At the age of 40, I unexpectedly discovered I’m autistic. I never suspected I had autism growing up. Frankly, we knew a lot less about it back then. Even if my parents had suspected I was autistic, I likely would have been dismissed by doctors and sent home just labeled as “shy” because of my gender. That, or perhaps misdiagnosed with something else like social anxiety.
Girls can be overlooked or diagnosed late in life like myself for various reasons. We tend to be less rigid and more socially adept than boys. In addition, women like myself tend to hide our challenges, stay under the radar, and learn how to blend in. Girls with intense interest traits may also have less extreme interests than boys and also tend to move on to new ones more often than males.
To the best of my knowledge, I was a very observant and obedient child. Thus, I learned to imitate and adapt. The discomfort of my difficulties led me to harness my strengths. I was also lucky to have a calm demeanor coupled with a strong innate desire for progress and independence. This propelled me to try to do well in school and at work.
But I did have struggles along the way. And in hindsight, now I understand why I had the challenges that I did.
Autism is incredibly complex. And there’s still so much that we don’t understand. It’s also very individualistic. No two autistic people have all the same characteristics. Our autistic traits, strengths, and weaknesses also vastly differ from person to person. And our disposition can also change immensely based on each day’s stimuli and circumstances.
My Autistic Life During Childhood
So how did autism present itself in my childhood? According to my dad, I was late to speak. He remembers that I just wouldn’t talk as a toddler. But then one random day when I was playing with my sister, I looked up and said a complete sentence. He distinctly remembers thinking, “WOW! Where did that come from?!”
It was like a switch turned on in my brain that enabled me to start speaking. All the thoughts in my head were finally able to come out of my mouth.
Early Discomforts And Difficulties
Even after I started speaking regularly at home, I would go mute in public settings. Anytime my parents would introduce me to someone, I refused to speak. I absolutely hated it when people said, “oh she’s so shy.”
Yet I had no desire to talk to people outside of my family. I would just stood still and stare at people with a blank look on my face. I didn’t speak much in preschool either. But I did enjoy singing songs with other kids and listening to stories. Music, singing, and reading became important outlets for me that I immersed myself in for decades.
I learned the importance of making eye contact even though it made me uncomfortable outside of my family. And even though I often spoke inaudibly, and still do sometimes, I was taught to adjust.
Throughout my childhood I also craved playing alone. I’d play by myself for hours, making up my own songs and talking to my toys. I was perfectly content in my own world of imagination. And, I didn’t really want to play with other kids until around kindergarten. And even then it was rather minimal.
I also found it very satisfying to line up my toys and crayons – a stereotypical image often referenced for autistic children – because they just looked better that way. Yes, I also played with my toys in typical ways. But, I’ve always found it quite prudent to line things up and arrange items in an organized and precise manner.
Into My Teenage Years
During my late elementary, tween, and teenage years I was still quite reserved and insecure. However, I managed to make good friendships with a few kids at school. Thankfully, they initiated and I reciprocated.
I never had more than one or two close friends at a time. Nor did I feel a need to have a ton of friends. I was always thrilled just to have anyone like me for me.
Over the years I was accepted into a few larger groups of friends. I wasn’t close to the majority of the kids though. But it was nice to be invited to get togethers and parties every now and then. Though I always preferred to be on the fringes, away from drama and the wannabes.
My best friend in high school likens Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. Bubbly, very extroverted, and girly. I was almost the complete opposite of her. But somehow we clicked. We’d laugh and talk for hours and hours and had the silliest inside jokes. In fact, my closest friends have always been the nicest, most natural social butterflies.
Timid As A Mouse But Also Loud As A Lion
I still hated to talk in school at this age though and was always reserved and guarded in class. Fears of getting called on by my teachers to speak gave me constant anxiety.
Quiet, shy, and anal retentive were common adjectives people would use to describe me. But, some of the positive adjectives I’d receive were smart, nice, and talented.
