In the past few weeks, we have been talking about autism in the workplace: Autism in the Workplace, Barriers to Employment and Workplace Accommodations for ASD. This week we discuss making the decision to disclose, or not disclose, your diagnosis of autism.
There is no hard and fast rule as to whether or not you should disclose that you are on the autism spectrum. There is no law that says you must tell a potential employer or an employer about your diagnosis - unless you want to request protections or accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Each person must decide for himself/herself whether disclosure will help their individual situation.
Valerie L. Gaus, in her book Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adult Asperger Syndrome, provides some questions to ask yourself when deciding whether or not, and how much, to disclose to your employer:
- Why do you want this person to know about your diagnosis? Will disclosure improve your professional relationship?
- How do you think disclosure will improve your interactions with this person?
- Are you prepared to ask this person to support you in a different way because of this new information? Can you be specific about what you need?
- What are the risks of disclosing to this person?
It is hard to guess how someone may react. It is a good idea to talk through these questions with someone you trust.
Timing Your Disclosure
It is hard to know when to disclose your disability. If you do so during the interview process, you have a good chance of being passed over for someone without a disability. If you wait until you have been offered the job, it could become very awkward. The other possibility is to wait until you have started the job, think about what types of accommodations you need and then sit down with your supervisor, let him know about your disability, the specific accommodations you are requesting and how you feel they will help. While waiting until you have received a poor performance review is not the best time to disclose and ask for accommodations, if this happens, you can still disclose.
The informational sheet, "Accommodations and Disclosure" from Autism Speaks states, "a good time to disclose a disability might be when you need to ask for a reasonable accommodation. This can be when you know that there is something in the workplace that is preventing you from competing for a job or performing a job well because of your autism."  You want to keep the conversation positive, focusing on your positive attributes, asking for specific accommodations and explaining how this accommodation can help.
Reasons You May Not Want to Disclose Your Autism
Many people successfully navigate the workplace without accommodations, and without telling supervisors or coworkers about their diagnosis. You have a right to keep your diagnosis private. Autism, even though commonly diagnosed, is still misunderstood. Many people still have stereotypical ideas of what someone like autism acts like. They may view those with atuism as not very capable or mentally ill. The negative stigma surrounding the diagnosis prevents some from sharing, worried that coworkers will see them as stupid or incapable of performing their job.
Potential discrimination is another reason some choose to keep their diagnosis private. Fear of being passed over for promotions or fired.
Past experiences, such as bullying, may hold others back. They may fear that coworkers and supervisors just won’t understand their sometimes quirky behavior. Or the directness of their communication may be seen as rude. Repetitive behaviors may be seen as odd or may falsely signal mental instability.
Despite all the possible problems, disclosing your autism may help your coworkers better understand you. In a study completed by Kathleen M. Henegan at Illinois Wesleyan University, she found that disclosure "led to significantly more positive attitudes toward and higher willingness to work with"  the coworker with autism and increased positive judgements of the warmth of the coworker with autism. .
There is no right or wrong answer to whether you should disclose your diagnosis to your supervisor, Human Resources Department or to your coworkers. You will need to weigh the positives and risks to decide if disclosure would be beneficial in your situation. It may be helpful to talk with friends, relatives or a job coach before making the final decision.
 "Accommodations and Disclosure," 2013, Staff Writer, Autism Speaks
 "Effects of Explanatory Autism Disclosure on Coworker Attitudes," 2010, Kathleen M. Henegan, Illinois Wesleyan University
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.