Coming Out as Autistic at Work

Coming out as autistic at work is risky. I won’t sugar coat it. NeuroClastic recently published an account of a person who was fired after disclosing their diagnosis.

Sadly, that story isn’t unique. Loss of income and career opportunities are real threats to the openly autistic. People often fear what they don’t understand–and autism is widely misunderstood by the general public.

Even if your employers don’t use autism as an excuse to fire you, there are still other unpleasant reactions. When my autistic cousin told a coworker that she thinks she’s autistic, he accused her of trying to get attention. “Self-diagnosing a mental illness is so trendy nowadays.”

I’m not writing this to tell autistic people that they should come out at work. For one thing, no one is obligated to reveal their diagnosis. For another, that would make me a huge hypocrite. I haven’t told my boss, and I don’t intend to. In fact, I keep it a secret from the majority of my colleagues.

I tell myself that I’m not afraid, but that’s a lie. I am afraid. I’m afraid of all of the reactions that I mentioned before.

Still, I did tell some of my coworkers. Out of the hundreds of people at my work, I decided to tell the five who share my office. They’re my team. We have a close working relationship–“We’re like family,” as one of my coworkers said–and we’ve talked about serious, personal matters before.

Plus, my team leader was freakishly perceptive. She noticed the subtle cues that something was on my mind, when most people couldn’t see past my mask. I made the decision to tell her first.

Initially, I planned to go with the super sarcastic, “I know this is going to be a complete surprise!” In retrospect, I’m glad I took it a little more seriously. My lead listened and asked questions. She reassured me, and told me about her own mental health experiences.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had to carefully observe human behavior, but I’ve always been a good judge of character. My lead was the best person I could tell. She treated me more or less the same, while also sticking up for me when I needed it. During office discussions, my naturally quiet voice tends to get drowned out. It sucks, but I’m used to it. My lead noticed.

“Everybody, shut up!” she said. (Bluntness is her style, so this wasn’t unusual). “It’s Clee’s turn to talk!”

I’d be lying if I claimed everything was rainbows and sunshine. Telling the rest of the team was a more mixed experience.

They were supportive. One of my coworkers teared up, a reaction I found baffling but in a sweet, endearing way. They said they were proud of me, and that I didn’t have to mask around them.

“I don’t think you realized how much I mask,” I said. “It’s like 90% of the time.”

“It doesn’t matter. You can be yourself around us.”

I was skeptical, to say the least. I’ve seen many neurotypical reactions to autistic people; even accepting people still have internalized ableism. But I believed them, and let my guard down.

On a particularly stressful day, I mentioned that the office was very loud. One of my coworkers took offense, and yelled at me for being hurtful and rude.

I was baffled. I never thought she was loud. There were a lot of conversations going on at once that day. I can’t speak for all autistics, but for me, multiple noises at once cause more sensory overload than one loud sound.

It was a simple misunderstanding, but it stung. I was open about being autistic, and I was attacked for it. I felt like an idiot for dropping my mask.

Overall, I don’t regret my decision to come out, despite one negative experience. I’m still lucky; I have a job, with a supportive work team. I know that others are not as lucky.

Coming out at work is taking a risk. It should only be done if you feel it’s the best decision for your personal situation, and only to the people you can trust. Don’t feel like you “have to” or that you “owe” it to your boss–you don’t. It is entirely up to you.

No matter what you decide, remember that you are not alone. That there are others who are going through the same struggles and tough decisions.

6 Comments

  1. I waited a considerable amount of time after my diagnosis — about 18 months. I was (and am) in the process of getting divorced, which affected the amount of time I would work overseas. I decided to let my boss know at a time when he was about to retire and a new boss was on the way. His reaction, given that I had worked there for 10+ years, was that of course he knew, but he respected my privacy too much to say anything about it. I have been quite open with his replacement and not been sorry at all. I have told some coworkers but not others, depending on how close I feel to them. I work in a branch of the Canadian government, so being fired was not a risk, but I certainly risked that I would be treated differently, consciously or subconsciously. I have not been treated differently; people seem to appreciate my unique mix of strengths.

  2. Remember all those that wander are not lost, they just need a little help to find “THEIR” direction and focus on that path.

  3. I am a teacher and have a diagnosis of High Functioning Autism. Thank you for writing this. I have dropped my mask as well. If you ever would like to connect, please email me. sisu.always@gmail.com. I’m trying to start a website/blog, but it is in its very early stages.

    1. Author

      Thanks, I really appreciate the response. I feel like us autistic teachers are in a weirdly unique position because we’re surrounded by a lot of well-meaning people who spread a lot of misinformation. One good thing about distance learning is that I missed out on the April Autism Speaks brigade around my school. I’ve also been interested in blogging and would love to contribute or beta if you ever need someone to do that.

      1. I am so new at website, blogging, I am completely lost. I try though.
        There is A LOT of misinformation out there. I was open about my disability in the final interview. It has not been all roses, however, I have grown.
        Currently I am in a FANTASTIC course from POPARD (I live in British Columbia). It covers the basics of Autism. I love being a student in the class. I have many happy tears when I read the good information they provide.
        Misinformation is what keeps us seen as immature, unstable, and incapable. There is a HUGE difference between males and females in how we present ourselves. I was misdiagnosed for a long time. I am finally speaking out. Even though it is anonymous, I am still proud of myself for saying something. ASD is very invisible. And yes, I have been questioned by many on if I made up my diagnosis. I wish they knew the lifetime of social mistakes. The lifetime of social judgement because of these mistakes. The shame, tears, self harm (sadly yes). Now that I am understanding how my brain works, I am making changes that are leading to massive results. Yet, I am still asked if I self-diagnosed like that makes the whole thing invalid.
        It hit me as I read Liane Holliday Willey’s Safety Skills book. I was sobbing throughout it. Really? Could this be me? Have I denied this and shamed myself, and put myself through a lifetime of trauma just to discover this now? Yep.
        I went to adult mental health services. They immediately sent me to a psychiatrist for a diagnosis.
        The psychiatrist APOLOGIZED for the medical profession taking a while to catch on for this. He apologized for what my university life must have been like.

        Keep courage and self-love in your heart as you travel through each day. Feel no shame. We are unique and misunderstood, yet, we are learning to adapt to a world that causes us many challenges.

        Thank you for your reply. It felt wonderful to be heard.

        Sisu.


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