Should I tell people? What if they begin to treat me differently/like I’m stupid? What if I begin to attract predators? What if they react badly? What if they pigeonhole me? Do I really want to be known as the autistic girl on campus? What if they say the dreaded words: “But you don’t look autistic!” “But you don’t look disabled!” These words are incredibly painful and totally invalidate our experience.
Unfortunately, Autism Spectrum Disorders and social disabilities are still misunderstood, stigmatized, and kind of taboo in this society, and disclosing is a tough personal decision. I know that I, like many others in our community, was raised to believe that my diagnosis was a facet of myself to hide. My diagnosis was to be a personal condition that nobody is to ever know about. Before college I asked my mom if I should have my diagnosis on file. She simply replied with “Oh no honey, we don’t want you going in with that.”
Growing up, assimilation was the ultimate goal. The message was that I’d have an easier time in life attempting to assimilate into nuerotypical society.
Coming out as gay isn’t a bad analogy to coming out as on the spectrum. Personally, I still haven’t disclosed to the vast majority of people in my life (and I don’t really plan on it). I’m not yet ready to deal with the aforementioned adverse reactions. However, looking back at my university experiences there may have been some useful times to disclose. Instead of full on disclosure I personally prefer a middle ground tactic called admitting vulnerabilities. Here is an instance in college when I believe it would have been beneficial to admit vulnerabilities.
One day first semester freshman year, I was called in to speak my freshman year guidance counselor. She mentioned that she was concerned about why I was having some significant social troubles in college. She mentioned a freshman year teacher who was perplexed by my atypical facial expressions and the trouble I seemed to have getting along with my peers. Earlier, the teacher had called me aside to ask me about why I seemed “checked out” in class. He then reached out to my guidance counselor. I simply replied to them both “I don’t know, I’m not really sure what to do about this.” and refused to elaborate.
At this point in my life (age 18), I was completely obsessed with masking, blending in, and the mere thought of revealing any type of vulnerability to anyone was entirely unthinkable. I was completely in the closet about my handicaps and too proud to ask for any help. Looking back I wish I had at least disclosed to the guidance counselor and the freshman year teacher. You can not hide a full on disability, it will come out in other ways. If you are uncomfortable with revealing your diagnosis, there are ways to disclose without using the key words “disability, autism, Aspergers, NVLD etc.” You can disclose by revealing what the specific challenge is. I probably would have said something like this:
“I have a challenge that is characterized by x,y,and z. A neutral facial expression is an external indication of this, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not paying attention. I just have a different way of processing information. Here are the specific accommodations I need to succeed academically and socially.”
“I have a tough time reading social cues and can be a bit socially awkward sometimes, which is probably what my peers and teachers are picking up on. However, this has no bearing on my academics, I can still succeed academically despite being a bit socially awkward. I will let you know if I need additional academic support.”
Upon reflection, it is completely unfathomable that I went four years hiding my diagnosis from my teachers and counselors and not requesting any type of help. When you have a significant additional challenge, that means that you need significant additional support- it will make your college journey much smoother. I wish I had broke down to all of my guidance counselors and teachers all my specific challenges and strengths. If you have your diagnosis on your school’s file, I would recommend providing all of your guidance counselor with your diagnosis report. I know it can be difficult, but I would recommend being open about your distinct challenges and weaknesses with your guidance counselor and teachers in the beginning. It will help to avoid confusion, misunderstandings and negative feedback later down the line.