It’s the 21st-century – 2017 to be precise. I have told my friends and family that I am gay; I only realised myself, relatively recently – their responses run along a similar vein. They are generally a mixture of ambivalent, surprised and somewhat perplexed; and more than once, I am told ‘well you are obviously only mildly gay’, and ‘well we’re all a little bit gay aren’t we?’
Despite my protestations to the contrary on both of those counts, the friends and family remain unconvinced, and in most cases, the subject is barely brought up again. Within the wider family, any hint of conversation around the subject of my ‘gayness’, or anyone else’s for that matter, feels like it’s swiftly dropped. (‘We don’t talk about that in these circles, you know’. seems the inference. ‘It’s too awkward. We’d have to look back on the heterosexual challenges you have faced in life, with the hindsight that you are and have always been gay; and maybe if we look too closely, we would feel awkward that no-one noticed your struggles. Or that we closed our eyes to it, or put it down to your quirkiness. ‘Cause we’re all a little bit quirky, right?’
This story is not quite true. I have substituted the word autistic for gay, for the sake of comparison.
In the 21st-century, such responses (like those detailed above) to one’s inner coding, one’s DNA, one’s hard wired neurology, seem so dated and cold, do they not? Do they seem dismissive too?
To make another comparison…. is one mildly pregnant? Are we ‘all a little bit pregnant’? Of course not. Sometimes we share traits with pregnant women, but that doesn’t make us mildly pregnant.
The aforementioned story is an interesting and arresting comparison, in any case.
Let’s talk about autism. Autism is autism. Yes, some individuals need less (or even zero) support in place to function fairly successfully in a neurotypical world than others. The label ‘high functioning’ would likely have been hung around their metaphorical necks in recent times.
“What if autists have autism running through their core, like Brighton rock?”
Other autists with increased support needs, and co-existing conditions such as learning difficulties, would likely be labelled ‘low functioning’ or, depending on their perceived communication abilities and health challenges, the dreaded ‘extremely autistic’. It is time we stopped thinking about mild or severe, and high or low functioning. What if autists have autism running through their core, like Brighton rock, and their co-morbid conditions, health issues, sensory and social challenges simply accessorise or populate their condition, and make it more or less debilitating, and ‘dis-abling’? (Because, yes, autism is classed diagnostically as a disability.) This ‘frame’ makes the modern way of looking at autism (without functioning labels and even without the diagnostic term ‘Asperger Syndrome’) seem infinitely sensible.
But back to our early opening story – why is it hard for friends and families to grasp the idea that a loved one is autistic – and the author of this blog is musing specifically about late autism diagnosis (including the decreasingly given ‘Asperger’s’ profile) – e.g autism diagnosis in adulthood. (Read our post on confusion in diagnoses of autism HERE).
It’s important to clarify that questioning HOW autistic someone is (‘Aspergers? Oh, I see, just MILDLY autistic…’), dismisses the autist’s struggles.
And it’s important to emphasise that pedalling the old chestnut ‘We’re all a little bit autistic’ is patronising (and untrue.)
We need to realise that autism is widespread – everyone knows people who are autistic, including family members, friends, work colleagues (and yes, even those quirky celebrities we’re all fascinated by) – even though the individual may not (yet) know themselves that they are autistic.
So to conclude – when your loved one tells you they’re autistic, it is important to give the disclosure the respect and acceptance it deserves.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.
Also published on Medium.