The Power of Acknowledgment and How It Changed One Late Identified Autistic’s Life

By Carole Jean Whittington

I am a late identified, adult autistic. What does that mean to anyone who isn’t in the autism community?  Well, it means that I spent almost four decades wondering why life was so hard for me and seemed so very easy for everyone else. I never understood why someone said what they said or did what they did. I felt like I was in a world where everyone knew the secret handshake and the language and I was the foreigner.  I was thirty-nine years old when a neuropsychologist very bluntly informed me that, “You know that you were missed, and you are autistic, right?”  I was taking my then 10-year-old son for evaluation and ended up being tested myself. Talk about information out of the blue that changes your EVERYTHING!!!

I’d love to say that learning I was autistic at thirty-nine drove me to all the answers I had ever wanted to know about myself, but that would be a lie.  Rather, I spent the next two years focusing on helping my son get the assistance that I never had.  I grew up in the 1970s and autism wasn’t really on anyone’s radar much less that of a very chatty girl who just seemed a bit awkward.  

So how does the Power of Acknowledgment factor into my life and how was it so incredibly impactful you may be asking? When I turned forty-one, I stopped and reflected on what my life looked like and felt like. You know the “mid-life crisis.”  I compared myself to everyone around me and I didn’t have what they had; I hadn’t accomplished all the things I thought I would and my life was far below my expectations. This was a hard and bitter pill to swallow. 

I began to research and learn what autism was and how it affected me. In my very autistic way, I dove into research and poured over every kernel of information I could find to begin to understand myself. But I still didn’t understand the world around me even though I was beginning to know myself and how my brain worked. This is where the POWER comes in.

I came across a book that challenged me to look at other people and to begin to see the things they couldn’t say in their words but that was present in their behaviors. This is called Theory of Mind (ToM) (Wiki, n.d.), for those of you neuroscience and psychology enthusiasts like myself.  Theory of Mind allows you to observe the words spoken, and behaviors and implications of words NOT spoken by others in order to predict and interpret their behaviors. I began to truly “see” other people for the first time in my life because I was finally becoming aware of what they were telling me, not in their words but in their body language, facial expressions, by what they were saying and then by default what was being left unsaid. This was HUGE! As a neurotypical person, you may be thinking that this awareness is rather rudimentary and elementary Dear Watson, but for an autistic, it is not.

I have a hypothesis that we autistics are by default disconnected from other people.  Not in that we don’t want or wish to be part of the group, because we very much want to be part of a group and be included, but that our default wiring is that of disconnection until we learn how to connect and understand the communication style and language of the other person.

When I began to seek out opportunities for acknowledging other people in my day to day life, I found an understanding of the people in the world around me that I had never understood before. The Power of Acknowledgment, through the teachings of Judy Umlas (Grateful Leadership, n.d.) and Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center has opened up my world and life to a level I only dreamed of before filled with deep, true relationship connections and joy beyond measure.  

In one instance, I was on the phone obtaining my auto insurance policy information and the woman on the phone was quite kind and helpful. She answered my questions before I ever asked and it was a delightful experience despite the nature of the call itself. She made a very stressful experience very pleasant.  So, in the spirit of acknowledgment, I expressed to her how thankful I was for her excellent service and how much I appreciated that she was so attuned to what I needed that she answered before I ever asked.  

When I finished speaking, there was a long pause and I could feel her emotion through the phone. I could hear her take a deep breath in and as she slowly let it out, she thanked me for taking the time to tell her how much I appreciated what she did.  I then realized that she has a very difficult and stressful job that most likely entailed getting more agitated and grumpy customers than thankful ones. She went on to tell me that she had some very difficult calls earlier that day and she had been feeling pretty low and that my kind words had made her day and reminded her of why she loves helping people. I would have been oblivious to this before and thanks to the language acknowledgment that has taught me I was able to make a true connection with someone who needed to be seen and heard, just like me.

I would not have realized what true relationship connection was before in my life without the gift that acknowledgment granted. Today, thanks to the power that acknowledgment has to open awareness to the theory of mind, to open up a world of true connection and to teach a lost, awkward girl the language she needed to find joy and understanding of the people around her, I gained the life I have always dreamed of and wanted.  

Acknowledgment has more power than to just let someone else know that you see them, it has the power to allow for true connection; it is that true connection to other people that shapes the quality of the individual life. When there is a connection to others, there is a hope that exists and where life becomes so much more than an existence.

About the Author

She’s known as Social Autie throughout the Autism World and is the host of Mind Your Autistic Brain, which includes a podcast, YouTube Channel, Blog, and private community.  Meet Carole Jean Whittington, a late identified autistic who discovered at 39 years old why life had been so confusing and such a struggle! Today, she teaches adult Autistics everywhere how they can craft the life they have always wanted, which is authentically theirs without all the overwhelm.