Coming Out Autistic: Breaking the Stigma on Neurodiversity

There’s labels. For as long as you can remember, others have been sticking words onto you to make sense of what is in front of them. Those you make uncomfortable in school call you weird, strange. You can’t play with them because of these. Others realize very quickly that you will do and believe anything they say, so the labels accumulate in the whispers, the giggles, and the pranks. Those who love you and want to comfort you call you unique, special, and precious. Teachers will one day come to use these words as well, but to them they’ll add genius, talented, one of a kind. These will pepper recommendation letters, open doors.

But they will also pepper your ego, an ego that you now hide behind so that the other labels don’t matter. The ego comes at a price though, and the weight of the world’s problems starts to lean into you:

“You’re going to cure cancer someday, or AIDS!” they yell, again with the best of intentions. Your school parades you in front of parents as an example of what their own children can become: National Merit Scholars, perfect score on the SAT, admissions to MIT and Duke, full scholarships…labels. Peers you rarely interact with give you one last one before you leave, and it comes with an expectation: Most Likely to Succeed. No pressure.

When your grandmother first read you the Chronicles of Narnia, she opened the doors to different worlds, where magic either got rid of labels or made them obsolete. And in your mind, a mind you inhabit so comfortably, you start to create stories where you too, can become a hero; now there’s a label you’d like to wear, someday. But eleven came and went without an invitation to Hogwarts, and your closet never turned into a door, no matter how many times you prayed to God, Aslan, or anyone listening. You wondered if, like the people in this world, They too had labeled you, unworthy. You want too badly to be understood, regardless of the cost.

Sometimes, though part of your brain knows that connection can’t be forced, that cost is violent tantrums, sulking, or a deep anger that locks you inside of yourself, where you rage at others who don’t feel with the same intensity, who can’t understand. And a thought crosses your young mind: this is how bad guys in stories are born…labels.

There are those who don’t put them on you, but the old ones don’t easily wash off, and haunt you. It’s no wonder then, that you go through college without partying. The workload, traffic, and commute are all convenient excuses to stay in your room for hours and live in the other worlds, the ones you’ve created for yourself: the ones where things go exactly as you planned, no surprises, and you, the hero, always gets the girl and the glory at the end, always.

When those worlds won’t do and the real one calls, you borrow labels and act a role. Because people are more comfortable with these, you start to take bits and pieces, and slowly bury yourself under labels which were never yours to begin with. A long time ago, you saw yourself in the mirror and said the same thing the kids on the playground had been saying to you:

“You’re different; you can’t come out to play.” For no matter how many languages you learn to speak, the one of connection seems to elude you, and your clumsiness only deepens the anger and frustration.

Once, even though you’ve always been attracted to girls, you date a man because gay is welcoming, warm, and yes, also mostly misunderstood, but that one doesn’t fit either, even though others have called you that before. Years later you date people regardless of gender because queer does fit, but it takes you a long time, and a lot of bravery, to get there.

 Naïve, unrealistic or an empathic grow up! get piled in adulthood. But you don’t want to grow up. You’d rather play with the kids at the lab Christmas party.

Then you meet someone who holds the intense ALL that is you without walls and a filter and smiles as she says your soul is dark chocolate. She sees all the labels and none, potential without expectations, and wants a buy-in on all your bets, no strings attached. But life and time have other plans. You see, before someone can see you the way that she does, You need to see You like that.

But you don’t know that, not yet. For that to happen, your aunt first has to show you another group of labels you’ve already glanced at before, briefly: Asperger’s, Autism, Neurodiverse. She doesn’t give them to you, she just points them out, encourages you to try them on. So you do. Before the doctor even confirms that they fit, you cry with surprise and joy.

This label fits you, warmly, snugly. It’s not too big, with expectant gaps to be filled. It’s not too tight, restrictive. It’s a label that stretches and grows with you, and finally one you can claim as your own, without trying, without pretending. Your family, best intentions in mind, tell you not to be defined by the label. But they still don’t understand; it’d be like asking a fish who’s been climbing trees his whole life not to let go and dive in, and you’ll gladly buy one with a thousand.

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Fátima Sancheznieto

Dr. Fátima Sancheznieto, PhD has recently completed her postdoctoral training at the UW-Madison school of medicine, where she studied mentor training interventions and STEMM training environments. Fátima became interested in the science of training when, during her PhD, she was trained in peer support by the Oxford University counseling center and began advocating for systemic and cultural changes in academic training environments. She has served on a working group for the Next Generation Researchers Initiative at the National Institutes of Health and is currently the President of Future of Research, a nonprofit organization that advocates and empowers early career researchers. Her current research continues to focus on studying the training environments of early career researchers.

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2 thoughts on “Coming Out Autistic: Breaking the Stigma on Neurodiversity

  1. NQ says:

    This is me! (With a few differences, I’m extroverted, went out a lot in my first couple of years at uni – same gay night every week, oh yeah and I’m a lesbian.)

    Only recently realized I’m probably not NT, although it should have been obvious all along. Since I can remember I’ve had a way higher % of mates on the spectrum than your average neurotypical. I cautiously asked my best mate (also somewhere on the spectrum) what he thought, and he looked shocked and said “I knew the moment I met you!”

    • Labmosphere says:

      Thanks for your comment! I don’t know why I didn’t get the notification when you commented in the summer. I’m glad the post resonated with you!

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