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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

How to Navigate Life After an Adult Autism Diagnosis

By Patty Laushman


Congratulations! You’ve received a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, either through a psychologist or neuropsychologist – or you’ve self-diagnosed. As you know, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a difference in brain wiring that can cause challenges for an individual in areas of relationships, executive functioning, and sensory challenges. You have probably already begun to understand why you’ve struggled with certain things your whole life. Depending on the environments in which you’ve operated throughout your life, it can be quite disabling.

An image of someone handing someone else a set of keys that will symbolically unlock their future.

The good news is that for many people, receiving an autism diagnosis, especially later in life, is similar to being handed a key. The key can unlock doors of self-understanding, acceptance, and growth, but it can also open floodgates of emotions like relief, confusion, validation, or even overwhelm. Such a revelation often marks the beginning of an incredible journey of self-discovery.


In general, your journey will probably involve a series of steps through which you may move forward and back repeatedly – self-understanding, self-acceptance, self-advocacy, and ultimately thriving. My hope for you is that through this process you will come to recognize and celebrate your unique strengths. Your best life will be one where you get to leverage these strengths as much as possible, so be on the lookout!


Understanding Your Diagnosis

An autistic woman receiving her diagnostic report and asking specific questions.

We at Thrive Autism Coaching prefer to think of an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis as being “identified” as autistic, just like children with IQs above 130 are “identified” as gifted rather than “diagnosed” as gifted. But for the purposes of this blog post, I will use the word diagnosis because its place in the DSM-5-TR increases its recognition and is the reason that some services and protections may become available to you now.


Seek Clarity on Specifics

Upon diagnosis, the first instinct for many is to dive headfirst into the vast ocean of information available. I recommend working to understand the intricacies of your individual profile as a starting point, so as you learn new information or learn about the experiences of other autistic individuals, remember that every autistic person is different. 


A quote by Dr. Stephen Shore: "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism."

Both your strengths and challenges will be different, and understanding your profile is the most important first step on the journey to thriving. Are there particular traits or behaviors associated with your diagnosis? If you received a formal diagnosis, your diagnostic report should have numerous details about your profile. Understanding these can offer insight into past experiences and what your future needs are in creating your best life.


Debunking Myths and Misconceptions

The narrative around autism has, unfortunately, been riddled with misconceptions. From the unfounded and repeatedly debunked myth linking vaccines to autism to the stereotype that all autistic individuals possess savant skills, these misconceptions create barriers to accurate information. Complicating this is the fact that many professionals practicing today received little to no training on neurodiversity, and much of what many did learn is obsolete now.


These issues create a need to separate fact from fiction related to autism. Resources from reputable organizations like this blog by Thrive Autism Coaching and autism-related non-profits like the national and local autism societies can be invaluable.


A bookshelf with lots of books on it with a green plant vine hanging down over the books.

The world is filled with books, documentaries, and websites dedicated to shedding light on autism. From scientific research to memoirs, these resources can provide diverse insights into the spectrum. Some recommended starting points include the recommended reading and neurodivergent adult resources sections of the Thrive Autism Coaching website.


While expert opinions are valuable, there's also no substitute for learning from the lived experiences of other autistic individuals. I particularly recommend books, blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels helmed by fellow autists, which offer firsthand accounts of their journeys, challenges, and triumphs. As you learn about others’ experiences, you will likely think “me too,” realizing that others have had experiences in life very similar to your own. You will probably find them very validating.


Embrace Self-Acceptance

Once you have a better understanding of your autism profile, learning to accept yourself is the next step in the journey toward thriving.


Recognizing and Accepting Neurodiversity

Autism is a showcase of the human brain’s amazing diversity. Your neurodiversity is not a flaw; it's simply a different way of experiencing and interacting with the world. By recognizing this, you pave the way for self-acceptance.


You might want to check out my blog post on neurodiversity: Autism and the Neurodiversity Paradigm - Changing the Conversation. My hope is that it changes the way you think about yourself and your challenges in a way that helps you begin focusing on your strengths. This is the shortest path to self-acceptance.


