The Identity Shift

by Vesa Piittinen

“Who are you?”

“How are you?”

“Tell me something about yourself.”

For the longest time these have been phrases that are very hard for me to respond to. These questions have felt off to me, like there would be something that I simply can’t figure out. Others seemed to have less or no difficulty with those questions. It was like I was alone with this: with difficulties in defining myself in a way that would feel correct.

So I’ve tried all sorts of ways to introduce myself on the web. At times I tried to follow some guides. No help. As years have passed none have felt right. I’ve ended up removing my old homepages and their content as they just weren’t “me”.

And here I am, starting fresh with content yet again on one of my homepages. However this time is a little different. I’ve become aware of neurodiversity. And now I am sure that I am autistic.

Life outside diagnosis

The traditional view to autism has been very narrow minded and awfully negative. When I read the old indicators I never find myself from them. Who would like to be like that? Are autistic people really that awful?

Turns out: no. They are not. The old descriptions were made by neurotypical people. People who can’t grasp the nature of the autistic experience, and this is why the descriptions were never a fit! A lot of the focus was put on troublesome boys who had lots of difficulties and who didn’t get their needs met, leading to breakdowns, depression, all sorts of issues. But many of those issues were not due to autism. They were due to the environment and expectations. Forcing people to be in situations that weren’t good for them. The same problems happen to neurotypical people too if they are forced into unfit conditions.

These days we are much better aware of neurodivergent people. Unlike in the past we now have lots of adults and also women noticing that they are autistic. And they often figure this out by reading experiences by others. This is also how I started to really consider that I might be one: I read a few articles where real life experiences were told by autistic persons. Oddly enough the female descriptions often matched my experiences better than those of males. And just in case it is unclear, I am male.

So the autistic TL;DR is:

Individuals who think and experience life very differently compared to majority of people.

But I’m not looking to get an official diagnosis. Why? Well, there isn’t much I would gain from it. I’ve been able to live my life without major issues. I have been able to get myself into work life. I have had mental health issues and my life could certainly be better than it has been or is right now. And still, I haven’t had so bad a trouble that I would have required to get an official diagnosis.

This is also the current recommendation: don’t get diagnosis if you are not looking to get support and benefits that you would require to survive in life.

Is it better? Is it worse?

One of the great things being autistic is the ability to connect patterns much more easily than most folks. Given enough time and knowledge you become a person who is kind of aware about things before they happen. This does have it’s painful side, too: often an autistic person can be so much ahead the curve with their ideas that others are not ready understand what it is that the autistic person is trying to say. In this sense autistic people can be innovators: see the most likely future before it happens. But they tend to be alone with this for years until enough many people catch up with the idea so that even the neurotypicals are able to find their language for the subject and “gain permission” for it.

Another gift is the increased sensitivity: feeling, hearing, seeing, it is all in extreme high definition. I can notice things around that others omit. But there is a downside to this: it is mentally taxing to get all this input all the time. And for this reason places that are noisy, flashy, busy, full of everything everywhere all at once are a pain. Cities are not built for autistic people. Malls full of people are not for autistic people. Echoing spaces with reduced nature are not for autistic people. It is simply too much and we are immediately exhausted in such spaces. Because all of it that happens hits us so hard.

In the end being autistic isn’t really better nor worse. It is only being different. And even the autistic traits are very much varying from person to person: I have some characteristics others do not. Others have stuff that don’t apply to my experience. There is a natural divergence like with everything else. There is no pure boolean true/false condition for being autistic. The same as it is with sex. There are people who are neither male nor female, or are kinda both. And this holds true despite many people claiming there are only men and women.

The difficulties

One of the greatest downsides in autism is that it is so easy to be alone. This is certainly something that I suffer from, even despite being married. Unlike some lucky ones I haven’t found other neurodivergent people to have in my daily life. And I have never learnt a good way to connect with others. No, not even via family: when I was a child we lived very far off from our relatives, and this has never changed in my life. I’ve continued living in southern Finland where I’ve been able to get employed. In the north it is unlikely for me to find a job.

But hey, there is the Internet! And yes, I can find other autistic people that way. But I still haven’t found a friend who’d be a part of my daily life. Admittedly I do have a very high threshold to actually send a message to anyone. Oddly enough despite this lonesomeness I did manage to build a community on the web that has been around for over 20 years. And still, even with that and people there, I don’t often feel like I’d be part of the same group. Maybe I can work this issue over the years: it hasn’t been even a year now that I’ve started to mentally shift my own identity to that of an autistic person.

I still find it difficult to call myself an autist.

There are also “less heavy” difficulties to being autistic. Like meetings at work. Those events are troublesome because I either have to be in them with 100% focus, or with limited focus. And still in both cases I often become exhausted. Ideal meeting to me would be short and to-the-point which is the opposite to neurotypical people, who often want to make it a session of conventions where everything has to be gone through with a lot of words. A ritual ceremony where they want to reach a concensus.

This works for neurotypicals because they often don’t catch everything. But for neurodivergent people it is an information bomb event. To me meetings are often either “record everything to my mind”, or “listen passively while doing something else and filter for interesting stuff”. Both cases require the brain to do extra work.

Tell me something about yourself

So who I am? I’m an autistic person who works as a programmer and loves computers. I like doing stuff in a way that cares about other people so nobody wastes their time with a broken or poor experience.

How I am? I’m probably not aware of my current feelings in a way that I can tell you how they are. I can come back to you in maybe 30 minutes after actively thinking about the subject. But I rather just say “I’m okay” to avoid the need to spend so much time on it!

Are we done? I guess we are done. Have a nice day!