Ikenna Lughna, MS, LGPC on Apr 03, 2023 in Mood and Feelings
As neurodivergence becomes more and more of a hot topic, I’ve been seeing how my late-diagnosis journey (as well as other neurodivergent adults in my life) has prompted a “rebirth” process. Just like childbirth, it can be traumatic, overwhelming, and you can feel lost, searching for the next steps that make sense for you. Dominant culture’s structure to life is oppressive, but it was the structure we knew and understood. Authenticity and unmasking are terrifying because it involves trusting the one person society deemed not fit to trust: yourself.
I was a late bloomer when it comes to stepping into authenticity, which isn’t a surprise (realized I was queer at 21, nonbinary at 24, autistic at 27). AFABs often struggle with the need to fit in, and I was no different.
While I had amazing gifts and talents in music and academics, socialization was a thing I never thought I was good at. I would start to sit back and observe, gather data, and then apply my conclusions to attempts to make conversation. I didn’t know how to take up space. No one seemed to have an easy answer or structure for me to follow to be a good friend or communicator. This was until I went to get my graduate degree in Clinical Mental Health.
Graduate school was AMAZING for my undiagnosed autistic self. Do you want scripts and strategies for active listening? Do you want to learn about different modalities of how to show up as a therapist? I latched onto these structures and started applying them to everyone in my life. I felt like I finally had the tools I needed to show up in spaces. However, it wasn’t until during my internship with a practice that works with primarily neurodivergent kids and teens that I started to realize I STILL wasn’t really stepping into authenticity. I just found another mask to use: one of a therapist.
The internship was amazing because it utilized play therapy and person-centered modalities that encouraged me to show up in the space with my clients as myself. This caused a lot of processing with my lovely and patient supervisor, who reassured me that modeling my authenticity to others allows them to feel safe to step into their authenticity as well. Authentic me isn’t perfect (and that’s okay!).
In the rebirth process, we have to reparent ourselves. Parenting is hard in general — but an undiagnosed autistic child? Extra hard. I was intelligent, so expectations were often raised higher than my developmental age. Then I would disappoint people when I wasn’t socially ready. Looking back, the structure society provided me was very authoritarian in nature. After accepting my neurodivergence, I was devastated for my child self for having to endure the pain of being undiagnosed and misunderstood.
I felt a sense of guilt and responsibility to the parts of me I abandoned because society deemed those parts “inappropriate.” A common experience of late-diagnosed autistics is that they feel “more autistic” after their diagnosis. It’s the peeling back of layers of the neurodivergent aspects that were ignored and holding them with the tenderness they didn’t receive for decades. The healing process can be one of allowing those hurt and ignored parts of us to come to the surface, but I found myself in a trap for a good year where I permitted those parts of me to take over.
The guilt and sadness I felt towards those parts made me not want them to experience the authoritarian parenting, so instead, I provided the opposite when I was reparenting these parts, which was being permissive. Permissive is often what people assume play therapists provide. I have had many parent support sessions where the parents took in my psychoeducation regarding what play therapy entailed, and they’re like, “Wait, so I just let my kids do things they shouldn’t?”
We want the child, parent, sibling, pet, etc. to be safe, first and foremost. This means we need to have curiosity and compassion… and also limits and boundaries. Children still need structure. They’re going to test the limits to make sure the adults around them notice and keep them safe. My neurodivergent parts really enjoyed testing limits, to which I didn’t say anything because I felt bad for abandoning them for so long. This led to me feeling less and less capable to get anything done because the neurodivergent aspects of me kept convincing me to play for an extra 15 minutes, so to speak.
When 2023 rolled around, I realized I was not where I wanted to be in terms of how I was handling life. I dug myself a cozy hole where I could use my neurodivergence as an excuse for not having many responsibilities. I soon came to understand that I was leaning into the secondary gains of my autism. Yes, neurodivergence can be debilitating, but if we don’t look at how it affects us to determine what accommodations and compensations we need to succeed, then we’re resisting the idea that we’re capable of handling more responsibilities if given the tools we need.
The process of learning who you truly are after society shamed you for so long can be intense and very long. We have to learn how to reparent our younger neurodivergent parts in an open, loving, authoritative way in order to integrate them and provide them with the structure and safety they’ve needed.