It is often that I hear from parents that they are afraid to disclose their child’s Autism because they make their child a target. My first question is, why do people believe this?
First, let me say what usually remains unsaid, Autism is only invisible from a selective point of view. When onlookers define the parameters of normalcy, they look for certain sets of acceptable patterns. This is usually assessed within the first 5 minutes upon meeting someone. If an Autistic individual, such as myself, doesn’t display any stereotypical Autistic behaviour in that first 5 minutes, the onlooker determines the individual is average neutrally speaking. The point of this assessment is really just used by all people to check for threats, not necessarily for normalcy. But as people develop a keener sense of socially acceptable behavior (sometime in the teen years) this survival technique becomes a way of forming social cliques.
Since most of our public day to day interactions are brief 5 minutes encounters, Autism in someone like me is invisible. After the first 5 minutes, the onlooker retains their original impression and challenging it is now going to be difficult. Enter strange behaviour. A sudden noise that makes jump, a tangle of people walking in different directions that makes me shudder, or getting disoriented on an escalator. These unusual reactions are noticeable by people around me as odd, and they start to wonder why.
Without answering why, people start to distance themselves from me. They start to worry I will be “taken advantage of” by some nasty person. Their belief I am a target of cruel people, makes me concerned that I am. And with that I become a target. Autism was never even mentioned. Since I have now become a target, others feel they must take on the burden of caring for me, like a very young child. Afraid the friendship will be asymmetrical, they back away.
Let’s reframe this idea into something more common, being female. We have built a society that states because I am female, I am a target of male aggression. Therefore I am taught not to walk around alone, especially at night. I am taught to wear clothing that is not revealing, to watch how much I sway my hips when walking, or even to be aware of my public food choices. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to eat a hot dog or a popsicle but feel obligated to chose something else because eating these foods is hypsersexualized by our society. The difference here is that I cannot hide being female.
As we grow together as a society, we are changing the ways we see women. The rape culture is being countered by a generation that says being female doesn’t make us a target, but rather teaching our children that women are responsible for male sexual aggression does. I am one who firmly believes that my eating a popsicle is nothing more than eating a popsicle and any male who makes an issue of it should be called down by society as a whole. I was not born female for your pleasure, but rather because of a genetic lottery.
Similarly, with disabilities we have developed a victim culture. People with disabilities are seens as helpless, defenseless, and a target of abuse. This mentality among our societies make it acceptable to believe that because a person is born with a disability they are automatically a target and that it is up to that person’s caregivers to protect them. Again, just like with the rape culture, we excuse the aggressor and put the onus on the person with the disability – or their lifelong caregiver.
The solution by many has been to not disclose the disability in cases where disability can be obscured, such as with some areas of Autism. But what about those who cannot hide their Autism? What about those people whose disability is as obvious as gender or skin colour? This system of protection becomes a way of catering to systemic bigotry.
Another big problem with this approach is that Autistic people are denied community and authentic human connection. The truth is I love my Autistic friends, but l want and love my Neurotypical friends too. When people make disability an acceptable reason for placing a target on our backs, we are often forced into disability only environments. Disclosure becomes the secret code word to an elite group of outcasts, left to rely on one or two caregivers. And once the caregivers can no longer help, we are left to the underfunded, underdeveloped public system.
Reframing my interactions with disclosure, I avoid all of the aforementioned issues. I openly disclose that I have Autism, which means I cannot hide it. As with being female, my openness invites a more positive energy of acceptance around me. My friends learn in the beginning that I have Autism, and that there are struggles I continue to have because of it. They learn they do not have to take care of me, but rather be the same support they would be to any of their other friends. The exchange is mutual as my unique view of the world also enriches their lives.
Being openly Autistic makes less of a target than being covertly Autistic.
With the conversation open, and mutual, I have had an opportunity to build a community of loving people. And should I have the now rare encounter with a dangerous individual, I have more than my caregiver to stand up for me. I have an entire village to stand up with me. As we begin to erase the archaic views that people with disabilities are helpless, we build a community of people keeping the one or two ill intended people away, not with their fists but with their presence.
When we hide our disability, we also send the message to the disabled person that they should be ashamed of their disability. We deprive them of friendship and community. We are telling them cover up, don’t eat hot dogs in public.
Being openly Autistic, as with being openly female, makes me a unique individual who is comfortable with my condition of birth. It makes me a seeker, instead of a hider. It makes me reach out instead of falling into deep depression, losing myself in isolation. Being openly Autistic means I am free to be me, toe walking and all. And anyone who tries to hurt me will face 100 angry faces, some strangers and some friends, making sure it the aggressor knows it is not okay to make me into a target.
Until next time,