‘I think you may have Asperger’s,’ my boyfriend said nervously. He broke up with me, unsure he wanted to see me anymore.’: Woman diagnosed with autism in adulthood learns to ‘umask’ and embrace authentic identity

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“’I think you might have Asperger’s,’ he said, as he nervously awaited my response. I had no idea how life-changing these words spoken by my now ex-boyfriend would be for me. ‘Asperger’s?’ I thought to myself, trying to figure out how I should respond, and what exactly Asperger’s even was again.

I don’t remember much from the rest of our conversation. I remember I felt unsure and puzzled by this idea, yet I still listened to what he had to say. He had broken up with me a month earlier, and was unclear as to exactly why he did it… and now I knew why. It was because he’d suspected I was autistic (or as he called it, ‘Asperger’s’) and now he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be with me anymore.

When I first heard his suggestion, I didn’t know what to think. So, immediately after our conversation, I started googling Asperger’s and learning about it… and very quickly, it became apparent to me that for the first time ever, my life was finally starting to make sense.

All of my life, I’d always felt so different. When I was around 3 or 4 years old, I remember staring at myself in the mirror, and feeling so horrified by the face I saw staring back at me. As I reflect back on this memory, I think this had to do with me wanting so badly to be seen a certain way by the world, and feeling disappointed I couldn’t measure up to it.

Little girl unknowingly battling autism poses for a family photo in her Sunday best while standing in front of a big tree
Courtesy of Katie Shuman

This memory describes the very essence of the pain that autistic masking has created in my life. Autistic masking is when an autistic person consciously or unconsciously resists their autistic traits to appear neurotypical in order to gain social acceptance, jobs, friendships, relationships, and other opportunities. While masking can be a useful and often important coping strategy for autistic people, it doesn’t come without serious long-term mental health consequences.

For so much of my life, I unknowingly resisted so much of who I was, because deep down, I held the unconscious belief I was broken and needed to be fixed. I also held the unconscious belief I was always wrong, and other people always knew better than I did. These beliefs started in my very early childhood, and they followed me into my early twenties. Until I began delving deeper into my psyche after discovering my autistic identity at almost 22 years old, I was totally unaware of them.

Little girl dressed in a pink dress with a purple hat, feather boa, purse, and white gloves poses in front of a Christmas tree
Courtesy of Katie Shuman

They taught me not to trust myself, to stay quiet and blend in, and to do whatever I could to please other people… even to the extent of my own comfort and wellbeing. They taught me it was better to hide my authenticity, because it was so much safer to stay hidden than to risk being wrong, laughed at, or criticized.

In my first few years of school, I was selectively mute and barely spoke, because I felt so much intense social anxiety I wasn’t even able to properly name. My teachers felt very concerned by this and brought it up to my parents, who didn’t see it as a problem, as I spoke so freely with them at home.

Little girl who with straight across bangs smiles in a school uniform for her school yearbook photo
Courtesy of Katie Shuman

I still recall the knots of anxiety I felt in my stomach every day when I went to school. I’m extremely fortunate and privileged to have grown up in a loving and stable family where I always knew I’d be accepted no matter what. I had no doubt in my mind my family would always accept me… but I didn’t have the same confidence other people would.

In my early years of school, my teachers regularly praised me for being the ‘good, quiet girl’ who always followed the rules and did as she was told without questioning it. This same praise I got from my teachers and parents for being the ‘good girl’ gave me the feeling of being good, which made me feel like I belonged. Like I was okay, and not some kind of imposter, like subconscious masking told me I was. I created this identity as a young, vulnerable, undiagnosed autistic girl, because I wanted so desperately to belong and to be seen as ‘normal.’

Young girl in green plaid shirt poses with her family on a boat with a mountain scene behind them
Courtesy of Katie Shuman

As I’ve come to finally meet the authentic, autistic, and ADHD me in my twenties, I can now see how much harm I was unknowingly creating. I see how I lived so much of my life abandoning myself and resisting my authenticity, and believing it was all normal.

It took me over a year after first discovering my autistic identity to finally understand the extent to which I’d been masking my entire life. Shortly after my ex pointed out the fact I was likely autistic, we got back together. In the many months that followed, I learned more about autism and I understood myself more. The more I understood myself, the more I realized I’d never truly known myself at all. I realized so much of who I thought I was, was all a mask I’d created to please the people around me… including my boyfriend.

Young woman discovering her autistic and ADHD identities poses for a photo in front of red flowers in a yellow shirt
Courtesy of Katie Shuman

I had so much internal resistance to myself, and I couldn’t even see it. I was so used to abandoning my true thoughts and desires, it felt totally normal to me. When I realized my entire relationship with my boyfriend had been built on me wearing this mask, I knew I had to get out. I was terrified to leave this nearly 7-year relationship, but I did, and I never looked back… and that’s when I truly began to do the most difficult, yet also the most healing unmasking work.

It’s now been almost 4 years since I’ve been out of that relationship, and I’ve come so far. I’ve learned to find meaning and beauty in all of my years of heavy subconscious masking. I still have my struggles, but I’ve found coping methods that help me a lot. I’ve made peace with all of my differences, and I’ve come to love them all as part of my unique human experience. Most of all, I’ve learned what it means to truly love myself, even when it means doing hard things.

Young woman embraces her autistic identity and the nature around her while on a walk in boots and a dress
Courtesy of Katie Shuman

But I’m not done unmasking yet.. and I never will be. The little girl who loved being praised for being good still exists within me, and she always will. And though I’m always reminding her she is already good, and she doesn’t have to try so hard, sometimes she still does anyway.

It’s in those moments I still find myself masking that I can see she’s only trying to protect me. And that’s all she was ever trying to do. In my anxiety-ridden days of elementary school, when all she did was quietly sit back and follow instructions. In her teen years, when she forgot about all of her interests, and lost herself in her boyfriend’s to please them. After high school, when she was struggling to find work, she told herself this was completely normal because she really needed to believe she was normal.

Young woman with autism and ADHD takes a selfie in a red plaid shirt with sunglasses on and a red bow in her hair
Courtesy of Katie Shuman

These are just a few examples of the ways I’ve masked over the years. When I still catch myself masking today, I see the little girl who is only always trying to protect me. It’s in those moments I can hold her and gently remind her she doesn’t have to do that anymore because I’m with her now, and I’ll always be looking out for her.

In the last few years, I’ve started a practice where I lovingly gaze at myself in the mirror and speak to myself kindly. When I first started this practice, I was still healing from a lot of anxiety and depression. I was in a very dark place. Like the young toddler who could barely stand the sight of her own face staring back at her, 24-year-old me felt so much shame when she looked in the mirror. It felt so painful for her to see herself, but nonetheless, she was relentless at lovingly gazing at herself every time she felt shame. As I continued with that practice, it became easier and easier for me to look at myself in the mirror. Eventually, it became a deep source of comfort for me, and a way to feel closer to myself in my darkest moments.

Today, there are days when I feel deeply in touch with myself, overjoyed, and in love with the beauty of life… and there are days when I feel lost, out of touch with myself, and doubtful of my power. Now when I feel this way, I know now that although I may feel lost, I never am. It’s when I look deeply into my eyes in the mirror and tell myself, ‘I love you, I see you, you are doing your best, and I am so so proud of you,’ that I remember I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

Young woman accepting her autistic identity poses in front of a ton of flowers in a floral dress with matching flowers in her hair
Courtesy of Katie Shuman

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Katie Shuman of Oakland, FL. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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