A note from Jo: On 28 October 2023 Daniel Sohege posted a thread on Bluesky and Twitter about what they call “Autistic Imposter Syndrome”.
I recognized much of what they described from conversations with an autistic friend. They kindly agreed to have me turn it into a guest post here.
I’ve kept their name for this in the post but have changed the title because it could be confused with a related phenomenon of feeling like an imposter in the autistic community when your experience doesn’t line up exactly with how other people describe their experience of autism.
Let’s have a little talk about “Autistic Imposter Syndrome“, not, I hasten to point out, a phrase I have seen in a formal capacity. Now, not to sound arrogant, I am pretty good at what I do, according to other people, yet this still hits hard.
Before I was diagnosed as autistic, I just thought I was weird. I couldn’t work out why the world affected me the way it did. I was under the impression that I could “fix” myself if I just worked harder and did better, yet somehow always felt I wasn’t matching other people.
A kind of crucial thing here is that I believed people. I actually thought people were coming into work and focusing only on work for the whole day, I have learned better since. My view was: you were paid to do the job, so that’s all you did. I still believe that btw.
What I didn’t understand, and still struggle with if I am being honest, is that people see how you engage with other members of staff as an important part of your job. So by not engaging in small talk etc, I was perceived as not being engaged with my work.
This made me worry that bosses didn’t think I was working hard enough, so I worked harder. You can probably see where this is going. By working harder I was seen even more as not engaging with the team, and therefore not working hard enough.
I will hold my hands up and admit that I didn’t help myself here. I loathe small talk, and I hate waffle. I don’t see the point of meetings for meetings sake, and I am not particularly good at hiding my disdain. This hasn’t made it easy in some jobs.
So, again, I worked harder to try and make up for it. Aaaand here’s where it gets tricky…
Open plan offices in particular, with all that noise and disruption, exhaust me. Bright lights, interruptions etc etc, I get worn down, which is then perceived as laziness.
So, you’ve probably guessed it, I try and work harder because I worry I am not meeting the grade. Skip forward to now and I am at the point where my current boss has to keep telling me to stop working, because I cannot switch off. I feel I have to always “prove” I am working.
That’s what I consider “Autistic Imposter Syndrome“, always feeling you have to prove you are working because you are absolutely terrified that people will think you are lazy or incompetent because of the way being autistic manifests itself.
And it doesn’t matter how many times I do prove I am, I still always feel I have to go further. I have to help everyone out to show I am a team player, which has in the past led to quite a lot of people taking advantage, and the credit for my work.
More from Jo: I suspect many of you reading this will recognize at least some of this. Maybe the open plan office is less common in academic work environments (though not for PhDs, post-docs, and the precariously employed), but other aspects of the work might provide similar sensory overload (e.g. teaching).
This sense of needing to prove yourself is common to many experiencing impostor syndrome. Daniele’s description makes it very clear how easily that can lead to overwork and burnout. The nature of that is different if you are autistic, and one reason I wanted to publish this was that I can see some specific connections to discussions of Autistic Burnout and masking. Even if you aren’t masking, you may be working in ways that contribute to Autistic Burnout.
I hope that this very specific story of autism and impostor syndrome helps you understand yourself and possibly some of the interactions you have with colleagues. Please be compassionate with yourself and colleagues.
Edited lightly October 2023 for republishing here. Added to the Spotlight On: Imposter Syndrome in November 2023.