I also had notably uneven and inconsistent abilities, which stems from autism. For example, I had a very hard time with social interactions with kids my age and adults. And I dreaded simple things like making phone calls to ask store clerks for their hours of operation. Yet I had no fear of getting on stage in front of others.
My dad has told me many times over the years that his jaw hit the floor when I walked on stage and performed a very boisterous acting role in my first 5th grade play. He couldn’t believe it was me. I eagerly went on to perform sizable roles in plays and musicals in front of hundreds of people through high school. For some reason, the stage was like a release mechanism for my discomfort and fear of people. As long as I was on the stage, I could express myself freely.
Meanwhile, I could barely talk in the classroom or in the lunchroom!
My Autistic Life At Work
I knew from a pretty young age that I was a lot more detail-oriented than my peers. My peers’ remarks on me being anal retentive was just one of many clues. So when it was time to graduate, I decided to look for practical jobs that would let me utilize my strength of noticing lots of little things.
I worked in accounting departments, on trading desks, in editorial positions, and even as an office manager. I was happy behind a desk, praised for my detail oriented skills, and became well regarded with spreadsheets. At my longest job, I even taught myself how to write very complex formulas and code in VBA to automate processes. (I’m still a diehard Microsoft Excel fan to this day and can’t stand Google Sheets. It’s just not the same!)
However, as I climbed the ladder in my career, my involvement with people increased exponentially. Verbal communication became more and more critical to the success of my job. And I hated that. It was really hard for me.
The Dread Of Talking To People
All of the necessary verbal communication, especially with clients, made me grouchy. I just wanted to hide behind my computer screen all day. I longed for days when I didn’t need to talk to anyone. Even when I needed to go in the office kitchen, I tried to sneak in only when the coast was clear. Avoiding small talk was one of my primary objectives on a daily basis, unless it was with the two or three people out of 120 that I had good camaraderie with.
However, I enjoyed the occasional 4-person-sized internal manager meetings about projects I was passionate about. And I could lead 20-person department meetings with ease. But I hated having to pick up the phone and talk to people, especially clients. I also dreaded every single team building event and anything that involved socializing. Again, I had uneven and inconsistent abilities and difficulties.
In retrospect, it’s quite possible that one of the main reasons I was passed over for a big promotion was because my verbal and interpersonal communication skills weren’t up to par with my peers. I never considered that until now, but it’s actually quite logical now that I think about it.
Now that I’m self-employed, I have much more control over my work. I can hide behind my computer screen as much as I want! Being able to minimize my verbal interactions with others has definitely brought my stress and anxiety levels way down.
Autism In My 40s
Now for my 40s. I wrote a post about how I discovered I’m autistic at age 40 if you’re curious to learn more. It’s only been a little over a year since I found out I’m on the autism spectrum. So autism is still relatively new to me consciously. However, I’m quite the same person as I’ve always been. But now I understand all the why’s.
My daily life is very different now in my 40s than in my 20s and 30s. For starters, I’m a mom of two kids. The way autism impacts my life now in my 40s is largely in my daily interactions and conversations with my family.
I still have unexpected communication mishaps with my husband from time to time. And I can get overstimulated to the point my brain wants to pop when our kids are emotional and talking over each other for my attention at the same time. But I’m able to self regulate pretty quickly after years of practice.
Interestingly, I’m still clumsy with every day things like spilling water on my shirt when I’m drinking out of a water bottle, and bumping into things when I’m turning a corner. I also still can’t get enough color coding and organizing. But admittedly there are always piles of papers and clutter lying around that I haven’t gotten around to yet.
A Different World View
And I’m still very detail focused vs big picture. That expression “can’t see the forest for the trees” describes my thought processing quite well. If you haven’t heard that expression before, it’s basically referencing how people like me can get so engrossed with small details that we can’t fully see, understand, or recognize what’s really happening in situations.
