The question of whether and how to disclose your autism is one of the most challenging things that follows a diagnosis.
Various issues play on one's mind, such as:
- Will it change the way people perceive me?
- Will it change the way I perceive people?
- What difference does it make?
The answers to these, in order, are: a) yes, b) yes, and c) a great difference!
At first, I was very cautious about disclosing. I thought it was best only to talk to a few friends or family members. But it soon became obvious that I would have to disclose at work too, both because I now recognised certain adjustments that could be made to improve my work environment, and because I was being encouraged (by my GP and others) to 'champion' autism.
My general policy is to disclose only when I am convinced it is a good idea. I don't go around introducing myself to people as autistic. But the number of occasions on which it seems to be a good idea is steadily increasing.
I often have to contend with a disbelieving reaction. This is very tiring. More than one person has said, incredulously, "but you are very high-functioning!" I usually reply: "but you've never seen trying to go through an airport - I'm not at all high-functioning then". The high/low-functioning distinction really makes no sense. We can function well in some situations but not at all in others. Usually it is the environment that creates the problem. Why is that so hard to understand?
I'm afraid I have seen some people's view of me change. Often they remain politely interested on the surface, but back away. I guess either they don't believe it and would rather not say so to my face, or they do believe it and are suddenly wary.
At the same time, my perception of others has changed too, because I now understand the way in which I structure relationships. What I fondly imagined was a natural, organic relationship turns out (through not fault of theirs) to have been much more driven by my autistic needs than I realised.
The best reactions to my disclosure have come from some close friends and family, and from my line manager and certain colleagues at the university. I am very pleased to be able to say that, because I often hear people complain about how disclosure at work (especially in academia) can go badly. My line manager was great: very matter of fact and immediately offered to make reasonable adjustments that were furthermore quickly implemented. Result: a much more comfortable work environment for me!
The worst reactions I have received were from medical colleagues (not my GP) and acquaintances, and I will devote a separate blog post to those. Suffice to say that the medical model/social model distinction is very real, and quite shocking.
For me, then, disclosure has been a mixed blessing, but this blog is evidence that I am now committed to that path. I feel it is a duty for people like me to disclose. As Chris Packham has demonstrated it is important for academics, especially senior academics, to address their autism in public to some extent. Many others stand to benefit from people like me speaking out, so that is what I will do.