Should I “Come Out” as Autistic?

Things to consider before coming out to employers, family, and friends

Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

A friend of mine is considering “coming out” as Autistic to his family and friends. He hopes that by coming out, he’ll help people better understand some of his more unusual-seeming behaviors, and why he finds certain tasks and social settings difficult. Ideally, coming out will inspire his loved ones to do some research about how best to communicate with him and accommodate his specific sensory, social, and executive functioning needs.

My friend also has some serious reservations about telling people he’s Autistic. For one, he’s self-diagnosed, so he’s worried friends and family won’t actually believe him. Allistic (non-Autistic) people tend to think the Autism assessment process is a lot more accessible, scientific, and fair than it actually is, and tend to dismiss self-diagnosers. This is true despite the fact that Autism assessments aren’t designed to detect the vast majority of adult cases.

Further, my friend is worried that even those who believe he is Autistic won’t really understand what being Autistic means for him, or for their relationship with him. They might fail to understand how Autism impacts his experience of the world and how he connects with other people. They might show zero interest in learning more about the challenges he faces, or how to make him more comfortable. Even worse, they might start babying him or talking down to him once they know he has a disability.

If any of that is the case, it might be better for my friend not to come out as Autistic at all. Right?

Among Autistic people, the merits and risks of “coming out” are widely discussed. There is no clear consensus on the matter. Some Autistic-self advocates write positively about their coming out experiences, sharing that their employers responded with kindness and flexibility, and their families happily embraced a new understanding of the person they love.

But for other newly-out Autistic people, things aren’t so rosy. Some partners reject their Autistic spouses, finding their disability unattractive or dismissing it as a bid for attention. Family members sometimes react to the revelation with shame or guilt. Employers may dismiss their Autistic employees altogether, seeing their neurotype as a massive liability or a source of incompetence.

So if you’re Autistic, should you “come out”? I can’t say for sure, but here are some factors to consider:

Coming Out at Work

Autistic people are, in theory, protected from workplace discrimination thanks to laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA states that employers cannot allow a worker’s disability to impact hiring, promotion, or compensation decisions. It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled workers, so that they can function on par with their abled peers.

In practice, however, a lot of ADA violations go unchallenged in court, because they’re very hard to prove and very expensive to litigate. Unless a hiring manager admits they passed you over because you are Autistic, you’ll probably never have the smoking gun you need to build a successful court case. Accommodations are also difficult for Autistic employees to come by, especially if they are self-diagnosed. Coming out in such an environment is quite risky.

I know some Autistic people who’ve had positive experiences coming out to their employers. I know a guy who works in food service who was exempted from having to clean out the sink in the back room, for example, because he shared with his boss that the sanitizing products cause him intense headaches. I also know an Autistic grocery store worker whose employer lets her focus on stocking and bagging groceries, rather than ringing customers up, because she has trouble following conversations with strangers. In tech, manufacturing, and finance, Autistic employees are sometimes even seen as an asset, because of our reputation for being highly focused, rational, and independent.

But there are often negative repercussions to coming out at work. Sometimes, when Autistic people self-disclose at work , they find their actions are suddenly held to a higher level of scrutiny. Normal, mundane awkwardness is taken as a sign of severe social dysfunction. Suddenly, any mistake the person makes, or any situation they fail to understand is taken as a sign of just how deeply disabled they are. Autistic employees may even be infantilized or cut off from any possibility of promotion or growth, because people assume they aren’t up for the challenge.

A college campus. Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

I’ve only disclosed my Autism to an employer once, and it totally blew up in my face. I had been teaching at a small, Christian college for years, and had glowing performance reviews from all the full-time faculty and my students. I interviewed for a more senior position at the school, and became one of the top two candidates. During my job interview, I mentioned casually to the hiring committee (all of whom were psychologists, like me) that I’d been in special education as a child for Autism-related motor defects.

I knew immediately I had screwed up by saying this. Everyone shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and their interest in me as a candidate faded completely. One faculty member gave me a tight, strained smile and started talking in a childish, singsong voice. She told me it was great that despite being in special education, I had wound up okay. Look at you now!, she said condescendingly, as if a part-time adjunct job was some impressive accomplishment.

Though it turned out I had better credentials and more years of teaching experience than the other candidate, I didn’t get the job. The hiring committee treated me in a chilly, fake-friendly way for months afterward. My exams and syllabi were examined closely, though no one had ever asked to see them before; my decisions were questioned, though I’d previously been given a ton of academic freedom. Now that they knew I was Autistic, I was closely reviewed for mistakes and signs of ill judgement — and I stopped teaching there pretty quickly, because it was so painful and disrespectful.

Coming Out to Family

As terrifying and high-stakes as disclosing Autism to an employer can be, I think coming out to family can be about ten times worse. I’ve heard many horror stories of parents who either disbelieve their children about their diagnosis, or take it as a critique of their parenting. This is doubly true for self-diagnosed Autistic people, who are easily written off by ill-informed relatives who’d like any excuse they can find for not learning more about the condition.

The Youtuber Amythest Schaber has discussed their own coming out experience on their channel, Ask an Autistic. They mention feeling pressure to “prove” their Autism to their family, using shared family memories and items from Autism assessments to make a convincing case that their disability is real. They also describe some of the mixed and conflicted reactions family members may have: sometimes parents feel guilty for not noticing their kid’s Autism sooner; other relatives may feel insulted by the implication they might be disabled, too.

