I was diagnosed as autistic at age 28 and am passionate about educating others and helping people discover if they are also autistic.
Something Feels Off
Do you often feel separate from the people around you in some way, but can't really explain why? Do you feel out of place or different from others when in social situations? It is almost as if you are an alien, dropped onto this planet with no instruction manual that everyone else seems to have and know by heart.
You may say or do things with good intentions, then realize by someone's response that you accidentally offended someone or made someone angry. You try to figure out the "rules" of socializing and the way the world works so you can avoid those awkward, embarrassing, or confusing moments that no one else seems to have. You try to hide the fact that you're trying so hard to blend in; you try to make your efforts seem effortless so that no one notices how different you really are on the inside. You feel like a fake, and wonder if everyone else feels the same way but are just as good at hiding it.
Maybe you get heightened anxiety whenever you enter into new social situations, or maybe you just feel numb and aren't sure what you're feeling from moment to moment because it doesn't seem safe to feel. You may experience a lot of digestive issues, migraines, or other ailments due to persistent high levels of stress. If any of this resonates with you, then you may be autistic.
In this article, I will list some common experiences of autistic people that will help you understand what being autistic means from an individual perspective. I hope you leave this page feeling seen and heard, or at the very least, educated about autism. Please keep in mind that this list is based on my experiences and the experiences of other autistic people I have interacted with; you don't have to fit all of these descriptions to be autistic and every person is different. Some of these characteristics can also fall into other categories, such as people with ADHD.
Socializing Is Hard
People tend to stereotype autistic people as being "bad at socializing," but there are scientific studies out there that disprove this. The real issue is that there is a lot of miscommunication between autistics and non-autistics; the non-autistics are just as bad at communicating with autistics! But since autistic people are a minority, the non-autistic style of communication tends to take precedence and autistic people are assumed to be socially inferior or strange. Here's a list of common autistic social experiences:
- You probably don't like small talk, and would rather have an in-depth discussion about some deeper topic you're interested in. At best, you only tolerate small talk to appease the people around you.
- You feel frequently confused by social interactions, and you replay them in your head to try and figure them out or practice conversations by yourself to prepare for interactions in the future.
- You have a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding with others. For example, someone may pass by you and say, "How are you?" and you try to give them a lengthy response to answer the question, when they actually just meant it as a greeting.
- You take things very literally. This can cause confusion in many different ways, and it took me a long time to realize how literal I actually am so I'd like to give some examples. You may hear someone say, "talk to you later," and expect them to contact you later that day when they actually just meant, "I'll talk to you whenever I see you again." Or another example is when people use idioms like, "Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater." In your mind, you may visualize a literal picture of someone throwing a baby away, when the speaker just meant, "Don't get rid of the good with the bad."
- You often see more than one meaning to words, so things like instructions on how to do something may seem vague and obscure. For example, I would start a new job and someone would tell me to clean something or to complete a task, and I would have to ask for details on exactly how to do it. Written instructions also seem vague and poorly written.
- You have a difficult time making and/or keeping friends over the long term. Either you don't have the energy to keep up with the back-and-forth, or you have a lot of trouble understanding the expectations of friendship and how to talk to people. You don't usually "click" with people right away.
- People say you're brutally honest, or get offended when you're not trying to insult anyone. You feel like you have to tell the truth, and you don't like empty pleasantries because they feel like lies. For example, if someone asks you "How does this shirt look on me?", you'd be likely to tell them exactly what you think rather than just saying, "It looks great!"
- You have limited social energy. You may need to take a nap or be alone for a whole day after a lot of socializing. If you don't get enough of this rest, you feel stressed or burnt out.
Sensory Differences Abound
Sensory issues and differences are another common topic for autism. These can vary greatly, depending on the person. Read through and see if any sound like you!
- You are sensitive to bright lights like car headlights at night, advertising signs, or computer/phone screens with too high of a brightness. You may get migraines when exposed to too much sun, or too much artificial light. Autistic people are also more likely to be sensitive to blue light. I have to wear blue light blocking glasses when using my computer for more than an hour!
- You are sensitive to sounds and noise. This can vary greatly; you may become very stressed when in noisy environments such as a bustling street or near lawn maintenance machinery, or you may become irrationally angry when you hear someone chewing in an otherwise quiet environment. Small sounds that others don't notice may be very upsetting to you. One thing that really drives me insane is when people are talking loudly, especially when walking behind me.
- You can hear or smell things that other people can't. You may hear the buzzing of an outlet or an electronic, or smell someone's perfume from across the street. You may not realize just how good your senses are, but it is scientifically proven that autistic people are more likely to have heightened senses. Many autistic people are able to hear higher pitches than the general population, which means that higher-pitched voices and noises may become especially irritating or unbearable.
- You notice details that others don't. You may be talking to someone and see something move out of the corner of your eye, like a bird in a tree. The autistic brain is wired to pay attention and be alert to everything around you, which can be good for noticing details but also bad for being distracted and losing focus.
- You see colors and details vibrantly. There have been studies showing that many autistic people see the color red with more vibrancy, looking more neon than the typical non-autistic person can see. It is also common to have myopic vision (nearsightedness) that gives you clarity for the up-close details.
- You get nauseated easily from being in moving vehicles, from movies with a lot of camera movement, or video games/virtual reality. Vertigo is common for autistics, and many have issues with balance or coordination.
- You are very sensitive to certain food textures and flavors, unable to eat regular foods that other people don't seem to have any issues with. Your food preferences may be restrictive or repetitive.
Language and Auditory Frustrations
Auditory Processing Disorder is common for autistics and ADHD. This is when there is nothing wrong with a person's physical ears, but when the brain interprets language, it jumbles things up so that it is difficult to understand the words. Here are some commons results of this:
- If someone starts talking to you when you don't expect it, you may hear their words come out like a jumbled garble of nonsense and have to ask them, "What?". I ask this frequently, and often people will talk louder assuming volume is an issue.
