When I was 20 years old, I was told by a reputed psychologist that I have several signs of Asperger’s or high-functioning autism. She had come to that conclusion after spending several hours with me during a 2-day conference where both of us were presenting papers. Me being me, I spent the next 6 years trying to prove her wrong by overcoming every shortcoming she had attributed to autism.
How? By exploiting 2 of my strongest skills –
- Reading and understanding thousands of research papers about my difficulties, and
- Experimenting with myself until something worked.
In most areas, I surprised myself with how much progress I made. A few other challenges though, I continue to struggle with them.
When I was 26 years old, I got tired of this process and went to a therapist. I was in for another surprise. She told me quite conclusively that I have ADHD. She explained how the same behaviours can be interpreted differently when seen through the more accurate (according to her) lens of ADHD. The strongest evidence against autism, she explained, was my propensity to get easily excited about various creative pursuits that were simply too diverse for a textbook diagnosis of autism.
Naturally, I was confused AF. Turns out, even the experts are. 50% – 70% of individuals on the autism spectrum qualify for a comorbid ADHD diagnosis (it doesn’t go in reverse though). Why? Nobody knows.
Once again, me being me, I spent the next few years trying to overcome every shortcoming she had attributed to ADHD. This time, however, I made very little progress. So, I kept blaming myself. I wondered if I’m using autism or ADHD as an excuse to justify why I haven’t lived up to my “lofty potential” in the eyes of most people who knew me well. I wondered why I only have some symptoms of these conditions and not others. There were no easy answers and I remained confused AF. Eventually, I found a clue. It was called Alexithymia – a condition marked by significant difficulties in identifying, processing, and describing one’s own emotions.
I had never known that Alexithymia is highly comorbid with both autism and ADHD. None of the experts I met had ever mentioned it. Yet, unlike autism or ADHD, I had no doubts about whether I had Alexithymia or not. I clearly did and I could tell because it was clearly and uniquely defined, unlike autism or ADHD which are still diagnosed on the basis of having X out of Y vague symptoms. I was able to trace how at least a dozen of my symptoms can emerge as secondary effects of a single underlying difficulty – Alexithymia.
This discovery made me wonder what other peculiarities I may have and if uncovering them would complete my decade-long quest to understand – WTF is different about my brain? This approach turned out to be super fruitful. It still took me a couple of years to narrow down the exact set of alterations my infant brain may have started out with. I now believe there are 3 of them –
- Having a less common variant of the gene that mediates the functioning of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in my brain (making them less efficient)
- Having a less common variant of the gene that mediates the functioning of D4 dopamine receptors in my brain (making them less efficient)
None of these are essential prerequisites for an autism or ADHD diagnosis. Neither does every person with these conditions have the same neurological alterations. Yet, they are several times more common among people with these conditions than in the general population. So, there’s a connection.
The moment I started seeing my neurodivergence through the lens of these 3 underlying alterations in my brain, the process of self-improvement became simpler. Not easier, but more straightforward. I could now begin to research what specific activities or interventions were likely to help me in particular as opposed to individuals with autism or ADHD in general. I finally got unstuck in my journey toward a healthy and happy life. I know there’s still a long way to go, but at least I’m not as clueless as I was before.
In the years since then, I’ve gradually learned to discard diagnostic labels like autism or ADHD when trying to understand my own mind. Inevitably, I use the same approach to understand the minds of other neurodivergent individuals I meet. This almost always leads to an exciting exchange of ideas and I believe, a deeper sense of empathy and understanding between us.
I must add though, that I’m not prescribing or professing my approach (yet) as being better than the current mainstream approach. I just know it works better for me. I also believe that there are many more individuals like me who can benefit from this approach. If you suspect you are one of them, please feel free to reach out and say hi 🙂