So I might be autistic. Now what?

In my mind, the target audience for “Are You Autistic?” was undiagnosed autistic adults, some of whom will never have even thought about it before, who recognised themselves in the journeys of JP and Jo (pictured above). I hoped that someone might watch the show, find it resonating with them more than they expected, and maybe I’d get one message or see one tweet saying “I think this might be me, what do I do now?” and then I’d feel like we’ve done our job – so you can only imagine how I feel about losing count of them! Anyway, if that’s you or someone you know, read on for some possible next steps…

“I might be autistic, but…”

“…I didn’t really get this bit?” It’s worth noting from the outset that the autistic spectrum is huge and incredibly diverse. In short, you don’t have to be exactly like JP or Jo – I certainly can’t hear electricity, and as anyone who’s had to interact with me between May and September will tell you, I’m very good at talking about the weather!

“…surely everyone feels like that?” Something that really surprised me about Twitter’s reaction to the documentary was the number of autistic people saying “Wait, you mean most people can’t hear electricity?!” Your own way of processing the world is all you’ve ever known, so it’s surprisingly easy to assume things are just the same for everyone, especially when we can’t talk about it. Sometimes very well-meaning people say things like “everyone feels like that” because it can be comforting to know it’s not just you – if you often find yourself thinking “well if everyone feels like that, why are they all coping when I’m not?”, you might want to stick around!

“…am I “autistic enough” to be taken seriously?” If you really have to ask, then you probably are. You might be surprised by how often people who literally have the official diagnosis still get told we’re in some way “not properly autistic” by random people on the internet because a.) we’re not exactly like their neighbour’s cousin’s friend’s 5-year-old son or b.) we just had an opinion on something. Unfortunately a lot of people put more emphasis on “catching out” completely hypothetical “fakers” rather than actually listening to and addressing the issues being discussed, and that’s their problem, not yours.

Research, research, research!

You can’t cram all possible aspects of autism into 47 minutes of television – or one article, or one discussion, or one person’s experiences – so you’re likely to get a clearer picture from looking elsewhere. It might be helpful to start keeping a list of your possible autistic traits, which you can also add to as and when relevant real-life situations arise.

Look up the diagnostic criteria, but be aware this is likely to focus entirely on negative traits and may use outdated language. Look through the National Autistic Society website (in particular, here’s a link to the NAS page on adult diagnosis). Take a few of the many online quizzes – they’re no substitute for formal assessment, and again might be outdated, but they often use at least some questions from the more official screening tools.

Possibly the most useful resource of all, though, is the autistic community. Everyone is different and every autistic person presents differently, so talking to large groups of autistic people is a great way to get a wide range of possible traits (some of which might contradict each other – one person’s special interest is another person’s sensory hell). On Twitter (and other tag-based sites such as Tumblr), you’ll find us in the #ActuallyAutistic and #AskingAutistics tags. On Facebook, your best bet is autistic-only or autistic-led groups – most do accept people who only suspect they might be autistic, there’s always the option of leaving if you find it’s not for you. Always check the privacy settings – if it’s a “closed group” or “secret group”, only other group members can see your posts, but if it’s a “public group” then everyone might see your posts or even your likes! (For “closed groups”, others may be able to see that you’re in the group, so you might also want to hide the Groups section of your Facebook profile.)

Should I seek a formal diagnosis?

This is an incredibly personal decision, with lots of pros and cons to weigh up. Unfortunately, waiting lists can take years, and many who seek diagnosis find themselves being fobbed off by people who don’t necessarily have a detailed or up-to-date understanding of autism. Some adults who realise they’re probably autistic feel that they haven’t been disadvantaged by not having the formal diagnosis and decide they’re happy with the self-diagnosis. For the most part, autistic communities online accept this as valid too, and some people find that community is all they need to finally understand themselves.

On the other hand, a formal diagnosis is really the only way to know for sure and get the closure you might need. It might give you access to additional support (although, fair warning, there isn’t very much of it), correct previous misdiagnoses, or help you to receive the correct treatment or support for any existing diagnoses you have. If you disclose your diagnosis to your employer, school or university, they are legally required to make any reasonable adjustments you need for work or study. And, of course, that piece of paper should clear up any remaining self-doubt, especially in a world that can be so fixated on “catching out the fakers” and disbelieving others.

In the end, only you can decide what is right for you. My only advice is please don’t be put off by other people (or the nagging voice in your own brain) saying “it’s overdiagnosed these days” or “you’re jumping on the bandwagon” or “you’re taking resources from people who Really Need ItTM”. I’ve written here before about the overdiagnosis myth – in short, as you may have seen in the documentary, autism is often UNDERdiagnosed. After a public awareness event like “Are You Autistic?”, it might be the case that lots of people realise they’re autistic at once, but that doesn’t mean they’re jumping on the bandwagon – they just all became more informed at the same time. We also sometimes have a habit of acting like there is one single most miserable person in the whole world and only they deserve understanding and support, when that’s really not how it works – in this case, if you’re autistic you’re autistic, and all the underfunding and long waiting lists aren’t your fault!

What’s the assessment process like?

“Are You Autistic?” showed two people undergoing various tests based on cutting-edge research from multiple academics – so basically, the chances are your assessment will be very different. Here’s that NAS page on adult diagnosis again, because they know far more than me about this!

For most people, the first point of contact would be an appointment your GP. If you’re already in contact with healthcare services for something else, it might be worth mentioning your suspicions to them. If you’re a student, the easiest option is probably getting in touch with the disability service at your university or college. In any case, feel free to bring notes (this is why I suggested making a list!) and, as GPs may not necessarily have a detailed understanding of autism, it may also be helpful to bring copies of the guidelines for autism recognition linked on the NAS page above.

You should then be referred on to a more specialist service for assessment, and the details of this can vary widely depending on where you live – some people have one long assessment and find out the results on the day, others have shorter appointments spread out over weeks or even months. There will be lots of discussion about exactly why you’re seeking a diagnosis, and as seen in the documentary, they are likely to ask about your childhood – you may even be asked to bring a family member or friend who has known you from childhood, or have them fill in a questionnaire to bring with you. You might be asked to carry out some seemingly random tasks that (apparently) highlight how you think and process information.

Eventually, if it goes the way you think it will, you’ll get a diagnosis alongside a longer detailed report. Increasingly, diagnosis is shifting towards one umbrella term of “autism spectrum disorder” or “autism spectrum condition”, but depending on where you live, you might still get a more specific label like “Asperger’s syndrome” (that would be mine!). Despite the myths, it’s all autism (hence the shift towards umbrella terms) – I used to think of “Asperger’s” and “autistic” as a bit like “English” and “British”. By the time you get to this stage you’ll have seen a lot of debate about this and you’ll probably have a strong opinion of your own, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on the terminology – the main thing is you’ve got the diagnosis!

What happens next?

On the face of it, probably not very much! Whilst a diagnosis may qualify you for some additional support, the biggest change is likely to be self-understanding – something many of us take for granted. You can finally start learning where you struggle, what your meltdown triggers are and how to mitigate that, and working with your autistic brain rather than against it. It’s important to remember that if you are autistic, then you’ve always been autistic, and a diagnosis doesn’t change anything at all about who you are – it just helps to explain why you are who you are.

So, if you think you might be autistic and are wondering whether you should look into it further, I’ll leave you with the GIF I’ve been replying to those messages with:

A GIF from a viral video of actor Shia LaBoeuf shouting "Just do it!"

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