This article was first published on 9 February 2020 in Spectrum Women Magazine.
“You’re very brave.”
I get that a lot. In fact, I’ve been hearing it constantly ever since I ‘came out’ as autistic. It’s usually said kindly (I think) and so I try to take it in the spirit intended. But every time someone says to me “You’re very brave” it gets me thinking: why is it ‘brave’ to be open about being autistic?
I think there might be a few reasons for that.
They might see it as ‘brave’ for me to apply a word to myself that’s generally represented as something very different in popular culture – usually a young, white guy with savant skills. Autism often looks very different in women and girls, which is why historically we’ve flown under the radar. A lost generation of autistic women are only now discovering their true selves, either because they’ve reached a crisis point in their lives or, like me, their kids have been through the assessment process.
Maybe they think it’s ‘brave’ for me to say I’m autistic because they reckon people won’t believe me – maybe they don’t believe me themselves because I don’t seem ‘autistic enough’. In fairness, I look nothing like Dustin Hoffman (well, with the possible exception of Tootsie). On a more serious note, though, people tend to conflate autism with intellectual disability and high support needs, even though the majority of autistics do not have a co-occurring learning disability.
Autism tends to be viewed solely as a list of deficits to be ‘treated’, or even as an ‘illness’ to be ‘cured’. Ableist attitudes and the stigmatisation of disability cause people to think it odd that you would ever want to associate yourself with ‘those people’, rather than keeping your head down and continuing to blend in (no matter the cost to your mental health or self-esteem) so you can pass for someone who complies with the social construct of a ‘normal’ person.
Maybe they think I’m ‘brave’ because there could be real-life consequences as a result of being openly autistic. People do see you differently. It could affect your career progression or mean your opinions are taken less seriously when you speak up at that important meeting. Many autistics choose not to disclose for this reason, or in some cases decide not to seek professional identification at all. It saddens me when people are afraid to reveal their authentic selves in the workplace, or elsewhere, but I would never, ever judge anyone for being nervous about ‘coming out’. Whether and when you choose to disclose is a private matter and it often depends on context and individual circumstances.
Or maybe it’s ‘brave’ for me to admit to having a neurological condition that many people regard as being synonymous with being rude, anti-social and unempathetic. I actually quite like the humanoids. It took me many years of observing them in their natural habitat and learning their ways before I was able to figure out what was expected of me and how to behave in social settings – until my late twenties, in fact. Ironically, because I’ve become quite a keen observer of people, I can usually understand where they’re coming from and rub along with them pretty well. I still have to process social information consciously, though, and I’m constantly anxious about whether I’m getting it right since it’s not an intuitive skill, which is pretty exhausting. And as for the old lacking-in-empathy myth, like many autistics I experience the opposite effect of over-empathising when I see others in distress, literally feeling their pain.
I honestly don’t think of myself as ‘brave’. I’m no Greta Thunberg, speaking truth to power and running the gauntlet of climate change deniers, ableists and misogynists. I’m not like Hannah Gadsby, using her platform as a comedian to shine a light on homophobia and sexual violence. I’m simply letting other people know I have a brain that processes certain types of information differently, meaning I experience the world in a different way than most people, and that I am fine with that. It makes certain things more challenging but I also love that I have a different window on the world, like my son.
The last time someone said to me “You’re very brave”, I replied “Thank you, though I look forward to the day when being open about being different isn’t seen as brave”.
They said: “It’s still brave, though”.
And I guess they were right.