The Other Autism

What Is Autistic Impostor Syndrome?

August 16, 2023 Kristen Hovet Season 3 Episode 5
The Other Autism
What Is Autistic Impostor Syndrome?
Show Notes Transcript

Feeling like a fraud or a fake autistic is so common in those who are diagnosed as autistic in adulthood. In this episode, I talk about impostor syndrome and how it relates to autistic impostor syndrome. I also talk about the impact of impostor syndrome and some strategies for coping with it.

Be sure to stick around right to the end. Toby is super chatty. And so is Google... It gets weird.

Watch this episode on YouTube.

If you'd like to know more about topics discussed in this episode, check out:

"Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: A Systematic Review" by Dena M. Bravata et al.

The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success by Pauline Rose Clance

"Introducing Autistic Impostor Syndrome" by Natalie Engelbrecht

"Feel Like a Fraud?" by Kirsten Weir

Episode outro music: "Spaceman in K-Town" by Kristen Hovet 

Theme music: "Everything Feels New" by Evgeny Bardyuzha.

All episodes written and produced by Kristen Hovet.

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Kristen Hovet:

Today we're talking about imposter syndrome as it pertains to autism and being diagnosed or identified as autistic. Before we get into it, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who voted for the Other Autism in the People's Choice Podcast Awards. You did it. The Other Autism Podcast has made it to the final slate of the 18th Annual People's Choice Podcast Awards in the education category. The finalist podcasts in each category are going through a final round of voting, which I hear involves over 20,000 listeners recruited from a pool of over 8 million who cast their votes this year. Amazing. I believe that was a record for the Podcast Awards. Voting will continue through September 9th and then winners will be announced at the virtual Podcast Awards ceremony on Saturday, September 30th, at 6pm Eastern Standard Time, which is, of course, 3pm Pacific Time. The event will be live streamed on podcastawards dot com, so be sure to mark your calendars. Okay, so let's begin by defining imposter syndrome. Now, imposter syndrome is very common for late-diagnosed autistic folks. It's one that's been commonly asked about by listeners and when I had the survey for season 3, it was one of the top voted-on items that people wanted me to talk about. So imposter syndrome isn't a formal diagnosis and it's not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also called the DSM, nor is it in the International Classification of Diseases or ICD, but it is a term used by many psychologists and other healthcare professionals to describe a specific set of feelings, thoughts, and accompanying behaviors. According to a systematic review published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine by Dena Bravata and their team, investigating imposter syndrome in the general context, so not in relation to autism specifically, imposter syndrome is often seen in quote high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter. People with imposter syndrome struggle with accurately attributing their performance to their actual competence. In other words, they attribute successes to external factors such as luck or receiving help from others, and attribute setbacks as evidence of their professional inadequacy. End quote. Imposter syndrome has also been called imposter phenomenon, fraud syndrome, perceived fraudulence or imposter experience. The term imposter syndrome or phenomenon was first described in 1978, but received widespread attention, starting in 1985 with the publication of Pauline Rose Clance's book titled the Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success. According to the American Psychological Association, or APA, imposter syndrome can include the development or exacerbation of anxiety and or depression and can accompany low self-esteem. Also, according to the APA, imposter syndrome is more common in minorities or those who experience more discrimination than is usual or typical. According again to the article by Bravata and team, who looked at more than 60 studies representing a total of more than 14,000 individuals, imposter syndrome indeed appears to be most common among minority groups. In their study, they found that imposter syndrome is particularly common among African American, Asian American, and Latino or Latina American individuals of college age. Also, regardless of type of work setting, the researchers found that imposter syndrome appears to be a significant contributor to burnout. Interestingly, while imposter syndrome isn't an official diagnostic or clinical term, there have been several tools developed to measure it. There's the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale, the Harvey Imposter Phenomenon Scale, the Leary Imposter Scale, the Perceived Fraudulence Scale, the Young Imposter Scale and others. These are, at least from my reading, often used in research looking at imposter syndrome. I want to highlight that in this research on imposter