I read a really interesting blog post the other day, about the role of employers in helping neurodiverse employees to ‘come out’ about their conditions in the workplace . (N.B. ‘neurodiverse’ is used in the blog as an ‘umbrella’ term for a wide range of neurological differences, including ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia … and autism.) The blog also deals with the reasons for using the term ‘coming out’ to cover the process of disclosing disability.
The blog is here – definitely worth a look in my opinion.
What I want to do here is to add to that discussion, by explaining a conversation that I’ve had this morning – a very, very mundane, ‘everyday’ kind of conversation in my own house, but one that is so representative of hundreds of such conversations I’ve had over the years that I think it’s worthy of some comment here.
It was a conversation that unfolded in such a way that it created one of those moments where I was faced with the decision – ‘do I mention my autism here?’ – ‘do I want to ‘come out’ to this person, right here and now?’ And it happened like this:
A Kitchen Experience
We had visitors in the house – they were there in relation to my partner’s work, so they were people I know, but not well. I was making coffee, and one of the visitors was in the kitchen too. It became apparent that (in an inquisitive way) they wanted me to account for the fact that I was at home during the day, and not out at a 9-5 job. So the conversation came round to what I do for a job – and I talked about my PhD, and about previous and other related work, which has all been in fields associated with disability (and autism in particular).
And then the question comes … “So how did you get into that kind of work then?”
I’ve been asked that quite a lot. It’s a perfectly harmless question – at least I’m sure that’s how it’s meant. But there’s so much behind it. In that moment, I have to assess the risks and benefits of ‘coming out’ – because what I want to say in those moments is something like:
“Well, I’m actually autistic myself, and I’m absolutely passionately, obsessively, deeply committed to making the world a better place for other autistic people, because I know how the world can hurt us. And really, by extension, I care about finding out more about, and challenging all the other ways in which the world hurts people.”
I didn’t say that though. I gave some very dull comments (in a very expressionless voice, avoiding eye contact by looking at the coffee cups) about job opportunities that arose when I finished my undergrad – and implied that I fell into a field in which I was little more than intellectually curious.
And this raises three important questions for me:
Why, in that moment, in my own house, did I feel like I had to give that answer?
I think that there are two main reasons why this happened – and it’s possible that they might seem contradictory (I’ve said before that if there’s one thing that autism is, it’s a bunch of contradictions).My aim here is not to try to present some unifying account of the situation, but to point out these contradictions as I experience them. So the two reasons that stand out most clearly to me as to why I wouldn’t ‘come out’ as autistic in that everyday encounter are as follows:
- Firstly – I’m aware that autism is stigmatised. I know that there are stereotypes about what we can and can’t do, and in my mind, if I give away my identity I run the risk that these stereotypes will be held against me in the future. Anything I say that is remotely unusual, any behaviour that deviates slightly from the ‘norm’, and I feel (I know from past experience) that this can be held against me. Anything that would be ‘a little bit strange’ or ‘assertive’ or even ‘rude’ becomes ‘autistic’ for me – and the difference is that ‘strange’ or ‘assertive’ or ‘rude’ are things that we DO. They’re not things that we ARE – so the label can be discarded (by avoiding similar behaviour in future) without any permanent negative effect on how people see you. Whereas, whatever I do can be interpreted by an autism ‘lens’ – through stereotypes and misunderstandings, and I can’t get away from it.
- Secondly – there’s work in coming out as autistic. It takes effort to find the right words for the specific situation. And I wouldn’t mind that work, but again it’s risky. Because if I get the words wrong, then I don’t do justice to my identity and I leave it open to being dismissed by whoever I’m talking to. This happened to me just the other week. I disclosed my diagnosis because the person I was speaking to mentioned that they knew someone else who ‘technically has Asperger syndrome.’ My comment of ‘me too’ was met with a long speech about how the person I was speaking to believes it is over-diagnosed and that everyone ‘can be a bit odd.’ Bearing in mind that many of us come to be diagnosed because the price of being understood as ‘a bit odd’ has nearly crushed us, it feels incredibly dangerous to put on the line for public dismissal the very identity that helps you to make sense of yourself and what you understand to be your limitations.
Why does this matter?
