I’m coming out … from the spectrum

Last Friday marked the fifth National Coming Out Day since I decided to live as openly gay – a confusing, emotional, but ultimately worthwhile struggle.

Instead of accomplishment, I felt a deep, twisting guilt in the pit of my stomach.

National Coming Out Day is often a source of great pride and redemption, a celebration of living your most authentic self. I’ve realized when it comes to my autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, though – a condition that’s impacted me long before I knew what to call it – I held the same internalized feelings of shame and secrecy I thought I’d already conquered when I came out as gay.

I can count the number of people I’ve told about my autism spectrum disorder on one hand, and at least twice, the reveal was made with the sort of whispered embarrassment that haunted me in the LGBTQ+ closet. 

Progressive attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community are an encouraging sign of an increasingly tolerant society. There’s work to be done, though, when it comes to building a culture of acceptance.

It goes without saying that being gay and being autistic aren’t the same. That said, as we grow more accepting of every color in the rainbow, let’s make sure we’re showing the same kindness and respect to a different kind of spectrum.

I’m tired of muting my colors to make other people more comfortable.

It’s time to let some light through the closet doors.

According to the Interactive Autism Network, people with autism generally struggle with understanding unspoken, nonverbal expression like body language, social cues, connotation, and tone. In a sense, they suffer from a nonverbal language barrier.

This can lead to a lot of misunderstandings and unintentional conflict – I can’t tell you how many times my directness has been confused with sternness, a calm face has been interpreted as hostile, and taking a joke literally has been seen as a difference in intelligence rather than perception.

It’s a big emotional burden to have your actions repeatedly misinterpreted as malicious, especially considering my brain, through no fault of my own, inevitably processes the same social situations differently than the average person’s. 

In fact, feelings of misunderstanding and sorrow plague the autistic community.  According to a 2018 University of Bristol study, 19.8% of adults with autism in a United Kingdom study displayed depressive symptoms, compared to a much slimmer 6% of the general population. 

Mental illnesses aren’t the only problems from which many people with autism suffer. According to The Spectrum News, one in five adults with autism are unemployed, often in part because of misunderstandings or a lack of knowledge about autism.

All the same, there’s a significant variance in how seriously symptoms impact autistic people’s lives.

There are representations of autism in the media, but they tend to be on the extreme end of the spectrum – think “Rain Man” or Netflix’s “Atypical,” a show whose plot revolves around how much of a burden raising an autistic teen is for the rest of the family. Representations are getting better, such as the new autistic friend who moved into “Sesame Street” – but there’s definitely room for improvement.

That’s not to mention the frustrating social media trend of using the word “autistic” as an edgy insult, a habit I’ve found myself repeatedly pretending doesn’t bother me while gritting my teeth.

People with milder and high-functioning autism still go through challenges and misunderstandings. But when the immediate reaction of many people is to only think of autism as a debilitating ailment, that it should wholly define an autistic individual’s life, black-and-white representation feels almost as bad as no representation at all.

Wanting difficulties represented does not mean we should be defined by them. I’ve long held the hesitation that in opening up about my experiences with an autism spectrum disorder, I’d simply walk straight into another all-too-suffocating box.

Social attitudes about autism aren’t exactly encouraging – the antivax hysteria over raising a child with autism didn’t form in a vacuum.

Of the few friends and loved ones I’ve told, most have reacted with surprise that I don’t fit in with the image of autism they hold, with the sort of incredulous tone that seems meant as a compliment. But the assumption of a fundamental “otherness” to people with autism – and that “passing” for non-autistic should somehow flatter me – is, at best, deeply flawed.

I am not an exception.

Nor am I a case study in autism. 

I’m simply myself.

Coming out is a big accomplishment.

Sometimes, people are coming out of more closets than you might think.

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