Technically, I did this in 2021—in October, right around my birthday. But though my first article on “Coming Out Autistic” (in Scientific American.) explained the process I’d gone through to acknowledge my autism, I did not really live my autism publicly until this past year. In other words, though I broke the news, I had yet to do the living-out-loud part. Believe it or not, it doesn’t come naturally. For most of my life, I’ve been told that success depended upon keeping my autism a secret.
When I grew up, the only real reference I had for neurodivergence was Rain Man, a film with Dustin Hoffman playing an autistic savant named Raymond who has been institutionalized most of his life. The film has been praised for bringing “autism awareness.” But it also entrenched the ideas that 1. all autistic people are savants (having a remarkable talent in one area, while suffering in most others), 2. autistic people are or should be institutionalized “for their own good,” and 3. they can’t function in society or make decisions on their own. It created a brand new stereotype, what film-writer Tom Breihan calls “the mysterious and secretly cuddly computer-brained autistic genius” — but one that is never treated as an autonomous figure in his own right. As a child, the message of the movie seemed very clear: Act normal, because if you don’t, you won’t have a voice, you won’t be important. To be different was a weakness, I thought (WRONGLY), and weakness was something you should hide.
In fact, I blamed myself a lot. See, I didn’t have an official diagnosis as a kid. Partly because “girls” (I’ll explain the quotes in a minute) are under-diagnosed. Partly because my parents didn’t see diagnosis as a good thing. Note—at the time, they may have been right. There weren’t so many supportive programs back then, and we lived rural and isolated. But since I didn’t know being me was ok, or that others might be like me, I assumed I was just bad at a lot of things. I also learned to hide it.
It’s called masking. It usually involves combinations of behaviors to help you fit in, like forcing eye contact, faking smiles and other facial expressions, hiding your “peculiar” personal interests (and pretending to be interested in more “normative” things), coming up with rehearsed responses or scripting conversations and disguising repetitive or unusual movements or noises (“stimming”). Some of the masking actually hurts, like pushing yourself to endure intense sensory discomfort.
For instance, I can’t stand loud noises. I can’t deal with visual over-stimulation either. I once walked into a Dave and Busters (a weird bar-video-game-flashy-light franchise) and immediately threw up. Another problem I have is over-empathy; despite the assumption that autistic people don’t emote, we are actually super clued in to our surroundings and we are trying like hell to decode them. But that means I don’t separate the feelings of being in real danger from, say, the emotional impact of a cinematic thriller. And yet, I used to force myself to watch moveis with friends and family to “fit in” despite the panic it induced.
But that’s hardly the worst of it. If you spend all your time trying to behave as others expect, you begin to lose yourself, your own identity. Worse, you internalize the idea that your actual self is bad, wrong, weird, not to be shared. At some point, enough of us are hiding that we all become invisible — and the world is left with Hollywood shorthand for what our lives are actually like. What I am like.
I miss social cues. I take things literally. I don’t accurately read subtle responses. Hiding my autism made asking for accommodation or help next to impossible — and because I was convinced I was to blame, I overworked, overreached, and was frequently taken advantage of by those who took (emotionally) more than they gave. Every day, in all my social interactions, I was performing at least three tasks: suppression of my nature, active pretending of a more acceptable nature, and the struggle to decipher and translate one to the other. It’s hard to protect yourself when you’re busy being someone else.
It was, and is, exhausting. It can be very lonely, too. I recall having a friendship dissolve over my inability to provide enough emotional support for someone during a crisis. It never occurred to them that I was, myself, in crisis — paddling furiously and barely keeping above the waves. I didn’t know how to articulate my needs because I’d been taught that my needs were not normative, and therefore illegitimate.
When I did try to explain myself, it seemed so contradictory and complicated that either my listeners couldn’t grasp it, or I would give up. Basic questions about identity, gender, sexuality—all of that is filtered in part through my autism. In my other article I talk a bit more about why so many autistic people consider themselves gender fluid, trans, or non-binary. I find gender binaries confusing—thus my quotes around “girl.” I actually did a comic recently to illustrate, because pictures sometimes work better than words.
[Alt Text image: line drawing comic, frame1: Brandy stands with partner, Mark, is asked what her gender and sexuality are. Frame 2: We see her, wide-eyed, imagine all sorts of gender combinations, including things that are neither gender. Frame 3: Her imagination gets out of hand and takes up all the space with dragons and books and aliens and questions. Frame 4: Pictures become words and labels, about sexuality, identity, autistm, and more—She is now pressing her hands to her ears and appears to be in distress. Frame 5: Back to her and partner, where she asks if it is ok to be “Brandy-gendered” and just “in love.” Partner says “You do you, babe.” Cameo of her cat Darwin in frame.]
So how do we change things for the better?
Masking, for me, felt safe. Some people must mask, and don’t have the privilege of being open about their autism. It’s hard for change to come if we’re all hiding ourselves all the time, so for those of us that can be public, I feel its important we should. I am an author, a historian, an editor, and host of a livestream show called The Peculiar Book Club. I have, at one time or another, also been a university professor, a museum professional, and a public intellectual. And I am autistic.
Most responses to this have been good—better than good. I’ve had other autistic people reach out to say how meaningful it is; I had a parent tell me they now better understood their child. Mostly, I have lots and lots of people write to say “OMG I think I might be autistic, too!” (Which, incidentally, was my way in as well after meeting my autistic friend and colleague Eric Garcia).
Some responses are weird. I had a friend refer to my autism as a sort of branding. To them it seemed like suddenly everyone was getting on the “neurodivergent train”—because it hadn’t occurred to them that autistic people were masking to please neurotypicals, or that in our present climate of (slowly gaining) acceptance, more of us feel free to self-identify. A lot has been said about autistic people. It’s going to take time to really spread the word about being #ActuallyAutistic. But as we see more public figures—writers like me, but also actors, musicians, screen writers, politicians, environmentalists, teachers—it will get easier. And heroes, too. As a teaser, I have a novel coming out next year where the main character is autistic; it’s called the Framed Women of Ardemore House. Don’t worry, if you are subscribed here you’ll be the first to know. ;)
I don't know if I am on the spectrum, but like you I am deeply emotionally impacted by many movies. I saw both Avatars with my daughter, (many years apart) and could not stop myself from weeping behind my 3D glasses.
Never been tested but I'm more than likely ADD, like my daughter who has been tested. I think what we are seeing is a needed breakdown of what has been considered "normal" until now. It is becoming public knowledge that gender was never a binary, but an unbroken continuum with peaks around "male" and "female" and a whole range of options in between. The same as well for sexuality where the terms gay and straight are a lot fuzzier than a simple binary; and of course that all these things can change over time.
Similarly, I think we are discovering that what is actually neurologically "normal" in the statistical sense, is far broader than what we have defined socially. We are also finally acknowledging that many forms of neurodiversity bring not just drawbacks, but benefits to both to the person and to society.