In my own family, coming out as Autistic had all kinds of beneficial and challenging ripple effects. I was not the first person in my family to come out. My cousin got assessed for Autism first, and shared with me his suspicion that nearly everyone in the family was on the spectrum as well. This set me down a years-long path of research and self-reflection, resulting in me writing a big “coming out” essay, which I posted on Medium in 2018.

My relatives had all kinds of reactions to that piece. My grandmother reflected on it and concluded that yes, it seemed very likely my grandfather was Autistic. My mom and sister found the piece interesting and informative for the most part. An uncle of mine perceived it as an attack and an insult. The mother of my Autistic cousin was also upset by me mentioning her son, which I can understand.

Years later, I’m very glad I shared my thinking with the family (and the world), but since Autism is often regarded as a shameful or negative thing, I can’t blame the people who felt betrayed by me revealing it. I imagine many families react in similarly fraught ways, and I’ve certainly heard of others that take it far worse.

Coming Out to Friends & Partners

If your friends and romantic partners are generally considerate and caring, coming out to them can go very well. That doesn’t mean it will be effortless, of course. You will probably have to direct your friends to resources that explain what being Autistic is like, and will have to correct misconceptions and stereotypes people have about the condition. Thankfully, we’re living in an era of vocal Autistic self-advocacy, and there are countless blogs, videos, and social media accounts that can help you demystify Autism.

In some cases, disclosing your Autism may actually make it easier to connect with people. One study shows that Autistic behaviors people otherwise might write off as “odd” (such as repetitive tics or self-stimulatory behaviors) may be more accepted once people realize Autism is the cause. People sometimes feel more warmly towards an “awkward” seeming person once they understand the awkwardness has an explanation. I’ve certainly had an easier time making friends now that I’m open and proud of my Autism and all its quirks.

Of course, not everyone will receive your self-disclosure well. I’ve heard dozens of Autistic people say that when they came out to friends, they were met with dismissive remarks like “But you don’t look Autistic”, “You seem so normal!” or “I always thought you were weird.” Sometimes, this ignorance can be overcome through education. Other times, people may make it clear they don’t care to correct their prejudices.

When I came out to my friend Alan, he immediately started treating me in an overly delicate, precious way. He said he found it so “cute” that I did things like lay out my outfit for the next day before I went to bed each night. He told me he found it ‘inspiring’ I had a job and could rely on public transit instead of driving a car. He seemed to think Autism made it impossible for me to drive, when in reality, not having a car was a financial and environmental choice I had consciously made. Any time Alan learned about my habits or preferences, he treated them like some wacky, adorable feature of my Autism.

Yet for every Alan in my life, there are dozens of understanding, curious people, who read my writing about Autism and let it inform how they treat me. When I was young, Autistic people were usually discussed as if we were subhuman; now, people take disability justice much more seriously in general, and are far better educated about Autism in particular. As a result, coming out to friends has been almost entirely positive for me.

Coming Out as Self-Diagnosed

As I’ve outlined above, it’s much harder to come out about being Autistic when you haven’t been officially assessed. I know a lot of people who hesitate to openly identify as Autistic until they get official approval to do so from medical gatekeepers. In the meantime, they’ll hedge or say vaguely that they think they might be on the spectrum, or they’ll wonder if participating in the Autistic community is even OK.

When it comes to getting an Autism diagnosis, the cards are stacked against you if you are an adult, a person of color, or you aren’t a cisgender, masculine man. Autism assessments are incredibly expensive to get, and they’re not designed for anyone whose Autism manifests in “atypical” ways. Plus, there are basically no approved treatments for Autism in adults, so there are very few advantages to getting an official diagnosis, and a ton of costs and risks. For this and a slew of other reasons, I strongly support self-diagnosers, and believe they belong in the Autistic community.

In an ideal world, I believe Autism would be seen as a form of naturally occurring diversity, and that members of the community would be able to define themselves. Under this framework, it’s just as oppressive and ignorant to ask someone to “prove” their Autism as it is to demand someone prove they’re transgender or gay. If someone has experiences and needs in common with us, and benefits from aligning with the community and accessing community resources, it’s self-evident that they belong in it.

That said, I am aware many people do not take self-identification seriously. When my friend shared with me that he was contemplating coming out, he expressed concerns about how being self-diagnosed would be perceived.

“I think it’s fine to be elusive about the fact you’re self diagnosed,” I told him. “In my opinion, no one is entitled to know exactly how you came to realize you’re Autistic.”

If someone wants to share that they are self-diagnosed, and feels comfortable and safe doing so, I strongly support them in that. I also believe that given how ignorant much of society still is, it’s perfectly fine for a self-diagnosed Autistic to obscure that fact. Just like coming out as Autistic in general, coming out as self-diagnosed comes with a slew of benefits, challenges, and drawbacks, and it’s up to each person to weigh what will be best for them.

Clearly, there are times when being an out-and-proud Autistic person seriously pays off. Some employers are understanding and flexible. Some families welcome the knowledge with open arms. Many friends and loved ones are caring, and willing to put in the energy to self-educate.

Yet for every one of these encouraging stories I’ve encountered, I’ve also heard dozens of less rosy ones. I can’t blame the Autistic people who choose to be less visible and out than me. After all, even though I’m incredibly vocal about Autism in my personal life and my writing, I still conceal it at work.

I believe that every time an Autistic person comes out, asks for the accommodations they need, and demonstrates they are proud to be neuroatypical, the world gets a little bit closer to being a more equitable place. But I know very intimately that before fighting for a safer, juster world, we have to take care of our own wellbeing and safety. Coming out is a personal decision, and it’s an ongoing process each of us navigates every single day. And much like coming out as LGBTQ, there is no one correct time, place, or circumstance in which to do it.

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