Keeping a diary can be a tremendous tool for self-reflection and understanding, at least in my experience.
Whether you’re using the voice recorder on your phone or online, a speech-to-text plug-in, or good old-fashioned pen and paper, taking note of how you feel, what triggered you, and what made you feel better can be a great way to understand yourself better and to help those around you do the same. If you have impaired vision, using a braille tablet or typewriter can be similarly constructive.
By re-reading your journals, you can learn a lot about your life and use those findings to create a safer and more successful future.
Speaking from experience …
I first started keeping a journal related to my autism journey specifically when I realized I was leaving doctor’s appointments feeling frustrated and like I failed to communicate most of my needs, barriers, and symptoms due to overwhelm.
That same feeling came up again when I started telling my friends and family that I’m autistic. They would ask questions like, “What leads to burnouts?” and “How does your autism affect you?” and I would struggle to come up with the answers on the spot. Journalling helped me solve that problem.
Partially out of this desire to be better understood, I started chronicling how I’m feeling on any given day, the date and time, and my thoughts and feelings related to autism. I might sit and talk to my voice recorder or use a pen and paper for a while if I need a screen break, or I might type on the mobile or desktop notes app.
Here are some reasons I love journalling.
It can help you learn about your health and support needs
By re-reading my journal, I can see patterns and use my awareness of those patterns to make better decisions for my health moving forward.
For example, if I said my light sensitivity was bothering me several days in a row, or that I struggled with food aversion more on hotter days, I can then prepare myself — prioritize staying in dim settings or stimulating my appetite when it’s warm, maybe.
Being able to practice self-reflection in this way helps me make sense of my mind and body when I feel scatterbrained, foggy-minded, or socially inept. It allows me to remember that I have good days even when it feels like they’ve all been bad, and it helps me appreciate when I feel well, knowing I frequently have health issues.
It can provide perspective.
At times, when everything feels like too much, re-reading your journal can remind you that every moment passes, and that you’ve gotten through a lot of tough times already. It can remind us that we are strong enough to continue and that we’re well-supported by a network of people who care about us.
I remember opening my journal on a day when I was feeling defeated by meltdowns. It seemed like I wouldn’t be able to do anything fun again, or enjoy loud music or bright lights like fireworks.
When I flipped to a week prior, though, I could see how happy I was after being able to play music with my band, and that it does still fill me with joy on good days. That made it so much easier for me to remind myself that being autistic doesn’t mean I can’t have fun socializing in neurotypical environments. It just means I need to do it my way, with my support needs and triggers in mind and supportive people around me. That helps me be kinder and safer with myself on days when I can’t enjoy it, too.
It can help you get better care and accommodation.
It can also be hugely beneficial for doctors, counsellors, and therapists to reference when they’re trying to understand you.
Many autistic people can get easily overstimulated at events like doctor’s office appointments. Bringing a journal makes it easier to tell them everything they need to know without struggling with communication.
For instance, if you’re talking to a counsellor as an autistic person, and they ask you something like, “When’s the last time you felt overwhelmed, and how did you respond to that feeling?” Instead of having to rack your brain for an answer, and having your future care impacted by the accuracy of that answer, you can pass them a few sheets of paper to read. Other options might be pre-recording a voice note or video for them to watch or listen to before making suggestions.
It’s possible your doctor is a better visual learner than auditory learner too, which could lead to better health outcomes for you in the end.
You can also use these resources at work! If you’re safe to do so, and your employer and/or coworkers know you’re autistic, sharing your common triggers, support needs, and behavioral tendencies can help them understand you. From there, they can approach you from a more informed and respectful perspective.
One more benefit of journalling is that it offers flexibility with format, which can be ideal for autistic learners!
If it feels good, try stream-of-consciousness writing: Whatever comes to mind goes straight onto the paper, no self-editing or forethought needed. If organizing your thoughts into more coherent sentences is satisfying, play with that. And if words are hard, try drawing or painting in a journal to express what’s going on inside. You can start by expressing how you’re feeling and then consider whether you want to record your reflections on those feelings, or just notice them and try to release them. Do whatever you need in order to feel comfortable.
It’s a safe space.
Your journal is supposed to be a space for you to feel safe, to be honest, and to vent. There are no real rules when it comes to this kind of expression, so have fun with it! And remember, you know yourself best, but you can always know yourself better.
A lifetime of working in journalism and advocacy prepared me for becoming a content creator with AutismBC. As an autistic person with OCD, anxiety, depression, and myotonic dystrophy, I understand firsthand what it’s like to live and think differently than most, and I’m passionate about advocating for and communicating with others in the community.
I’m also a non-binary lesbian in a happy relationship. Outside of writing, I love to make music, watch horror movies, and hang out with my partner and cat.
While your experience will be unique depending on where you land on the spectrum, and whether or not you have a diagnosis, many autistic students can benefit from sharing tips for post-secondary success.