When is the Best Time to Tell Somebody That They Are Autistic?

A parent of an autistic child reached out to me this week and asked me what I felt was the best time to let their child know that they are autistic.

The stories that I have heard from other autistics, when their family had the autism talk with them, was that it was a range of reactions. Some people started a grief process where they tried to “overcome” autism by working harder to be a neurotypical, but ultimately after years of struggling, had a messy collapse under the pressure of trying to be something that they were not, leading to mental health issues and self-destruction.

I have also heard that some of us experienced a deep feeling of relief when they found out that they were autistic. “Thank God”, they thought, “I thought there was something wrong with me”. Autism became a new way of viewing their abilities and their limits; of respecting themselves and their boundaries.

Finding out that you are autistic may also lead to poor self-esteem if you have a poor view of autistic people. Unfortunately, society imprints all kinds of messages on impressionable minds about how autistic people are burdensome, and unable to do certain things, and many tired, broken, untrue myths about ties to criminal activity and violence. If a person has a poor view of autistics, and finds out that they are autistic, it may be that they could view themselves as worth less than another person.

For the latter reason especially, before a conversation about someone being autistic, I believe that a home should be prepared to welcome and celebrate an autistic person. Family members should have a positive view of autistic people, nurtured through exposure to autistic culture and expression; literature and art created by autistic people about our experiences and our community. This is for two reasons: the best results of letting somebody know that they are autistic are followed up by messages of acceptance, love, and wholeness, and because a newly-realized autistic person will have many questions that should be answered by somebody who they have a deep level of trust with. I feel that autistic people are more likely to be open and candid with somebody who has earned their trust than with a professional at an autism center or somebody who has answers to their questions but whom they just met. So, start with preparing a home that welcomes and celebrates autistic people. Then a conversation can take place when the person is ready.

It may be likely that a person suspects that they are autistic because the signs just naturally appear. Young autistics may notice that they are more passionate about certain subjects than other people, and they notice that other people do not share their passion. Young autistics may realize that they prefer to wear the same clothes year after year while many of their peers proudly display new wardrobes every September. They may notice that they seem to attract other neurodivergent people to them, and have questions of why that is. These questions could potentially be an opening for a positive conversation about autism.

It may also be that a good time to discuss autism is when a young autistic is met with failure after failure trying to socialize with others, trying to keep up in a mainstream classroom, having ill success in romance (itself based in communication and socializing), losing job after job, or suffering from episodes of burnout. A conversation about autism when a person is at a low point may be more likely to elicit that feeling of “oh there’s nothing wrong with me after all”.

The most important part to me is that connection and acceptance. Finding out that you are autistic can be a traumatic experience, just like trying to live as a neurotypical when you are autistic is a traumatic life. To me, the opposite of trauma is connection. That is why I thrive now for the first time in my life; my connection to other autistic people and to family who accepts and loves me exactly as I am.

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