Disclosing your autism to college friends. Wildlife and Habitat Management intern and autistic advocate Justin Robbins shares insight into when and how to disclose your autism meaningfully when you’re in college.
In my last article, I discussed the challenges and opportunities that come with disclosing your autism to employers and professors. This time, I’ll be exploring that concept in a more personal context: among friends. In ways easier and harder than disclosing in any official capacity, there are nonetheless few better feelings than being oneself among friends.
I wrote about many of the basic premises of disclosure in my previous article, so let’s begin with what makes telling friends unique. The defining attribute is that things are less formal. You’re spending time with these people not out of obligation, but because you enjoy their presence. Your friends probably see you in a similar way. The other main factor is the social equality. Unlike in an employer-employee or student-teacher relationship, you are on equal social footing with your friends. There is no difference in power or authority. This can make disclosing a lot safer, as there are typically fewer bad things a “friend” can do to you (as opposed to someone, like a professor, who does have a degree of power over you).
So, why would you want to tell your friends you’re autistic? This is far more personal than when sharing with an employer or professor. As such, many of the reasons I will be giving will be quite subjective and based on my personal experiences. There could be a specific situation you want to explain. This could be negative, such as explaining social discomfort or sensory dysregulation. But, it could just as easily be positive, sharing why you are so unapologetically enthusiastic about something. You might just want your friends to better understand you. Autism is a major part of who we are. It’s natural to want others to understand that. With friends, there might not even need to be a specific reason. Sometimes, you just want to share something important with people you care about.
Now is the time to use a few guiding questions to assess your information and weigh your options. Ask yourself: what are the potential benefits, and what are the potential costs? The former can be particularly difficult to pin down, as the desired benefits can be far more nebulous (see above). However, you should still know (or at least have a feel for) what you hope to accomplish. How well do you know the person, and how well do they know you? Familiarity can make coming out much smoother. Indeed, this can be quite similar to the traditional coming out (in the LGBTQAI sense). Knowing what their attitudes towards disability and autism are can provide useful information, though that isn’t as important in this context.
Even more so than with professors, I would almost always recommend beginning with a “wait and see” approach. There is more upside to this approach among friends as well. Not only can you learn more about them and their attitudes, but they have a much greater opportunity to know you. Let them do that before giving them specific ways to describe you.
When the time comes for the actual sharing, I’ve found that it’s usually better to make it sound like no big deal, or not to overhype it. Don’t make them think they should make it a massive, redefining issue. If there was a specific reason you wanted to disclose, using that for context can make things clearer. There is one other factor that can make things clearer and easier.
Special interests! More often than not, you have interests in common with your friends. That might be why you became friends in the first place. If not, they still probably know what you’re passionate about. Special interests are a great way to explain and ease into the explanation. Plus, if the interest is shared, it will go over much more smoothly.
As an example, telling the other members of the Tufts Tabletop Gaming Club that I was autistic was incredibly trivial. I had gotten to know them and vice-versa. We had a common interest we were all super passionate about, and I told them casually in conversation. It became an additional way to understand me, and a tool, when needed, for explaining myself to them (but NOT as an excuse for problematic behavior). I was comfortable with them knowing, and they had a good context both for me and understanding how my autism related to me.
Everyone deserves friends who understand and support them. We autistics deserve people who don’t merely tolerate us, but are happy to spend time with us and have us in their lives. You might not want to come out to all of your friends, but I hope all of you will have at least someone who is worthy of your trust.
What do you think about when considering sharing something personal with friends? How has it gone afterwards?