Self-Compassion and the Dangers of Comparison

A woman snuggled in a blanket embracing herself in a moment of self-compassion.

In a world largely built around what neurotypical brains prefer, it's easy to fall into the comparison trap by measuring yourself against a yardstick that is not helpful. This is called internalized ableism. This is why it's important to practice self-compassion and remember that everyone, neurotypical or neurodivergent, has their own challenges, strengths, and unique paths.


Celebrate Your Strengths

Being autistic often comes with a suite of strengths. It may be an incredible attention to detail, a deep passion for specific subjects, or a unique way of problem-solving. Use these strengths to your advantage by identifying them, embracing them, and letting them shine wherever you can. They are as much a part of your autism as any challenges you face.


You’ve probably spent a good percentage of your life trying to ameliorate your perceived weaknesses. Now is the time to start building a life that enables you to focus on your strengths. 


Seek Support

The path of self-discovery and understanding after an autism diagnosis isn’t one you must take alone. Seeking and accepting support helps you find a stabilizing force through challenges and a source of celebration during triumphs.


The Power of Community

Engaging with others with similar experiences can be enlightening and comforting. Their stories can offer wisdom, hope, and practical advice, which will remind you that while every autistic journey is unique, there are shared experiences and lessons to lean on.

An autistic adult joins others in a community service project to clean up the beach.

Look for opportunities to join autism support groups or communities that offer a safe space to share experiences, learn from others, and create a sense of belonging. Whether online or in person, these communities provide a platform to connect with individuals who truly "get it." 


One option is the Neurodivergent Adults Support Facebook group moderated by me. You can also find both local and virtual Meetup groups that center around neurodiversity, and your local Autism Society likely has a list of meetup and support groups for both autistic teens and adults and their parents.


Professional Support

Many people who receive an autism diagnosis as a teen or adult have had very poor experiences with mental health therapy and other professions. The problem is usually that your neurodiversity was not taken into account, and the results can easily be unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. 


Now that you have this new information about yourself, I cannot overemphasize the value of mental health therapy with a neurodiversity-informed and -affirming practitioner. There is literally no substitute for this kind of help.


At the risk of sounding biased, I also recommend autism life coaching with a life coach who has either a deep understanding of neurodiversity and/or lived experience with the kind of success in that lived experience you are personally hoping to achieve. We can work on goals that are critical to creating your best life that there is just not time for in mental health therapy, and therapists are also generally not trained to work on these things. 


You can contact us to schedule a complimentary consultation to discuss your situation and what you are hoping to get out of coaching. We will then figure out who on our team is the best match for your situation and goals.


If you’d like to go deeper into other therapies and interventions that tend to work best for autistic teens and adults, you can read my blog post on Effective Therapies and Interventions for Autistic Adults.


Developing Coping Strategies

Life presents everyone with challenges, but for autistic individuals, some of these challenges have unique dimensions – and now you know why you’ve struggled. With this new information about yourself, the work you do to create new skills and coping strategies is likely to be far more effective. 


You might also decide that what was important to you before is no longer important, and coping with specific situations means leaving or otherwise not dealing with them! For the things that are important to you, sensory sensitivities, social interactions, or sudden changes can become potential stressors, but when equipped with the right coping strategies, these challenges can be managed with greater ease and confidence. Below are some tips that can help.


Addressing Sensory Sensitivities

Many autistic individuals experience over- and under-responsivity to sensory experiences. Recognizing what overstimulates or understimulates you is the first step. Common solutions used by autistic teens and adults include things like noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, weighted blankets, or sensory toys depending on personal preferences. 


A man with a dark mustache and goatee wearing a ski cap holding his hands over his ears due to sensory sensititivities.

A well-informed autism life coach or mental health therapist can offer general ideas. If your sensory sensitivities are severely impacting your life, an occupational therapist who specializes in neurodivergent adults can help you build a detailed coping plan.


