Hiding It

Kenji Yoshino, a law professor, wrote a book called Covering. To “cover,” according to Yoshino, is “to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream,” and the pressure to cover is universal, because everyone possesses some attributes that society stigmatizes. Subtle coercion to cover, the author argues, imperils even our civil rights, because society penalizes those who refuse to cover, who refuse to mask their otherness for the sake of fitting in.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Yoshino’s thesis, because I exert a lot of energy in “covering.” I hide the fact that I am an autism mom, and when it comes to Martin, I conceal his ASD—the condition that, arguably, influences his life more than any other right now.

As I’ve explained on this blog, Adrian and I have chosen not to be public about Martin’s having autism. Our closest friends and relatives know, as do our immediate neighbors, and Martin’s doctors and caregivers. Beyond that, we’re tight-lipped.

We withhold the information from more casual acquaintances—people who don’t know Martin well but will probably remain in our future social circle—because we believe that Martin will not always have autism. We don’t want anyone’s dealings with the recovered Martin to be prejudiced by his having once had autism. Indeed, we don’t want anyone’s current dealings with Martin to be prejudiced by his currently having autism.

We withhold the information from strangers so as not to suffer their pity. I don’t want Martin subjected to preconceived notions of autism, not even for a moment. And no matter how much I might want special treatment at in a given situation (waiting in a long line, for example, or chasing Martin down in a clothing store), I refuse to allow anyone to think we need special treatment.

So, yes, I cover. I pretend that Martin is tired, or shy, or unfamiliar with the topic at hand, or better at speaking Spanish than English, or better at speaking English than Spanish. (In later posts I’ll explain more about my techniques for concealing autism. I don’t want to make this post too long.) If pressed for an explanation, I use a euphemism. A TSA agent asked me why she needed to hand-search the dozens of pill and liquid bottles I refused to run through the X-ray machine; I said my son has a “neurological disorder” and that X-ray can change the composition of his medications. An acquaintance inquired why we hadn’t tried to place Martin in a private preschool in our neighborhood; I responded that Martin has “some minor attention issues” that we want to “take care of” before kindergarten.

Are we wrong to keep Martin’s diagnosis a secret? Possibly. Through our actions we may contribute to the isolation persons on the spectrum; if we’re hiding something, does that suggest we believe it’s something that should be hidden? We might also be failing to set an example. If we really believe in biomedical recovery from autism—we do—shouldn’t well tell the world to watch our son and bear witness to his progress?

It comes down to parenting. If I were making the choice for myself, maybe I would sacrifice my own privacy, and risk prejudice, in order to set the example. Many “Aspies” are very public about their way of being in order to combat discrimination (and have created at least one organization dedicated to opposing autism recovery). Our son is too young to make that choice, and as his parents we have to err on the side of protecting our own.

So that’s that. For Martin’s sake I am willing, in at least one thesis, to tear at the fabric of our civil rights.

Once upon a time, I was a teaching assistant for constitutional law. What would my professor think today?