Autism Out Loud
I came out as autistic in 2021 — in October, right around my birthday. But though my first article on “Coming Out Autistic” (in Scientific American.) explained the process I’d gone through to acknowledge my autism, I did not really live my autism publicly until 2022. In other words, though I broke the news, I had yet to do the living-out-loud part. Believe it or not, it doesn’t come naturally. For most of my life, I’ve been told that success depended upon keeping my autism a secret.
When I grew up, the only real reference I had for neurodivergence was Rain Man, a film with Dustin Hoffman playing an autistic savant named Raymond who has been institutionalized most of his life. The film has been praised for bringing “autism awareness.” But it also entrenched the ideas that 1. all autistic people are savants (having a remarkable talent in one area, while suffering in most others), 2. autistic people are or should be institutionalized “for their own good,” and 3. they can’t function in society or make decisions on their own. It created a brand new stereotype, what film-writer Tom Breihan calls “the mysterious and secretly cuddly computer-brained autistic genius” — but one that is never treated as an autonomous figure in his own right. As a child, the message of the movie seemed very clear: Act normal, because if you don’t, you won’t have a voice, you won’t be important. To be different was a weakness, I thought (WRONGLY), and weakness was something you should hide.
In fact, I blamed myself a lot. See, I didn’t have an official diagnosis as a kid. Partly because “girls” (I’ll explain the quotes in a minute) are under-diagnosed. Partly because my parents didn’t see diagnosis as a good thing. Note — at the time, they may have been right. There weren’t so many supportive programs back then, and we lived rural and isolated. But since I didn’t know being me was ok, or that others might be like me, I assumed I was just bad at a lot of things. I also learned to hide it.
It’s called masking. It usually involves combinations of behaviors to help you fit in, like forcing eye contact, faking smiles and other facial expressions, hiding your “peculiar” personal interests (and pretending to be interested in more “normative” things), coming up with rehearsed responses or scripting conversations and disguising repetitive or unusual movements or noises (“stimming”). Some of the masking actually hurts, like pushing yourself to endure intense sensory…