Now that we’ve covered the pros of disclosure, let’s look at the cons.
You might have to deal with “You don’t look autistic” and similar nonsense. “I never would have known!” “You’re so high-functioning!” These aren’t necessarily indicators of deliberate meanness/invalidation…a lot of people just don’t know that much about autism…but that doesn’t make them any easier to hear. I’m working on a list of comebacks designed specifically for these moments, but regardless, if you’re going to disclose, be prepared for the possibility of ignorant comments.
People could share your disclosure with others (without your consent). Again, this isn’t always mean-spirited. It could be a misunderstanding or a slip of the tongue or an honest mistake. Recommendations: check for signs that the person is trustworthy before you disclose (see Part 3 of this series), and make it very clear to them if you’re disclosing in confidence. A social script might go like this: “I’m going to tell you something that I’d rather you not share with anyone else.” And if, for some reason, they do share the information with others anyway, they can’t do the whole innocent “oh but I didn’t knooooooow you didn’t want me to tell everyone in the entire school!!!” act.
When you’re talking to healthcare professionals or people at the disability services office, your information is protected by HIPAA, but there are exceptions and mistakes still get made. For instance, the disability services people can share the fact that you’re disabled, and they might have to do this for administrative reasons – for example, when working with the people in charge of housing, if you have housing accommodations. If this is something you’re concerned about, you should tell your disability advisor and ask questions to make sure you understand exactly what information will be shared with whom.
The last thing I wanted to touch on here is mandatory reporting. Certain people are legally required to file reports of any information suggesting that there may be child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, and related issues. This might be relevant to disclosure if you’re disclosing a mental illness that involves a history of abuse. To my knowledge, the laws aren’t quite as cut-and-dry when it comes to self-harm and suicide, but it makes sense to assume (and hope) that if an adult at your school thinks that any student is in danger, they will report this to the people in charge. Policies vary from school to school, and information about this stuff is readily google-able, but it’s worth keeping in mind when you’re disclosing mental illness.
Another common reason for not disclosing is fear of not fitting in or being subjected to stigma, especially in college, where reputation can precede you. Some people might choose not to disclose broadly or at all because they fear that being the first thing they hear about them. Some students are also concerned about future actions being scrutinized or recognized as “autistic” (in a negative way). From what I’ve observed, these worries seem to be more common in autistic students who were diagnosed at a younger age and who’ve been bullied for their disability. On a related note, some people have worked hard to be able to pass and enjoy/appreciate this learned ability. All of these are perfectly legitimate reasons not to disclose.
A more extreme – and unfortunately very real – version of this fear is that in some environments, autism could make you a target. It may not be safe for you to disclose, and masking may protect you from ableist attitudes and actions. Hopefully, this won’t be the case at your college and with the people around you, but it is a scenario that happens far too often and that is thus worth consideration.
It’s hard to put a positive spin on ableism, so I’m not going to say this is the good news about people being mean. Let’s just call it good news adjacent to the bad parts: disclosure isn’t all or nothing. There are lots of versions of disclosure that could be safer, more comfortable, or more strategic than sharing a diagnosis.
In fact, disclosure can even be a good marketing strategy sometimes. If, theoretically, I were to write a blog series about…hmm…disclosure, and I wrote one post about the cons of disclosure, and then I wanted readers to click the link to the next post and read about types of disclosure, I might disclose that information as a preview for marketing purposes. Just, you know, hypothetically.
See what I did there?