Coming aut can be really scary. There is a lot of prejudice against Autistic people in this world, and, far too often, Autistic people are injured or killed because of these prejudices. Even when violence does not occur, the reactions of those we tell can be incredibly hurtful, especially when people we care about dismiss or invalidate us. This is not to say that it isn’t worth it. There are people who will react poorly, but there are also people who will respond well and may surprise us. Further, the people we love may initially respond with comments that hurt us, but, if given the chance to learn, we may find that they come to be great supports for us.
If someone in your life reveals to you that they are Autistic, please consider your response. When someone comes aut to you, please try to avoid language that dismisses or invalidates them. Responses like:
“But you don’t look Autistic!”
There is no one way that Autistic people “look”. Autistic people can be any body type, any skin color, any type of body. While there are Autistic people who are more visibly Autistic due to stimming and body language, a lack of these signs does not mean that someone is not Autistic. Many Autistic people learn to hide any sign of being Autistic due to bullying, abuse, or social rejection. Telling someone that they don’t “look” Autistic just shows your own prejudices and lack of knowledge.
“Oh! You must be really high-functioning then”
Functioning labels are damaging to Autistic people. The high-functioning label is used to deny the struggles of Autistic people who are less noticeably Autistic while the low-functioning label is used to deny agency (and even the humanity of) Autistic people who are more noticeably Autistic. Further, these labels do not provide any useful information. Can the person speak? Can they manage their own self-care? What are they good at? What do they struggle with? None of this can be answered by using functioning labels.
For instance, I am typically labelled as high-functioning. When in public, I can usually hide many of my Autistic traits to appear more neurotypical. I am well-spoken and can get by with minimal help when I go out in public. However, I also frequently go nonverbal. For the past few months, I’ve been having meltdowns nearly daily, sometimes multiple times a day. I struggle with self-care. I struggle to shower even once a week. I often forget to brush my teeth. I get overwhelmed easily. I often stim in very noticeable ways. I have a lot of trouble understanding social situations. I have struggled with incontinence in the past year. I need a lot of help in my life which I’m lucky to get from those close to me. Though most who meet me would say that I’m high-functioning, that label ignores the significant struggles I face daily. Further, it does not communicate anything about my abilities or needs.
Unless an Autistic person uses functioning labels to describe themselves, it is best to refrain from using these labels.
“But you [have friends/have good grades/make eye contact/etc.]”
These type of comments, like the one I received from my mom, typically are based in stereotypes and misunderstandings of Autism. While Autistic people often struggle to make and/or keep friends, this does not mean we are incapable of friendship. In fact, many of us have wonderful friends who value us as people.
Similarly, good grades are not a sign that someone can’t be Autistic. Many aspects of Autism can make it more difficult for us to succeed in traditional learning environments (such as sensory sensitivities, difficulties with change, difficulties with non-literal speech, etc.). However, many of us do quite well in school.
Personally, I was a straight A student for most of my school career. Schoolwork was incredibly easy for me and I typically didn’t have to even pay attention in class to do well. This doesn’t mean school was easy for me, though. I often became overwhelmed and would hide in the bathroom to cry on a nearly daily basis throughout much of school. By high school, I was struggling enough that I received a 504 even though my grades never suffered.
“But my [child/cousin/nibling/friend/neighbor/4th cousin twice removed/etc.] is Autistic and you’re nothing like them”
There’s a saying in the Autistic community that goes: If you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person.
What we mean by this is that Autistic people are all unique individuals, just like non-autistic people. The Autism spectrum is incredibly diverse and we all have our own unique mix of Autistic traits. While we often have more in common with other Autistic people than non-Autistic people, we still are each different. While many of my Autistic friends and I have shared Autistic traits, we also each have traits that the other doesn’t.
Just because someone isn’t like the Autistic person you know, that doesn’t mean they aren’t Autistic. Responding in this way to someone telling you they’re Autistic just makes you seem ignorant and self-centered. Do you really think that you are somehow an expert on Autism just by knowing an Autistic person?
Rather than invalidating the person who has just come aut to you, consider simply acknowledging what they have told you and, perhaps, asking if there are ways you can support them (if they are someone close to you).
“Everyone’s a little Autistic”
No. Just no.
First, this is just a ridiculous statement. There would never have been any reason to name Autism, let alone pathologize it, if everyone were a little Autistic.
Further, if, like you claim, everyone is a little Autistic, then please explain to me why florescent lights are used in almost all public places. Tell me why we have developed as a society to require phone calls to get by in life. Explain why people don’t say what they mean. Explain why the world is so inhospitable to Autistic people if, in fact, everyone is a little Autistic.
The fact of the matter is that, no, not everyone is Autistic and honestly, it’s incredibly offensive to make this claim. Making this claim is, in essence, saying that Autism doesn’t exist. An extrapolation of this claim is that those of us who are Autistic are dealing with all the same things as everyone else but just aren’t trying hard enough or something.
If you feel the urge to say this to someone who just told you that they are Autistic, maybe consider that not everyone is Autistic and acknowledge that the person you’re talking to is Autistic and consider that they are telling you this for a reason. If that’s too difficult, maybe just keep your mouth shut.
And, now we come to one of the worst possible responses you could have.
Apologizing in response to someone telling you that they are Autistic is incredibly offensive. Autism affects every aspect of who we are. Our brains function differently. We perceive the world differently. All of our experiences are influenced by the ways our brains function, as such, Autism affects us through and through. If I were not Autistic, I wouldn’t be me. Many of us see Autism as an integral aspect of ourselves.
Think about the things that make you, well, you. If someone were to strip one of these aspects away from you, would you still be the same person? Would you still perceive the world the same way? If you are an artist or a writer or athletic or however else you define yourself, would you want people to apologize to you because of who you are?
There are negative aspects to Autism. Meltdowns suck, through and through. Aside from that, however, many aspects of Autism are neither inherently good nor bad. A trait that is often a disadvantage can typically be an advantage in the right circumstances.
For many of us, the vast majority of challenges we face are not inherent to Autism, but, rather, the result of a world that was not built for us and often refuses to accommodate us in any way.
If you truly feel the need to apologize when someone reveals that they are Autistic, consider apologizing for the ways you have, inevitably and likely unconsciously, hurt Autistic people. Because, whether you are aware of it or not, you have most likely engaged in behaviors that have contributed to the difficulties Autistic people face in this world.
For example, if you talked to my classmates from elementary school, I’m sure many of them would claim that they support Autistic people and wouldn’t pick on an Autistic person. However, many of them bullied me for being “weird.” My classmates didn’t know I was Autistic as I, myself, did not know, however, many of the traits I was bullied for are Autistic traits. Even today, when I see people making fun of others for being “weird,” they are often mocking people for Autistic or other neurodivergent traits.
Purporting the myth that one can tell if others are lying based on body language is another example of how Autistic people are harmed by others. Many of the typical signs that someone is lying, such as diverted eye contact, fidgeting, needing to think before responding, and more, are all Autistic traits that have no correlation to whether we are lying or not. Myths like this lead to Autistic people being discriminated against with regards to housing, employment, and many other areas of our lives.
If someone reveals to you that they are Autistic, please don’t apologize. Our existence doesn’t need an apology.
To those reading this who are now wonder what they should say, there aren’t any easy answers. Each Autistic person is different. Further, what constitutes a good response will vary based on the relationship you have with the person along with other factors.
The best rule of thumb is to do your best to respond with kindness. If you approach the other person with kindness and compassion, it likely won’t matter if you say the wrong words. In the end, it comes down to simply treating us like people.