syndrome, this systematic review by Bravata and their team, it was found that individuals who report social dysfunctions or difficulties are more likely to have imposter syndrome or report traits of imposter syndrome. This makes me wonder if several autistic individuals identified or not reported traits of imposter syndrome in these studies. In fact, from my understanding and reading on this subject in the context of autism, autistic people often already have a long history with imposter syndrome in several contexts in their lives, even before they know they're autistic. Many of us will feel anywhere from a hint of imposter syndrome to a debilitating case of it whenever we've accomplished something, gotten a new job or promotion or award, or even if we're diagnosed with a mental or physical health condition or, in this case, assigned a neurotype like autism. Basically, we're prone to doubting ourselves and various changes or newness in our lives or identities in general. As we've seen earlier, imposter syndrome is a term that's usually used to describe someone who doubts their talents or accomplishments, but in the context of autism specifically, we're not talking about talents or accomplishments. Instead, imposter syndrome is a useful shorthand to describe the ways we doubt both our diagnosis and our place in the autism or autistic community. This can manifest as us feeling like frauds or like fake autistics who are not deserving of any accommodations or different treatment, and it's incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling. I've personally had many sleepless nights dealing with this and the resulting blows to my sense of self and, unfortunately, the self-sabotaging behavior that can result if not resolved in time. Thankfully, those weeks and months have passed. There's an interesting bug making sounds outside. Thankfully, those weeks and months have passed and I'm absolutely solid in my autistic identity now. My identity as an electronic music producer, on the other hand, well, currently feeling rather fraudulent actually, but that's for another episode or podcast altogether. I will, however, try to muster the courage to include my latest attempt at music in the outro of this episode. My body's tightening up, send help. Anyway, there's no one reason for autistic imposter syndrome, but typically several internal and external contributing factors. The big ones that stand out to me include the way our brains work, which is an example of a key internal factor, and the amount of support we have or don't have from people in our lives, which is an example of a key external factor. On this last point, we could have quite a bit of support in our lives typically, but it can take just one misplaced or insensitive or hurtful comment or just one nasty individual to really undo all of those positive feelings and effects of supportiveness following our autism diagnosis or identification. In an article on the Embrace Autism website, Dr Natalie Engelbrecht states that this imposter syndrome is rooted, in part, in our strong lateral thinking. Lateral thinking, also sometimes called thinking outside the box or thinking in unusual or especially creative ways, can allow us to come up with many potential alternative causes for our traits, which we can sometimes really focus on thanks to our propensity to think deeply and in great detail about a topic, situation or event. In effect, we're able to think our way out of our diagnosis. This seems to trouble and bother so many of us, both during the lead up time before our assessment and following our assessment and diagnosis. And is sometimes made worse when we tell loved ones about our identification as autistic and they respond with disbelief or incredulousness. They might say things like you don't look autistic to me, or we're all a little autistic. Or they may even argue with you and try to convince you that you're not actually autistic, basically claiming to know more than your expert university degree- emblazoned assessor, which is not cool. And I'm sorry to those of you going through this currently with loved ones or trying to work through these types of experiences from your past. It certainly isn't fun and it isn't fair. I will also say that the fact that you're questioning your autistic identity is itself a very autistic thing to do. So, oddly enough, it sort of confirms a diagnosis when that diagnosis is received in adulthood, at least in my opinion. Also, it's common to have some identity issues after a late autism diagnosis. We've known ourselves for so long with either no diagnoses and just thinking of ourselves as having a few differences or peculiarities, or we've known ourselves for so long with having a series of what we now know to be misdiagnoses or partial diagnoses, and now we have this new autistic label. In adulthood, this can be quite unsettling, even while we're feeling celebratory and relieved. These feelings and these states of being can all coexist and make for a very draining, confusing, disorienting time. So be sure to be kind to yourself, of course always, but especially focus on being kind to yourself right