I have always felt something about me is different, though for much of my life, I could not effectively put this into words…
In my teenage years, I dubbed myself both a ‘nerd’ and a ‘geek’, someone overflowing with passion and enthusiasm for the things she loves. During this time, I was also falsely diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In my early twenties, I was enlightened to the fact that what I was actually struggling with was borderline personality disorder, not bipolar. Having the correct diagnosis was helpful: I was able to get the treatment I needed, and I completely turned my life around.
During this time, I came across the work of psychologist Elaine N. Aron, her research on people who are highly sensitive. I felt validated in a way I never had before—validated in my experience of the world overwhelming me—and I started identifying as a ‘highly sensitive person’.
Today, I still identify as a highly sensitive person. I have always experienced things deeply, be it joy or sadness. But while this term validates the depth at which I feel everything, it fails to explain why I find social situations so confusing. It fails to explain how I struggle to understand the body language of another person, how I struggle to understand the nuance of their communication.
For almost three decades, I trudged on, intuitively knowing there was something going on—something more than just my BPD and my sensitivity—but not knowing what it was. A piece of the puzzle was still missing.
Back in 2021, my at-the-time boyfriend and I were having a conversation about how a change in plan or routine causes me distress. This was something he would often feel guilty about, as his punk-rock lifestyle was so different from my own hygge lifestyle.
The relationship did not work out; our values were not aligned. However, through this conversation, I discovered gold. I found the gold-nugget, when he looked at me and said, “Honestly, I think you might be a little autistic.”
Knowing our usual dynamic, I am a bit surprised this comment did not turn our conversation into a row. The thing is, my ex-boyfriend really hit the nail on the head. So instead of arguing with him, I sat back and thought about it honestly: Could I be autistic? Yes, I could! Oh, why have I never considered this before?
See, I had thought my hating a change in plan or routine was caused by the anxiety that comes with my borderline personality disorder. And of course, that is part of it. People who experience chronic anxiety often dislike surprises, even good ones. In the case of my BPD, having routines—the rhythms I learn to move with—really lessens, not just my anxiety, but most of the unpleasant symptoms I experience.
However, when I unpacked my psychology a whole level deeper, passed the chronic illness caused by my trauma, down to my core, what I came to realize was this: I do not hate a change in plan or routine solely only because it triggers my anxiety; I hate a change in plan or routine because it overstimulates me.
Perhaps those two things seem the same to you. But they are not, and I will explain how they are different:
When my anxiety is triggered, I actively worry if something is going wrong. A fear I frequently have, due to my BPD, is the fear that my partner will abandon me. When this anxiety is triggered, I am in my head, battling my thoughts. I have to combat my anxiety, wrestle with it.
I might write my feelings down in my journal, draw Tarot cards or practise Emotional Freedom Technique—these are some of the things that work for me. Regardless of my method, I am rewriting the old, toxic story in my head—the story that I am unloveable and everyone will abandon me—and turning it into a story in which I am the hero.
Contrasting this, when I am overstimulated, there is no story—unless, of course, I am having an anxiety attack on top of being overstimulated, which does happen. But I do not have to be anxious to become overstimulated. I can be in a great mood, with no fear, and then hear the wrong sound or smell the wrong scent, and suddenly be at my limit.
In the case of hating a change in plan or routine, it would make sense if this was related to my anxiety when the change is, you know, actually scary. But so much of the time, the change is irrelevant. Maybe my ex-boyfriend wanted to do our grocery shop on Sunday instead of Saturday. It is not that it scares me to put it off a day; it is that I find the change overstimulating.
One of the blessings of being this way is how organized I am. And while I am learning how to have more flexibility—for the sake of my mental health and well-being, and for the ease of my loved ones—I really do not dislike myself for being this way. Having an effective routine helps me focus deeply on my writing, and that brings me profound joy and satisfaction.