- You may have extra difficulty understanding people who have masks on, and rely partially on reading lips, body language, and conversational context in order to figure out what someone is saying.
- You may have difficulty understanding others in a second language, but have little difficulty speaking it.
- You may have trouble understanding heavy accents or people speaking too quickly.
- You may accidentally jumble words or sounds when speaking. For example, you might say "the ark dalley" instead of "the dark alley". This is also common for people with dyslexia.
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Executive Functioning Says No
What is executive functioning? As Harvard University explains, "Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses." Autistic people commonly have issues with executive dysfunction, and they manifest in the following ways:
- You have difficulty with being interrupted when in the middle of a task. It causes you anger, stress, or mental tiredness to constantly have to start and stop a task. For example, a coworker keeps walking up to your desk to ask you questions when you're working on a project.
- You may be likely to binge watch shows, be unable to stop playing a video game for hours, or have other addictive traits that made it difficult for you to stop a task. The good news is, this is a skill that can be practiced and improved upon; it takes a lot of emotional processing and patience.
- Starting seemingly small tasks, like laundry, feel like you have to climb an impossibly tall mountain in order to start. You may feel a sense of dread, or procrastinate from these tasks. However, once you actually get started it is much easier to finish the task.
- You have difficulty prioritizing tasks, and may feel overwhelmed when thinking of all the things you have to get done (and, ironically, end up doing none of them because of this overwhelm). If you haven't noticed, I like making lists. It helps me a lot to make lists of things I have to do in the order of importance, so that the prioritizing is on paper rather than floating around in my head.
- You might have trouble keeping organized, unable to keep your space clean, or you might be overly-organized in order to compensate for the jumble of tasks in your head.
Focus, Lots of Focus
Because of the way the autistic brain is wired, it is very common to have an intense ability to focus on one task. I call this hyperfocus, and it can look like many different things:
- You can sit and research a topic you're interested for hours without tiring and without realizing how much time has passed. For example, I can sit here and write for hours.
- You will be persistent in solving a problem until you get a solution you're satisfied with. You might have difficulty letting issues go until you solve them!
- You remember and absorb more information when learning than your peers, or recall information you learned a long time ago and didn't realize you remembered. You may have a set of specific topics that you know a significant amount of info about (often called special interests).
- You are great at repetitive tasks such as data entry or collection (this a common autism stereotype, and may not be true of everyone).
Emotional Processing is Lacking
Commonly, autistic people have issues with identifying how they feel and may have difficulty understanding others' feelings because of this (which does not mean they lack empathy). This issue with identifying your own feelings is called alexithymia and may look like this:
- You may recognize an event makes you feel "funny" or "off," and have a general sense that something has changed within you but not be able to put an emotional label to it or specifically pinpoint how you're feeling. This lack of awareness can be improved by continuing to try to label your feelings (I find a feeling word list helpful, such as this one) and ask yourself how you're doing throughout the day.
- You may notice when you get a knot in your stomach or a migraine, but not realize it is being caused by an emotion or emotional event. This can also be related to interoception, which is the ability to sense your internal physical processes (like hunger, having a full bladder, etc.).
- You might find it difficult to read emotions on people's faces, or in their body language. Others may notice an emotion on your face when you weren't aware of it.
- It takes you awhile to process events. If you get into an argument with someone you care about, it might take a day, a week, or even longer for you to know what to think about it.
- You may have vivid dreams or nightmares that you awake from feeling very strong emotions due to lack of emotional processing when awake.
These don't fit into any one category, but I wanted to add them since they are still very common and relevant:
- Unpredictable situations make you anxious or upset. This could be meeting new people, going new places, or trying something new. You like to plan ahead and know what to expect when new things come about. For example, when my boss schedules meetings last minute, I get angry and stressed because it forces me to change my plans around unexpectedly.
- You find driving to be stressful and difficult for various reasons. It might be due to the unpredictability when driving somewhere new, the sensory issues of lights and motion, or motor skill issues.
- You hold yourself to a high standard. You may tell yourself you "should" be able to do things because you see other people doing them with ease. You push yourself beyond your energy levels, and feel guilty when you can't measure up to your own high standards. This is perfectionism in a nutshell, which is very common for autistics.
- You have a lot of questions about the world, yourself, and other people. You are constantly wondering or pondering one thing or another, and may retreat into your own head frequently in the form of zoning out, daydreams or vivid imaginary situations.
- You have a different concept of time. You may remember things from ten years ago, and surprise people with what you recall. I like to say that my past and my future are closer to the present than most people; they really don't seem that far away, and people I haven't spoken to in years may still be fresh on my mind. You may lose track of time easily, and either check the time obsessively or constantly be late.
- As you get older, you don't feel like your age. You may feel like a kid at heart, not letting go of that childish wonder that many people seem to lose as they get older. You may dress younger than you are, physically look younger, or have people frequently think you are much younger than your age.
- You can be inflexible if you already have your mind set on a certain plan or way of doing something. This can cause conflict when it involves other people.
- You are opinionated and are unlikely to change your mind once it is set on something unless there is a logical reason that makes sense to you.
- Misspellings, improper grammar, or certain words may make you feel irritated or give you an "itch" to want to correct someone or fix the mistake.
As I said at the beginning, this is by no means an exhaustive list and you can still be autistic without experiencing every single one. Regardless, I hope you found it eye-opening, useful, and informative. If you would like to learn more about what autism is and find more resources, please click here for my other article. What resonated with you most? Do you have any questions, or want to share your experience with something on these lists? Do you feel clarity about being autistic? Feel free to comment below.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rebecca Swafford