Getting my diagnosis came with a sense of joy and relief. What I was not prepared for was what I have coined autistic impostor syndrome (AIS).
Questioning my autism
Before my diagnosis, I felt alone in the world, alone in my family, never seeming to belong anywhere.
Then, when I did get a diagnosis of autism, the loneliness began to disappear. But what showed up in its place was a feeling, a concern, that I might not be autistic. That was a double whammy—I did not belong to the neurotypical world and maybe did not belong to the autistic world either.
Here is an excerpt from my diary after I got diagnosed:
I have a deep sense of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and needing to learn to swim, however, I am not just questioning whether I can survive here. Fundamentally, I am asking, “Am I a swimmer?” Perhaps, in the end, I am the worker who created the swimming pool, and it is my job to allow the fruit of my work to be enjoyed, or else I will come to know that I too can swim.
I know it sounds obtuse, but in simple terms, I was questioning: “Am I autistic?” or, “Maybe I am a neurotypical advocate for autism?”
Impostor syndrome is widespread in the autistic community. Respected autistics the world over might greet the morning concerned that they are not actually autistic—they are faking it. They will, sooner or later, be found out. These sentiments are particularly prevalent in autism without intellectual disability. When a person does not have an intellectual disability, lateral thinking skills allow them to spawn countless ideas about the cause of their traits.
Masking who I am
I had spent so much time camouflaging who I was and becoming what others wanted me to be that I had little sense of who I was and what I liked. I liked what you liked.
When I was about 8, my best friend asked what my favourite colour was. I asked her what hers was. She answered red. “So is mine!” I revealed. She then asked what my favourite animal was. Again, I asked what hers was. She said, “dog.” With amazement at the coincidence, I said, “Mine too!”
She responded with no minor annoyance that I should think for myself.
That sounded like an excellent idea, but by then, I had learned that thinking for myself, more often than not, got me into trouble or even ostracized. The only thing I learned from that was how to mask better.
When you spend your life masking who you are to make others like you and find a sense of belonging, you cannot show up authentically. You end up feeling like an impostor.
Challenging perceptions of autism
What further perpetuated the feeling of being an impostor was that the people who love me were in disbelief about my autism. They, of course, had their own emotions to process. And it shattered their perceptions of what they thought autism looked like.
Why do we have autistic impostor syndrome?
- We spend our whole lives adapting to what people think we should be. We are human chameleons. In essence, we are empathic metamorphs (a being from an episode entitled The Perfect Mate, from Star Trek: Next Generation), a being that can sense what people around her desire and react accordingly. It is telling that at age 22, I identified heavily with this character. An often misunderstood trait of autism is internal empathic accuracy. This means we make superb social psychologists or are astute in predicting another person’s thoughts and feelings. We are agile in these insights because of our pattern recognition. When we find out we have the traits of autism, we then wonder if this is just another one of our adaptations.
- We are lateral thinkers. Our superior lateral abilities generate multiple relevant possibilities for any problem. So we hypothesize what we might actually be and come up with many alternatives. Even if autism perfectly describes us, we may still have doubts because some of our behaviors can be attributed to other conditions.
- Medical professionals do not recognize adult autism, especially late-diagnosed adult autism. Many people I assess describe being turned away by assessors, mocked by health care practitioners when they propose the possibility of autism. There is an acute absence of understanding that our preferred job choices tend to be actors, healthcare workers.
- Some conditions often co-occur with autism, such as ADHD and alexithymia. This can cause confusion and feelings of being an impostor post-diagnosis since we may not neatly fit the description of autism. Quite possibly, it’s more than just autism that will comprehensively account for our behaviours and feelings. Until we find out what that is, we can still have doubts about our diagnosis.
- We don’t fit the stereotypes. Sheldon Cooper, Spock, and The Good Doctor are popular TV characters that have greatly influenced the public perception of autism. Yet we often don’t fit these stereotypes. I identified with Deanna Troi, an empath from Star Trek, more than anyone else. Her job was to inform the captain of what other people were feeling and predicting their actions. Research shows that we excel at that. Yet most people will choose Spock—not Deanna Troi—as the most likely autistic on Star Trek.
- With 90% of funding and websites focusing on autism in children, people do not know our traits. We are not children. People don’t understand how we make it to adulthood without being identified. I can tell you. We act and simulate neurotypical behaviour. We learn from the looks on people’s faces, and we alter our behaviour.
- Our loved ones tell us that we cannot be autistic. In my journey of processing and understanding, I failed to understand that everyone close to me was also reevaluating their perceptions. They, too, were going back in time and having similar revelations. While we often turn to our loved ones for validation, this is an impossible thing to ask of them. More beneficial is to talk to other autistics or an autistic therapist.
- Until recently, autistic females without an intellectual disability were often misdiagnosed or overlooked. Irrespective of gender, autistic people without high support needs or who otherwise defy the public or even clinical perception of autism are frequently misdiagnosed. It can obviously create a lot of doubt when medical professionals you assume understand these conditions, tell you that you are something you are not.
Autistic imposter syndrome is so common in late-diagnosed adults that it surprises me when someone I assess does not discuss its effects.
You can take the CAT-Q below to discover how well you have been hiding your autism.