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.