When People Ask Me to “Prove” I’m Autistic, What Do I Say?
Welcome to Autistic Advice #2, a semi-regular column where I respond to questions about neurodiversity, Autism acceptance, and disability rights from Autistic people and their allies. You can anonymously send me questions via my Curious Cat askbox.
Before we dive in, a bit about me: I am a 32-year-old Autistic psychologist who didn’t realize they were on the spectrum until their mid-20’s. My whole family is full of people with Autism-spectrum traits, and I have been active in the Autism self-advocacy community for about six years. On Medium, I’ve written extensively about my experiences, and the experiences of other adult Autistics whom I’ve interviewed for various projects. Though I am a research psychologist, I am not a therapist, and this column should not be treated as therapy.
My letter today is from someone whose Autistic identity is often doubted by other people. In particular, they are concerned that friends and family won’t believe they are Autistic because they heavily engage in masking, the act of hiding and inhibiting obvious Autistic traits. They write:
I’ve seen you post about masking and am curious- do you correct people when they assume you are neurotypical? Do you ever feel like you have to prove you are Autistic?
Even though I spend most of my energy trying to appear neurotypical, I still feel like telling people I’m Autistic will result in my being asked to “prove it.” I worry that my inability to do that (since it’s impossible and all) will invalidate me, while simultaneously forcing me to break my very nice masking shell.
I am hitting a point where I feel like I have to tell people I’m Autistic, in order for my opinion on some topics to be respected. But I also feel like it is not their business. I’m pretty stuck here.
You are hitting on such a common double-bind associated with masking of Autistic traits, Anon. The people who are pressured to “mask” their Autistic traits are most commonly the people who don’t get a diagnosis early in life. Because they don’t have a diagnostic explanation for why they are “weird,” or for why they struggle, they are browbeaten into hiding as much of their difference as they can.
Masking can take the form of always striving to appear cheerful and agreeable (lest the Autistic person be branded antisocial and ‘awkward’), or it can take the form of becoming very deeply inhibited or withdrawn (because it’s harder to commit an egregious social faux pas if you just never say or do anything). Masking helps Autistic people disappear into the social wallpaper, which is very convenient for the people around us; it’s also an endless source of psychological torment for us.
Research has demonstrated that Autistic people who “mask” heavily suffer in all kinds of invisible yet pervasive ways. Maskers experience intense social anxiety and depression. We feel incredibly drained because masking is such an intense performance. It can even hurt on an existential level, divorcing an Autistic person from any meaningful sense of self. A lot of heavy maskers are compulsive people-pleasers or are profoundly detached from other people (or both). This is layered on top of whatever other pain associated with Autism the masker is experiencing — sensory issues, gut problems, coordination and muscle tone disabilities, etc.
The great tragedy of masking is that prejudiced neurotypical people force us to hide our Autism, then turn around and doubt our Autism exists because we have become so adept at hiding it in order to survive. Like you, Anon, I have been the victim of this. A former friend once wrote a scathing call-out post of me here on Medium, accusing me of being the “Rachel Dolezal of Autism.” His “proof” that I wasn’t Autistic? I was too charming. And I had friends. And a job.
Disabled people are haunted by the myth of the opportunistic faker. People with accessible parking tags are harassed in parking lots and stores by abled folks who are convinced their physical disabilities are fake. Teachers, professors, and classmates interrogate the needs of students with IEPs and other classroom accommodations, hoping to catch a phony disabled student in a lie. Our entire social welfare system is structured around the belief in the “fake disabled person”; people with qualifying conditions must submit themselves to endless investigations, doctor’s visits, court hearings, and other tests to prove they really are disabled, and really deserve the meager benefits they get.
Abled people resent having to provide benefits and accessibility tools to disabled individuals, so they try to sniff out liars and cheats relentlessly, even when there is no evidence that fakers are a real social problem. This extends to mental illness and cognitive disabilities such as Autism. People often resist the idea of becoming more tolerant towards Autistics (and neurodiverse people in general), thinking that it’s no a suitable “excuse” for thinking differently. Instead of seeing increased social latitude and tolerance as a net positive for anyone, they see it as an unfair benefit Autistics get that others don’t have.
So, Anon, you asked how I personally deal with these kinds of questions and doubts. Personally, I do not engage with them. Just as I refuse to prove my transness to anyone, I categorically refuse to prove my Autism. I don’t apologize or over-explain my neurotype; I state it simply, as a fact. I believe that is the correct approach, including for self-realized Autistics.
You know who you are, Anon, and you can just tell people that truth and leave it at that. “I’m Autistic,” is a complete sentence. If someone asks you when you got diagnosed, or how you know, you can respond with a breezy, “Oh, I don’t like discussing personal medical information with random people,” or you can tell them, “I’ve known for a very long time.”
In most casual social situations, this should be enough to shut the conversation down. The only situations where you truly need to provide proof are if you are seeking disability benefits or legal protections. If it’s a family member or a close friend who is demanding more information, I recommend asking them to think about why they are so desperate for proof. “Why is it so hard for you to believe I’m Autistic?” or “It sounds like you have a lot of misconceptions about what Autism looks like,” might work as responses, followed by sending the person some reading material.
Personally, I have noticed that when you state the truth in a confident, matter-of-fact way, without inviting extra questions, people are less likely to be invasive. Other than the friend who called me the Rachel Dolezal of Autism, basically no one has ever doubted me. I believe that is because I walk around like I don’t owe anyone proof. My Autism is just a fact that people have to deal with. If they can’t handle it, that is there problem.
You don’t owe anyone proof, Anon, and you also don’t owe anyone detailed information about the exact nature of your disability or neurodiversity. If someone asks for your Autism bonafides when you’re in the middle of a discussion or disagreement, you can explain to them that the position “you have to be out as Autistic in order to have an opinion” is actually incredibly dangerous. Forcing people to out themselves about their mental health or disability is incredibly invasive and puts people at risk.
Lots of people are on the neurodiverse spectrum and get to weigh in on matters relevant to our lives — don’t buy into the gatekeeping game if you can help it. If you are in Autistic or disability justice-focused spaces where people are demanding “proof” of a disability before a person is allowed to share their thoughts, work to resist that norm. If you have the time and energy, you can also send people links about the trope of the “fake disabled person,” like the ones I listed above.
By rejecting and refusing to play the gatekeeping game, you help establish a norm that it is not acceptable. People will get mad or be shitty in the face of this resistance sometimes. Ignore and block and dismiss people who aren’t worth the argument. You can’t control how others react, but you can stand firm by your values and be outspoken about them.
You’re neurodiverse. You belong at the table. You matter. You’re good as you are. You are not in charge of how other people feel or respond to that. You can let go of being responsible for that entirely. I’m sorry people are being assholes. And I’m sorry that a lifetime of having to mask your Autism has left you caught in this trap. This trap was created by neurotypical people and their refusal to see us as we truly are. The only way to escape that trap is for us to be as unapologetically visible as we can be.
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