'Acting as somebody else': What it's like to be diagnosed with autism at 32

Before Sunshine Coast artist Martin 'Woody' Robinson was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, he spent a decade in the corporate world "acting as somebody else".

But that mask lifted six years ago when he was 32, as his life unravelled.

"One thing led to another and clearly I didn't know who I was," Mr Robinson said.

"My marriage fell apart, lost my home, car and all that sort of sob story."

With the help of a psychologist, Mr Robinson began to understand himself by identifying triggers and learning coping strategies in order to better function in day-to-day life.

"I can't really cope with large groups of people on a constant basis, for example. I shut down and I need a bit of quiet time," he said.

"It affects people differently, but in my case it's social and general anxiety, and most of the time it really affects me physically in terms of physical health."

Mr Robinson said the diagnosis had been life-changing and split his life into two distinct parts.

The first 32 years were marked by a "state of confusion", but his life now is "very" different.

After he was diagnosed, Mr Robinson moved from Tasmania to south-east Queensland for better support networks, and to continue studying graphic design.

Photo Mr Robinson says in order to prepare for his live radio interview with Sarah Howells, he had no face-to-face conversations with anyone for two days beforehand.

An interviewee's perspective Supplied: Martin Robinson
Coping strategies

Mr Robinson manages his condition without medication but engages other strategies.

"This is my first conversation I've had with someone face-to-face in two-and-a-half days," he told ABC presenter Sarah Howells.

"And I've done that deliberately … I've got to recharge my batteries to constantly deal with people, because autism spectrum affects the communication side of things.

"I use cognitive behavioural therapy. [It] works for some people and in my case it did."

Mr Robinson has also incorporated the diagnosis into his artwork, recently creating a comic strip based on actual toys.

But the toys are not perfect and shiny — they are broken and defective.

Photo Mr Robinson's comic strip is based on toys with imperfections.

A black and white comic strip called Woody and the Schlock Gang Supplied: woodystudio.com.au

"So I use them in this motley crew, including myself, and try to find the positivity in being rejected or unwanted," he said.

"They come together and go on these crazy adventures."

Mr Robinson related to the feelings he tried to depict in the comic strip.

"I don't sit in a corner and cry," he said.

"I just get up and get on with it — but there is that feeling of being rejected, like for example my marriage."

All too familiar story

Autism is characterised by differences in behaviour, social interaction and sensory processing.

The differences can present on a sliding scale, hence the term "spectrum" is used to reflect that range. There is no known cause, and there are a range of symptoms.

Vicki Gibbs, a clinical psychologist and the national manager of Autism Spectrum Australia's (Aspect) research and assessment team, said Mr Robinson's description of feeling rejected and pretending to be someone else were common in adults diagnosed with autism.

"A lot of the adults that I talk to, they would definitely relate to his description … I'd say that's a really common experience," she said.

"Yes, they've functioned but many times it's been really difficult.

"They've gone through life feeling like they never quite fit in or having to pretend to be somebody that they're not, so they don't feel like they're being authentic.

"And have to hide who they really are because they perceive it [autism] as not well received."

Autism Spectrum Disorder is most commonly diagnosed in children, but Ms Gibbs said the rate at which adults were requesting an assessment for autism was increasing.

"Over the last up to 10 years we have become increasingly aware of how autism looks, particularly in people who we consider to be more mildly affected, who are otherwise very able individuals with normal IQ who have been through mainstream school and have reasonable language," she said.

"These are people who 10, 15 and certainly 20 years ago we would not have recognised them as being possibly on the spectrum, but now we are more aware of what these subtle social differences can look like.

"And I say subtle, but they can have quite a big impact on people, but we didn't understand that was autism.

"People might have attributed that to other things or used other terms to describe people."

'I thought I was mad or bad'

Audio 4:01 Vicki Gibbs speaks with Kylie Bartholomew about the challenges and relief adults face when diagnosed with autism later in life.

woman smiling gently at the camera ABC News

Ms Gibbs said adults often sought a diagnosis to better understand themselves, and a sense of relief was the most common emotion afterwards.

"I had one guy in his late 50s say to me 'All my life I thought I was either mad or bad. I didn't realise I was just different and nobody really understood'," she said.

Ms Gibbs said factors that triggered an assessment included seeing similarities in a loved one who had been diagnosed, for their own peace of mind, or a spouse may instigate the process to better understand what was causing friction in the relationship.

"Often it's the wife bringing in her husband where there's some ongoing difficulties in the interpersonal relationship, and the wife has come across some information about autism and firmly believes that that explains some of the challenges she's been having with her other half."

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