Before this realization, however, I had always sort of, well, shamed myself for being this way. I had wondered if I was just rigid and uptight, and if this made me unattractive to other people. I had thought I was this way out of sickness, out of the same conditioning that gave me BPD. But now that I was opening my mind to the possibility that I might be on the autistic spectrum, I was considering my love of structure—and my other autistic traits—in a whole new light.
The next phase in my life was one of learning and introspection. I started researching autism spectrum disorder and the different ways its symptoms can manifest. In particular, I focused on how ASD tends to manifest differently in females than it does males.
I am no medical professional, but my understanding, based on the research I have done, as well as my own lived experience, is that autistic females tend to become a lot more skilled at ‘masking’ than autistic males do.
For those unfamiliar, ‘masking’ is when someone camouflages their natural personality or demeanour to conform to social pressure or cope with abuse. In the instance of someone with autism spectrum disorder, the individual with ASD may pretend to be neurotypical—that is, they may pretend to not have autism—to fit into the world more effectively.
The reason why females typically become better at ‘masking’ than males is because of how we are socialized. From a young age, females are taught to be considerate of others and prioritize the harmony of the group over our own individual desires. Because of this, females with ASD often begin ‘masking’ at a young age—we begin hiding our autistic traits early on in life—to blend in.
Of course, males with ASD can learn to ‘mask’ as well. Regardless of sex or gender, you will assimilate into society much more effectively if you do not show your autistic traits. But, because of the particular social pressures females face, it is more common that females with ASD learn to ‘mask’ at a younger age, maybe before they even have the chance to be diagnosed with ASD.
I often speculate how my life would have been different if I was born male. I imagine some things would be better. Maybe I would have been diagnosed with ASD as a child, rather than bipolar as a teenager. But I also imagine some things would be worse. Males do face their own challenges, after all.
Now, I want to go through the symptoms of autism and talk about how they manifest for me, personally…
I can credit it to having my Sun, Mercury and Chiron in Virgo, or I can credit it to my alleged autism—regardless, I adore routine. I love a good, comforting ritual. I am happy doing the same thing over and over.
Seriously—I am most content when I do the same things everyday. The same favourite things. My ‘special interests’. When left to my own devices, all I really do is work on my various writing projects, read books, learn things about subjects I am interested in, watch films, practise meditation and yoga, cook good food, listen to my favourite podcasts… maybe once or twice a week get really crazy and go for a hike…
I do not need constant novelty to feel satisfied. If anything, constant novelty is too overstimulating for me to really enjoy it.
But I do enjoy sitting down at my desk everyday to write. I do enjoy journaling every morning while I have my coffee. I do enjoy quieting my mind with my daily meditation practice. I do enjoy reading the same favourite books over and over.
Although, as much as I love my routine, I also love my spontaneous and playful partner, as he inspires me to change things up every now and again—he inspires me to explore. Thanks to him, I am starting to see the value in variety.
That said, does anyone want to come over and watch the original Star Wars trilogy for the billionth time?
Inability To Understand Emotional Issues
This is not something I struggle with too much anymore, not after years of therapy, personal development and spiritual practice. Thanks to these blessings, I have a solid understanding of the often counter-intuitive ways the mind works—partially because psychology is one of my special interests.
But emotional intelligence is something I had to work for. I mean, I have always been sensitive—an ‘empath’, if you will. However, I have not always understood my empathy. I feel my autism, sort of, cut me off from my emotions.
And developing borderline personality disorder only exacerbated this, on both ends, making my emotions even more intense, while simultaneously cutting me off from them—thus, creating a dysfunctional yo-yo effect in my life. I would, both knowingly and unknowingly, disconnect from my emotions—my intense emotions—and then later, when I could not hold them in any longer, have a breakdown.
Fortunately, therapy—specifically dialectical behavioural therapy—helped me better understand myself. I learned that I am, much to my surprise at the time, very sensitive, and empathetic. I learned that I have access to a rich emotional life. And DBT taught me how to handle my emotions in a healthy way. Thank you, Marsha Lineham!