post-assessment and diagnosis. I want to talk a bit about the effects of experiencing imposter syndrome following identification of autism in adulthood. Doubting our diagnosis can lead us to not speaking up, not engaging, and thinking that either we don't have serious enough challenges or that we aren't autistic enough to engage or share our experiences, or even ask for help or seek out helpful resources. Many of us even go through phases where we distance ourselves from our newfound autistic community or we resist joining to begin with. Imposter syndrome can be associated with increased social isolation and masking of autistic traits, which, in turn, can be associated with increased mental health challenges. So this is also a good point to remember for all of you allies of autistic individuals listening right now. Almost all of us go through some level of imposter syndrome following our autism diagnosis, so it's important to be super supportive and, I guess, follow our lead in terms of what we might be feeling on any given day when it comes to this new identity of ours. We can be all over the place in terms of how we feel, or one day we're feeling very confident in our autistic identities and the next we're doubting it to the core and feeling quite distraught. Of course, this is super dependent on the individual, but some level of imposter syndrome seems to be expected. All of it is normal and 100% okay. That's the message I really want to get across. It's a process, and support and love and understanding will help us get through this more quickly. However, as I mentioned earlier, imposter syndrome in many contexts seems to be something that autistic individuals are particularly accustomed to, not just surrounding identification as autistic. We may never totally resolve this tendency, but we can take actions to support ourselves and to try to reduce the effects of imposter syndrome in our lives. We can, number one, take time to reflect on our accomplishments and the effort and hard work we put in to achieve those. Write them down so you have them as reminders. Write the little things, the big things, everything in between that make you proud of yourself. Believe me, when you really do this activity genuinely, you will be left with a long, long list. It could even help some of you to keep track of positive feedback and compliments you receive from others, others that you respect, trust, and look up to. It can help to go back and review these when you're slipping into imposter syndrome mode, since so many of us experience black and white or absolutist type thinking where, for example, everything's painted with a particularly caustic, negative brush. When we're in a low mood or experiencing very heavy self-doubt, it's like the whole universe in those moments is painted with that awful brush and that's all we can see. These types of lists and reflections, written down or expressed in other ways, can really help pull us out of these places. They seem simple, but they're super useful. Number two, seek regular mental health support, ideally with a trusted neurodivergent therapist or counselor. I can't stress enough the amazingness of having a fellow autistic or neurodivergent therapist or any other trusted individual who just gets you without having to explain yourself at every turn. Regularly expressing our feelings and concerns, even those related to feeling fraudulent or self-doubting, can help resolve them or attenuate them before they get worse or more debilitating. Number three, okay, the word self-care is really overdone, overused, abused these days, but I can't stress it enough actually. Self-care activities that are applicable to imposter syndrome include exercising, practicing meditation or mindfulness, engaging in hobbies as discussed by a previous guest on the Other Autism podcast, Courtney Benner, and just anything that gives you joy and reduces negative stress. Number four, which kind of links with seeking regular mental health support involves connecting with supportive folks in general and just saying no to jerks. Seriously, if you have people questioning your diagnosis and trying to get you to question yourself or experts you're working with regarding autism, ask yourself if they need to stay in your life. Even if you have negative people bringing you down for any other reason, maybe not related to autism at all, you have the right to create boundaries and protect yourself. Take time to learn about toxic traits, what those look like, evidence of that because it's not always obvious, and how toxic individuals behave, and reduce those things in your life as much as you possibly can. Obviously, everyone goes through phases where they might be more negative than usual, and it's important to be supportive and have patience during those times. But if these folks are toxic and hurtful, seemingly by nature, like they're not going to be changing anytime soon, you really have to take a close look at the place they hold in your lives and examine whether they deserve to be there, to take up that space. Well, that's all I have for you today. Thank you so much for being here. Until next time, bye.