I don’t know if I’m autistic or not. But that knowing hardly feels relevant to me. 

It very much might to others and I support that. What I’m about to say expresses why I do not feel inclined to seek affirmation/rejection for myself through diagnosis.

I hesitate to publicly use words like autistic and neurodivergent. They seem to have become trendy to hate on. Especially if it’s self-diagnosed. I’m not interested in that toxic fray.

Here’s why I have no intention of seeking diagnosis for myself, related to autism, neurodivergence or much of anything else: No one actually, definitively, absolutely, indisputably knows anything. 

Though many speak as if they do and we’ve been socially conditioned to buy into it. Maybe it’s humanly inherent, as well. Conformity to the stories that comfort us. Conformity to the perceived certainty that affirms us. Conformity so we feel belonging with our tribe. A sense of safety and security. 

We concoct falsehoods for clarity in an otherwise abstract human experience. We do it for comfort and eschew who and what causes us to question these accepted “truths.” Truth sometimes is uncomfortable.

If I seek diagnosis of whatever neurodivergence I experience, then I’m seeking the validation of someone to influence my story going forward. I’m trusting them to give me a truth to live by, rather than trusting my self-awareness and slow process of learning. And my lived experience.

“The results are in, and you are not autistic.” Right, wrong, good, bad? I don’t know.

“The results are in and you are autistic.” Right, wrong, good, bad? I don’t know.

Ask two experts, get two answers. Ask four, eight or 100, get … confusion. There’s no certainty, even among experts. Not even all dentists can agree on what brand of toothpaste is the best, if our history of watching toothpaste commercials tells us anything. How would anyone find more clarity in the mysterious netherworlds of our minds?

Neither supposedly definitive story of my being or not being autistic changes who I am in the world. But it would change how I understand myself and it would influence how I engage with the world, whether I want it to or not. It would change the story that comes out of me and the story that others hear.

If I accept and live by the so-called expert (and justifiably fallible) human’s opinion, which is colored by endless layers of their own psyche and childhood trauma, the ruggedness of their commute to work that day or whether they missed their morning coffee, I will forevermore think and speak of myself through that lens, that definition of me. Not through my own experience. 

We often cling to the identities that others give us, and to the expectations they subsequently create. How about when those are wrong? 

Given my increasingly affirmed belief that no one actually, definitively, absolutely, indisputably knows anything, regardless of degreed status in the social hierarchy …

Who is anyone to decide my story for me? (Or for you?) 

Think about the stories you (we all) have swallowed because we trusted parents, older siblings, partners, teachers, talking heads on television, doctors, coaches, politicians, and even customer service reps on the phone. And on and on. 

[Pro tip: Didn’t like the information the customer service rep at your internet provider gave you? Hang up and dial again. Different rep, different answers.]

When any and all of those people told us something, we believed wholly. I mean, “Why not? They know more than us, right?” We trust. It saves us from the risk of being wrong or of thinking and learning for ourselves. Instead, we believed and took it on as our own “knowledge,” our perspectives and beliefs. We probably even passed it forward to others.

What one of those people told us influenced what we thought about, say, that one kid at school or that colleague at work, a politician on the ballot or about issues of race, religion, sex and gender. Or about Ford vs. Chevy, East Coast vs. West, tastes great vs. less filling. 

Only to find out later, maybe a lifetime later, we’d been duped. We should have thought about it all. Instead, we bought in. Trusted without examination for the ring of truth within our own experience.

When we’re young, we don’t know better. How about when we’re adults? And adults who have the power to shape others around us, like our kids?

We didn’t think it through and seek our own understanding about ourselves or the world. We didn’t learn to feel into life for ourselves. And then it became our identity or our world view, or who we chose to lead us or how we viewed ourselves. And then how we set the limits of our capabilities based on those ideas and emotions.

I am neurodivergent. I can’t say, “This I know.” Because like you and everyone else, WTF do I actually, definitively, absolutely, indisputably know? Right? But I’m more confident in that understanding of myself now than ever. 

