- Many people experience a sense of relief after being diagnosed with autism in adulthood.
- Yet that initial relief may soon be replaced by self-doubt, in what is widely known as imposter syndrome.
- Reactions of friends, family, and colleagues can make some people question whether they are truly autistic.
- It is possible to work through imposter syndrome and embrace one's new diagnosis.
Discovering that you're autistic later in life often comes as a huge relief. When I found out I was autistic, it provided me with answers that had eluded me through years of therapy. Understanding why certain aspects of my life were so challenging helped me feel empowered and gave me a better sense of how to move forward. Finally, I had something concrete to work with. Most late-diagnosed people I meet express similar sentiments.
Yet at the same time that autistic adults are trying to move forward armed with their new knowledge, there’s often one thing holding them back: a hefty dose of imposter syndrome.
The imposter phenomenon, more popularly known as imposter syndrome, refers to feelings of self-doubt and the fear of being exposed as a fraud.1 While the original research on the imposter phenomenon focused on high-achieving women’s fears of being exposed in an intellectual or academic capacity, the concept of imposter syndrome is now applied to a wide range of situations, often in the workplace, in which people feel like a fraud.
As much as most of my clients initially embrace their autism diagnosis, after a few weeks or so, they often start bringing up feeling like an imposter. For instance, my client Reika told me, “I was so happy straight after the diagnosis. I thought it made sense of everything. But now I’m questioning it all. Was I just looking for an excuse? Am I just a difficult person to be around?” Anita, another client, explained that she felt like a fraud because “I’ve lived for fifty years without knowing that I am autistic. How can that be possible? I’m not even sure about my diagnosis. Did I just make stuff up?”
How close others respond to a diagnosis can also make a big impact on whether someone experiences imposter syndrome. My client Alice told me, “I felt more sure of myself after my diagnosis than I had in years. But since then, my husband has come in with little digs. He won’t really accept that I’m autistic." Friends, too, can be a challenge. "Some friends have been supportive," Alice added, "but one keeps pointing out that I didn’t used to behave in certain ways before my diagnosis. I see that as unmasking. She sees it as putting on an act. I’m very confused at the moment."
How Autistic Adults Can Deal with Imposter Syndrome
- Trust your healthcare provider. If you were diagnosed by a qualified healthcare professional, trust that they saw enough to diagnose you as autistic. Autism cannot be diagnosed in the same way that some physical conditions can—which means that you have to trust the opinion of an experienced professional.
- Remind yourself of the reason you sought out a diagnosis. If you hadn’t been facing issues in some areas, you likely would not have gone through the trouble of getting a diagnosis.
- Friends, family members, and colleagues are not the authorities of your experience. Anyone who says you're "putting on an act” or that you "don't look autistic” has no idea what it’s like to be you. They may only have ever seen the masked version and can’t come to terms with your authentic self. Unless people are professionals who are trained in autism, their opinion is less important than what you feel or what a professional has told you.
- Remember that adjustment periods are normal. You have lived an entire life identifying with particular roles, and being autistic is completely new to you. It’s perfectly natural that it will take time to adapt and accept that you are autistic.
- Accept that autism is a wide spectrum with a variety of experiences. While you can seek support from other autistic people, avoid comparing yourself to them. You are an individual and you might have a completely different experience from your autistic friend or colleague.
- Identify other areas of your life in which you have experienced imposter syndrome. If you’ve experienced it in other contexts, it is likely indicative of a larger pattern of self-doubt. It could be helpful to explore why you feel like a fraud in certain situations and, if necessary, seek out therapy to help you work through some of those underlying issues.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006