Written by Lora-Elly Vannieuwenhuysen
Did you know autistic folks are statistically more likely to identify as LGBTQIA+?
LGBTQIA+ stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, and asexual”. The “+” stands for any other identity that falls under the queer umbrella that’s not mentioned in the acronym. While the word “queer” has a loaded history, this article uses the word in its reclaimed sense as to indicate anyone who isn’t cisgender and/or heterosexual. Now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, the question remains: why are we statistically more likely to identify as some form of queer?
The queer side of autism
Most autistic people struggle with unwritten social cues, and have done so from a very early age. We experience the world differently than allistics, and have different communication habits, too. This does not inherently make us bad communicators: it just means we have a different way of expressing ourselves. For example, when a group consists of nine allistics and one autistic person, that autistic person will be the odd one out. However, the opposite also holds true: when one allistic joins a group with nine autistics, the allistic person will be seen as the uncommunicative one. It’s a matter of different neurotype languages.
What does all of this have to do with queer identities, you may ask.
As autistic people are a minority within a neurotypical world, we’re seen as the odd one out. From a very young age, we’re faced with the fact that others don’t see the world as we do. We’re berated for speaking our language rather than the majority one (even though we get along just fine with others who share our language), and get punished for not fitting in. While this brings along a whole slew of issues such as masking or high rates of C-PTSD among autistics, this also means most of us are acutely aware of the fact that we’re different.
When you’re forced to question every little aspect of your existence from the moment you become aware of your own consciousness, you’re also more likely to figure out other aspects in which you may differ from others sooner than the rest of the population would if they were in your shoes. This in part may explain why so many of us identify as some form of queer: we’re simply more likely to figure out who we are than someone who’s never had to question their world view to the same degree as us before.
On top of that, autistic people also experience difficulties with unspoken social rules, as mentioned before. When the rest of the world speaks a language that’s foreign to you, you’ll have trouble picking up on all of the subtleties that come into play when communicating with others. While I would argue autistic languages do involve unspoken rules, the ones that allistics have set for us are not part of them.
Because of this, we’re more likely to call these rules into question. Why can’t men wear make-up while women are frowned upon if they don’t? What is gender even, beyond a set of social rules? Do I have one? Surely, it’s more than just my organs, given how much importance society ascribes to the concept. Why is it considered “normal” to like the opposite sex? Why does society insist “normal” means attraction to only one gender? Why is sex seen as the foundation of a romantic relationship? Do I even experience sexual/romantic attraction? These questions feel just as natural as “Why do I have to hint at my feelings instead of just saying what’s on my mind” or “Why can’t the rest of the classroom hear the lights buzzing above our heads while it’s stopping me from focusing on my test?” - two questions a lot of autistic folks are intimately familiar with.
All of this can impact our views on gender and relationships. The autism community has even come up with its own term for this phenomenon: autigender. When a person identifies as autigender, this means they feel the way they experience (or don’t experience) gender is influenced by their autism. Gender is closely linked to the societal expectations that come along with your physical sexual characteristics after all, and a lot of us see those expectations as inherently arbitrary.
LGBTQIA+ and the autism community
You’re probably reading this article for a reason. Maybe you’re questioning your own gender identity or sexual preferences, or maybe your child just came out to you. Maybe you just got a new autistic patient whose identity is unfamiliar to you. Perhaps you’re looking for ways to make your class more LGBTQIA+ friendly. Either way, it’s great that you’re researching the topic!
To those who question:
Be patient with yourself if you’re still figuring out who you are. Gender and sexuality can be fluid and messy and all-round confusing. While labels are powerful tools to find yourself and to discover your community, they’re also just that: tools. They’re meant to help you, not to harm you or to single you out. In fact, they’re more like fridge magnets than labels. You can switch them out for different ones if you feel like they don’t match the fridge that is your identity any more, and you don’t owe anyone access to your kitchen. You also don’t need to have the prettiest fridge out there: how you experience and express your identity is up to you.
If you feel like you’re struggling with your identity, don’t hesitate to contact your local LGBTQIA+ organisation. Sometimes just meeting someone else who’s like you can do wonders. They’ll also know what to do if you experience discrimination, or if you have practical issues to work out.
To loved ones:
If someone dear to you just came out to you, please keep an open mind even if you don’t fully understand. Try to be supportive. Those LGBTQIA+ organisations I mentioned earlier are used to talking to parents/siblings/partners/friends/… of newly out people: they’re a great resource to talk things over with.
The person you care about may have requested you to use a new name or different pronouns for them. This isn’t a fickle request: it means the world to them, and they probably went through a lot of soul-searching before they found the courage to ask you. You might feel like they’ve rejected the life you’ve given them, but they haven’t. They’ve found a way to live it in a more authentic, happier way, and they want to share that life with you.
Clearly you care about this person - otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article. If you struggle with their coming-out, then please at least acknowledge that suicide rates among LGBTQIA+ folks are substantial and highly dependent on the (lack of) support they receive from their social environment.
To medical professionals:
As medical or therapeutic professionals, your patients place a great deal of trust in you when they come seeking help. You have a big responsibility - your actions can make or break their (mental) health. Trust that they know themselves better than you do and respect their identity, even if the issue they’re seeking help for stems from their identity. Many queer folks are scared to seek help due to past negative experiences with the medical system.
This goes double for autistic people: autism has a lot of co-morbidities which tend to be downplayed by medical professionals, and which can cause long-term harm when not diagnosed in a timely manner. On top of that, the medical system still has a lot of built-in discrimination against queer and neurodiverse patients. Please be mindful of these issues, and listen to your patient when they voice any concerns.
Teachers also have a large responsibility towards their pupils - you spend a lot of time with your students, and can greatly impact their future. Try to be inclusive when teaching your classes, and keep an eye out for bullying. Bullies tend to be drawn to victims who are different from the majority of the group, so autism and LGBTQIA+ identities can make students an easy target. Bullying can be highly traumatic and have a long-lasting impact on someone’s life. Don’t turn a blind eye when it happens in your classroom.
LGBTQIA+ glossary: https://lgbtqia.ucdavis.edu/educated/glossary
Gender unicorn: https://transstudent.org/gender/
Sex-ed for self-advocates: https://researchautism.org/sex-ed-guide/
Asexuality and autism: https://acecommunitysurvey.org/tag/autism/
LGBTQIA+ in Belgium:
Transgender Infopunt (Dutch): https://transgenderinfo.be/
Lumi (Dutch): https://www.lumi.be/
ZIZO (Dutch): https://zizomag.be/
Aut & Out (Dutch): https://www.autenout.be/
Intersekse Vlaanderen (Dutch): https://www.interseksevlaanderen.be/
Intersex Belgium (French): https://intersexbelgium.be/
Arc-en-ciel Wallonie (French): https://www.arcenciel-wallonie.be/