In general, I have done a lot of work on myself. (I told you psychology is one of my special interests.) Aside from DBT, some of my favourite techniques for dealing with unpleasant or challenging emotions are: my meditation practice, my yoga practice, journaling, drawing Tarot cards and Emotional Freedom Technique—all of these things have given me better access to my inner world.
As mentioned, I am an empath; I feel the pain of other beings. (This is why, last year, I became a vegetarian!) Many people with borderline personality disorder are empaths. In fact, the research shows that BPD is more likely to occur in individuals who are highly sensitive.
So, how does this mix with my alleged autism? Well, while I will feel a great deal of empathy once I understand, I often struggle to see things from another person’s perspective, if their perspective has not been explicitly disclosed to me. Once your point of view has been explained—once I do understand—I will not be able to turn off my empathy! But sometimes I need some help getting there; sometimes I need some help connecting the dots.
Writing a high-fantasy book with a cast of over forty characters has helped with this immensely. As has reading in general. Both are a sort of therapy for me, as they force my imagination to consider how other people, other people who are different from me, might be feeling.
Exaggerated Emotional Response
I will be the first to admit it: a times, my emotions are rather unjustified.
Perhaps I should first explain what I mean by this…
All emotions are valid, because one’s experience of their emotions cannot be argued with. To the individual, from their perspective, what they are feeling is real. But while all emotions are valid, not all emotions are justified.
For example, is it justified for me to have an anxiety attack because my weekly grocery shop might have to be moved from Thursday to Friday? No. I am still going to get my avocados. Is it justified that I had a mental breakdown simply because my partner turned the music up too loudly? No. In hindsight, I am certain that if I had calmly asked him to turn the music down, he would have been happy to oblige. Sending myself into such an unpleasant state was completely unnecessary.
Still, no one can argue with the fact that, in both of these examples, I was feeling overwhelmed. Overwhelmingly stressed in the first example. And in the second example, I was feeling overstimulated—but I was also shaming myself for being so sensitive in the first place, and feeling really down about myself because of that—which led to me not feeling comfortable asking for what I needed. Logically, I think these emotional reactions were unjustified, but that does not change my feelings in those moments.
My life is abundant with these meltdowns—oh, the stories I could tell! Sure, my borderline personality disorder is responsible for much of this. However, even when I go months without a BPD episode, I still have meltdowns. And once I had the epiphany that these meltdowns are often autistic meltdowns, not BPD episodes, I reached a whole new level of self-awareness.
Abnormal Response To Sensory Stimuli
This next symptom dovetails nicely from this discussion of meltdowns. Everyone on the autistic spectrum is different, but I, for the most part, am hyper-sensitive. A small list of some of the sensory stimuli I do not like: bright lights, sudden loud sounds, the smell of certain sauces, the feeling of velvet…
But it is not that I merely dislike these things. I am repulsed by them. Or drained by them. Experiencing them can make it challenging to function, or it can even be physically painful.
And usually, when I get overstimulated, this results in me having a meltdown. Maybe things have been okay all day, but I am at my limit for the stimulation I can handle—and then maybe that one next bit of stimulation is the very thing to push me over the edge—and the next thing you know I am crying on the floor…
This happened recently:
I had had a long, overstimulating day of bright lights, loud sounds, small talk and eye-contact. Then we had to go to the grocery store, which only added more lights, sounds, small-talk and eye-contact. I was doing okay though. I was holding it together.
But then my partner played one unexpected sound from his computer—and the next thing I knew I was balling my eyes out, having a mental breakdown.
He really did not mean to trigger this for me. He is well-intended, always doing his very best to support me. However, I had not given him any clues that I was at my limit. I feel I should mention that my partner is the easiest person to live with—and I really mean that. I will take full responsibility for how sensitive I am.
