both to relieve the internal conflict, and to advocate for and take better care of myself. (I've found being open, and talking about my experiences, also has the added benefit of helping  people who have autistic kids, or are on the spectrum themselves.) 

When I finally told the people around me about my diagnosis, the range of responses ran from skepticism to, "Oh, I suspected it years ago." Those different reactions were hard to reconcile, and a part of me is still sure that one day someone will point at me and say "faker!" -- because I was not diagnosed sooner.

The imposter syndrome also extends to my art (which is at andreamichaelart.wordpress.com, www.facebook.com/AndreaMichaelArt, and www.redbubble.com/people/toastweasel). As a child I drew a lot, and was definitely ahead of my peers in skill level, but it was a normal progression of practicing a lot and incrementally improving. However in my early twenties, an SSRI medication destroyed my ability to do almost any art for ten long years.

Leo[image: A medium-haired gray, white, and red dog]
And then in 2011, I picked up my pencils and  began drawing highly realistic animal portraits -- without having practiced. I was also able to pick up any other medium and master it immediately.

Even though I started to find success, and sell and exhibit my work, I felt like a fraud as an artist. I hadn't put in years and years of hard effort to get to this point like other artists; it had just happened to me. I actually quit art for a time as the stress of being in the public eye, coupled with the feeling of being a fraud, was too strong. Then, in 2015, I was identified in  as having a savant skill by Darold Treffert, a leading expert in savant syndrome. Since then I've been trying to confront the imposter syndrome, and not let it hold me back again.

Part of the imposter syndrome probably has to do with the fact that, in the '80s, an autism diagnosis didn't exist for kids like me: I was considered merely an academically gifted, artistic, shy little girl. My autistic traits were explained away or overlooked. My obsessive focus (horses) was deemed normal for a young girl. My extreme anxiety and confusion during overwhelming situations was termed "shyness." I was hopeless at making friends, and terrible at keeping them. I had sensory problems, and was stressed by weird things like the unpredictability of different showers' controls and water temperatures; the strain of not being able to generalize caused me huge amounts of anxiety. My version of imaginative play was re-enacting scenes out of books or TV shows. While not technically part of autism, my (commonly co-occurring) gut problems were awful. The list goes on -- and was completely ignored.

I also flew under the radar as child because I didn't have raging public meltdowns. Instead, I held everything inside until I could take myself somewhere quiet and alone, to bawl and rock and lose control in a self-imposed cocoon. Self-injurious behaviors were, and are, par for the course during the worst of those meltdowns, and continue to this day, waxing and waning with my anxiety levels.

Yet I was a different enough kid that I was always shoved to the margins in the schoolyard, bullied by both boys and girls -- even as I coasted through school without needing to apply myself, at all. I was a typical "little professor" -- academically gifted, hyperlexic, and encyclopedic in my knowledge of obsessive topics and vocabulary. Beyond my mother having a time of it trying to get me to do my chores, my executive function issues didn't really begin to reveal themselves until I hit the later grades of high school, and it was suddenly apparent that I had no idea how to study, or organize myself and my time in order to do so -- and not for lack of trying.

Little Forest Guardian[image: fanciful green dragon-like forest creature
sitting on a mossy branch, with an orange butterfly.]
I adapted to all of this by becoming a chameleon. It wasn't a conscious decision, but it made people like me more -- which reinforced my adaptive mechanism. I made an art of quietly watching the people around me, absorbing the mannerisms of people who seemed to be doing well socially, until I was sure I could put on a convincing performance.

My chameleon skills were a double-edged sword: I could appear fairly "normal" for stretches of time, but they also drained me completely. It was like being an actor on stage, without break, for hours and hours every day. And I became so many different people that I felt I'd lost any sense of my own identity.

A Gentle Touch
[image: black-and-white drawing
of an elephant embracing another
 elephant with its trunk.]
My childhood anxiety and depression worsened until I fell apart completely in high school -- my first break down. There have been many since: when I tried to keep jobs, when I tried to attend university, when I try to do very much socially. The longest stretch I have managed to keep a job for is one year, and in all my jobs I camouflaged my struggles so well that no one suspected my challenges -- until I suddenly broke down and had to quit. I flew by the seat of my pants, using intellect and studying people to get by.

Despite being intelligent, loyal, honest, conscientious and a hard worker, I just haven't been able to deal with the demands of a workplace. I have tried medications and they only prolonged the time until I fell in a heap; they didn't stave it off completely. In addition the medications had long-lasting odd side effects to the point medical professionals became loathe to keep trying them with me.

Since diagnosis I have learned that all the myriad little parts of my condition combined to make my life turn out a little differently than I, and those around me, were expecting. I now know that I have auditory processing disorder, sensory processing disorder, synesthesia, prosopagnosia, executive dysfunction, emotional dysregulation, meltdowns, shutdowns, and so forth.

I dropped my chameleon approach for a time to figure myself out, and, in an ironic twist, was considered by some as "faking it" to seem more autistic. I have since settled on a middle ground of being somewhat authentically myself, with some adaptive social behavior in order to get by without completely ruining myself.

There is an enduring myth that those, like me, in the Asperger's part of the spectrum  are just a little quirky and only have some social challenges. That may be true of some, but it's quite possible to be fairly severely affected by a great many challenges as well. Losing control in front of others fills me with a deep sense of shame and self-loathing so I avoid it whenever possible. Despite usually being able to bottle myself up until I get to a safer time and place, there's no avoiding impending meltdowns -- and they are often all the more mentally ferocious and exhausting after I am forced to hold them at bay.

In short, I'm a textbook case for a female on the autism spectrum. Because I have always been the type to implode quietly instead of explode outwardly, it can be hard for people to see the truth of it because it doesn't align with the stereotypical view of what autism is, and how it manifests. This just serves to feed the imposter syndrome monster, because I struggle with feelings of being judged whenever I speak up.

Now, instead of letting my monster hold me back, I'm choosing to be open about it. If there are other autistic people like myself, struggling with feelings of imposter syndrome, I want them to know they aren't alone.