Well Dear readers It is June and I did not post May’s blog even though it was written on time, edited on time, and my fabulous editor tried to help me save enough to publish it on time, I was not able to. Funny enough June turns out to be a better timing for this month’s post.
Happy June Dear Readers,
This post is going to be a long one, so buckle up here we go!
This month I am going to write about the dual spectrums of Autism and Gender Expression/Sexual Orientation. This is going to be quite difficult for me to do because, though I am actually autistic, I am cisgender woman (I am a woman born into what is typically accepted and referred to by western society as a female human biological presentation) and not transgender; and, though I find a variety of human forms attractive I am currently in a long term relationship with someone who is a cisgender man.
“But Sophie,” you might ask, “Why are you trying to explain something that you don’t have much personal experience with?”
That is an excellent question dear readers; but,
- I was asked to do so by people with different genders, sexual orientations, and expressions who like the way I explain or “word things” to write this.
- What I try to do with Neurodiversity Connects is to connect people; to show topics from different perspectives; to try to start conversations that lead towards acceptance of human expression in many forms.
- I am sending this article out to people I know who experience dual spectrums to have them check to make sure I am getting it right, being respectful, and making room for their voices.
“Whoa, hang on Sophia,” you might be thinking at this point, “some of us are just now getting used to the fact that Autism may be different than advertised and now you want to add the controversial topic gender and sexual orientation into the mix?!”
Let me be clear about the purpose of my advocacy. I want to connect people and encourage acceptance and positive supports for all human beings. I want to open the minds and lines of communication between professionals who are here to support, parents who are here to bring their littles up in this world, and adults who have survived up until now.
Accepting diversity goes against what many are taught is ‘right’ or ‘normal’. But the fact is that the universe is diverse and beautiful. The genders are equal, no color is superior, no human is illegal, no ability is greater than any other, no religion is superior, money does not equal worth, and humans experience joy and attraction in a diverse way. (If I missed your beauty, please mention it in a comment and I will edit this piece to include you)
I know some people reading this right now will still have no idea what I am talking about: Autism is a thing, gender identity is a different thing, and sexual orientation is a whole other thing, right? Well……It is . . . and it isn’t. In the adult autism community we have noticed that a lot of us don’t have “typical expressions of gender identity or sexual orientation.” We have noticed it for years; but there was little evidence and even less research into this area, and so many have been left wondering if there is an actual disproportionate number of LGBTQIA+ people who are also autistic or if we are just experiencing some sort of strange social media echo chamber.
This question has prompted a bit of research (though still not nearly enough). In 2017 Rita George and Mark A. Stokes published the article Gender identity and sexual orientation in autism spectrum disorder as a preliminary look into that question.
What they found was a suggestion that “autism spectrum disorder presents a unique experience to the formation and consolidation of gender identity, and for some autistic individuals, their sexual orientation relates to their gender experience.”
So initial research has confirmed what autistic adults thought they were noticing; “[r]ates of gender-dysphoria in the group with autism spectrum disorder [are] significantly higher than reported in the wider population[,and] that the relationship between autistic traits and sexual orientation was mediated by gender-dysphoric traits.”
You can exist on two spectrums, there is a significant number of people who are. Even with this initial finding though there is more research needed in this area, and if you are looking for research topics, this area could use some support.
I’m going to side bar here because this is a huge area of need as well in the research community. Those of us who find ourselves on either or both spectrums ask that if you do consider this area and you are NOT on either spectrum, that you work with those who are (and pay them)? It is important…. to illustrate the need I want to share with you a story, inspired by Body Ritual Among the Nacirema by Horace Minor, published in American Anthropologist in 1956. In it, anthropologists visits the “Nacirema” [an imaginary] tribe living in North America and, as outsiders to the group, they decide that bathrooms were of religious significance to Americans because each and every home has one or more in their homes. The anthropologists then decide that toilet seats are religious iconography and it soon becomes popular to wear them like necklaces. Imagine traveling into the future and seeing people wearing toilet seats as jewelry! The point is had there been a living member of our culture around that the anthropologists could have spoken to, they would have had a better understanding of the facts that they found. Fortunately for us, we still have autistic and gender/orientation-different individuals with whom we can speak to make certain we don’t misunderstand the data we find. It is especially important because we ARE still around, and the data that you find will affect our lives and well being for a long time. Ok sorry about the rant…
So, there is a connection, what is next? Well, much like a child’s very next question after noticing that the sky is blue is “why.” Many people are interested in why there is a higher representation of gender/orientation spectrum individuals on the neurodiverse spectrum.