Because of this, whenever I am alone at home, I make an effort to keep the lights dim and the music ambient. I will admit: I am a bit like a badger living in a cave! But this is how I recharge: I cleanse my palette so I can venture back into the big, overstimulating world.
I used to be painfully shy. And I still am introverted; I need time alone to recharge. That said, I have learned to fake it. Acting on stage, playing in bands and working as a hair-stylist have all been like therapy in this regard.
Still, I find the vast amount of social interactions so draining! I truly hate small-talk. “How’s work?” No, fuck that! I would so much rather hear about your passion project. Tell me about your special interest! Seriously—let’s riff on Astrology and pull Tarot cards. Or deep-dive into Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. The last thing I want to do is make small-talk.
And yet, I have grown quite good at making small-talk. At the same time, I kind of hate how good I am at it. It is so draining, ‘masking’ all day. Can we just normalize talking about our special interests? Can we normalize talking about the real stuff?
I talk inappropriately loudly—or so I have been told. I struggle to moderate the volume of my voice. Hang out with me in a public setting and it is highly likely I will say something inappropriate at an inappropriate volume.
Exceptional Verbal Skills
Well, I would like to think so, considering how I have dedicated my life to writing…
Below-Average Nonverbal Skills
Because I have worked on myself and have a better grasp on my emotions than I used to, social situations and relationships are easier to navigate.
Although, much of the time, unless we are close, I am faking it—‘masking’—as I still struggle to understand body-language and other non-verbal clues. I often miss sarcasm and instead take things literally. I find it challenging, deciphering a person’s intentions, if they do not explicitly state them.
Lack of Eye-Contact
I remember sitting in the doctor’s office as a child. The doctor was asking me questions, and I was answering them. It was royally embarrassing when she interrupted me to say, “You need to look people in their eyes when you talk to them!”
Yes, I hate eye contact. It is not so much that it triggers my anxiety, as much as I find it overstimulating. It is not that I am worried about what the other person thinks of me—although sometimes that is happening too—it is that it overloads my senses.
But if you happen to know me in real life, you can probably think of many times I have made eye-contact with you. Or so it seemed I was making eye-contact with you—because I have come up with a way to fake eye-contact: I intentionally blur my vision. Then I can look in your eyes without getting overstimulated. I do not know if this is good for my eyes, but it helps me get through these social situations in which it is, as my old family doctor pointed out, inappropriate to not look people in the eyes.
I am extremely clumsy. There seems to be a disconnect between my brain and my body. For example, I can barely take a sip without a straw. Often times, I miss my mouth altogether, and my tea dribbles down the front of me. (Yes, like that scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.)
Speaking of Harry Potter, I have many ‘special interests’ that I cycle through, from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones; from Astrology to Tarot; from psychology to cooking.
Something my autism blesses me with is my ability to focus deeply on one thing for a long period of time. I know this has helped immensely with my writing; how else could I have written a high-fantasy novel with as many details as mine?
So yes, while at this point in time I lack a formal diagnosis, I do think I fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
One thing I want to say—and this may be controversial—is that, unlike my diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, I like how I am probably on the autistic spectrum. And even though I am pretty good at ‘masking’, I truly hate doing it! I find it exhausting.
And depressing—for when I am ‘masking’, I am doing so under the notion that there is something wrong with being autistic, that there is something wrong with me.
But what if there is actually nothing wrong with having autism spectrum disorder? What if all having ASD means is that my brain works a little differently? What if my ASD is, not a curse, but a blessing? A super-power?
Now, I am intentional about making the effort to apply this positivity and self-love to my BPD, as well. But here is the difference: if I could rid myself of my BPD, I would. My autism on the other hand, I would keep. You see, BPD itself causes me a great deal of pain. Where as with my autism, it is not the condition that causes me pain—rather it is the overstimulating neurotypical world that causes me pain—and trying to fit into it—‘masking’.
When left to my own devices, I am quite content. Autistic and content. Content in reading the Harry Potter series for the billionth time.