"New Identity Level- Unlocked"
Updated: Sep 9
Thrive Emerge Interview
With Dr. Richard Silver, MD
RS: Why as an adult did it feel important to you to pursue an Autism diagnosis?
AF: Ironically, having been a special educator for 13 years, it had never crossed my mind before that year. Suddenly the pandemic hit and I struggled, but with the world in a state of chaos, I felt I had no right to complain that suddenly I wasn’t feeling productive enough, or consistently walking the fine line of being ready to snap. But then within the matter of a couple of months, I was looking at diagnostic criteria bias for a training I was giving, and ended up taking multiple assessments and getting “strong likelihood or presence of Autistic traits in almost every Quiz. Even prior to all of this, we’d been toying with the idea of our youngest getting evaluated for ASD even before I thought about it for myself. My 7 year old had 3 supportive parents committed to having two households that were consistent and safe for him to be himself, we all just needed a little more information on how we all as parents could help him be the best version of himself he could be, I guess getting my own diagnosis was just the surprise bonus that i never really saw coming.
Knowing earlier would have been better, but just knowing was better than not knowing at all. And holding myself to the standards of the neurotypical world – masking rather than being authentic – was not how I wanted to continue to be.
RS: What changed with getting the diagnosis?
AF: For 37 years leading up to that point, my life was chalked full of self-imposed “should statements,” that told me that there was always something that I should be doing differently. It’s like the second I was diagnosed, there was a weight lifted from my shoulders and I suddenly saw my brain for what it was, which is remarkably complex and hard working, instead of my negative self-talk calling me “lazy” or “rigid.” Somehow the diagnosis gave me permission to feel things that I was always too embarrassed to verbalize, and then one day I started allowing myself to pause mid conversation to ask people “what they meant by that” or “can you give me more specifics of what you’re talking about?” I started to realize just how much of my energy was being spent on seeming “capable” and masking as someone more palatable for others to be around.
So I’d say now I allow myself to do things more consciously, give myself some space to create the more authentic version, the better version of me. I started tuning into my emotional and physical needs more. I had decades of experience supporting and accommodating others, so I decided to turn a little of that innovation inward. Turns out, I was exhausted; blissfully unaware speeding past my body’s yellow signals and speed bumps when I was running my battery on empty, needless to say I wasn’t making the connection with my emotions that would allow me to ground myself in the way that I needed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the thing I’ve begun to explore more has been how i receive and process sensory information, and how to regulate my response to it. I had no idea that I was routinely living in a state of over stimulation, emotional exhaustion, and ultimately just existing in survival mode. The more that checked in with myself and started understanding my sensory needs, I wasn’t burning out so quickly. My fibromyalgia flareups were 50% less frequent and severe. I was having open collaborative conversations with my family (all neurodivergent) about how our needs sometimes align and sometimes contrast, so we need to find ways to navigate that in a way that feels good to us and is supportive of one another, and I’m truly committed to helping other people understand that balance between them as well.
RS: As a kid or even young adult, what was it like to not know why you were different from neurotypicals, to not have a framework to explain your experience?
AF: Well I think it’s important to consider that I had no framework for what it meant to be neurotypical, or too much awareness about it. Even though the term Neurodivergent includes ADHD which I’ve known about myself for 2 decades at this point. I also compensated with emulating those around me, I remember knowing i should use certain idioms and stuff or pop culture jokes, not really understanding them, and then panicking that someone would know that I didn’t know what they meant, and frantically looking them up so if anyone decided to randomly quiz me on the latest lingo, I’d be all set.
There were certain times I look back and see that I wasn't naturally great at understanding intentions, like when the middle school girls in my grade would sarcastically compliment my outfit, I hate to admit that any malicious vibes just didn’t occur to me until well after it occurred. But I also had learned not to put a tremendous amount of merit or concern into others my age. I mean I had friends. I was pretty social (as far as I can remember), but just didn’t compare myself to them too much. I connected more with the adults or my older sister,, or younger kids, and while I internalized the praise of being seen as “mature,” I guess it makes even more sense, considering that not aligning socially with same age peers can be a marker of Autism in itself. I’d try to put myself in positions where I couldn't be judged, like becoming a Weight Watchers Coach in less than a year of joining, because as the facilitator, I wouldn't have to really engage with anyone in a way that made me feel vulnerable, nor worry about whether I’d been talking too long or too much.
What I also found fascinating though, was the concept that at 37 I was somehow just learning that experiences that were totally normal for me, were not others folks’ realities. Like studying play on words, or even mimicking people's mannerisms and speech patterns. I literally thought EVERYONE did this, so my mind was completely blown when I found out that not everyone immersed themselves in language like I did. Right after getting the diagnosis, I made this color coded chart of the diagnostic questions that I had big feeling reactions to, with an entire column devoted to mind blowing questions in themselves, because I couldn’t wrap my mind around that my norm wasn’t shared with how most around me naturally operated.