“Possible explanations are little more than correlation and speculation. The increased rates could have to do with people with autism caring less about what society thinks of them and therefore they are more likely to come out as LGBTQ. Another proposes that people with autism might form a fixation on gender, or that the formation of gender identity depends on cognitive, communication and social skills, which can be impaired [sic] in people with autism. As awareness for autism increases, and more Americans come out as members of the LGBTQ community, the topic is gaining more attention and spurring discussions on the intersection of the two identities.”
The overwhelming answer is that we just don’t know. As I keep mentioning, there is a distinct lack of research in this area (as with so many other areas that autistic voices are curious about). The autistic community at this point feels that the lack of research may have to do with: the fact that autistic voices are not yet being heard or honored as equal (or even honored as legitimate in some cases) in the areas that need to be researched with regards to autism, the fact that most research into autism focuses on the cause of, or the ‘cure’ of autism but not into any other areas of concern, and that most people seem to think that autism is a childhood malady that does not extend into adulthood and that exploring differences in gender expression and/or sexual orientation in conjunction with autism is therefore inappropriate.
John Strang’s Article Why we need to respect sexual orientation, gender diversity in autism discusses further the infantilization of autistic individuals and also points out that most representations of autism are of cisgendered white males in their youth or young adulthood.Dr. Strange, a Pediatric Neuropsychologist also asserts:
“There may be solid biological and psychological reasons for the high prevalence of sexual orientation and gender diversity among autistic people. Autism and sexual identity may share a biological pathway, perhaps one involving sex hormones in early development. Or sexual orientation and gender diversity may be expressed more often in autism because of a decreased adherence to social conventions. Or perhaps a greater forthrightness and honesty in autism allows some autistic individuals to acknowledge feelings beyond traditional sexual orientation and gender identity categories. Whatever drives this overlap, life as a double minority — autistic and LGBTQ+ — is complex. As a result, LGBTQ+ autistic people may be at a greater risk for mental health problems. We know that one of the most protective factors for youth in agender or sexual-orientation minority is understanding and support from important people in their lives. This is likely to be even more true for those on the autism spectrum. Social-skills programs for people on the spectrum should include information about LGBTQ+ communities to help young autistic people navigate their sexuality and gender. At the same time, LGBTQ+ groups and communities should be more intentionally inclusive of neurodiverse people and promote autism awareness.”
Maxfield Sparrow wrote about this issue as well in the post Under a Double Rainbow: Autism and LGBTQIA+ and has this advice for parents of or potential Double rainbow individuals:
- “Be open to listening to your child, even when the topics get difficult. LGBTQIA+ interests might indicate something about your child’s identity…or not. Listen without judgment, and let your child lead the way with the conversation. Ask questions that show your interest but try not to jump to assumptions about your child either way.
- Be ready to hear some challenging language. Your child might use words that make you uncomfortable like “queer” or even words that are considered slurs among some people, like “faggot,” “dyke,” or “tranny.” If your child identifies with a challenging word, ask if you should also use that word or if your child wants you to use a different word. Sometimes minority groups reclaim language for their own use but do not want people who are not a member of that minority to use those words. Even if the words make you uncomfortable, strive to keep any sense of judgment out of your questions and comments.
- Your child may need gender or sexuality support at school. This could include a gender neutral bathroom to use, uniform change or discussion of clothing changes, social stories about gender and/or sexuality roles and issues, staff training, and more. Joe Butler goes into more detail on some of these points in the article Supporting Trans and Gender Questioning Autistic Pupils.
- have a different identity for their sexuality and their romantic interests, leading to combinations like “asexual homoromantic.” If you’ve never learned about much beyond gay/lesbian/straight/transgender, be prepared to be a little overwhelmed by the information and options out there. You’ll need at least a surface understanding in order to help your child navigate to an understanding of where they stand in all the gender, sexuality, and relational spectrums.
- Seek peer support and double rainbow mentorship if possible. In addition to some of the regional organizations listed above, some writers to look at include Caroline Narby and her Double Rainbow series; Dr. Dawn Prince-Hughes who writes in her memoirs about life as an Autistic lesbian; John Scott Holman, a now-deceased gay Autistic man who wrote frankly about his struggles with addiction as well as the challenges and joys of being a double rainbow; Lydia X. Z. Brown, a genderqueer activist and law student; Wenn Lawson, who wrote for years about life as an Autistic lesbian before coming out transgender.
