Written by:
September 7, 2021

What we experience is not who we are

Last updated on September 19, 2021

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on seeing our autism in a positive light

In my previous post, I talked about adopting a more positive outlook on autism. In this second post, I want to dive deeper into that concept, talk about some common obstacles, and briefly go into the relationship between our life experiences and our self-identity.


Encompassing world

In my late 20s, I came to adopt a more positive view of myself and my autism. It’s not that I no longer have any challenges, because I do. But I came to realize that I hold myself back by focusing on the negative. The interesting thing is that whatever we focus on becomes our world, if only in that moment. But focus on it perpetually, and it becomes an encompassing and enduring world. So by focusing on the negative perpetually, you will effectively live in a dark world, until you can shift that mindset. Conversely, by keep focusing on the positive, you can live in a world you want to experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that all your struggles are in your mind, or that all your struggles will go away simply by changing your mindset. We face genuine struggles, and oftentimes our environment or where we are psychologically and spiritually will prevent us from changing our mindset and general experience. But despite the dark place and mindset I used to find myself in, I found ways—with help from others—to start to appreciate who I am and what I can do, and I started paying attention to those things more and more.

The Two Wolves

The aphorism of the Two Wolves comes to mind, which is nicely expressed in this short dialogue:

  • A: “There are two wolves fighting in each man’s heart. One is love, the other is hate.”
  • B: “Which one wins?”
  • A: “The one you feed the most.”

An illustration of Two Wolves facing each other, which is symbolic for the idea that whatever traits and experiences you focus on become more developed and pronounced (i.e. the wolf that becomes stronger).

Rewiring your brain

While the time it takes to form new habits or to create lasting change in the brain can vary depending on how fundamental the change is, there is evidence that suggests you can start rewiring your brain in 6–8 weeks.[1]How Long It Takes to Form a New Habit | Brainpickings The brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience is called neuroplasticity,[2]Dynamic Brains and the Changing Rules of Neuroplasticity: Implications for Learning and Recovery (Voss et al., 2017) which is governed by different processes that continue to different degrees throughout life.[3]Neuroplasticity in Humans (Dinse, 2020) Some things may indeed take months or years to change, but irrespective, the more you practice one thing, the better you become at it.

Focusing on my potential

And the more I focused on what I am capable of and the awesome things I can explore with those capacities, the more pervasive and enduring that more positive world became. Over time, it rewired my brain, and changed my tendency to focus on the negative or come up with ways to counterbalance the positive things about myself and my experiences.

By focusing on the positive aspects of myself and my life, over time I started to experience myself and life more positively. This is why Natalie and I created Embrace Autism, to share that positive mindset and give autistic people the means to accept and appreciate themselves, and start living life more fully. For more information on this journey, also have a look at my previous post, below.

Seeing autism in a positive light

Disidentify with your experience

So to reiterate, yes, I still have struggles in life, but I found ways not to let those struggles become my life. And arguably the hardest thing to overcome is when you have come to identify with your struggles so strongly that they seemingly become who you are. But my anxiety is something I experience; it’s not who I am. And equally, the social exclusion and other traumas I endured in life are things that happened TO me; it’s not who I am. Despite those experiences being common among autistics, I do not believe this is what autism intrinsically is.

But here is the risk. While the social exclusion I experienced doesn’t necessarily say anything about me, I nevertheless ended up identifying with that experience. I ended up saying things such as “I’m an outsider, a social recluse, and alien”. I believe I mentioned being an outsider in my last post, even.

This is something I still identify with. But the more aware I become of that, the easier it becomes to disidentify with it (distinct from dissociate, which I think is an avoidance tactic, which sustains our lack of awareness, rather than promoting awareness); and the easier it becomes to acknowledge that these were just experiences I had which I arguably shouldn’t have had, rather than social exclusion happening to me as a justifiable act based on being autistic.

You see, if I start identifying as being an outcast, then I am effectively saying it was just of others to socially exclude me. And the worst I can do for myself is shaping my identity around the worst things that happened to me. I think who I am is more defined by how I chose to deal with those things, and how I overcome the challenges I face.


Autistic experience

As I talked about in Autism is like cake, autism is not purely genetic, neurological, or biological. Autism also has a phenomenological aspect to it; a qualitative experience. And not just that, but an interpersonal and environment-dependent experience. What I mean by that is that a part of autism can be understood only insofar as we interact with others, and in relation to our environment. If I live on an otherwise uninhabited island, I would still be autistic, but my autism would no longer be expressed through interaction with others. If you were to ask me then what it’s like to be autistic, I would have a different answer than you and I would likely have today. In fact, some of the core aspects of autism would no longer make any sense in the absence of interpersonal interaction.

The greater point here is not that we have different experiences of what it’s like to be autistic—which we do—but that there is probably an unavoidable conflation between what autism is intrinsically like, and the experiences we acquire on account of being autistic, or to be more exact on account of being different.

I think there is a significant difference between the “autistic experience” and “experiences of autistic people”. The autistic experience is probably a culmination of the common experiences of autistic people; but not all our experiences as autistic people are necessarily ‘autistic’ experiences.


Taking back control

So let me end this post by emphasizing that your experience of being autistic or different doesn’t necessarily tell others what it’s like to be autistic. And my concern is that, because society at large is not constructed specifically with autistic people in mind, we are inevitably more likely to experience (interpersonal) challenges, which then inform us about who we are and what autism entails.

But we must be careful in equating our experiences with our intrinsic attributes. I am a lot more than the experiences I have and the ways society sees me. And more importantly, if we properly distinguish between who we are and what we endure, I think you will find we have more control than you might think.

I have limited control over the experiences I will have (short of changing environments and people I interact with). However, I can exert a lot more control over my interpretations of my experiences, how I process the emotions that come up in response to those experiences, what I end up internalizing and associating with who I am (or think I am), and with who and what I choose to identify.

It’s not necessarily an easy task to take back that control. I have, on and off, been practicing this for years. But I find my life has improved a lot. I feel more aware, and I feel more in control. And when basic bodily and ego needs have been fulfilled, we can start focusing on self-actualization—to no longer define ourselves in terms of our (worst) experiences, but to become instead our potentialities.[4]On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (Rogers, 1961) p. 350-1

This article
was written by:
martin-silvertant
Co-founder of Embrace Autism, I’m living up to my surname as a silver award-winning graphic designer. Besides running Embrace Autism and researching autism, I love typography and practice type design. I also fight dodecahedragons during sleep onset.I discovered I’m autistic when I was 19, and was diagnosed at 25.

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