We covered the “what.” We covered the “why.” Now it’s time for the “how.”
I generally have two means of disclosure: oral and written. “Written” almost always involves emails. I suppose my third modality, t-shirts, would also count as written, but I tend to think of that as its own category. Then there are the logistics, if we’re talking about a conversation. Here are my main tips on that front:
- Most people don’t know much about autism, so there’s usually a positive correlation between the information that you give and the explanation that’s required. When I tell people, “I’m autistic,” they often aren’t sure how to interpret that, so I have my little 30-second elevator pitch that I use as context.
- Additionally, you can tell the person what to do with that information…
- “I’m autistic, which means that I sometimes have trouble knowing when to talk in class discussions. If it isn’t too much trouble, would you mind calling on me?” (to a professor or discussion section leader)
- “I’m really introverted and I get stressed out in big groups of people. I probably won’t be able to make it to the party, but maybe we could hang out and study together this weekend?”
- “There are sometimes where I’m not able to speak. It’s a neurological thing and it’s pretty typical for me, so it’s not an emergency. I just wanted to let you know in advance so that you aren’t worried. If you give me some space, I’ll recuperate and be able to talk afterwards.”
- (Side note: if people ask you questions you don’t want to answer, one solution is to say “I have a neurological condition” or “I have a medical condition,” and the conversation usually ends there. There’s a neurotypical rule that if someone has a medical condition you’re supposed to stop asking questions. So if a neurotypical does keep asking you questions, you can shake your finger at them and say, “Bad neurotypical! Bad!”)
- (I’m kidding. Don’t do that.)
- Think about what setting will be easiest. A quiet place? A private place? How much time will you need? Do you want to schedule a time in advance, or do you like to live on the edge?
And feel free to borrow entire phrases from the following social scripts. This is a time where plagiarism is not just permissible, but encouraged.
Sample social scripts for disclosure
Context: Sebastian has just moved into his dorm, and he’s meeting his RAs (resident assistants, aka student staff) for the first time. He doesn’t want to disclose his autism, but he does want to let them know about some of his needs. He has briefly introduced himself and said hello to his RAs, and he has their phone numbers through the dorm’s group chat. In the evening, he sends a text to the RA Olivia, saying, Do you have a couple minutes to talk to me tomorrow?
Olivia responds, Yeah, sure! You can come by my room in the afternoon, I’m pretty much free after 2.
The next day, Sebastian goes to her room:
Olivia: Oh, hey! Come on in.
Sebastian walks in and sits down.
Olivia: How’s it going?
Sebastian: Okay, thanks. How are you?
Olivia: Not too bad. It’s so chaotic when everyone’s moving in, but, you know. You mentioned there was something you wanted to talk about?
Sebastian: Yeah. So I just wanted to let you know that – well, I heard that during Orientation, there are surprise activities and stuff, and I just tend to get really stressed out when there are, like, schedule changes I don’t know about, that kind of thing. I was wondering if maybe you could let me know when those sorts of events are going to happen, so I could have some advance warning?
Olivia: Oh, yeah. Of course. Is it, like, any big event, or something in particular?
Sebastian: Well, I mostly just mean the surprise part, because I was talking to one of my friends, he’s a sophomore, and he said there are some sort of surprises during Orientation…I don’t know, I just don’t love surprises.
Olivia: Sure, that makes sense. You know, we have a copy of the whole Orientation schedule. Do you want me to just send you that? I mean, you probably got a copy, too, but ours has more details about exactly what happens.
Sebastian: That would be really helpful. Thank you. And there was just one thing I was wondering about. So, I usually go to bed really early, around nine, and you mentioned the other day that there were dorm activities that are at night. Would I have to go to those, or –
Olivia: Those are totally optional. Like, you’re more than welcome to come, but honestly, if you don’t, you won’t miss anything. A lot of it is sort of community-building type stuff, and, I mean, you’ll have plenty of chances to meet people, so you definitely don’t have to stay up for those. And sometimes we’ll have house meetings where we do make announcements, but I can just email those to you, if you don’t want to come.
Sebastian: Yeah, that sounds great.
Olivia: Okay, let me just write a note to myself because otherwise I will totally forget – so I’ll send you the orientation schedule, and I’ll keep you posted on meetings we have if you’re not able to come.
Sebastian: Great. Thank you so much.
Context: Zoe is studying with her friend Layla. The two of them are in the same chemistry lecture course, and they’ve known each other for a little over a month. Zoe has decided to disclose to Layla because she sees this as the beginning of a friendship. They meet up at a coffee shop, order their coffees, and then sit down.
Zoe: So this is sort of random, but there’s something I wanted to let you know. Not, like, a huge thing, but…
Layla: Sure. What is it?
Zoe: Well, maybe you could already tell. But I’m autistic. I never really know when to tell people that.
Layla: Oh, okay. I mean – I never would have guessed, you seem pretty normal.
Zoe takes a very deep breath, sips on her coffee, and tries not to have a meltdown. Layla seems aware that something is wrong, but she doesn’t say anything, so…awkward silence.
Zoe: It’s actually – it’s called masking.
Zoe: A lot of autistic people don’t necessarily seem autistic, like, we might come across as normal, like you said, but it actually takes a lot of effort to sort of – follow social rules and try to act normal all the time. And being autistic is like, it’s just how your brain is wired, so it’s not necessarily something you can see from the outside. But being autistic – like, it’s just a huge part of who I am.
Layla: That makes sense. I’m really sorry – I didn’t mean to be rude or anything. I don’t know much about autism. I’m really sorry if –
Zoe: It’s okay, most people don’t. I will teach you all sorts of things about autism. And then you can teach other people.
Layla: Okay. Yeah.
Zoe: Do you like memes?
Layla: Of course.
Zoe proceeds to send Layla 34 memes about autism. Notice that Layla’s instinctive response wasn’t great, but she meant well, and Zoe does her best to stay calm and explain why that was a suboptimal response. Another option would have been for Zoe to move on with the conversation and then talk to Layla about said response another time.