For example, my husband and I looked at a graph in a news article recently and our brains went to entirely different things. I was buried in the fine print and fractional percentage changes of two plot lines of data while he was looking at the positive news of the overarching theme. When I told him my observations, he had no idea what I was talking about until I pointed out the minutia.
As for social interactions, I still often dread them and am completely exhausted afterwards. But, I’m a lot better at them now than in the past. I make an effort to smile frequently, make a normal amount of eye contact, laugh at jokes, make some of my own jokes, and come across as a laid back and friendly person.
I still have panicky moments in my head about not knowing what to say or ask next in conversations. But, I try not to let it show on my face or in my body language. I think I mask my discomfort pretty well.
What I also love about being in my 40s and being self-employed is I don’t have to be in situations that require talking to clients, engaging in small talk, or socializing my too often. Thus, my stress levels are much better than in my 20s and 30s. And being able to wear comfortable clothes 24/7 instead of work clothes has been huge for me too.
Adult Autistic Traits To Be Aware Of
Now that you’ve had a glimpse into my autistic life, let’s look at a sampling of adult autism traits below. There are way more than I can fit into this post. So I’ve picked some lesser known traits below that I found particularly interesting. I learned about the traits below in several books I read on the type of autism formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome, which best describes my experience.
Please also bear in mind that autism traits can vary immensely from one person to the next. And it’s not uncommon for a person to have missing or opposite characteristics than another person on the spectrum.
In addition, you can have traits on this list and not be autistic. In order to get an official autism diagnosis you must have persistent deficits that meet specific criteria according to the DSM-5. Ok, now let’s take a look and some of the difficulties and characteristics of autism:
Social Initiation And Response Challenges
- Smile when smiled at instinct is weak
- Difficulty initiating, entering, and taking turns in conversations
- Frequently interrupt people who are speaking
- Leave long pauses in conversations
- Engaging in small talk is difficult
- Can wind up in one-sided conversations in which you’re doing most of the talking
- Difficulty explaining something in a new way if the listener doesn’t understand you the first time
Nonverbal Communication Difficulties
- Difficulty “reading the room”
- Making inappropriate facial expressions in situations or those that do not match your feelings
- Being told you look blank, depressed, or angry when that’s now how you feel
- Having difficulty reading other people’s body language and facial expressions
- Being told you seem bored, detached, or cold when that’s not how you feel
- Talking too loudly, too softly, or too quickly to be easily understood
- Speaking in a flat or monotonous manner
- Staring inappropriately at people
- Looking or facing away when thinking or if a conversation gets emotionally intense
- Difficulty recognizing sarcasm
- Difficulty making and maintaining friendships
- Laughing or smiling at the wrong time
- Missing social cues
- Difficulty judging how someone feels about you or is reacting to you
- Trouble recognizing when someone wants you to do something without giving you specific instructions (ex. someone says they’re thirsty and not realizing they want you to offer them a drink)
- Interacting with same-age peers is much harder than interacting with people much younger or older than yourself
- Avoiding or ignoring people who want to interact with you
- Difficulty noticing how other people are feeling
- Being told you’re selfish because you seem to think only about yourself in certain situations
Atypical Speech And Movements
- Repeating words, phrases or longer passages of speech (ex. from a movie or conversation)
- Using unusually formal words or sentence structure
- Frequent use of metaphors, esp. ones you’ve created that may not make sense to others
- Referring to yourself by your name instead of saying “I” or confusing the “I” and “you” pronouns
- Frequently picking at your skin or scalp or biting your lips excessively
- Repeatedly talking about the same subject even after the other person has stopped listening
Intense Or Unusual Interests
- Having unusual obsessions or a narrow range of interests
- Tendency to focus on details of things instead of the whole
- Enjoy collecting and categorizing physical items or facts
- Perfectionist tendencies
- Highly interested in numbers, symbols, letters, or words
Atypical Sensory Experiences
- Sensitive to textures, types of clothing, tags, seams, tight clothes
- Unusually sensitive to smells or lights
- Easily startled by loud sounds
- Unusually sensitive hearing, frequently notice sounds others don’t
- Difficulty following conversations when there is background noise
- Unusually sensitive to heat or cold
- Feeling dizzy, nauseous, or get migranes from certain types of sensory input like fluorescent lights, strobe lights, sirens
- Drawn to visual patterns or watching moving objects for extended periods of time
Additional Traits Many Autistic Adults Experience
- Feelings of you and me can get blurred
- Uneven or inconsistent abilities
- Difficulty sleeping
- Bumping into stationary objects
- Difficulty recognizing familiar people, especially out of context
- Periods of intense emotional upset
- Delays between hearing spoken words and processing those sounds into recognizable words
- Seeking out deep pressure like heavy blankets, tight hugs, or small spaces
- Strong dislike of nail trimming or a need to keep nails very short
If you’re curious, I experience about 65-70% of the traits listed above on a regular basis. So you can imagine how many lightbulbs were going off in my head when I was researching autism traits.
