A Tale Of Two Spectrums: The Challenges of Being Both Queer and Autistic
Illustration by Mallory CK Taylor
In November 2020, history was made in Pennsylvania. Jessica Benham became the first bisexual woman and autistic person to be elected to Pennsylvania’s state legislature. The disability rights activist, who co-founded the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, is one of the few queer and neurodivergent lawmakers in the US. Many may consider Jessica Benham to be a rarity in the autistic or LGBTQ+ community — as a queer autistic person or an autistic queer person — but statistics show that she’s not alone.
On average, autistic people are two or three times more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ or transgender, and the rate of queer identification among autistic women is much higher than autistic men. In a Dutch study, 43% of the autistic women surveyed said they were queer, compared to 18% of autistic men. Among the queer autistic women, many were likely to be bisexual (attracted to people of same and other genders) or asexual (not attracted to people of any gender). Many autistic youth stated that they had LGBTQ+ inclinations since early childhood or their schooling days.
Many autistic people may come out as LGBTQ+ while some of their neurotypical peers may not because of two traits that many autistic people share: a lack of adherence to social norms and a strong sense of honesty. Openly identifying as queer may come a little easier to folks who aren’t tied to social expectations of gender and feel the need to tell the truth. However, LGBTQ+ autistic people who occupy these two dual spectrums face massive challenges in their day-to-day lives.
First, many people — including some parents of queer autistic people — fail to acknowledge that autistic people (and disabled people in general) have their own sexualities. They assume that all autistic people lack the self-awareness or judgement to identify as queer. In fact, in a study of queer autistic adolescents, one-third of the participants said others had questioned their sexual identity based on the fact they were autistic. For example, some told of how others said their queerness is an ‘obsession’ rather than ‘real’ experience, or that their desires are a feature of autism itself. A proportion of parents share these distressing beliefs. Some parents think that queerness is ‘a phase’ while others assume that autistic teenagers may be mimicking their friends’ queer identities because they want to fit in. Parents may even falsely believe that their children do not understand the meaning of words like ‘queer’ or ‘transgender.’ If their children come out as LGBTQ+, these parents likely will have negative reactions. It is true that, just like neurotypical teenagers, some autistic youth may try on different identity labels in puberty as they explore their changing bodies, but there shouldn’t be double standards for autistic people.
Getting adequate sex education is an additional challenge for queer autistic youth. Autistic people know less about sex and receive less sex education than their neurotypical peers and are more likely to be sexually exploited or abused than neurotypical people. A lack of sex education can mean that autistic people, whether heterosexual or homosexual, may not have the knowledge or resources to understand their sexuality, desires, and what is appropriate sexual behaviour.
While not adhering to social expectations can encourage autistic people to live authentically, like by coming out as queer, it can also lead to serious issues. Autistic people may have problems understanding their sexual feelings and infatuations, leading to unhealthy behaviours such as stalking and harassment. This is because autistic people receive less sex education, and may be sensorily overwhelmed by feelings and sensations. Autistic people also may not be able to interpret sexual cues or recognize when a situation becomes dangerous, and may thus have a higher chance of receiving unwanted advances or assault. In one study, autistic women were found to overlook subtle sexual cues and even mimic them unconsciously, resulting in them receiving more advances than welcomed. This is an indirect result of masking or “copy-and-paste”, when an individual copies the actions of people around them to blend in to societal norms, as explained in my previous article about girls and autism. Additionally, autistic people may masturbate inappropriately in public places. Masturbation is a natural activity for any child going through puberty, but autistic people have difficulties adhering to social cues, and may not be able to distinguish between public places and private places. Unfortunately, inappropriate masturbation can be considered a crime. A comprehensive sex education could make a huge difference.
According to one survey, autistic people reported that they first learned about sex from pornography, television and the internet, while non-autistic people surveyed learned it from teachers, parents and friends. The study went on to say that this was due to unequal sex education. Autistic students are being pulled out of sexuality education classes for various reasons, such as receiving special education or being deemed “unsuitable” for such classes, and were not given appropriate lessons tailored to their needs. Teachers rarely develop sex education curriculums to support autistic people, including role-play scenarios, an advice network and peer discussions that may prove helpful. Parents also have the responsibility to talk to their children about sexuality, including the intersection of autism and queerness, but are faced with a lack of resources. In research conducted with parents of autistic people, all of them agreed that parents played the main role in sex education for their children, but they did not have the materials and professional support needed.