Creating Routines and Structured Environments

Predictability can offer comfort. Structuring your day, establishing routines, and using executive functioning aids like calendars and alarms can provide a sense of order amidst chaos. This structure can be especially helpful in times of change or uncertainty.


Managing Stress and Anxiety

Autistic individuals often experience heightened anxiety. Techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, or even engaging in a favorite hobby can act as calming anchors. 


Additionally, consider seeking tools or therapies designed for stress management in autistic individuals. Specifically, a neurodiversity-informed mental health therapist can help, and many autistic individuals benefit from anxiety medication managed by a psychiatrist.


Preparation and Social Scripting

If social situations seem daunting, then preparing for them ahead of time can help. This might include rehearsing potential conversations, setting clear boundaries, or even having exit strategies if situations become overwhelming.


If you struggle with severe social anxiety, doing some explicit social skills training with a professional like an autism life coach or speech language pathologist can be transformative. Increased skill generally leads to increased confidence. This helps you put yourself out there more often, which helps you experience more social success, which is self-reinforcing. 


A screenshot of a space-based video game.

Seeking Solace in Special Interests

Many autistic individuals have deep, passionate interests in specific subjects. Immersing oneself in these can provide not only joy but also a sanctuary from overwhelming stimuli or situations. When things get tough, try leveraging this unique aspect of autistic brain wiring to calm your nervous and sensory systems.


Building Relationships and Social Connections

Although relationships and social interactions can be complex for everyone, autistic individuals often face unique challenges in these areas because of social communication and processing differences. That said, with understanding, self-awareness, and specific strategies, forming meaningful connections becomes not just possible but fulfilling when you integrate this new information about yourself into your approach.


Seeking Interest-Based Communities

All friendships are based on common interests, so engaging with groups centered around your interests can be a great way to connect with others. You will always have something to talk about and not have to worry as much about what to say next or awkward pauses in the conversations. Shared passions often become the bridge that creates lasting friendships.


Navigating Social Scenarios

Social norms and cues can sometimes be puzzling. Because of this, learning about these through online resources or even role-playing scenarios with people you trust can be helpful. Over time, this knowledge and increased skill can make interactions smoother and more predictable.


Three young adults socializing while on a hike.

Although verbal communication can be challenging, nonverbal communication like body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice are essential to successful communication, too. There are resources and training that can help you better decipher these cues.


Social, communication, and relationship skills are areas in which autism life coaching can be particularly helpful.


Become Aware of the Ways You’ve Been Masking

While adapting to social situations is valuable, it's equally important to stay true to oneself. Masking is a way of hiding your true self in order to fit in with others whose brain wiring, behaviors, and experiences of life are more similar to the "norm" (or neurotypical people), to avoid feeling out of place or judged. 


Ideally, now that you are aware of your autism, you can begin the process of unmasking and connecting with others who accept you for your true self.


Remember that genuine connections are built on authenticity. It's okay to communicate your needs, take breaks when overwhelmed, or even decline invitations that feel too taxing.


Advocating for Oneself

In relationships, it's important to voice your feelings, needs, and concerns. Whether it's letting someone know about your sensory sensitivities or expressing a preference in communication styles, advocating for yourself results in understanding and empathy.


Just as it's important to understand others, it's critical for others to respect and understand you. Set clear boundaries regarding your comfort zones, sensory sensitivities, or conversation topics. Healthy relationships thrive on mutual respect.


Career and Education

Navigating educational and employment environments as an autistic individual can present its own challenges. However, armed with knowledge, self-advocacy, and the ability to leverage one's unique strengths, these arenas can become spaces for growth, fulfillment, and achievement.


Understanding Rights in Education


Two students in a classroom being accommodated by their teacher.

Every student, irrespective of neurodiversity, has the right to a favorable learning environment. Familiarize yourself with educational rights, accommodations, and support services available in schools and higher education institutions. This might include accommodations such as quiet testing environments, extended time to take tests, or access to assistive notetaking technologies.