I understand myself so much better now. And that’s allowed me to be kinder to myself and more understanding of others as well.
I hope you’ve enjoyed getting a glimpse into my autistic life. My story is just one of millions, each unique as fingerprints.
If you’re interested in learning more about autism, here are some links to books and articles I found insightful.
- I Think I Might Be Autistic by Cynthia Kim
- Spectrum Women – Walking to the Beat of Autism
- Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Asperger’s by John Elder Robison
Online Autism Questionnaires
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please share it and drop me a comment below. I’ll also do my best to answer any questions you have as well.
Untemplaters, are you or someone close to you on the autism spectrum? At what age were you/they diagnosed? What are some things that you have learned along the way? What did you find enlightening in this post and others?
NZ Muse says
Thanks for sharing! What a fascinating journey and I see so much awareness and reflection. It must be nice to have the pieces click into place and make sense for you.
Hi! So nice to hear from you again. Thanks for the comment! Yes, everything makes so much more sense to me now. And I have a much greater sense of inner peace.
This resonated for me a little too loudly. I’m 39, and always knew I was different from others in some ways. Some things came much easier for me to understand, while other things were more difficult. I’m extremely outgoing in some aspects but horrible at socializing in others. I have no problems getting up on a stage to do karaoke, but I struggle meeting new people. I have a hard time starting and keeping conversations going so throughout my life I’ve compensated by looking different and giving others easy things to ask me about such as neon colored hair or large piercings. If I let other people start the conversations I can follow along. I know I handle emotions differently than others and I know that’s caused issues in my relationships in the past.
I took one of the online tests that you posted on financial samurai and found that while I’m not autistic (like I suspected) I definitely have a lot of traits that put me on the spectrum. I feel like your comment about being able to go on stage yet struggle elsewhere really hit home for me. I’ve always known that if I was “playing a role” then I could do whatever was needed of me in that role very easily. But when I was just being myself and I didn’t have a script to follow I stumbled. Luckily for me I always viewed my job as just a role I needed to play. My job never identified me, so at work when someone asked me a question about work, I could excel at giving the right responses. Over the years I became a manager, but I knew the role to play so I was still good at it. I could lead a team really well and have them perform well. Surprisingly I made it to senior management before I retired (early), all while being horrible at socializing outside of the context of work talk. Put me into a holiday party or after work drinks and I end up slinking off to the back then making an escape, but if you need me to run a department of 90 developers I’m good. Strange how that works.
To me this was also a huge light bulb moment where I understood myself better. I think I can tell partners in my life how I process some emotional situations differently and it might make things clearer to them. It’s not that I don’t care about what we’re talking about, it’s that I process and react differently than neurotypical people would. Over the years I’ve learned to fake these expected responses so that I don’t cause other issues by not giving them the feedback responses that they need.
Thank you for posting this, I can’t say that this new knowledge will change my life, it’s still so fresh. But there’s a possibility that it might.
Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts! Yes I really know what you mean about being comfortable “playing a role” but wanting to run away from any type of socializing.
Wherever your journey takes you from here, rest assured that what you’re feeling and how you process and handle certain situations is something that other people like myself can really relate to.
So I’ve been thinking about this a lot since this was posted. Even followed along at your follow up on Financial Samurai. In the TED Talk linked the speaker talked about interpreting metaphors. This is something I generally don’t have issues with when they are more commonly used metaphors such as “bend over backwards for someone”, I interpret that as the speaker is intending since I’ve heard it enough. But there’s ones such as being “ham fisted” which I literally looked up the other day to realize that it meant being clumsy with your hands. Also the visual I get with ham fisted is so great that I really want to use this more in my life if possible.
But this also made me think about how I love watching dance. Seeing the physical things people can make their bodies do is really impressive. But I also notice that many times things like this the viewer is supposed to interpret the dance telling a story. I have an extremely difficult time with this. After seeing a performance other people that I’m with might say something about the story that I completely didn’t even realize was happening. Like watching a ballet…. probably going to miss the entire story there.
I also know that I sometimes do this with music, where I focus on the melodic sounds and not always the content of the songs. This is less common with music than it is with dance. Or sometimes even with highly interpretive movies I miss things that are easy for others to spot. I might see a sci-fi film and be enamored with the visuals but everyone else is talking about the social context of where the world is headed and the internal struggles happening.
I’ve tried to look online for answers to if this is common for the autistic community but I couldn’t really find anything. I wonder if this is just me seeing things and wanting to explain them now that it’s been brought to my attention or if it really is connected to being on the spectrum. Currently I have a sample size of about 1 (possibly 2 if you count the TED talked in the FS post).
Oh wow! Thanks for sharing, Sydney. I’m now running armchair diagnostics for half my family in my head . It makes me wonder if there is any such thing as a plainly shy awkward introverted human being. It seems you’ve learned to compensate/manage/overcome any challenges you face as a person on the spectrum. If you don’t mind sharing, what led up to this first-time diagnosis in your 40’s?
Yes there are definitely shy, introverted, and socially awkward people who are not on the spectrum. Social traits are just one aspect of autism. There are many other categories of traits that have to be “met” and been persistent since childhood to be diagnosed.
I do think there are a lot of undiagnosed Aspies though, especially women, who have managed to compensate and blend in so to speak and thus have probably never even considered they could be autistic.
I have an insightful post coming out on Financial Samurai tomorrow that goes in depth on how I discovered I’m autistic and more about the spectrum. Hope you can check it out. Thanks!
Financial Samurai says
Thanks for sharing! I do find it amazing that you have a little fear of getting in front of an audience and acting. Do you think you would feel the same way now? Like, public speaking in front of an audience after you’ve spent a lot of time rehearsing your speech.
Since I haven’t done so much before, it is quite intimidating. But having an interview with someone else on stage seems quite fun and relaxing.
I smiled a lot when reading your post. working from home must be paradise compared to working in an office and having to deal with clients and manage people face-to-face now. So let’s always appreciate what we have!
I like how you listed out a lot of the traits. I think you should add it to the FS post as well as it’s helpful for neurotypicals to better understand what to look out for.
If more people understood about autistic conditions, there would be more patience and more collaboration in the workplace and everywhere!
Thanks for sharing!
Thanks! Yeah it’s really funny how there’s just something about stages that doesn’t trip me up. I might get a little bit of the jitters but I actually like being on stage lol. The only times I got very nervous being on a stage was when I was in foreign language speech contests. I had to memorize the speeches and had to use very specific intonations in the register of my voice. But if I had done the speeches in English, I don’t think I would have felt the same way.
In terms of meetups, networking, or social events though, my nerves just get all bent out of shape haha. It helps a lot if I already know a lot of the people there and don’t have to dress up so I feel more comfortable.