You might not actually be autistic

You might not actually be autistic
Photo by KaLisa Veer / Unsplash

I've noticed a growing trend of women in their 30's or older being diagnosed in adulthood with autism.

(This may very well be a trend with men as well, but I'd like to focus on women here because that's what's been presenting itself to me.)

After struggling to function in a variety of ways, the woman approaches a psychologist who after listening to her symptoms and presentation diagnoses her as "autistic."

What I observe is that this diagnosis is often inaccurate.

Let me explain.

Autism is a developmental disorder by which the left hemisphere of the brain develops faster than typical whereas the right hemisphere of the brain develops slower than peers.

The right hemisphere houses neural structures involved in pro-social behavior, emotional intelligence and behavioral inhibition. Thus, children and adults with autism are often challenged when it comes to socially connecting, interpreting non-verbal cues and understanding socially appropriate behavior.

So why might women in middle age be receiving a label of autism when they're actually not autistic?

Psychologists for the most part receive very little training in neurophysiology and diagnoses center around self-reported behavior and subjective perception, in the absence of neurological assessment.

Women reporting that they prefer to spend time alone, that they're introverts, that they have trouble understanding people or behaving in socially appropriate ways, and that they feel disconnected are ticking all of the boxes of the behavioral checklist for autism. Here's your DSM code, madam. Enjoy! Congrats!

But this behavioral pattern also arises in right-brain dominant burnt out empaths. You start off super social. Super connected. Maybe the household you grew up in didn't provide consistent safe connection. So you learned to watch closely and anticipate the next moves of your caregivers.

You were so attuned and emotionally giving that you attracted some energy vampires. You were easy to control and you appreciated the attention. Until things became ugly.

Adapt the details to suit you.

But walking around super connected with poor emotional boundaries, picking up on everyone else's shit and feeling it as if it's your own is super painful. And exhausting. And confusing.

Eventually, you retreat. When you do go out and connect, you find it exhausting and need more and more time to recover after.

You're autonomically dysregulated and often feel and behave weirdly as a result.

This is not autism. This is kind of the opposite. A right brained empath burning out into introversion as a self-protective mechanism.

It's "introversion" from burning out your right hemisphere as opposed to disconnection because your right hemisphere never developed in the first place.

These folks are my adult complex chronic illness patients. Mold, Lyme, autoimmunity, chronic fatigue, fibro. Can these diseases present in left-brain dominant people? Yes, but it presents very differently.

Left-brain dominant individuals often have very poor interoception, the ability to sense their own bodily feels and internal state, which is housed mainly in the right insula. So they may be inflamed, fatigued and producing autoantibodies. And not feel a thing.

They're more likely to show amazing levels of inflammation on labs but report being "fine."

Right-brain dominant burnt out empaths, on the other hand, can feel wi-fi signals and mycotoxin spores in the parts per billion range.

In the day to day, there are a couple of ways I can usually quickly see the difference between the two presentations if I'm speaking with someone. The first is the level of interest the person shows in other people they're talking with, even if it's fake or done out of anxiety. Are you asking questions? Are you genuinely or even pretending to be interested in my answers?

Also, are you put together in your appearance? As a burnt out empath, you may have "let yourself go" when it comes to the amount of effort made in your appearance.

And yet it's still wildly more coordinated, thought out and aesthetically successful than an autistic person would typically come up with for a once in a decade event.

So the person may be saying, "I don't care about my appearance" (just like autistic people!). But really, they've reduced the frequency of manicures and salon visits. And they're wearing older clothes, but they're still reasonably put together.

They're comparing themselves to a very different baseline.

So what's the upshot? And does this even matter?

Well, I think a lot of the relief that comes with these mid-life neurodiverse diagnoses is that it gives you greater self-insight. "Ahhhh, my life finally makes sense!"

So, I think it's nice if it's as accurate as possible.

And it may be that "discovering" that you're "autistic" only kind of made sense to you. And what I'm saying here makes more sense . . .

Also, a big challenge is that if we're labelling both right and left brain dominant people as "autistic" based solely on behavior when autism is really only accurately applicable to left-brain dominant individuals, we are going to make it waaaayyy harder for everyone to understand what to do live their best life, whatever that looks like for you.

And another promising aspect is that as we better understand the brain and the patterns of function and disconnection that lead to maladaptive ways of being, we can use targeted tools to support under-functioning areas with great clinical success.

But if you're been incorrectly told that you're autistic (left-brain dominant) when you're really a burnout empath (right-brain dominant) and you start using strategies to increase the function and speed of your right brain, you may end up in a bigger pickle than you started with.

The intention here isn't to give you labels or take them away. But just to provide more context that may be helpful. If it's not, I encourage you to ignore it.

Ultimately, what I'm talking about here isn't so much about labels and diagnoses and all that. It's about accurate pattern recognition so that you can heal, grow and thrive as best as possible.