Come to find out though… not everyone makes charts to sort out big feeling questions after evaluations or assessments. Who knew???
RS: Were there any downsides to getting the ASD diagnosis?
AF: Initially, it felt really inspiring. Suddenly, my brain functioning made sense and that realization revved me up to learn more about myself, and I couldn’t wait to share all the new neurodiversity factoids with anyone that will listen. The part that I forgot is sometimes we have to sit with our feelings and be okay that the whole thing comes with mixed emotions.
There’s a popular wave of Autistic advocacy in unmasking these days and that is by far an intentional choice and something to navigate as safely as one can, but another term I use with equal relative power is “unpacking.” I become more aware of all the damage that has been done over the years. I’m less in that trauma response of trying to control all the time, so that tiny semblance of control that I thought I still had, slips further away. Ultimately, I know it’s a sign of growth, letting go of control, because that also means letting go of armor so to speak, and that armor has protected me from so much.
Suddenly I’m synthesizing parts of my life that I compartmentalized for so long. Then this shift into moving towards more authentic ways of being, in an authentically empowering job, leaves me feeling like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, because not having this armor can be terrifying and liberating all at once. I can't seem to retrieve – or subconsciously don’t want to retrieve – the same masking skills that I used to, so it feels like a dip in functioning. As the dust is settling, I find that I’m not quite where I used to be.
On the other hand, since I’m allowing myself not to be hypercompetent, I’m able to discover my own rhythm in the world. I'm integrating parts of my life that I've never been able to before. Like in my profession as a teacher, I've always been told that I'm speaking out of turn, that it’s not OK to be vulnerable in front of the kids, that my Big Emotions were a hindrance to my professionalism. I had to leave parts of myself out of the professional equation at all costs.
But as I recalibrate my consciousness, I have more agency and empowerment in what my reality really looks like. I literally hadn’t even fathomed that the inside me could match the outside me.
RS: Are there stages to this unmasking process, this process of becoming more authentic?
AF: So I heard someone mention one time that processing a diagnosis or new part of your identity can be equated to the stages of grief. When I came out to myself, when I first took inventory of myself in college as a queer person and how I understood it in that moment, there were stages I had to move through. I almost vaguely remember going through the same process around my racial identity as I came to further understand what that meant in my own eyes and others. Fast forward a couple of decades and I’ve somehow managed to unlock a new level in this video game I didn’t even know I was still playing. Except it’s glitchy and it feels like you’ve entered this alternate universe that only slightly resembles the original backdrop of the game. You’re suddenly transported back to level one, only now the game is in 3d, and you need to use that extra dimension to scan your surroundings and find all of the clues and the tools you didn’t know were there all along. Essentially moving backwards just to move forward in order to win the game.
This new added dimension to your journey feels liberating and freeing and could be euphoric to an extent, but it comes with its own set of twists and turns, because you begin to lose a part of yourself. Even if that part was your own critical voice, that inner critic guarded you and without it, the exposure can feel sometimes paralyzing. It’s like you had this facade that got you this far, and essentially became a huge part of who you are, until it no longer serves you. This then leaves you in the driver’s seat on an unpaved road…without headlights. You suddenly have more responsibility and accountability and that can feel near impossible when you felt like an imposter in the first place.
One of the stages is a little like a combination of Anger and Autistic Epiphany, an Angry Autiphany, perhaps? :-P You start unpacking all of this stuff and you begin to see all the fractals of a pattern in broken systems that have left you feeling unprepared for this freedom, nor navigational tools for this system helped create the structure that’s oppressed you and your community. Not just the education system, I mean health systems, the justice system, the blinding inequities that infiltrate EVERYTHING that holds monopoly over our lives. And since I for one have a hard time keeping my mouth shut once something clicks and I see the patterns, I call it the “burn it (the system) down” stage, because it becomes next to impossible to play a part of something so broken. I’ve always been fine tuned to social justice and advocacy, but at this point, the idea of using what we know now to collectively create the change we wish to see is more of a need than an option.
RS: Last but not least, you called yourself a logophile. Do you have an absolute favorite word? What is it?
AF: Oooh! I love that question. Favorite of all time? Mine changes all the time. I learned this one word recently and am enamored… despite hardly being able to pronounce it. Lol.
It’s basically when the end of a sentence or phrase is so unexpected that it forces the reader to read it again, because it changed the meaning to some extent. I just love that it can be used in a comical way or even a mic drop-profound way. Sometimes my affinity for a word seems totally random, but this one feels almost perfectly timed.