I’m coming out of the closet to every single one of you today. It might not be the "out of the closet" you expected, but it is my puzzling and unique autism closet, filled with memories, drawings, writings and deep miscommunications.
I am bursting out, swinging open the door loud and proud, with all of the quirks, complexities and traits that make me the person I am today.
Let me tell you, it wasn’t always this way. Disabilities like autism often are viewed in our world as things of which to be ashamed or to hide.
Think about your previous interactions or experiences with people with disabilities. Maybe you pitied a kid in a special education class, bullied someone, felt uncomfortable during a conversation or thought it was the kind of thing your parents might see sensationalized on "Dr. Phil."
These all seem like valid reasons for someone to keep an autism diagnosis to him or herself, or to be shared and discussed in hushed tones on a discretionary basis.
Most likely, this diagnosis is shared only with family members who have been there every step of the way since hearing the fateful words, “Your child has autism.”
On the contrary, I feel it is my duty to hold my head up high and embrace my autistic identity.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that one in 68 children will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. That’s a lot of future adults to be hiding in the same closet I've been in, whispering the A-word like it’s a death sentence.
I did it for most of my life, and didn’t embrace autism enough to shout about it on social media or even to close friends. I wanted to pass as normal and not be judged. I didn’t want to be labeled autistic; it was easier to tell people I was just shy or quiet.
In a culture that values norms and conformity, I wanted to be socially accepted without being too different. I was afraid of being judged, being ridiculed or treated differently. There came a point I realized I had no choice but to be honest about my journey as more people embark on similar ones.
Without further ado: I am Haley and I am autistic. I actually came out of the autism closet back in high school at the tender age of 14, but only meekly after being put on the spot by my English teacher.
At 20, I can tell you that being different is awesome. I love being me; I love being a self-identified introverted creative type with a misunderstood mind that misses out on valuable social cues and exotic foods. I love being one of the most socially awkward people you might ever meet, but I am also one of the most honest.
I might hit developmental and societal milestones in a different order than my peers, but I am able to accomplish these small victories on my own time.
Coming out of this closet has been liberating and thrilling. If I were not autistic, I wouldn't be where I am today.
I would not be the author of two books, I would not be a guest lecturer, I would not have such authentic friendships built on honesty and trust and I would not know how great success truly feels without the level of challenge I have experienced.
There is something extremely comforting in knowing I do not have to hide who I really am to the world and pretend to be an actress on the grand stage of life. This experience of coming out of the autism closet has not been perfect, however. There are lots of downfalls to it, too.
I have been discriminated against, asked inappropriate questions, told I was jumping on the diversity bandwagon and called names. I don’t want to focus on these injustices today. I’m not here to tell you I’m awesome, but that I feel awesome to have this fierce self-acceptance thing going on.
In turn, you shouldn’t feel bad for me because the word “autism” is branded on my identity. I am stronger than the negative perception of autism that is out there, and I am damn proud of that.
Photo Courtesy: We Heart It