I become more confident with every anecdotal experience others share about their neurodivergence. Maybe it’s in a video or on a podcast. I feel validated by the vulnerable sharing of experiences that echo mine, that ring so damn true I feel seen (and wish I could cry but I’m not a cryer, so wish I was a cryer so I could cry). Even through my earbuds as I listened to comedian Rick Glassman, for example, as he passionately, confidently shared his autistic self with Rainn Wilson on the SoulBoom podcast. 

And I feel that validation every time it happens far more than I do through the tinted advice of any given expert on the subject. Especially one I would have to pay $1,700, by reckon of my last Googling, for assessment, my life hanging in the balance, if I allow it to carry such weight, because health insurance and society don’t actually support all of this.

I am not suggesting we wholly dismiss experts. I’m suggesting we reconsider the boundaries in our lives and what responsibilities we have to ourselves to be informed by our own experiences and discernment. Take the experts’ information. Consider it. Weigh it against your own experience and other research. And allow room for your own voice and self-awareness, and for uncertainty to have a place in the learning process as you move forward. Trust yourself.

I am neurodivergent and the more I dive into this understanding of myself, the more I make sense to myself. The more I understand where, when and how I’ve been trying to fit in. The more I understand why I’ve gotten all those strange looks from people, boys/young men in my younger years, who couldn’t decide what was wrong with me and my “jokes” and tone and facial expressions. And if I needed to catch a beating, just in case.

I’m neurodivergent and that’s why I think the way I do. I now understand that it’s different than how others think. Why did I ever think we all are the same? Social conditioning, I suspect. Now I understand that we do not all have the same operating systems. We do not employ the same intellectual software, hold the same capacities for storage or function at the same speeds.

Now I understand, even if vaguely, that what for me are obvious dots to connect, others not only don’t connect them, they might not even perceive that there are dots. And probably vice versa, in some respects. 

Neurodivergence, in short, is why I perceive the world the way I do and ask the questions I do. Dots dots everywhere. There are goods, bads and Idon’tknows in that. But I like to focus on the goods.

I’m still working to find the language for all of this. It’s a learning process.

Here’s a classic. “It can’t be autism. You’re empathetic.” The prevailing stereotype is that autistic people aren’t and cannot be empathetic. Therefore whatever is “wrong” with me must be something else. “He’s empathetic. Cross autism off the list,” armchair therapists say. “Can’t be.”

I don’t know the degree of my neurodivergence, and I feel less and less compelled to defend it for the comfort of others, or to label it as autism. So let’s say, I identify with the prospective potential possibility that I might have a place on the autism spectrum, were I to seek such a category. Yet I am a highly empathetic person. 

Except when I’m sometimes maybe very not. I can be direct. Or worse. Often in those moments, I’m saying the obvious thing that we all can see, feel, hear and know. Aren’t I? Can’t we? I’m stating the obvious, only to find out others don’t see it that way.

Or it can come in a pressurized moment of overwhelm when I’ve been working so hard internally, quietly, to deal with seemingly loud and chaotic environmental stimuli (say, some particular behavior of my tween and teen sons) but my patience and my capacities for reason and calm have already gone past the red line.

Or with adults who aren’t being efficient, useful or intelligent in a meeting, by my standards. Or even in a social setting of a particular type. It can wear very thin, especially when they aren’t connecting the dots I so easily see. Fuckincatchupalready! And all I can do is try to hold it in, because I know the words I want to say won’t be received well and no one will understand where I’m coming from. …

Or … Or … Or …

My humor has been misunderstood my whole life, too. Because I can say what I think are jokes with the straightest of expressions. Couple that with dryness and maybe a touch of obscure thinking, and people have no idea what to make of it. Or me. 

The best laughs I get can be in reaction to straight-faced truths I didn’t intend for humor. I was just being honest and vulnerable. Like when I gave a toast at my brother’s wedding reception many years ago and at one point said, “This is all so much more eloquent in my head.” The crowd loved it. It wasn’t intended as a joke. I was just saying aloud what I was thinking at that moment.

I’ve largely learned social cues on humor, and otherwise, by observing other people over the decades. I’ve also since learned there’s a term for that: masking. It’s been a process.

