Interview with “Late Bloomer: How an Autism Diagnosis Changed My Life” author Clem Bastow

What made you want to write about your experiences as an autistic woman and exploring a diagnosis at 36?

Autistic people are so rarely given the opportunity to be the “experts” in our own experiences – many of the most popular books about Autism aren’t written by Autistic people – so I wanted to pay homage to all the incredible Autistic people I know and admire, and reclaim some of our experiences from the deficit model that colours so many narratives about Autism. Writing Late Bloomer was a real ride, because I wanted to use my own experience to help give broader context to things that many Autistic people experience (and also, the things that the non-Autistic people who love them want to know more about) but at the same time I was really beginning to understand my own experience!

I like to call it a “time-travelling memoir”, because it starts with diagnosis and then goes back in time to consider experiences I’ve had that I can now recognise as being Autistic in nature, and also looks ahead to the future.

In the opening of your book you talk about why you prefer identity-first language over person-first language. Could you explain to someone who isn’t aware of the difference why this is important to you?

So identity-first language (“Autistic person”) is different from person-first language (“person with Autism”) because it recognises that Autism is a really important part of who we are. It’s not something that we “have” or “live with” but something that makes us, us.

For me, my identity as Autistic acknowledges that in my moments of strength and struggle, I’m always Autistic: I can’t take it off or change it! It’s certainly not the only way to identify, or even necessarily the “right” way, but increasingly I think many Autistic people are preferring identity-first language because it’s a way of standing proud as Autistic people and saying “this is me, and you can’t change it”.

Since diagnosis, how has your relationship with masking changed?

A lot! Over the last three years (half of which were spent writing Late Bloomer), I’ve come to realise just how firmly attached that mask was for so much of my life. It’s been an opportunity to really consider who I am underneath it, and begin to peel back those layers of “fake neurotypical” onion skin. I think that unmasking is something that I will continue to experience for many years; in some ways, it’s bittersweet, because I do feel like there are some innate and authentic Autistic experiences and behaviours that I’ve repressed so intensely I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get them back.

That’s a really unique pain, and I hope that it’s something that people start to consider when they push for Autistic people to undergo certain “therapies”: you are trying to change someone’s inherent personhood.

Do you have any tips for recognising you’re experiencing autistic burnout? And following up, do you have any tips for recovering from it?

It’s something I’m getting better at: I’ll notice that I feel absolutely wrecked and don’t know why; I sometimes describe it as feeling like I’ve done an all-nighter before a first-year uni project is due (something I’m intimately familiar with!!), like I’ve just got no emotional or mental acuity left.

I’ll also find that my coordination is off and I start dropping things and walking into stuff, and speaking can get really difficult: first I forget people’s names (even people I’ve known for decades!) and then I start “losing” words, too! I’ve found that the best thing to do is to try to take a break: switch off the phone, have a bath, return to something I know and love (like a movie I’ve seen a million times, or doing some special interest “research” online).

Playing with my dog Milly or taking her for a walk helps, too, as does recharging with my family or my girlfriend.

Autistic burnout is still something I find hard to accept in myself, because it wasn’t so long ago that I didn’t know I was Autistic, so I just thought I was “tired” or “lazy”; now, I try to acknowledge that I have support needs and whether I like it or not, they need to be respected!

What is something you would like people to know about how autism can differ for women and gender-diverse people?

That it can “look” really different! I had no idea that there were different presentations; that young girls can seem quite outgoing and confident, or that we might experience gender dysphoria during adolescence. Because so many screeners and quizzes are based on the “traditional” idea of a male presentation, the few times I considered Autism earlier in my life I would inevitably “fail” the quiz because, for example, I liked loud places (the Royal Show, concerts) and I didn’t necessarily want to be by myself all the time.

I think it’s really important for people not to make this another binary, because it’s not that you “either” have “male Autism” or “female Autism”, but that it can present differently and that means what we might have dismissed in females and gender diverse people as “not Autistic” might very well be Autism.

What is your favourite part about being autistic?

I love how passionately I connect with my interests; I love going deep and learning about things I’m interested in. Also, I think my Autistic way of thinking (which is associative and likes to find weird connections between seemingly disparate things) has really helped me in my postgraduate research. I love, for example, that I was able to write an academic book chapter about how Stranger Things’ scripts evoke the voice of the Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master!

There are probably a lot of adults who may be having the same thoughts and feelings you were when considering exploring an autism diagnosis. Do you have any advice for them?

It’s a very personal thing, and I always note that it’s also not a possibility for a lot of people – it’s expensive, there are far fewer professionals who can diagnose Autism in adults than in kids, and it’s much harder to get a diagnosis if you’re female, gender diverse, a person of colour or have intersecting disabilities or mental illness, or live regionally or in a remote area. For this reason, self diagnosis is often the first step on the journey for many people.

For me, though, I knew that my attempts to “diagnose” myself in the past had clearly not uncovered the truth (self-diagnosis, after all, is just as likely to result in misdiagnosis, unfortunately!), and I also knew that if I were to pursue further supports (which, again, are thin on the ground compared to what’s available to kids and young people) it would be helpful to have an “official” diagnosis – as a researcher and screenwriter I was also just really interested in the diagnostic process! It wouldn’t have been possible for me to afford a diagnosis five years ago when, like so many Autistic people, I was chronically under-employed; I was lucky to have saved some money and to also have the support of my family. (While I’ve got you, call or email your local member and ask what their party is doing to fund adult Autism services!)

So, for those who are just starting to think about whether diagnosis might be right for them, I recommend reading all you can about Autism, and watching some of the many excellent videos out there; there’s great content being made by people like Chloe Hayden, and also terrific documentaries like Channel 4’s Are You Autistic?, which may help “ring some bells” if you’re starting to think about your own place in the world.

Amaze’s Autism Connect is also a great resource, particularly as there are a number of #ActuallyAutistic people on the other end of the phone number and chat lines who can guide you towards helpful resources. But the most important thing to remember, whatever the outcome of your diagnostic journey turns out to be, is that you have worth and are worthy of love, no matter your neurotype.

Clem Bastow is a cultural critic, autism advocate and screenwriting researcher based in Melbourne, Australia. Her debut book Late Bloomer: How An Autism Diagnosis Changed My Life is out now.

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