Part 121: Is It Safe To Come Out?

Meme image, showing a head and shoulders photo of Gary Numan wearing a suit and tie, from 1979. 
The text reads: You know I hate to ask...

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re all well. Here in Sheffield, it has been a very cold week. Scraping ice off my car before I go to work is my new morning routine. One morning this week, the door to my porch was frozen shut so much, I had a bit of a fight to open it. My flat is so cold, it’s ridiculous. Some nights, I’ve gone to bed early, just so I can be under the duvet with the electric underblanket on. The purchase of my new home is moving along slowly, and everything is currently in the hands of solicitors. If I can be in the house by May, I’ll be delighted, but that means I’ve got the cruel winter sting of February to come in a flat that sometimes feels like a meat chiller. On my commute to work, I’m seeing fewer homeless people sleeping rough in the city centre. I’m hoping this is because they’ve found some refuge from the cold. It sickens me that people are freezing on the streets of modern cities while the wealthy elite own multiple opulent homes. Okay, on with the autism stuff…

Sometimes, I’m contacted by people who think they might be autistic, and who have questions. I tend to say the same kinds of things to these people. I always make the point that they are coming to a subject that is hugely complex, and might seem daunting at first. I tell them there is a good chance that most of the things they think they know about autism are wrong. I ask them why they are thinking they might be autistic, and there’s generally a detailed conversation around that. I always say I’m not qualified to give diagnoses. I explain a little about how diagnoses can be obtained, the benefits and drawbacks of formal diagnosis, and also about self-diagnosis. And I always stress the importance of thinking carefully about whether or not to come out as autistic. Coming out, either completely openly and publicly, or to a select few, is fraught with danger. I want to talk this week about those dangers, and some of the discrimination and prejudice autistic people face.

But before we get to the really interesting nitty-gritty, I have to cover a caveat… As always, I cannot and do not claim to speak for all autistic people. We are all individuals with complex differences. It’s okay to disagree with my points, or to offer alternative viewpoints. The reason I feel confident in offering my thoughts on the following issues is that I’ve already discovered a lot of relevant commonalities with other autistic people. In some ways, then, I’m offering a summary of common experiences of autistic people. It’s often helpful to autistic people to be able to see how much we have in common with each other. It’s also important to get the truth of these experiences out of the autistic community’s bubble and into the non-autistic world. I hope I play a part in that. So with all that in mind…

I know from my own experience and the publicly shared experiences of many other autistic people what can go wrong with coming out. Relationships can suffer. I’m not only talking about romantic relationships here. Friendships and professional relationships can be affected by letting people know you are autistic. As far as romantic relationships go, as I’ve discussed here before, it is very common for these to break down when one partner discovers they are autistic. It’s not straightforward why this occurs. It’s not always as simple as one partner deciding they don’t want to be with an autistic partner – although this does happen. It can go the opposite way; a person finds out they are autistic, learns something new about themselves, and decides their current relationship isn’t right for them. Or it can be a mutual decision as the partners realise their lives are now going in different directions. But whatever the reasons, the ending of a romantic relationship after discovering you are autistic can only be a difficult upheaval to deal with.

Friendships can also end after a person reveals they are autistic, particularly if they reveal they have only recently found out they are autistic. Something to consider here is that an autistic person is always autistic, and has always been autistic, regardless of what late stage in life they might be identified or diagnosed. Most if not all autistic people encounter difficulties making and/or maintaining friendships, due to the differences in social approach and understanding (think of the double-empathy problem). It is common for autistic people (regardless of whether they know they are autistic) to feel friendships are tenuous or fragile, and that they have to put in a lot of effort for little return. When a person comes out as autistic, it’s not uncommon for their non-autistic “friends” to take a prejudiced attitude of, I always knew there was something weird about him/her/them, following which the autistic person can find themselves gradually unfriended, or even instantly ghosted.

