My Stoicism Journey as an Autistic Individual

I first discovered Stoicism when I was in college, a time in my life when I was struggling with my sense of self and very much in need of a reality check. Before we dive into my journey, it may be helpful to elaborate on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and what it entails.

The DSM-V, the official diagnostic guidebook for the American Psychiatric Association, defines Autism Spectrum Disorder as a spectrum of developmental disorders (that is, conditions beginning in childhood) that affects social communication, sensory processing, and behavioral patterns. ASD presents differently among many individuals, but it is usually marked by delayed developmental milestones (i.e. learning how to walk, speak, read, or ride a bike), difficulties in interacting with peers, inflexibility to change, repetitive behaviors, intense fixation on a specific interest(s), issues with attention/executive functioning, and sensitivity to noise, light, touch, and taste.

Many individuals who study ASD — but who often do not have it — also note marked deficits in the ability to express empathy or strong emotions except when overwhelmed. I find this to be a faulty evaluation, as many individuals I know with ASD (including myself) are highly empathetic and intensely emotional individuals. This emotionality plays a very important role in my exploration of Stoicism.

I was first diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (now part of ASD) when I was in middle school. Back then, there were few resources available for autistic teenagers, adults, or women, as the majority of studies on ASD focused on young and overwhelmingly Caucasian boys. It wasn’t until my last few years of college that autism advocacy by and for autistic adults (and other oft-overlooked voices, such as LGBTQ+ and BIPOC autistics) entered mainstream discourse; therefore, I spent most of my teenage and early adulthood years trying to figure out how to live as a young woman with ASD.

In my early twenties, I read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (the main gateway drug into Stoicism) and stumbled upon Ryan Holiday’s writing, promptly signing up for the Daily Stoic newsletter. Although I fell out of love with Holiday’s brand of Stoicism, the wisdom of Meditations stayed with me as I continued to explore other philosophical and spiritual paths.

The years passed, and I graduated college and entered the working world. Although I was able to find a job that meshed perfectly with my unique neurotype — soothing, repetitive, the same task every day — I struggled to adjust to a world where morality was not black and white. A major aspect of being on the autism spectrum is a rigid, unwavering dedication to rules and codes of conduct, and I was often astonished to find that adults decades ahead of me often did not respect the rules to the same extent that I did. I also entered my first serious romantic relationship with my girlfriend, and moved in with her. Life wasn’t perfect, but for the first time in my life, I was more sure of myself and my future.

Then 2020 came and sucker-punched the world. In the last week of September 2020, a life-changing series of events happened that knocked the wind out of my sails: I had a stint in the psych ward, my girlfriend ended things with me, and I left my apartment and second post-college job to move back in with my family. In the course of a week I had gone from enduring the trials and tribulations of 2020 with relatively little damage to having my entire life fall apart in one week.

Naturally, it was the perfect time for Stoicism to re-enter my life.

My dad has always been a model of Stoicism for me; although not perfectly detached, his analytical approach to life, indifference to other’s opinions of him, and “it is what it is” approach to life’s hardships formed a foundation for me to rekindle my relationship with the ancient philosophy. I read Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor and began re-exploring Stoicism, likely as a way to try and put the pieces of my life back together. I also joined several Stoic groups on Facebook, where I was able to explore the Stoic journeys of others and share my own insights.

As you have likely surmised, I am still relatively new to Stoicism, as I am only in my mid-twenties and didn’t dive back into it until just a few months before the writing of this article. That being said, I have found that Stoicism has had a remarkable impact not only on my life, but also on my understanding of myself as an autistic individual. Likewise, my ASD has strongly informed how I interpret Stoicism by both strengthening my exploration of virtue and challenging certain facets of my journey. Here are some ways in which Stoicism has informed my understanding of my autistic identity:

  1. I no longer worry as much about what other people think of me.

An often-overlooked aspect of being an individual on the spectrum is that you are frequently told that you are a wrong person on multiple levels of wrong-ness: a cold, unfeeling robot prone to obsessiveness who cannot possibly comprehend social norms. I spent over a decade of my life fixated on this sense of wrong-ness, convinced that no matter how hard I tried to assimilate into neurotypical (that is, non-autistic) society, there would always be some part of me that was broken and incorrect. This insight from Meditations has greatly helped me in learning to focus on my own development and not on whether or not I am a “correct” or “incorrect” person:

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness — all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother…therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.” -Marcus Aurelius

My biggest takeaway from this quote is that all are born ignorant to some capacity, and the insights of someone who is neurotypical is none of my damn concern. What matters is my own journey and how I conduct myself around others. I cannot help if other people believe that I am broken or incorrect; likewise, I cannot help other people “see the light” if I think that they are ignorant. What matters at the end of the day is my own exploration of virtue.

2. Plain speaking is a very good way to communicate wisdom.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor and other Stoic texts I have read extol the virtue of plain speaking, and Aurelius himself was known for his simplicity of phrasing. As a hyper-verbal autistic individual (note: not all ASD folks are hyper-verbal; some are completely nonverbal, and others may be only selectively verbal), I have been challenged by Stoicism to analyze my speech more carefully. I am currently working on ensuring that when getting across my message I am as clear as possible as not to confuse my audience. Frankness comes naturally to me (some people call it “not having a filter”), so practicing plain speaking has been very useful in strengthening it.

3. Temperance translates to beliefs as well as behavior.

One of the biggest challenges to my Stoic journey has been my tendency to think in black-and-white terms; therefore, my morals have always been on the rigid and unyielding side. The virtue of temperance in Stoicism (one of the four cardinal virtues along with wisdom, justice, and courage) emphasizes living a life in pursuit of virtue rather than the accumulation of material goods. This quote sums up temperance excellently:

“You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.” -Seneca

I have never been a particularly materialistic person — unless you count my steadily growing collection of knick-knacks — but the virtue of temperance has challenged me nonetheless by reminding me that my morals must be as temperate as my behavior. Sanctimony is an easy trap for a young Stoic to fall into, and getting into the regular habit of temperance is beginning to have a positive effect on my oft-inflexible thought patterns.

Naturally, my autism presents its own set of challenges to my application of Stoicism. I have never been the most thick-skinned person, and I am also very hyper-sensitive to change, my environment, my own emotions, and the emotions of others. Stoicism can be a challenging philosophy in practice for highly-sensitive people — autistic or not. After all, it is not always easy to accept that the path to virtue doesn’t start with relentlessly mirroring the behavior of “normal” people. It is also very challenging to realize the importance of accepting life’s hardships as they come, and focusing strictly on what you can control rather than what you can’t. Hell, most non-autistic people I know have a hard time accepting this, let alone someone who doesn’t always take change in stride!

Nonetheless, Stoicism has helped me understand myself better as an autistic person in a neurotypical world. Beyond just giving me the tools I need to adapt to life’s hardships, I have been able to root myself firmly in the development of a virtuous life above all else. I think it would be wonderful for more individuals who are highly sensitive and who struggle with mental illness/developmental disorders to share their Stoic journeys, and how it has helped complement and strengthen rather than work against qualities that that the world may see as weak.

Memento mori, friends.

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Blogger, poet, and lifelong learner based in the Las Vegas Valley, Anna Joy Tanksley (she/her) writes about the intersection of philosophy and mental health.