Some questions to consider before disclosing your Autism.
One issue that comes up a lot in the Autistic community is this: “Should I tell my <family | friends | colleagues | twitter feed> that I’m Autistic?” And while it would be nice if the answer to that question was always straightforward, the truth is that there’s a bit of complexity around it that has to be navigated if you want to keep yourself safe.
Here are some questions that you can ask yourself to determine whether or not you should disclose your Autism to somebody in your life:
Will this person believe me?
One thing that happens a lot when Autistic people disclose is that they get pushback from people in their lives — even loved ones, close friends and family, etc — who have a fixed idea in their head of what Autism looks like. The more confident a person is in their understanding of Autism the more comfortable they may feel pushing back and invalidating you, which can be really painful.
Because most people associate Autism with “Very Serious Pathology That Makes The Person Less Than Human” (sorry not sorry, that’s how so many NTs seem to think) a lot of them will feel like they’re doing you a favor by disabusing of the “negative” notion that you may have this “disease”. The more confident they are in their understanding of Autism, in fact, the more comfortable they’ll be in dismissing your disclosure.
Another thing to keep in mind is that for parents who struggle to view their kids as whole people rather than as extensions of themselves any claim like this will feel like a personal attack. “You can’t be Autistic, there’s nothing wrong with me!” seems to be the mechanism that fires in their heads, and this can be really painful to experience as well.
Finally, there are plenty of undiagnosed Autistic people who will often argue most fiercely that you can’t be Autistic because it would suggest that they are too, and they’ve internalized so much ableism that they can’t gracefully consider that thought.
TLDR: be prepared to be disbelieved, be prepared to have others see this as you “making excuses”, be prepared to be gaslit by people who supposedly know you well. Be prepared for them to change the subject, question your reliability as a narrator of your own experience, etc. This doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation — many of these same people will subsequently be open to education — but in the moment it can be painful and invalidating, so be prepared for that possibility.
Will this lead to accomodation?
A lot of us make the good faith assumption that if we disclose our disabilities then our needs can be accommodated. That’s how the world is supposed to work, right?
Oh you sweet summer child.
In reality disclosing access needs is often step one of a long, complicated process. First you have to overcome peoples’ skepticism that your needs exist at all. Then you have to overcome skepticism that they’re real, that they’re valid, that accommodation would make a difference, that anyone could be asked to do anything differently “just” to make it so that you can participate.
Finally you may be granted some begrudging grace, but it’ll always be treated as a favor. “You owe me one for this” is an attitude many disabled people will recognize from ostensible allies and caretakers who are providing us with the care and accommodation we require in order to participate fully in our own society.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t people and places that are real allies, and who will bend over backwards to make sure that you are welcome and comfortable. Those people exist, bless them, and they’re wonderful. They’re just not the default case by any means.
TLDR: accomodation is never guaranteed, even when it’s legally protected, and disclosing your Autism is rarely enough to receive accomodations on its own. If this is your goal be prepared for a fight, bring evidence of your needs and accept the fact that you’ll need to spend some time convincing other people that your experience of the world is real.
What consequences may I face?
Depending on who you’re disclosing to the act of disclosure may have some unintended consequences.
Some people will start to infantilize you, assuming that you need to be handled with kid gloves and forgetting, overnight, that you’re qualified and capable. Some people will resent you — especially other undiagnosed disabled people, who have learned to keep quiet and not be “histrionic”. That’s internalized ableism for them to work out, but it’s real and it happens. Some people will question your reliability as a narrator — after all, their kid is “really” Autistic and you’re nothing like them, and so now they’ll treat you differently moving forward.
Some people will suddenly start treating you as overly emotional or irrational or even violent as they project their own preconceived biases onto you.
In reality this is an area where intersectionality and privilege play a huge role. I am a white guy in my late 30s. I work in tech and make a good income. I’m married, have an apartment, have money in the bank and fallback options. If I disclose my Autism at work and someone decides to make things hard for me as a result I can go somewhere else as a last resort.
Can you? If not, consider that before disclosing.
TLDR: Once you disclose you can’t take it back, so if your position is precarious in some way think twice before giving people what may be considered ammunition against you. If people like you your disclosure will help them to support you; if people don’t like your disclosure can be used against you. It’s important to understand these dynamics.
The above points may make it sound like I’m trying to discourage you from disclosing — quite the contrary, I think every Autistic person who can safely disclose should do so. It has to happen at a massive scale so that it stops being an individual trial-by-fire every time and instead becomes something that we have a social blueprint for.
But given the current state of the discourse the fact is that it’s risky for people with less privilege to be forthright about their Autism, and we need to be aware of that rather than pressuring everyone to always disclose.
I always disclose. I shout it from the rooftops. When strangers meet me it’s “Hi, I’m Myk, btw I’m Autistic and ADHD so if I seem weird that’s why, I promise I’m having a good time!” etc. At new jobs it’s “Hi, I’m Myk, I’m Autistic and ADHD and I’m an advocate around neurodiversity. If you’re also neurodivergent drop me a line — everyone else, hi! If we ever have communication challenges please bring them up to me directly, it happens and it’s never intentional and I’d love to resolve it!”
Finally, it’s important to have some people in your life who see and understand and accept you for who you are. Disclosing to family doesn’t mean you have to disclose to work; disclosing to siblings doesn’t mean disclosing to parents; disclosing to work doesn’t mean disclosing to friends. All of these things are contextual, but being totally alone with your diagnosis is a recipe for cognitive dissonance and a mental health crisis.
TLDR: There are plenty of valid reasons to disclose, and in doing so you’re helping the broader Autistic community. But please make sure you’re being careful and understand that you’re disclosing for the right reasons to the right people.
Can I educate them?
Disclosure will often come with the unspoken responsibility to educate the people around you as to what exactly it means to be Autistic. It will make you an ambassador of our people, ready or not — so take this into consideration.
In real terms this means being willing to advocate for yourself. “I really prefer we keep the lights dim in this part of the office if nobody objects too strongly”, “I need to leave early I’m on the verge of a meltdown”, “I need you to speak more slowly.” People in general want to know what Autism is, and will greet you with curiosity as long as the onus isn’t on them to react gracefully.
One way to prepare for this is to gather some resources in advance — our
TLDR: saying “I’m Autistic” may require you to tell people what exactly that means, so have a sense of how to answer those questions before you disclose. Knowing why you’re disclosing is key to understanding how to approach these conversations.
Disclosing and normalizing your Autism is great! It lets you engage with people as a more authentic self, it releases you from the stress of constantly masking and it is the first step towards healing a lot of your trauma.
Unfortunately, for that to work a lot depends on who you’re disclosing to. Not everyone is able to believe in divergent subjective experiences — there’s a significant percentage of the human population who assumes that everyone experiences reality more or less the same way that they do and they will feel personally attacked if you suggest otherwise.
The key is to surround yourself with people you can rely on, who will recognize both your strengths and your challenges, and who will treat your disclosure as the gesture of trust that it is. Be prepared for conversations about this to last a while, not everyone will be able to accept it at first but if the relationship is worth it to you then it’s worth the work of educating them.
You had me at, “sweet summer child.” Dear author, you write in a manner that makes me want to read. Is it Double Empathy? Do I, as an ND reader, understand ND writing more easily? This is the research I want to do.