White text on black background. The text reads: “You know I hate to ask, but are ‘friends’ electric? 
Only, mine’s broke down, and now I’ve no one to love.”
~Gary Numan, Tubeway Army, Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

In professional situations, coming out as autistic can result in colleagues and line managers making an assumption of incompetence. This is remarkable allistic behaviour, as the assumption of incompetence will be made regardless of any objective measure of how highly competent that autistic person has been before coming out. Line managers who adopt this approach will also deploy confirmation bias, observing the autistic person’s behaviour in such a way as to make the most negative interpretations possible, and ascribing the perceived faults and deficits to autism. A further issue in workplaces can come from the fact that when an employee discovers in adulthood that they are autistic, it often comes after a period of autistic burnout. This burnout usually involves a spell of mental ill health, such as serious depression or anxiety, which leads to absence from work. Depending on the individual, this can be prolonged absence, or multiple spells of absence. Line managers tend to dislike their employees being absent from work, and make an assumption of unreliability, which consolidates the assumption of incompetence.

The above difficulties involved in coming out as autistic mainly have their roots in the bias, discrimination and prejudice that autistic people continually come up against. It’s interesting to look at how the prejudice and discrimination manifests…

Types of bias, prejudice, and discrimination faced by autistic people:

Overt: Overt discrimination is typified by insults such as retard, or comments that (wrongly) tell us what we cannot be capapble of (love, empathy, humour, etc), or comments incorrectly telling us what is “wrong” with us; that we are violent, dangerous, etc. For some reason, those with overt bias against autistic people also often seem to have a lot of anger towards us. It’s unclear why this is. Commonly, autistic people will come up against this type of abuse online, or in schools, and sometimes, depending on the environment, in workplaces.

Disguised: Sometimes people hold all the prejudices and biases as described above, but they pretend otherwise, because the think their true feelings are not “politically correct”, and so cannot be publicly stated. These people often assume everyone else secretly agrees with them, but won’t say so out of political correctness. This type of prejudice tends to be encountered in workplaces, places of higher education, and in families. In workplaces, it can result in autistic people being overlooked for advancement or development.

Uncosncious bias: Some people have unconsciously absorbed stereotypes and misinformation about autism. They might not have the anger and hate toward autistic people as in the two cases above, but they still hold onto negative and incorrect beliefs about us. They often express misplaced sympathy for autistic people… or more often, for the poor, burdened parents of autistic children. They might comment, “I’m sorry to hear that,” when you tell them you are autistic, as if you’d contracted a life-threatening illness. Education can help resolve this kind of bias,which is why it’s important for autistic people to keep getting their points of view out there.

Denial bias: People with this kind of bias have absorbed stereotypes and misinformation as unconscious biases, but they are also highly opinionated, and likely to assume that their beliefs are always correct. They are living, breathing examples of Dunning-Kruger, and will not accept their beliefs about autism are wrong. Hollywood legend William Shatner is a great example of this, in how he communicates with (or blocks) autistic people online. This kind of prejudice is typified by comments such as, “If you’ve got autism, there’s something wrong with you, that’s why it’s called a disorder.” No amount of debate will dissuade such a person from their belief that autistic people are deficient, or even subhuman. These people simply cannot accept they might be wrong about anything. They equate their opinion with fact, regardless of contrary evidence.

The above points demonstrate why I would always tell someone considering coming out as autistic that they should give it serious thought, and be aware of the consequences. However, once that consideration has been carried out, my feeling is that, all things considered, it is better to come out than not. There are exceptions, though. If someone feels that coming out as autistic might put them in danger, they should clearly keep quiet. Even if danger is not overtly present, but coming out might result in just too much stress and pressure, then also, keep it quiet. But for those of us who can manage coming out and being loud and proud about it: Go for it! If we are going to change the world, and make it safe and acceptable for autistic people, then we have to be out there, being our autistic selves, and talking about the truth of autistic experience.

A meme formed from two adjacent images tiled together. 
The first image shows cartoon mouse Jerry smiling and gesturing excitedly.  The text reads: Me, shouting loud and proud about being autistic.  
The second image shows a close-up of cartoon cat Tom looking worried.  The text reads: Everyone else on the bus.

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That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.


You can find The Autistic Writer on all your favourite social media channels

Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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