Handling Disclosure as a Self-Advocate

Ryan Walsh, BASoc

Ryan Walsh, BASoc

About the Author

Ryan Walsh, BASoc, is a neurodiversity training specialist at AANE. He is a musician who is highly involved with music and podcast production and enjoys playing video games and spending time with his friends. As a member of AANE’s Speakers Bureau, Ryan enjoys and appreciates the opportunity to speak on his lived experience as someone on the autism spectrum on topics related to self-advocacy, mental health, education, employment, and building meaningful connections.

An Autistic adult is taking to their coworker in their workplace.

As an Autistic self-advocate, it is no secret that disclosing my autism to others has and always will be a complicated process throughout my life. There are many factors that go into how, when, why, and to whom I will disclose my autism, but they all have to do with the purpose for the disclosure and the anticipated response. I do believe there are times where disclosure is disadvantageous as a result of potential mistreatment. When I do disclose, I generally only share the information that is relevant to the individual I’m disclosing to.

There are, of course, the responses I expect and those I don’t, and it is always a matter of unknowns as to whether disclosing will actually aid my self-advocacy in the end. With that being said, I generally tend to disclose my autism whenever I feel that it serves a purpose for myself or another person. For example, when I worked at a Starbucks, one of my coworkers asked me why I was so disorganized all of the time when I moved between my stations. I told her that I have autism and that my executive functioning skills often led me to do things outside of the most logical or efficient order. I also explained that my time management skills were not always the best, and so I tried to prioritize getting the customers what they needed as fast as possible before doing things like cleaning, even though the rules demand that we clean and produce products simultaneously. I added that if I did not clean or organize something immediately, she should not worry and I would get to it at a time that I felt was most productive for me. I also told her that if she needed something done right away that she should not hesitate to ask me and I would refocus myself to the necessary task. She responded that I “didn’t look like a person with autism” but that she was glad I informed her so she had an explanation for my behavior at work.

For anyone who discloses their autism to others on a semi-regular basis, these kinds of lukewarm responses are all too common. On one hand, the person genuinely wants to be supportive and is glad to have been made aware of an important fact about their friend or coworker. But on the other hand, they may not have the necessary tools or knowledge to have an informed response or help in a way that is most effective for you. This is one of the better case scenarios, because it is also possible to encounter individuals who actively discriminate against Autistic people. This is why I prefer to disclose when I feel that I can trust the person I’m disclosing to. When I disclose to new friends and in other social situations, they are generally supportive. I tend to run into more difficult situations in impersonal environments where people may not be as supportive.

This variability often makes disclosure a tricky choice for me, because I never know how a person is going to respond. I can only hope that they wish to be helpful, and even if they do, the stigma that society perpetuates is often still evident in their response. I do not hold these individuals accountable for how they respond when they are trying to be helpful, as I understand that their intentions are good. This does not mean that these responses are not upsetting to me or that people should not try to educate themselves. I don’t believe that any one person should take on the responsibility of trying to solve the massive issue of societal stigma but instead try to be a source of knowledge for those around them.

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