This is part one of a two-part blog series entitled Acceptance. This first part is on how families can become allies and advocates for their Autistic family members.
Two years ago I made a major decision and stopped hiding that I am Autistic, a part of who I am. I hid because I felt embarrassed and disappointed with who I was. I know I am not the only Autistic person who has felt this way. I know I am not the only Autistic person who hides behind a “mask” to pass as neurotypical.
Today, in 2023, I am open about my diagnosis, and sometimes I let my mask slip. But for me, and for many Autistic people, there is a genuine fear of being open about our diagnosis and the reactions people will have if our masks slip. This is due to many misconceptions about Autism and anxiety over potential social backlash. While we have made progress, I believe that it is still difficult for many Autistic people to share their diagnosis and “true self” with coworkers, friends and sometimes even family.
“Coming out” is a phrase used by the LGBTQ+ community but it is also applicable to someone who is Autistic and masking. For many individuals who identify as LGBTQ+, coming out can be a decision that can build trust with their family/friends or can lead to fallout. Over time, more and more LGBTQ+ people have been comfortable coming out. There are LGBTQ+ politicians, and LGBTQ+ celebrities and almost every American has one LGBTQ+ relative, colleague or friend. Why are so many LGBTQ+ individuals so comfortable nowadays? One word - acceptance. So how do we come to the point where Autism, just like LGBTQ+ identity, is accepted?
I believe it comes down to two types of acceptance: (1) by family and (2) by education and a lack of prejudice amongst society at large. Not only do these types of acceptance make Autistic people more comfortable “being out”, but it makes them feel accepting of themselves.
Let’s start with acceptance by family. For LGBTQ+ individuals, this happens when they come out to their families and they (hopefully) accept them. Thankfully, nowadays, most families don’t bat an eye. My uncle is openly gay and my family has never questioned his sexuality. This type of acceptance has come from a change in society, but also can come from a change in the family. Even if you are not LGBTQ+, many families do have discussions about sexuality and the acceptance of others. Family dynamics have changed to a point where straight is not the default. Now, this can be compared with many Autistic adults explaining their diagnosis to their families. Some adults are just now recognizing that they perhaps may lie on the spectrum. These adults are seeking diagnoses, and this is one of the reasons that the diagnosis rate is increasing among adults. Unlike some younger folks, it is the Autistic individual first, not their parents, that are aware of this diagnosis.
Many relatives of these people have been accepting and non-judgemental. But unfortunately, the stigma surrounding Autism is still common among older generations. As I have explained earlier in blogs, many people assume that if you are Autistic, that must mean that you are stupid or weird. This is not the case, but unfortunately, just as there are stigmas and misconceptions surrounding LGBTQ+ identity, there are stigmas and misconceptions surrounding Autism.
Now, the key difference between learning about your Autism Diagnosis and discovering that you are LGBTQ+ is that while all LGBTQ+ people discover their identity on their own, many Autistic people (especially younger ones) learn their diagnosis from their parents. I happen to be a prime example of this. I had always noticed I was slightly different from other kids, but I never knew I was Autistic or neurodiverse. In the second grade, my parents told me I was Autistic and it began a journey that continues to this day.
How someone reacts to an Autism diagnosis often depends on age and personality. Everyone’s initial reaction is different. For example, I did not fully comprehend what Autism was. Later, I used being Autistic as an excuse for any unacceptable behaviour. If I did anything out of line, I used to say, “It’s just my ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).” In retrospect, I did not process my diagnosis the way I would today. I could have used situations to get a better understanding of what I needed to work on, instead of excusing anything I did.
I eventually stopped this but I developed a different mindset about Autism that I did not share with my mother. I started to think that Autism was hurting me, and I think my belief stemmed from what I read on the internet about Autism. My family accepted me but I did not feel accepted by society. There is a lot online that says Autism is something to ‘eradicate’ or ‘stop’. Many people have the same experience as me when dealing with their Autism diagnosis and looking for information. This is a huge challenge to overcome. How do we get accepted by society and how can acceptance change how we live and experience the world as Autistic people?
I could go on and on about how we can make society more accepting. Ultimately, I think it comes down to education and support networks. Both of these deserve their own blog. Beyond these factors, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a supportive family. By middle school, I began to view my Autism less negatively. While I did not feel comfortable discussing this with my peers, I no longer felt I needed to ‘cure’ my Autism. Why did I feel so much more comfortable about this? Well, it comes down to family again.
There are two levels of acceptance; basic acceptance and going above and beyond to help the person accept themselves. This involves this person (usually a friend, family member or guardian) helping this person understand and accept their identity. For many Autistic people, a diagnosis or discovery of Autism is extremely difficult to grasp. For one to begin feeling comfortable in their day-to-day lives, they need a critical ally. This ally can help support them as they discover their strengths and weaknesses, and craft strategies that make them feel more comfortable.
I was especially fortunate in this situation. My mom served as my number one ally. After me, she knows me the best. She helped me reflect on situations I was facing and helped me come up with solutions. Throughout it all, when I voiced my self-doubt, she continued to instill a great value in me: self-advocacy, a skill that I am sure to blog about one day. Beyond my mom, I had other critical allies. This included psychologists, advisors and counselors at my school and two of my talented and knowledgeable aunts.
As you can tell, family acceptance is a powerful first step for Autistic people. In my next blog, I am going to tell you how society can overcome misconceptions and find a way to truly embrace and accept autistic folks.