The dialogue in my head so often used to be, “Oh, I recognize this. My straight face is confusing them. I’m not sure why. I obviously am joking. Obviously. Because what I just said makes no sense. I know it makes no sense. That’s why it’s funny. … Uh oh, they look kind of pissed. I think they don’t know whether to feel insulted. I don’t know what to do now. I’ll just walk away. Get another drink.”

(By the way, someone, probably on a podcast I listened to, recently shined light on the function of drinking for neurodivergent people. My many years of heavy drinking superficially aided my social behavior. Not only as a relaxing agent in social situations, but as a hallmark of prowess. I could and would go harder than others, earning some sort of fucked up social currency for it. At least in the eyes of some. But I digress … which I also love to do, because every thought sparks more. A tree of branches with independent but connected ideas and … But I digress from my digression …)

Over time, that dialogue in my head has come to include, “Ah, I know this one. This is the kind of moment when others smile, to let the other person know they are kidding around.” (awkward smile or half laugh … falls flat?) “Well, I tried.”

I think a lot of my empathy has been a highly learned trait for me. In some ways. But it must have been one that started in my early early years as a child. I’m often a very empathetic dad to my sons now, because I seemingly am a rare adult who hasn’t forgotten the hurts of youth. I know what it felt like when I was criticized (harshly?) or unheard as a child. Or when kids teased another. Etc. 

I am highly sensitive most of the time. It’s one of my greatest strengths as an interviewer and podcaster, and often as a dad. And I want human connection. Even if I prefer to (stereotype ahead:) not make lasting eye contact in the process. That’s another classic. I could go into the discomfort of that for me, and the alarms that go off in my head as I try to decide how long I have to make eye contact for at any given moment to appease social graces and so on. But onward.

Glassman said on SoulBoom, “There’s a stigma that people with autism don’t have empathy, which, from my experience of now befriending many people on the autism spectrum, is so far from the truth. However, the ability to empathize is only as strong as your ability to see the thing you empathize with. A lot of these friends that I’ve made are extra-sensitive to it.”

There is a line, an expression(?), that if you’ve met a person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism. That’s to say, it’s not representative of autistic people or autism. You don’t know autism because of that one person’s experience of it, or worse yet, your limited perception of their experience of it.

It’s also to say, to state the obvious, each person’s experience of neurodivergence, autism or otherwise, is a singular experience for which there are no applicable, decisive bullet points on a check list that determine whether that person and their experience count. That is, decisively “have it.” Which sounds a bit like the process of diagnosis to me. You can’t rule out autism for me, just because I am capable of empathy and sensitivity and some eye contact. This is what I’m saying.

So do I “count” as autistic? Yes, no, I don’t know. And, as I said, it’s not relevant. Whether a doctor says it or not. What’s relevant is my experience, and my self-knowledge within that. From there, I can respond more truthfully, more fully as a human to my life. No one else gets to determine that for me. 

What’s also important is that we are compassionately “allowed” (as if we need permission) the space to have our experiences of ourselves. The problem is that we’ve been conditioned away from knowing ourselves. Groupthink is our guidance system when we have lost track of ourselves. We fall back on what we’ve practiced most.

Here’s the love: I don’t need your experience of this human existence to conform to my ideas of what I think it “should” be. And vice versa. I don’t need you to make me feel comfortable in that way. You be you. 

And by not needing you to conform to my perspective, which for most of us is nothing but a hand-me-down social construct that others didn’t bother to test the veracity of before passing it along to us, I do not feel discomfort about it, anyway. Live on.

I am neurodivergent with or without validation. With or without a labeled box that assists anyone, myself included, in containing me and oversimplifying me. I do not need a diagnosis to decide who I am. It’s too important to hand over my story to someone else to decisively validate or reject my understanding of myself. 

None of us know much, if anything about anything. We are learning the things. Always in learning, guessing, experimenting mode. In I think I think I think mode. 

How many years ago did medical professionals drill holes into patients’ heads to let out the demons? The Middle Ages? That was mental health care of the day. What will doctors and everyone else know/”know” in another 100 or 200 years that reflects poorly on our current understanding of mental health? Learning, individually and collectively, is an ongoing process. 

So what I think I think I think at this point is: Seek information within and without, but take “answers” with enough grains of salt to stay healthy and keep learning. Hold them lightly.