Something that comes up a lot in the discussion of GLBTQI rights is whether or not it should be considered a responsibility of closeted individuals to come out to their co-workers and the general populace. My consensus on it is that because it can often result in life-threatening situations, it is not, in fact, the obligation of any queer or gender non-conforming individuals to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity. Other people disagree, and say that if they are ever to be widely accepted as mainstream in North America, non-flamboyant, “ordinary” people leading otherwise banal lives should come out and show that it’s not all about the usual clichés of glitter, hairdressing, sex work, motorbikes, etc etc. I disagree, and leave it to the discretion of the individual on whether or not they feel safe and comfortable coming out. I myself am quasi-closeted; I talk openly about my girlfriend and my queerness on the internet, but in “real” life, for the sake of my girlfriend’s privacy and honouring her wishes, only a few close friends know our “secret”.
But the discussion of how people who lead ordinary, mainstream lives should consider coming out of the closet to improve the image of the community and dispel stereotypes got me thinking about disclosing autism to coworkers and other people one casually encounters on a daily basis. For my college career, disclosure is an issue that’s resolved with a letter from disability services explaining the nature and needs of my autism and SPD, At my previous workplace, I obviously “came out” because I was working as the secretary for a disability student advocacy group. The entire campus of my university could find out if they wished, because I’ve received several awards for my disability advocacy work and I was identified by my disabilities in the news announcement.
Coming out doesn’t always mean it will be a wonderful la vie en rose, though. At a previous workplace, after I disclosed my disability in casual conversation, a supervisor who was already ill-tempered towards me became almost… frightened of me. She would watch me closely, and seemed to think I was capable of murder at a moment’s notice. Another coworker later told me that she had read a variety of misinformation on the nature of Asperger’s online, and she thought I was a cold-hearted savant sociopath. I don’t think I give off that vibe… She was also uncomfortable around disabled people in general, and it showed each time we had to service a student with a disability. I left that job because of her atrocious treatment of me, and the fact that she considered me dangerous because of my disability still bristles me when I think about it. It’s the ultimate insult, in my opinion.
In other situations, when given a chance to discuss my autism with casual acquaintances, such as the nurse tech. who draws my blood when I go to Red Cross for a donation, or the librarian who greets me every time I go in for my weekly visit, or various others, I remain silent. I’m looking for temporary summer employment now, and contemplating whether I should wait until it comes up, or disclose my disability in a job interview, or not bring it up unless asked. The law prevents my potential employers from asking me, or from denying me work based on disability, but prejudices can often subtly influence these decisions. During the casual encounters, I grapple with whether to disclose, especially when the subject of autism comes up, and they use child-centric or disablist language to describe it.
As a speaker at a children’s development centre, an open advocate, and a blogger about autism, you’d think I’d have no troubles with disability disclosure. But there remains that niggling fear that I will somehow screw up, lose my temper, do something stupid, or end up failing at a task, and having it attributed to my autism, and having autism translate to a personal or moral failing in the eyes of witnesses. I’m trying to overcome that fear. It’s unlikely, and that’s more the failure of the other person than myself. But it remains, and it will continue to colour my experiences with disability disclosure. I feel that I should come out, not only to show that autism isn’t confined to childhood and that it manifests in a plethora of ways, but also, to help explain certain “quirks” that would otherwise be inscrutable to a person unfamiliar with me. I don’t know which ones are autism and which ones are just me, but helping it account for the little tics and odd mannerisms makes both me and other people more comfortable when they happen.
So, my answer to this is the same as my answer is for queer and gender non-conforming people. Whatever you feel most comfortable doing is what is best for you. Nobody should force you into a closet or crown you Ambassador of Autism against your will.