To ID or Not ID, That is the Question
‘I’ve only just found out myself!’
If you’ve been searching for an answer that you finally possess, with whom do you share and why? Your acceptance at the table is not proof they are acknowledging you for your authentic self. Sometimes they prefer the mask.
For those who were not diagnosed when we were younger, who struggled with facets of our true selves that seemed at constant odds with the majority, and who wrestled with metaphysical questions or shrunk from the crowds, the later-in-life Autistic/Neurodivergent label was a breath of fresh air. Some of us had already mastered masking techniques to blend with our nondivergent peers and some had pursued professions which intentionally played up our uniqueness. This might have been at cost to our self-esteem, mental well-being, physical health, or financial stability. The autistic label helped us find community, inclusion, coping mechanisms, strategies, and ways to verbalize who we are, really. For me, it was the puzzle piece I’d been obsessed with finding, not a missing piece but an explanation.
I’ve identified as neurodivergent (or autistic, to match familiar vernacular) for 5 years, and in that time, I’ve seen such huge strides for those who are just like me, personally and socially. We may quibble over exactly what labels are most fitting, but it is undeniable how we’ve been benefitted and more openly free to find comfort in modern society. Women, in particular, are finding more of a community than ever before, as masked stand-offish “mean” girls come to terms with their nonconformist beings and are thereby more accepting of their nonconformist peers.
So the question then becomes, now that we carry this encompassing idea of who we are, at what point and for what reasons should we identify ourselves to others? In this second installment of Our Autistic Expression, I’ll discuss my rationalizations and the reactions I’ve received in return.
From pleasantly surprising to entirely misinformed, the responses I’ve heard have dictated the platform on which I currently stand.
Response 1: Like Minds
‘Are you like me?’
On our first date, after a few hours of an incredible, stimulating, and engaging conversation, my partner (the Scientist) and I sat with one another in awe. It was more than an instant connection — it was a mirroring energy and understanding.
“There’s one more thing I need to tell you,” the Scientist intoned. I was rapt. He could have spent the next hour explaining all of the cell organelles and their function, or describing the many burrito shops in his home town, or pitching his groundbreaking idea in materials engineering, and I would have been present for him entirely. “I’m neurodivergent and I’m different than most people.” He glanced at me sidelong awaiting my reaction, until I squealed, “Me too!”
The conversation that followed encompassed our categorical labels, the ways in which we feel different from average, and the respective searches we’d undertaken to find what fit. It bonded us in an incredibly deep way.
When we find people that we jive with, there’s a certain rhythm to the conversation and an unusually high level of acceptance for experiences and opinions. We identify because we want them to know us and interpret our intentions correctly, and in these instances, nearly always, they identify in return or reveal that they’re on a similar path.
We identify to acknowledge instantaneous acceptance among the like-minded and be known fully for who we are.
Response 2: Clarity
‘I have so many questions. Someone I know is also autistic.’
Once I’ve identified, and hear this reaction, I’m open-minded to the questions at hand. Perhaps I’ll be able to enlighten this person or help them find common ground for an extended communication with their friend or loved one. Sometimes, ‘for a friend’, I’m really just helping them make peace within themselves. With the combination of my training, passionate pursuit of the subject, clinical experience, and self-awareness, I do feel qualified to answer questions or direct the person toward the information they need.
Recently, I was approached at a pop-up show by a woman in her 50s who was very interested in the social skills-based educational resources I create and the events the Scientist and I coordinate. I explained my perspective that typical and divergent children alike are not necessarily learning social skills in a translatable, accessible way. I’m on the spectrum, I explained, so I tend to have objectively different approaches to solving problems. Her eyes lit up and she responded, “That’s wonderful. I’m dating a man who’s autistic. We’ve only been together a few months, and I’ve learned so much, but I have so many questions. He’s still learning how to communicate what he needs and I’m learning how to listen to those needs.” I encouraged her to email me, outside of the brand and the merchandise, to initiate a conversation, in case I might be able to assist her further in any way.
We identify to build community with our neurotypical peers and help them to understand the cultural transition that is occurring.
Response 3: Disbelief
‘That’s not funny, and it’s really offensive to autistic people.’
Unfortunately, the outdated and traditionalist view of autism is that akin to definitions of incapacity, inability, and unsociability. The stereotypes of an autistic person being incapable of learning complex tasks or communicating in a typical way (either ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning) have been challenging to break down. There are those who even still believe that autism should not be considered a spectrum at all, that it is a limited disability and not a wide-reaching subset of the population which requires and cultivates differences, individuals existing on the farthest points on some of the many bell curves of society’s averages. There are others who would happily put an autistic label on anyone if it meant funding their healthcare or developmental needs. The scope of misunderstanding is maddening.
When someone responds to my statement with disbelief or disgust, I do my best to maintain perspective. I always double down, explain that it was something I struggled to fully comprehend, something others noticed but couldn’t describe, a revelatory light bulb that burned brighter than nearly any other I’d experienced. “But you’re so…” something, they’ll say, and then I usually feel forced to describe my downtime and the kinds of constructs and boundaries required for me to maintain being “so…something”. I dislike being put in a position where I need to describe the downsides of metacognitive spin, catatonia, apathy, melting down, or cognitive rigidity. Even describing these things esoterically becomes a potential difficulty to surmount, but in my experience it’s the only way to inform a person that meets my truth with disbelief.
We identify to appropriately broaden the public’s understanding of autism, with knowing risk to our well-being.
Response 4: Tone Shift to Ghost
‘I don’t know what to do with that.’
A disquieting silence or physical retraction is not uncommon upon hearing me identify. The tone may shift from pity to silence, as though whatever social connection was brewing before is now not worth continuing in light of the new evidence. There have been those who could not maintain a friendship once the identity was clear, once the masks were off. It’s typically when I am at my most comfortable, most free and open in someone’s presence, that they manifest distance and disappear. I am a lot — I am challenging, driven to succeed, held together by strict guidelines I set for myself alone, and prone to using comedic banter to fill the silence. I very rarely advocate for myself with direct, social confrontation. I’m a quick study and a terrifyingly good mimic, and it’s these traits among others that seem to put people off the fastest.
In these instances, we identify to communicate unusual or extraordinary needs, feelings, or experiences, and to ask for adaptation or patience. My actions might require an explanation, and when it’s given, it’s discarded along with my friendship. A hard truth to accept is true nonetheless, and a friend is only a friend if they can befriend the you beneath the surface.
Our Autistic Expression
For some people, I suspect increasingly more people, the urge to announce their neurodivergent nature is growing. For others, I’m sure the desire to remove all labels for fear of isolating or facing the misinformed masses is prominent.
I have wavered on when to tell who what — is it something I keep secret and let them figure out? Is it something I announce after the conversation turns in that direction, or after an uncomfortable moment that was brought on because of it? What will be the social cost to identify or not identify? Do I rely on the person seeing my social posting, my brand identity, or my blog in order to understand me fully? Will knowing I’m neurodivergent change anything about our interaction for the better? I don’t know, but I am thinking about it.
In the meantime, while I’m still fitting the pieces together and understanding my own meandering, I would only ask of you compassion, for myself and others like me. If someone identifies as autistic or neurodivergent, listen to what they’re saying and consider why they’re telling you. They may still be figuring it out too.
We’re all going to figure it out together.