Queerness is rarely explored in sex education. As of now, only nine states in America cover LGBTQ+ in sexuality education. This may lead to a toxic culture of bullying as straight students aren’t taught to recognize and respect sexualities different from their own. Queer students may feel pressured by to stay in the closet and keep their identities secret. Furthermore, treating queer people as lesser people (or even ignoring their existence) subtly permits violence to occur. Sarah Bess, a queer autistic activist and writer, told of how her sex education teacher enabled physical assault on her. “My seventh-grade sex ed class was taught by a gym coach who watched two boys beat the sh*t out of me after school one day. He just laughed, got in his car and drove off.” The threat of violence in all forms is very real for queer autistic youth. Is that the message we want to be sending to them?
Being autistic and queer means living at the intersection of multiple oppressions — perhaps more depending on other factors like gender, race, and class — which can negatively impact queer autistic individuals’ mental health. Both autistic people and LGBTQ+ people have higher depression and suicide rates than the general population. This could be related to a form of psychological distress known as minority stress. Autistic people and queer people must battle with ableism and homo/trans/biphobia, respectively. Discrimination does not just lead to bullying, but also feeling pressured to of hide their neurodivergent or queer identity and internalizing ableism or homo/trans/biphobia. When members of stigmatized minority groups face high levels of discrimination daily, they experience physiological stress responses such as high blood pressure and anxiety. Because of the stigma surrounding their identities, queer autistic people may also not be able to find friends they can trust and confide it, which can mean a greater risk to mental health issues.
As queer autistic people try to address these mental health issues, they still face barriers. It is difficult to find healthcare professionals who can cater to both autistic and queer people. There is a lack of understanding about their brains and bodies, and how best to resolve their health issues, among mental healthcare professionals. Queer autistic people may be non-verbal, or have problems communicating their emotions accurately. Their bodies function differently from others, and coping strategies that may be effective for the general population just do not work for differently-wired brains. Difficulties with accessing treatment and support have big impacts on autistic people’s well-being and risk of suicide.
At first glance, the autistic community and LGBTQ+ community may not seem to have much in common besides facing extensive discrimination. But, there is much more to these communities than that. They share stunning similarities — the rainbow flag that symbolizes the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the word “spectrum” in the autism spectrum, both show the diverse spectrums that are a feature of the communities. Another brilliant feature is that each of these communities brings a unique way of thinking about life to the table. Not only that, even though the autistic and queer communities are rarely accepted by society, they foster cultures of acceptance and celebration of differences.This diversity and culture gives the vibrant spice that can’t be found anywhere else. Many autistic people and queer people have shared stories of finding self-acceptance and true friends when immersing themselves in their communities, including enormous online communities, viral Twitter hashtags and bonding events attended by millions.
With these colourful spectrums, both the autistic community and LGBTQ+ community must keep in mind the intersections between them, so that everyone’s needs can be served. There are very few organizations and resources that can serve people in both communities. Autistic community groups and LGBTQ+ community groups must be more proactively inclusive for all their members. For example, LGBTQ+ organizations should cater to the sensory needs of queer autistic people, by providing quiet rooms where autistic people can spend time alone. Likewise, autistic communities online should welcome queer members and set out safe spaces for them to discuss sexuality with other queer autistic people.
In order to create a welcoming and inclusive society for all, change must start from us. Parents should believe and respect their autistic children’s sexuality. Access to sex education must be granted to autistic students and queer students, and therapy programs for autistic people should include information about LGBTQ+ communities. With this kind of commitment, straight autistic people and neurotypical LGBTQ+ people could be tremendous allies for queer autistic people.
About the Author: Lucinda Thee (she/her) is a young writer in Singapore who is the youngest finalist in New Zealand’s NFFD Youth Competition 2020 and has been published in Overachiever Magazine, BAZOOF! and Skipping Stones. She is also a writer for websites such as Gen Z Writes and Plastic-Lite SG. Being autistic with mild scoliosis, she is passionate about writing about disability hot topics. She is currently addicted to puzzle-solving and website building.