- Be prepared to learn. You might not be aware, for example, that some transgender people are non-binary, meaning they do not identify as either male or female. Some transgender people do not seek to medically transition their bodies. Some people have a different identity for their sexuality and their romantic interests, leading to combinations like “asexual homoromantic.” If you’ve never learned about much beyond gay/lesbian/straight/transgender, be prepared to be a little overwhelmed by the information and options out there. You’ll need at least a surface understanding in order to help your child navigate to an understanding of where they stand in all the gender, sexuality, and relational spectrums.
- You don’t need to be told this, but I’m rounding out the tips with it anyway because it’s so important: love your child. You already know, having an Autistic child, that parenthood carries no guarantees of what sort of family you will end up building. Odds are, you didn’t expect an Autistic child, but you love them so much and would never erase them to try to get a non-autistic child instead. Take that love and acceptance with you when helping your child figure out their gender and sexuality. Maybe your child is cisgender and heterosexual. Maybe not. So many of us are LGBTQIA+ that you serve your child’s best interests by assuming they might turn out to be any of the identities represented in that acronym, just in case they do. If your child turns out to be a double rainbow (or even a triple rainbow like me [Maxfield Sparrow]: Autistic, Transgender, and Gay) you’ll want to be ready to be there for them, offering the same love and guidance you’ve offered through every other facet of their beautiful life.
“Ok Sophie these things exist, but they’re uncomfortable to talk about. Why this is important, why do we need to talk about it?” Well for one, it is important to know that humans exist in many ways. We don’t tend to be shown a lot of variety and some of us get it into our heads that there are a limited number of ways that humans exist. For another, the mental health of differently expressing humans is important. The suicide rate for autistic individuals is higher than for their neurotypical peers. Likewise the suicide rate for gender/orientation different individuals is also higher than for cisgendered hetero individuals.
To be accepted for who and what you are in this universe is drastically important to physical health, mental health, and the ability to work with the community for the greater good of everyone. In addition to those mentioned above, seek-out stories of others who are dual spectrum. None of them are saying that they understand everything, or that their experience or expression is the only right way to perform ability or gender or attraction. But it helps to hear that there are others out there who may be like your client, your child, or you.”
Lydia X. Z. Brown, a phenomenal advocate, writes a lot about this. One article to begin with is Gendervague: At the Intersection of Autistic and Trans Experiences. Don’t just read this article read more from Lydia, follow her blog, she is a remarkable resource.
Christina Holmans- Neurodivergent Rebel is another remarkable advocate and beautifully prolific. Her video An Autistic Perspective on Gender – My Personal Experience is a great resource on this topic. Again, don’t stop with just this video watch more, follow her blog she speaks on worthy topics more often than I have the spoons for.
If you have access to PubMed please also consider these peer reviewed, published articles on the topic:
Dewinter J. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 47, 2927-2934 (2017) PubMed
George R. and M.A. Stokes Autism Res. 11, 133-141 (2018) PubMed
Rudolph C.E.S. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 48, 619-624 (2018) PubMed
Van der Miesen A. et al. Arch. Sex. Behav. Epub ahead of print (2018) PubMed
Strang J.F. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 48, 4039-4055 (2018) PubMed
Baron-Cohen S. et al. Mol. Psychiatry 20, 369-376 (2015) PubMed
Snapp S.D. et al. Family Relations 64, 420-430 (2015) Abstract
George R. and M. Stokes J. Autism Dev. Disord. 48, 2052-2063 (2018) PubMed
“Uhhhh, Sophie… There sure are a lot of links to research papers and academic articles in a post about a topic you said was not well researched”
I know Dear Readers, I realize. But in actuality this is still considered a topic “not well researched”. But do me a favor anyway, read at least 3 or 4 from the list, or read them all. I know, I know “Time?”; “Energy?”, “Ugh Really?”. Yes Dear Readers, yes. There is far too much discrimination in the world right now, please educate yourself….and then others…. about the beauty of diversity.
You will remember that at the beginning of this post I mentioned that I left room for some of my gender diverse friends room to tell their stories. I wanted to add that none of them felt able to do so publicly even under an assumed name, out of fear. To me Dear Readers, that is all the proof I need that we need to research more, talk more, accept more, and love more.
Happy Pride Month