Many colleges and universities have an office dedicated to helping students who learn differently gain the accommodations they need. If you have never accessed these types of services before, they will likely need a copy of your diagnostic report – a self-diagnosis will not be enough. You can contact them to find out what their process is.


Autism-Friendly Employers

As their awareness and understanding of autism grows, employers may begin recognizing the strengths that autistic individuals bring to the table. Seek out companies known for their inclusive policies, or those that have partnerships with organizations dedicated to neurodiversity.


Keep in mind, though, that just because a company has a neurodiversity hiring initiative does not mean your front-line manager will be informed or even follow the practices laid out by the organization. Much still depends on the individual manager’s willingness to comply. In my experience, the best managers are still the ones who have a personal connection to neurodiversity, either their own or in a family member.


Harnessing Strengths

Autistic individuals often have unique strengths, be they attention to detail, deep focus, or creative problem-solving. Identify and nurture these strengths to position them as assets in your academic or professional career. Learn how to communicate them front and center during the interview process or when asking for accommodations at work.


If you struggle to get through the interview process, the best thing you can do besides working explicitly on interviewing skills is to build a portfolio of your work. Showing employers what you can do rather than telling them is more powerful proof of your skills and abilities. 

A young professional man creating a portfolio of his work for his next job interview.

Considering Entrepreneurship

For some, the structured environments and social minefields of traditional workplaces might not be the best fit. In such cases, entrepreneurship can be an avenue worth exploring. In fact, some of the best entrepreneurs in the world are neurodivergent. It allows for greater flexibility, autonomy, and the ability to design a work environment tailored to one's needs.


The next question people typically ask is how to get started. The answer I give is that Thrive Autism Coaching has coaches who have helped our clients start their own businesses and do other things like write books or start podcasts. You can schedule a complimentary consultation to explore whether this is a fit for you.


Another top concern is how to fill their skills gaps, such as executive functioning skills. Most people find that when the business is their own, their motivation to complete tasks skyrockets because they have total autonomy. I then recommend working with a coach to improve executive functioning skills.


Long term, if there are executive functioning skills that are still not strong enough, you can work to find a partner who fills those gaps. No one can be excellent at everything. Partnering with someone who is good at things you are not (and vice versa) is how the most successful businesses in the world got off the ground.


Mentorship and Networking

Building connections with others in your field, especially anyone knowledgeable about the nuances of neurodiversity, is also beneficial. These relationships can provide guidance, open doors to opportunities, and offer support during challenges.

A professional woman doing an informational interview with a professional man at a table.

Whether you are still in school or already working, informational interviews are hugely beneficial for learning about career options and specific organizations you might want to work at, and they help you build your professional network. These connections can help you later with advice and even job opportunities.


And when you start a new job, I always recommend looking specifically for an ally who is not your supervisor. This is someone who can decode the nuances of the organization's culture, help you understand what is happening in the social landscape, and give you great advice on how to handle challenging situations. 


Conclusion

Receiving an autism diagnosis often comes with a mix of emotions and realizations. However, many people find it’s an inflection point in their life that is the beginning of a journey involving self-understanding, self-acceptance, and self-advocacy. Working through these steps can be a transformative and empowering experience. 


You are not just adapting to new realities. You are embracing your unique neurodiversity and harnessing it to craft a life that's authentically yours. With each step, you're not just navigating life – you're redefining it on your terms.


Remember, autism is a part of who you are, and it comes with its own set of strengths and challenges. Ideally, you can come to appreciate your distinct perspective and fill your life with people who accept you for who you are and see your many strengths. 


Leverage the resources and support available to you, engage with the autism community, and seek guidance from professionals who understand and celebrate neurodiversity where appropriate. Even if you’ve had bad experiences in the past, this new information about who you are and how your brain works will inform your future experiences. 


By embracing your neurodiversity, advocating for your needs, and focusing on your strengths, you'll find you are no longer just coping with life – you're thriving in it. 


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