Last year was not my easiest year. I had my challenge in many areas – love, driving, school, living independently – but none has been more challenging than being open about my autism.
It started with a school project. I was taking a class on social work for large-scale social change and the final project was a presentation addressing a grand social challenge and proposing some methods of change. I chose to address providing work and school opportunities for autistic young adults, as services for that population are largely unmet (50,000 people on the spectrum turn 18 every year in the US). It was a subject that hit close to home, as I didn’t know where to turn for support when I left high school almost a decade ago. God knows I still feel I need a lot of help transitioning into adulthood.
Throughout the semester, I began to wonder if disclosing my autism diagnosis to the class (and later the faculty at the final presentation) would help me give a more rounded and effective presentation. It was a weighty decision as in the past I had selectively told only a few people I felt I could trust. There’s a lot of pressure on autistic people to present themselves as “normal” (whatever the hell that means) and I wasn’t sure how people would react to a disclosure of my diagnosis. And I’ve constantly been afraid that people would hold my being autistic against me. I have long believed we live in an ableist world, and that people often don’t take kindly to those different from the norm. I had mini nervous breakdowns over the decision and almost dropped the class because of it.
In the end, I stayed in the class and I disclosed my autism in my final presentation. My professor, classmates, and faculty expressed admiration at my openness and commended me for a great presentation. And yes, I got an A in the class.
With that experience behind me, I started to think about the value of being openly autistic. I haven’t had any bad experiences since I started telling people about my being on the spectrum (something that still surprises me) and being able to be honest has been kind of freeing. Before last year, autism was something of a personal burden – I was Sisyphus pushing a giant autistic boulder up a hill, trying to prevent it from rolling down on top of me. I was so frightened of judgment and so ashamed of being different and certain that I’d be seen as a problem rather than as a person. But after that presentation, I began to see that there was a benefit in being open – I didn’t have to lie or hide, I could advocate for myself, and I could share my experiences and perspective to demystify what people think autism is.
I don’t have to be Sisyphus, or at the least I can let my boulder roll down without fear.
(Oh hey, a metaphor! Weren’t expecting that, were ya?)
Since then, I have begun to express myself as autistic more openly. I created a Facebook page called “Autistic Living” where I share stories about autism in science, news, and other fields. I began working with young adults at my internship, and writing and vlogging about being autistic for their newsletter. And then I created this blog here.
It’s still difficult for me to be this open. After years of “hiding”, tears still stream from my eyes as I type my thoughts about my life. I still fear people will say I’m lesser or “not autistic enough” because my symptoms aren’t completely worn on my sleeve. It’s scary to put yourself out there when you’re so used to not addressing it at all. But it’s a process, and it’s getting a little easier and a little more freeing every day.
So what’s my new year’s resolution? Quite simple – to be more open about autism. To share more of myself so I’m no longer afraid. To not be nervous about how people will react when I disclose. To be more comfortable in my skin, accept what I have and the power behind it. I know I have a lot of potential to do a lot of good, but I have to be open with what I’ve got in order to move forward.
Here’s to 2015, the year where I break on through to the other side.