“So Dad,” I said, breaking the silence as the two of us watched a football game. “I started talking to a doctor about, um, possibly being autistic.”
My dad has a world class poker face. The man’s an island, as my sister and I always joked. Only now I wished that he showed some hints of how he was taking the bombshell news he should’ve heard decades ago from a trained medical professional instead of his adult daughter in a poorly lit basement.
“So, you’re taking care of yourself?” he finally said.
“Yeah. I guess it explains all of,” I gestured up and down my body, “this.”
“What are you talking about?” my dad said indignantly. “There’s nothing wrong with you!”
One of the (many) drawbacks of Autism Speaks and mommy bloggers hijacking the autism discourse is that autism is seen as a childhood disorder. The narrative is child-focused: their parents’ struggles raising them, their experiences in school, etc. Autistic adults are pretty much unicorns; as far as the general public’s concerned, we don’t exist.
The mainstream media doesn’t talk about adult-specific experiences. There’s no coming out stories for autistic adults. We’re left to navigate these uncharted waters all on our own.
Coming out is, frankly, terrifying. That’s true for anyone, but can be especially scary for autistic people due to rampant ableism. We don’t know how people will react, and discrimination is a real threat.
Some of us get so used to masking that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. To quote the excellent show Mr. Robot (which I could talk about forever, if left to my own devices), “How do you take off a mask when it stops being a mask?”
Despite these fears, many of us still have the desire to come out. Autistic people, like their allistic peers, want to be seen and accepted for who they truly are.
Some of us want to fling open our windows and bellow out to the world, Disney Princess style, “I’m autistic and I’m proud!” Others might want to start small. Instead of plunging straight into the deep end, it might be better to stick your toes in first, by telling a select few who are closest to you.
Still, the people closest to you can be the hardest to come out to. They know you the best and care about you the most, yet paradoxically, that can make their reactions worse.
They know you, see, so they know that you don’t fit the Rain Man stereotypes they have in their heads. They might tell you that you’re just a true introvert or a tad bit eccentric. They might even try to reassure you, as if autism is a case of the “cooties” that you desperately want to get rid of.
Those kind of reactions hurt. When a loved one dismisses you, even if it’s well-meaning, it can hurt more than a stranger’s bullying. It’s tempting to delay coming out to minimize these reactions–telling yourself that the timing just isn’t right, but next week for sure. And that’s okay, if that’s what you want.
Coming out as autistic is deeply personal, and no one should feel forced or rushed if they aren’t ready. No one can decide that for you.
For me, I decided to come out to immediate family and my closest friend one-on-one, in a calm, relaxing setting. My dad’s reaction was expected. My mom, who is the talker of the family, listened empathetically, occasionally asking questions.
“Did I ever do anything that made you wonder if I wasn’t developing like the average kid?” I asked.
She paused, considering it. “Well, there was that time the computer was broken. I thought it was a little strange that you asked if it was fixed every single day.”
That’s what struck her as odd, and not my meltdowns whenever we went to a crowded department store?
My sister’s reaction surprised me.
“Oh, come on!” she said (there were probably some curse words in there, too).
“When I was a college freshman, I took a class about autism. I said that it sounded like you, and you and Mom yelled at me.”
“Oh,” I said sheepishly. And here I was worried I was shocking her, when she just might know me even better than I know myself.
Telling my family was like exhaling after holding my breath for hours. Just knowing that I could mention being autistic, in case I ever wanted to, was a revelation. I didn’t have to share those experiences with them, but I could. And that made all of the difference.
Hopefully, as the autism discourse shifts to autistic adults (as “nothing about us without us” takes off), autistic coming out stories will get more media attention. In the meantime, if you are struggling with these questions, know that you are not alone. That there are many other autistic adults out there, grappling with the same issue.