Imposter syndrome was a term coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. It refers to an individual having persistent self-doubt about their achievements, place in the world or role, despite evidence which says otherwise. Basically, believing that you are a fraud.
For the huge amount of autistic people who experience imposter syndrome, this boils down to questions such as these:
“Am I faking being autistic?”
“Is my diagnosis wrong?”
“Am I pretending to be autistic?”
This can be particularly pronounced among those diagnosed late. Because, well, “I got through X amount of years without anyone noticing, so am I just making this up? Perhaps I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Perhaps I am just useless.”
Obsessing over these thoughts can cause a lot of anxiety, self-doubt and low mood. The relief many of us feel (though of course not shared by all!) when we are diagnosed at having an explanation of WHY life was SO hard can slowly dwindle, and we are left with self-doubt.
There are many reasons why autistic imposter syndrome is widely experienced.
To begin with, most of us have grown up without an understanding of what autism actually is. Our idea of it was based on media, or one autistic person we happened to know (and everyone is different!).
And of course, the number of people who say “Well you don’t look autistic” or “Are you SURE you’re autistic?” just feeds into this. If we don’t present exactly like the white, cis autistic males shown on TV, we’re made to wonder if we’re making it up.
Because we don’t see ourselves represented anywhere. So it’s no wonder that we are going to question if we are really autistic.
I think another reason is that a lot of us grow up masking/copying the behaviours of those around us to fit in. I can be a bit like a chameleon, blending into whatever environment I’m in in different ways. So, I question what is actually ME and what are things I’ve learned.
And of course, the misconceptions of what autistic people can and can’t do are so widely prevalent. Autistic people can’t make eye contact. Autistic people don’t like socialising. Autistic people don’t like parties. Etc, etc. All true for some, but not all.
Not fitting those stereotypes can lead to a lot of self-doubt. Even when you KNOW they are stereotypes, and you KNOW there is such misinformation out there, it can be incredibly hard to battle this in our minds when most of us are so hard on ourselves anyway.
And it’s not just imposter syndrome about our diagnosis being wrong. It’s imposter syndrome about many things. I’m sure masking makes me come across more capable than I am. Everything can feel exhausting because socialising/following instructions etc doesn’t come naturally but I hide it, and I learn how to do things I probably should already know quietly, by copying others and using blueprints of things I have learned in the past to manage the task efficiently. When I doubt my abilities, people say “Don’t be silly, you’re great!” But inside, it is taking all of my energy and all of my skills and I feel like I am collapsing and don’t know what to do next. It feels like I am just copying others, not actually managing it myself. So the praise doesn’t feel right.
But back to the doubt, “Am I really autistic?”. I often question “Am I acting more autistic now than I was before my diagnosis?” and “If I am, am I faking it?” No, I’m not. I know now that I am autistic. I am learning what that means and trying to unwrap the years of hiding.
It’s okay to have these thoughts. It doesn’t mean you are faking it or aren’t autistic. Someone who was faking being autistic wouldn’t spend hours worrying about if they are faking. And it is so widely experienced. You are not alone. Share your worries with other autistic people, if you can.