(Beginning note: I’m don’t mean the term/concept of “coming out” to be inappropriate or marginalizing in any way toward the LGBT/LGBTQQIA community. As some of you may already know, I’m a part of that community myself. 🙂 )
I’m issuing a trigger warning (TW) for ableistic attitudes at various points throughout this post; it’s not a case of internalized ableism (at least, not that I’m aware of); it came from other people.
When a young child is found to be on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, the control over who finds out is not in their hands; it’s in the hands of their parents.
When an adult finds out they’re on the spectrum, the only one who knows is the Aspergian/autistic person themselves (as well as their diagnostician, if they’ve been formally diagnosed, and their insurance company or governmental healthcare system, if they’ve utilized a third-party payor for their diagnosis). Beyond that, whoever else finds out is generally up to the Aspie/autistic person.
To decide to tell other people is known by some as “‘coming out’ as Aspergian/autistic”. The extent to which the person comes out can vary; some tell family only; others tell close friends only; still others tell both close friends and family. Some tell their significant others only. Some disclose their status at work (that’s a risky move, in most cases, due to misconceptions and ableist attitudes that are still too common, but it can be done in some cases, and in a few situations, it may be seen as an advantage!). If you don’t tell anyone at all, some might consider that to be “closeted” as autistic; if you tell anyone and everyone, you may be considered “fully out” or a similar term. If you tell some people but not others, you might be considered “partially out”.
To “come out” (may or) may not seem very pivotal; after all, many of us are so filled with relief, liberation, and healing that we might even feel an urge to “go tell it on the mountain”. I know that that was true for me. I also know that I underestimated the possible ramifications of coming out to certain people. I did stop to think, considering how my news might be taken by some. I’m glad I did, because the pervasive stigma (at least in my area) is a lot graver than I had originally thought. I’m glad that I took things slowly enough to have time to begin to think twice about revealing my status to people, that I was able to begin to curtail my enthusiasm a bit along the way.
I am “partially out”, as in, openly autistic to some people, although not everyone. The way I came out was akin to peeling an onion, layer by layer. I told my partner and two of my closest friends first. Then my parents (we’re close). Then my siblings. Then a few “second-ring” friends (i.e., some who aren’t as close as the first two, but aren’t mere acquaintances, either). And so on. Then I basically came out on Facebook, so any of the 700-some people who know me there, now know my status. I don’t mix my professional and personal lives; there’s a pretty sharp demarcation between the two, so I felt comfortable doing this; none of my clientele would find out. I decided that I would tell the assistants at work; they would need to know. But that’s where I drew the line; clientele, save for two people, aren’t aware of my spectrum status.
As I told people, I was somewhat surprised by how varied the responses were. I was pretty sensitive to that; I mean, disclosing something like that to people you care about that much leaves you pretty vulnerable. And the decision to disclose isn’t one to take lightly, because once you’ve said the words, you can’t take them back. You can’t unsay what you’ve said, and people can’t unhear (or unread) what they’ve heard/read.
I’m pretty sure I told my partner first. His response was “oh yeah?” (in a neutral tone). Then he promptly went and Googled it, and read not only what he found during his Google search, but also every link I drip-emailed him afterward. (By “drip-email”, I mean that as I researched and found links to articles and blog posts, I would copy-paste that link into an email and send it to him. This was a gradual unfolding-like process; as I slowly got bits of information and insight, so did he, right along with me.)
Surprisingly, he became one of my biggest supporters. He didn’t tell me that he read every link, but I know that he did; I could tell because of the (positive) ways in which his treatment of me changed. He gradually became much more understanding, accommodating, and open. He communicated with me more. He seemed to appreciate me more. He began to measure me by my appropriate neurodivergent yardstick, as opposed to the neurotypical one.
Best Friend #1 had the coolest response. They said, “so that’s why you’re such a genius!” (I love them! They didn’t even miss a beat, either. No hesitation whatsoever.)
I remember surprisingly little about Best Friend #2’s response, but I do know that it wasn’t negative. I do remember that it was pretty neutral. Kind of interested/amused. They believed me, took me seriously. They were going through issues of their own, so I’m pretty sure they were distracted somewhat, and I totally understand that. They did humor me by listening patiently to all of my revelations and analyses. We were spending a lot of time together, so they were sort of a captive audience, but they graciously accommodated me.
Mom went silent. Like the way she does when she’s disappointed or skeptical. But she didn’t say as much, and we were talking on the phone at the time, so I didn’t have her body language or facial expression to gauge. There was a definite change in her usual demeanor, although I couldn’t make exact sense of it. This was extremely unnerving to me; I was really anxious. I thought maybe I disappointed her, let her down, or dropped a bomb on her. I’m not entirely sure about the first two (over seven months later, she still hasn’t told me anything about her initial feelings), but I’m pretty sure the third (dropping the bomb) is accurate.
