Coming to terms with an autism diagnosis later in life
Discovering you are autistic later in life often comes as a huge relief. When I found out I was autistic, it provided me with answers that had alluded me through years of therapy. Understanding why certain aspects of life were so challenging helped me feel empowered about how to go forwards; finally, I had something concrete to work with. Most late-diagnosed people I come into contact with express similar sentiments.
However, at the same time as people are trying to move forwards armed with their new knowledge, there’s often one thing holding them back. They suffer from a hefty dose of imposter phenomenon. Imposter phenomenon, which tends to have been popularised as imposter syndrome, refers to feelings of self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud 1. Whilst the original research focused on high-achieving women’s fears about being exposed in an intellectual or academic capacity, the concept of imposter syndrome is more popularly applied to any situation, often in the workplace, where people feel like a fraud.
Much as most people initially embrace their autism diagnosis, after a few weeks or so I often hear them use the term imposter syndrome.
Reika told me, “I was so happy straight after the diagnosis. I thought it made sense of everything. But now I’m questioning it all. Was I just looking for an excuse? Am I just a difficult person to be around?”.
Anita explained that she felt like a fraud because, “I’ve lived for fifty years without being autistic. How can that be possible? I’m not even sure about my diagnosis. Did I just make stuff up? I’m feeling like a total imposter”.
How other people respond to a diagnosis can make a big impact on whether people experience imposter syndrome.
Alice told me, “I felt more sure of myself after my diagnosis than I had done in years. But since then, my husband’s come in with little digs. He won’t really accept that I’m autistic. Some friends have been supportive but one keeps pointing out that I didn’t used to behave in certain ways before my diagnosis. I see that as unmasking. She sees it as putting on an act. I’m very confused at the moment and suffering from severe imposter syndrome”.
How can you respond to self-doubt and thoughts of being a fraud?
1. If you’ve been diagnosed by a qualified healthcare professional, they have seen enough in you to diagnose you as autistic. You have the opinion of a professional who is trained in this field. Autism cannot be diagnosed in the same way that some physical conditions can which means that you have to trust the opinion of someone who is trained in this field.
2. Remind yourself that there was a reason you sought out a diagnosis. If you hadn’t been facing issues in some areas, you would not have done so.
Friends, family members and colleagues whose comments about you “putting on an act” or “not looking autistic” have no idea what it’s like to be you. They may only have ever seen the masked version and can’t come to terms with your behaviours when you are more authentic.
3. Unless people are professionals who are experienced working with autism, their opinion is less important than what you feel or what a professional has told you.
Remember that you have lived an entire life identifying with particular roles. Being autistic is completely new to you. It’s perfectly natural that it will take time to adapt and accept that you are autistic.
4. Accept that autism is a wide spectrum with a variety of experiences. Whilst you might find support from other autistic people, avoid comparing yourself to them. You are an individual and you might have a completely different experience from your autistic friend or colleague.
5. Identify other areas of your life in which you have experienced imposter phenomenon. If you’ve experienced it in other context, it is worthwhile exploring why you tend to experience that level of self-doubt. Accept that there are reasons as to why you feel like a fraud in certain situations and, if necessary, seek out autism positive therapy to help you work through some of those underlying issues.
1. Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006