Developing a Sensemaking Narrative

This is Part 3 in the “I Think I Might be Autistic” series. 


Working my way through The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, I found myself revisiting moments in my life that had been confusing, painful or traumatic. Suddenly, so much of my life made sense in the context of aspie traits.

Difficulty making friends? Impaired social communication skills
Clumsy? Motor planning deficit
Poor handwriting? Problems with fine motor coordination
Massive stamp/coin/doll/baseball card/Lego collections? Abnormally intense interests
Not a hugger? Tactile defensiveness
The odd reactions I get from people? Poor eye contact, flat affect, inability to read body language

and on and on and on . . .

When I got to Attwood’s description of the little aspie girl lining up her Barbie dolls and their clothes instead of playing with them, I literally shouted with joy. There are other people like me! I’m not defective. I’m not randomly weird. I’m an aspie. One of many.

I’d found my tribe and it was good.

This process of giving meaning to experiences is sometimes known as sensemaking or creating a sensemaking narrative. It happens when our current way of understanding ourselves or our situation is inadequate. Without the Asperger’s piece of the puzzle, I was forced to cobble together incomplete explanations for my developmental history and my life experiences.

Once I had a basic understanding of Asperger’s, I could apply that knowledge to “make sense of” my life in a new way.

Petroglyphs, Mystery Valley, Bernard Gagnon ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)
Petroglyphs, Mystery Valley, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona                                    Bernard Gagnon (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Sensemaking has a few key steps, most of which I found happening naturally as I processed my newfound identity.

The Sensemaking Process

  1. Shift in identity – identification as aspie/autistic
  2. Retrospection – looking back at key life events in the context of this new identity
  3. Building narrative accounts – retelling the story of your life in light of AS/autism
  4. Sharing your narratives – strengthening and preserving your stories by sharing them with others
  5. Reflecting – the ongoing process of receiving feedback on your stories and reshaping them as your understanding of your narrative changes

Each person’s sensemaking narrative is unique. Mine takes several forms: thought, speech and especially writing. Right now, my blog–including your comments and my replies–is the cornerstone of my sensemaking narrative.

Making Sense

  • As you learn more about AS/autism, does it help you better understand difficult or confusing life events?
  • Can you retell those events in a new way now?
  • When you’re ready, share your new understanding with trusted people in your life.
  • Sharing can take many forms: oral, written, visual or mixed media. It can be factual, fictional, derivative or a combination. This is your story. Tell it your way.
  • Don’t be afraid to revise and refine your story as your knowledge expands or your perception changes.

Coming next week: Mourning and Healing

19 thoughts on “Developing a Sensemaking Narrative”

  1. This is exactly how I have been looking back on my life..with new eyes, a new identity and with new understand with which to tell my story. I find many times I still fall into old habits like believing that I am just making excuses for my behaviors or life-choices. But–the more I tell the store, the more people I meet whose experiences echo my own, and then I know I am not alone–or making excuses. My autism is real, and now I am learning to life in this new person’s skin; one who knows just a little bit more about herself.

    Great post; keep em coming!

    1. “My autism is real”

      Yes, this is exactly what this process is doing for me. It’s making it real, solidifying all of the random bits that have been drifting around with an explanation. I’m glad we’ve both found other people who are on a similar journey. It makes it a little more enjoyable and I think speeds the process along some.

  2. This very much reflects my process over the last few months. I’m drifting towards creating a blog for the process you describe, I’m prevaricating because I already have so many unfinished personal projects, but I think it may be necessary nonetheless.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Great post! Very helpful. I just love how the topics you take up end up well structured, with a clear overview and a (proverbial) road map:-) And particularly this one because it for me is a confusing area with lots of ambiguity. Thanks:-)

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you found it helpful. When I discovered the concept of a sensemaking narrative, I was surprised at how it paralleled what’s been happening naturally for me.

      I love your new icon thing 🙂

      1. Very helpful yes, thank you. and that goes for many of your posts by the way… they create overview & order, that really is very helpful. And thanks for you icon compliment:-) If this is the one you mean… I tried a few different ones before I settled for a permanent change.

          1. Ah. I took it from Open Clipart (CC – free to use) and then changed the eyes and brown colour and added blue background and some flower-fluff.

  4. I love this post! It perfectly describes everything I’ve felt since I first encountered the Autistic Kitten meme and went through all the pages thinking “this is exactly like me!” I’ve done a lot of reading since then and I’m around steps 3/4 now, mostly talking with a friend of mine who’s had an Asperger’s dx since childhood. It makes me feel more sure of myself to see that there are other people figuring these things out about themselves at later ages and making sense of it like I am. I can’t wait to see the rest of the series.

    1. The Autistic Kitten meme and blog is terrific. I’ve learned quite a bit from it as well.

      So glad you’re enjoying the series. I think I’m cycling between steps 3, 4 and 5 right now. The more I learn, the more I need to revise my early stories (in my head, at least) to accommodate my growing knowledge.

  5. This is a great blog!
    I’m discovering that i’m married to an Aspie man and I’ve learned so much here. I now have reasons for alot of his behavior which helps me accept it with understanding rather than confusion.

    He similar to you is a wonderful writer. So clear. Do you thing that too is an Aspie trait?

    1. Thank you for letting me know that it’s been helpful in understanding your husband. Perhaps a lot of aspies are good writers because we’re such avid readers? I think reading a lot is one of the keys to being able to write well.

  6. At age 58 I’m starting to think this answers for a lot in my life experience.

    I am re-editing my own narrative now, examining all those experiences in a new light. How does it look now? Trying to be calm and not simply jump on another inviting looking bandwagon.

    Your blog comes highly recommended, and I can see why. Thank you for sharing.

  7. I’m in my mid-30s and was just diagnosed recently. Your blog has been so helpful already. I’m cycling through some denial and step 1 right now, mixed with some random disclosure to friends. (I was only diagnosed about a month ago.)

    I was talking to my partner a couple nights ago about what it feels like to have a diagnosis later in life. I said it feels like finding out you’re adopted. In your 30s. It changes nothing – your experience is still your experience. But at the same time it changes everything. Do I do things because I was raised to do them that way, or do I do them because I’m genetically predisposed to do them that way? Suddenly everything is a question, including the basic “Who am I?”

    Thank you for documenting your experience and shining a light to guide those of us who need it.

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