I’d like to say that I think first and foremost that it matters because in not disclosing that I am autistic – in not ‘coming out’ – I feel like I’m betraying my identity. I feel like I’m hiding part of myself that is quite important to me. And I also feel like I’m doing a disservice to other autistic people by colluding in the stigma.
I feel that if you’re in a minority, representation matters (though I don’t like that fact, and it’s one of the main things I think we need to challenge if we care about social change) – but I want to be ‘real’ and very open and proud about myself (and in a lot of situations I really am). And I feel that if I’m not open all the time it’s like I’m lying. That is why in this post I’m trying to very hard to articulate why I think it happens – the forces around me that make ‘coming out’ feel so risky (though also feeling guilty and sad because I’m feeling deep down that maybe it’s just personal weakness on my part that makes me keep quiet).
And what does this mean for employers and other who want to help us to be ‘out’?
Well, I think that if employers (or anyone else, in fact) are concerned with making it safe for us to ‘come out’ this needs a huge social shift. For me, it’s got to be about more than creating individual safe spaces in the workplace (though that is without doubt an admirable endeavour!) But the thing is, that in the example I’ve used here, I WAS in a safe space – I was in my own kitchen (there are few places in the world where I feel safer).
But in that moment of decision – to ‘come out’, or not to ‘come out’ – it’s about more than the immediate space.
- What is weighing on me in that moment is all of the time as a teenager, trying to find words for my experiences, and my hurt – and not being understood because no one knew I was talking about autism.
- Then all the effort of trying to ‘make my case’ for diagnosis – being told by my doctor that I couldn’t have Asperger syndrome because I don’t have a learning disability, being told by my psychologist that I’d ‘grow out’ of my diagnosis, because I’d learn strategies to cope.
- And then all the previous times in everyday life where I’ve tried to ‘come out’ – and the conversation has become about ‘you’re not properly autistic’ or ‘oh but you’re so able’ or ‘so how exactly does autism affect you?” Or – and this is probably worse – times when mentioning my diagnosis has led to an increased need to prove myself and my abilities – and also that I’m not TOO passionate about autism, because it’s wrong to be a one-trick pony with an agenda (especially when everyone knows that obsessive interests are part of our pathology).
- And of course, right there at the forefront of my mind, there’s leaving a job I cared about, with ‘Asperger syndrome’ written on my sick note.
So often, when people want to make a difference in autism, we aim our efforts at attempts to figure out big policy changes that we can make – or physical adaptations to the environment (the elusive one size fits all ‘autism-friendly environment), and we do this by attempting to generate specialist knowledge that can be applied in specific contexts (autism and employment, autism and healthcare, autism and education). We create specialist provision in universities – ‘Disability Services’ so that there’s somewhere for autistic people to go with their needs – separate from the social environment of academic space. And all of this definitely has its place – I’m glad people are thinking about those things. Some of them have helped me a bit in the past.
But this specialist knowledge, and the adaptations and policy changes that it seeks to generate are of little use in the distinctly non-specialist environment of my kitchen.
And likewise, those ‘kitchen experiences’ (and, as I have tried to stress, this is just one example of a very, very common thing) have a very deep and profound effect on how I manage in those created spaces (autism and employment, autism and health, autism and education). They weigh heavily on my mind when I am trying to decide whether to disclose and, if I do decide to disclose, how I frame the disclosure – how I construct my autistic identity in that place, and (as it’s usually phrased) how I answer questions about my needs.
And this becomes problematic – because it means that those everyday experiences (the ‘kitchen experiences’) are having an effect in the very places where people are trying to help, and we end up speaking different languages. The employer (the clinician, the teacher, the disability adviser) has worked very hard to understand autism, and they desperately want THEIR environment to be a SAFE environment, but the autistic employee (patient, student) has had so many ‘kitchen experiences’ that they frame their ‘coming out’, if they manage it at all, in a way that is ‘safe’ but not necessarily ‘real’.
In short – I’m so, so glad that people are talking about the role of employers in helping neurodiverse employees to ‘come out’ in the workplace, but (and I think that this also applies to those other contexts – hospitals, schools, universities) – if you really want to make safe spaces for us, you have to understand the everyday, the mundane, the non-specialist. You have to understand the ‘kitchen experiences’.