I was very quick, starting early on, to adamantly put her at ease, reassuring her that it’s not a disease or disorder, and that the terminology and definition wasn’t even known–nor did the diagnosis even exist–until 1994, so no, nobody “missed” it, because there was nothing to miss, and no, it’s not anything she (or anyone else) did “wrong” during pregnancy, delivery/birth, or infancy or childhood; it just happens, and it’s no one’s “fault”.
Then I started telling her about the theories of famous people who are retrospectively considered by some to be Aspies/autistic, too. I mentioned something about my discovery journey during every conversation, trying to walk the fine line between beating the topic to death and avoiding it altogether.
Slowly, she began to come around; first, she merely became more responsive during my statements about it, and then finally, she began to offer a few sentences of thoughts of her own. By the morning of my official diagnosis, I knew she was supportive, in my camp and on my side. This was confirmed when I announced the official diagnosis on Facebook and she responded with a couple of Facebook “stickers”…
Dad hadn’t said the words “Asperger’s” or “autism” in over seven months so far. He would usually be on the phone with my mom and me when we were talking, on an extension in another room of their house. But he remained quiet the whole time, too, saying even less than my mom. He’s kind of like that in general, though; a lot going on in his mind (or not), and hardly anything gets expressed. I’ve gotten used to it over the years. So that’s pretty normal for him, whereas it was totally out-of-character for my mom.
Finally, after my final diagnosis, once it became “official”, I called them and again, both of them got on the line. For the first time, my dad actually said something about it. I forget exactly what he said, but it was something like, “it’s not a bad thing, is it?” I don’t think he was trying to be as ableist as that might sound. My parents come from a different generation in which autism was considered a mental illness, and mental illness was a horrible curse, to be blamed on the person’s mother, and that the mentally ill are somehow lesser people; it was considered a disappointment at that time to have a child with such a disorder, and it was not anything to admit to, nor was it to be mentioned or discussed–ever.
Luckily, things have changed–a lot. I answered my dad’s question with, “well, it makes me better at what I do than I would be if I weren’t on the spectrum. It’s also probably the engine behind a lot of my anxiety and whatnot.” With dad, he’s intelligent, but a machinist, with a quick brain and a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach to life; he doesn’t want “the long answer”; you gotta keep it simple.
Another friend was stunned; (via text) they said, “wow, really?? That’s interesting!!” (I should really learn to tell people news like this in person. Again, I was lacking the nonverbal context of the words. Although, I’m pretty sure they meant it in a positive way.)
Another friend said, “all these years, I never knew you were an Aspie! That’s awesome!” (I explained to her that I had only recently found out myself.)
Another friend poked good-natured fun at me for posting so many articles, but has liked every AS-related thing I’ve posted so far on Facebook, and has even shared some of them, and has also Liked the blog’s Facebook page and several of its posts.
Another friend (whom I’m sure is an “full-blown” Aspie, but has NO idea, and is also a strongly-right-wing History major) said, “Asperger’s? Oh, that dates back to/shares ties with the Neanderthals”. (What? In all of my investigation thus far, I hadn’t heard that one.
It turns out that there is some discussion about that, although I don’t know how accurate it is, so I won’t issue an opinion at this point. This person is pretty dry and to-the-point, so I have no clue how they meant what they said, even though this is one of the few people I’ve told in person; in this case, having the nonverbal information didn’t help.)
Another friend (whom I’m also sure is fairly Aspergian) nodded, not surprised, and I think she said something about my having a long memory.
Our assistant at that time (who was on their way out, due to many factors, including their attitude and treatment of me) said “so that’s why…” (and stopped themselves just short of saying “you were so impossible to work with”). (Although let’s face it, ex-assistant–the door swings both ways; they were no cakewalk, either.)
Our current assistant (much more enlightened), said “OK” and proceeded to listen to what my spectrum status means for us in the context of the workplace, how I am and what I need as a result, and how to handle the topic in the office (i.e., don’t breathe a word to any clientele).
The extended family (on my dad’s side) hasn’t said a word. We’re not all that close anyway; my mom calls them “clannish” (her family comes from Louisiana, where that’s a quite-acceptable word and concept; she isn’t referring to any particular racist/hate groups or anything; if she were, the word would be spelled with a “K” instead of a “C”).
The (extremely select few) clients (the only two to whom I’ve come out to) reacted very positively. (I was incredibly relieved.)
A few people haven’t talked to me since, but that might be coincidental (and in many cases, it more than likely is), although I have no way to be sure about every relationship.
But hey–bonus! …. Airline employees have been very sympathetic and supportive, and quite surprisingly so! They let me pre-board so that I don’t get claustrophobic waiting in line to get on the plane. 🙂
Eventually, I’ll probably come out fully, and be fully openly-Aspergian/autistic. For now, though, I have to play my cards carefully and proceed with extreme caution. Kind of like dipping only your big toe into the water, as opposed to simply diving in head-first. I have to make sure the water is deep enough to handle me. ❤
(Image Credit: Emanuele)