My journey to self-discovery was so long. I had been working as a psychotherapist for thirty years. I had raised an autistic child to adulthood. I had read countless autism books and been to numerous autism conferences with my wife, Kristina. I was feeling pretty good about my accomplishments.
And then we heard Sarah Hendrickx.
As you may know, Sarah wrote several books on autism and earned a master’s degree in autism studies before realizing that she herself also had autism – at age 41.
Well, she was lucky to get diagnosed early. Because there I was, sitting at the AANE conference, age 54.
It all started innocently enough, sitting in the Sheraton ballroom that morning, listening to Sarah’s captivating keynote speech. Then, about 10 or 15 minutes into the talk, dizzying waves of dread swept over me. I would never have guessed that Sarah is autistic – and yet she is. Is it possible I’m autistic, too?
Part of me recoiled at the thought, echoing the iconic Star Wars scene when Darth Vader proclaims he’s Luke Skywalker’s father, saying, “Search your feelings. You know it to be true.” I felt like Luke then, wanting to scream “Noooo!”
As if that weren’t enough drama, Kris was sitting next to me, thinking: Oh. My. God. Eric is on the spectrum, too. Later that day, Kris and I spoke and shared our thoughts with each other. She was so relieved I was the one to bring it up. Wow. Eighteen years of raising an autistic child, and we’d somehow missed my autism. My self-esteem began to take a steep nosedive.
The first life-changing moment was our son Alex’s diagnosis, 16 years earlier. That realization changed our future; this one would change my past.
One of the core features of autism is “highly restricted, fixated interests.” As a child, I would develop a consuming passion for topics such as herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) or astronomy, reading and talking about little else for years at a time. Actually, I haven’t changed – only my interests have. Since I’ve started a second career as a college admissions consultant, I just want to talk about college admissions all day long. Pursuing my passions – what neurotypicals sometimes call “special interests” – gives me a purpose and helps me feel good about myself.
Another feature of autism involves difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication. As an adult, without knowing why, I struggled for years to intuit the emotional language that seemed to come so naturally to many of my colleagues: gestures, expressions, tone of voice. And when it suddenly, belatedly dawned on me that I was autistic, one of my first reactions was that maybe I didn’t deserve to be a therapist. I felt unworthy.
After all, I’d relied on deliberate, intentional practice for such basics as eye contact and smiling; didn’t that mean I lacked the right stuff? But that’s just it: autistics are great rote learners. I had mastered, albeit slowly and clumsily, what I needed to know in order to help others. Caring about others was an essential part of me, even if learning how to show it effectively was a long road.
Realizing in midlife that I’m autistic was a huge blow to my self-confidence. Fortunately, I live near AANE, where I attended a support group called Mental Health Providers on the Spectrum. My newfound interest in Asperger’s also led me to collaborate with my autistic co-authors, Dr. Wilma Wake – also a therapist, diagnosed in her sixties – and statistician Rob Lagos. We surveyed 150 older autistic adults like ourselves around the world for a forthcoming book and learned that others were daunted by the adjustment to an autism diagnosis as well. For example, one of our survey takers recalled, “I felt like I had lost my lifelong identity and went through a year of mourning.”
But while my self-diagnosis of autism destroyed my old identity, it also gave birth to a new one: an “Aspie,” a member of a “neurotribe” I’d never really noticed before. Feeling less alone helped soothe my wounded ego. I began to acknowledge the many similarities between me and my adult autistic son I’d so long denied. We both have rigid routines (such as eating a narrow repertoire of foods) and an all-or-nothing approach (he wants all the blinds in a room either open or closed, and I would rather skip a movie altogether than arrive five minutes late). More strikingly, I could now see links between me and my father, now 86 and undoubtedly an undiagnosed Aspie himself.
Once the healing from a shattered identity begins, new hope emerges. Other participants from our survey report:
- “The final pieces of the puzzle as to why I am the way I am fell into place.”
- “I consider my Asperger’s my ‘superpower’…since I’ve embraced who I am and what it is, a lot of things seem better.”
- “Since coming to terms with my diagnosis over the past year, I feel more happy and at peace with myself.”
Today I find myself at another AANE conference, reminiscent of the event where that chilling realization struck me three years ago. It’s been a bewildering journey, but my self-worth is recovering and I’m finally finding some peace, too.