Autism: My First and Deepest Closet

by Emily Smith

When my parents first inspected the house that would become my childhood home, they took stock of its ample rooms and inviting backyard. They pored over the kitchen and wondered what color to paint the bedroom. They momentarily lost track of their two-year-old (me), whose first inclination had been to hide in the broom closet.

I liked that closet. Extrapolating from the way I loved small spaces as a slightly older child, I imagine it made me feel safe. I craved the cool dark, the enveloping silence. I marveled that no one could reach me. I stood in the closet and giggled, and I did NOT want to come out.

Well, I know how to come out now.

After decades of confusion about my own romantic proclivities, namely how they never seemed to take bodily equipment or gender into any account whatsoever, I’ve decided that “pansexual” best describes me. Well, actually I say “pan.” It’s a small and innocuous shortening; it rolls off the tongue nicely and I find it cuter. “I’m pan.” Adorable. Maybe I should find some little cheap pipes and a fluffy fake tail for Halloween so I can be Pan then, too. Tee-hee.

It’s nice to be able to disclose this in my writing at last; I finally feel “unstuck” and capable of discussing any topic I need, including my girlfriend! (Unless she gives me permission to use her actual name, she will be addressed on this blog as Lovey. Because she’s my lovey.) She is the best and that is enough about her for now.

Disclaimer: I do NOT fall for literally everybody. Don’t troll me with questions like that. I still have standards, including the raw physical attraction that manifests toward some people and not others. Man/Woman/Other just isn’t anything I find influential in that.

It’s funny to look back on my latest coming-out process now (not that coming out is ever really finished; you always have to keep doing it). I’ve done this whole song and dance three times now, after all. I think I finally have the process down. And these days, I get to be in love the whole time.

Still, three closets is a lot, and I hope I don’t end up needing another. Allow me to elaborate.

Most recently, it’s been the whole sexuality spiel. I could’ve kept shut about it for a bit longer, but then I met my girlfriend and the label became more important. Dating another woman sort of forced me to know and understand what label fit. Am I a lesbian? No: I still like men. Does “bisexual” fit? Nuh-uh. There are lots of cute and exciting people in-between the whole Man/Woman binary (including my girlfriend sometimes). So it became “pan,” and I’ve had to explain a great deal about that, to a great many people.

Before that, there was the issue of my not believing in any immortal/religious sort of stuff, and what exactly I wanted to call that. I usually say I’m “secular” now because it fits. I am a creature of this world and not any possible worlds to follow. And I am at peace. Why would I waste a second of my life lying about that? (My truth is not necessarily your truth. But denying one’s own truth is always tantamount to lying.)

Once again, there’s this issue of what to call myself. “Secular” seems easiest, safest, and most accurate. In this country you can’t really say “atheist” without traumatizing half the Christians in earshot. Even if you’re like me and don’t mind forcing a confrontation sometimes, it is not worth the effort most of the time, because “secular” means exactly the same thing with less charge, and trying to reassure people about the state of your soul on a daily basis is exhausting.

I’m not one to pander to privilege – and believe me, if you’re an American who believes that Jesus Christ is your lord and savior, you hold so much privilege that you might not even be able to see it. You don’t always see it because you don’t always see people like me. It’s often not worth bringing up, and constantly being asked to repent or convert or otherwise apologize for existing, is just too hard for too many of us. But that is a topic for another time. The point is, this closet gets very scary too.

I don’t hide in my secular closet, but I keep it well-stocked with humor. At times, the words “heathen” and “infidel” come off their hangers. I enjoy them. The bafflement of believers at my peace with mortality, my relative lack of existential pain, can be a source of interesting thoughts and even amusement. I mean, what else can you do when confronted with these crusaders so incessantly? Wherever you fall in the clash, you have to laugh at the predictable way this dynamic plays out.

But my first closet was never so funny. My first closet of all, my first and deepest closet, was autism.

Yup. Being diagnosed as autistic, living as an autistic person, includes its very own walk-in closet, complete with door for varying degrees of openness.

I still remember the initial barrage of questions that pelleted my brain. If you’ve ever come out of a closet, you’ll recognize them.

What am I supposed to call myself?

Who do I tell?

Does this make me weird, or broken, or somehow not as good?

Who already knows? Who suspects?

What if everyone is judging me?

Who will be my friends?

Am I safe?

Why don’t the other kids understand?

How do I go on living now?

I felt inordinately depressed about the whole thing, for a very long time – ten months by my count. But somewhere in the middle of that, I started doing work with a therapist I liked. I liked her enough to work with her for ten consecutive years. I also joined an advanced math program, won English Student of the Month for the April poetry unit, and most importantly, made one really solid friend. Those formative experiences yanked me out of the Abyss and into something resembling a life.

Since it happened to me so early in life, and influenced my identity so much, the autism diagnosis left a pretty humongous closet behind. I don’t need too much more closet space than that. So in subsequent uncloseting attempts, I’ve downsized and decluttered. My other two closets are full of kitschy knickknacks and neatly folded towels. They’re not as scary as the first one. So here’s my advice to all the people with scary closets.

First, peek out of your closet. Can you show your closet to people who will help you? Maybe people whose closets look a lot like yours? If you can “find the others,” as Timothy Leary once said, you’ll be in better shape to tackle the rest of the project. You don’t have to sit in your closet alone.

Second, figure out what room your closet is in. Closets don’t spring up all by themselves. There is space surrounding them, space that defines the closet and makes it useful. How does your identity inform your life? Which of your friends and loved ones can get close to you in this regard? Not everyone in the world can share your closet, but the ones you love can stand in the adjacent room. They can help you chuck old junk out; they can help you pick out sweet new outfits. Unsupportive people will ransack your closet, and that really hurts. But you’ll probably find that most people you care about will smile, grab your hand, and take you shopping.

Third, make it part of your home. You can go on living with your swanky new closet. You can open and close its doors whenever you want. You can choose to deck yourself out in its colorful clothes… or you can let its snug walls be your shield, sometimes. You can put together a costume of stereotypes… or you can dress pretty much like everyone else, and savor the world’s surprise. You can do all of these things.

Nobody should live in a closet. But if you have a closet… use it, and use it all.