Axis of Autism: Being Autistic, Lesbian and Genderfluid

I have a long history of difficulty with interpersonal interactions, and I’ve always struggled to find a place for myself amongst everyone else. My adolescence was spent feeling out of the loop. A lot of neurodivergent people will doubtlessly relate to these experiences, and a lot of queer people can as well. If you happen to belong to both of those demographics, join the club! You’re in good company. I am an autistic, genderfluid lesbian, and experience these three identifiers as tightly intertwined.

It’s not just me. Studies in publications like Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice and Autism Research: Official Journal of the International Society for Autism Research, indicate a proven correlation between autism and non-cisheteronormative expressions of gender and sexual orientation and identity. More anecdotally, just about every autistic person within the reach of my social circle is some flavor of queer, so perhaps both groups have a tendency to flock together.

When I realized I liked women, I thought that that was the answer to my issues with relating to others. Boys flirting with me was always uncomfortable, but those days were over! Yet, I still couldn’t crack whatever code everyone else knew. Even when women made passes at me, I still felt out of my depth. Everyone had expectations, and partners looked at me like I had two heads when I didn’t understand them. People relied too heavily on innuendo, or body language. I wished for some kind of field guide, imagining myself exploring some faraway jungle, full of girls wanting to compare hand sizes.

It wasn’t until discovering that I am autistic that I could contextualize the way my brain worked. I wasn’t unfeeling, I just perceived things differently. Autistic people are often treated by peers, family, and society as though we are incapable of forming and sustaining romantic or sexual relationships. Whether for an assumed lack of agency or good judgment, or the implication that we’re unwanted. I have also been deemed undesirable for my identities as a genderfluid trans person, and as a lesbian.

I first considered that I might be autistic when I was seventeen, after making friends who also suspected they were. The closer I got to those friends, the harder it became to ignore our similarities in worldview or thought processes. It felt like chatting with my reflection. What stopped me from fully embracing that identity at the time was a lack of understanding of how differently autism can present in every individual autistic person. For instance, I had trouble recognizing my own self-stimulating behaviors, or stims. I knew people who exhibited more obvious stims, and that just wasn’t me.

As an adult, I learned about masking. Masking refers to the way that autistic people are taught to hide away, or mask, their autistic traits in order to avoid bullying or discrimination. As I plumbed the depths of my brain, I could recall many instances where I stopped short of a certain reaction or behavior because I was terrified of being seen as weird. I bottled all of them up, for the sake of being respectable. It was draining.

I had a similar experience with my queerness. As an adult, I see no point in hiding my LGBTQ+ identities from others. I feel like people know just from looking at me, and will judge me based on that, so why attempt to hide? It was a different story in my childhood. I can recognize now that I’ve been queer my whole life, but I didn’t know that gay people existed until I was a tween. Once I got the inkling that something was up, it took longer to keep from talking myself out of it. I couldn’t be gay, because I don't look like “X,” or I don’t act like “Y.” Like autism, queerness presents itself differently in everyone. It’s just another spectrum.

I’m also nonbinary. Being nonbinary makes sense for me. I have tried and failed multiple times at existing within the gender binary, and it felt like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Being a lesbian has loosened the grip that societal approval had on me, and has expanded my understanding of myself. Unmasking my autism has done that, and more, but it’s a work-in-progress. While I’m no longer shy about my queer identity, I have been more hesitant disclosing my autism to others. Moving past that block can be very rewarding, however.

Something that helped me was devising a sort of script to recite when I’ve told people close to me about my autism. This has been especially helpful when disclosing to others who may not have an accurate impression of what autism looks like, outside of the stereotype of white, cisgender little boys. I also have a tendency to trip over my words and veer off track when I don’t give myself a script to stick to. This strategy may be helpful for you as well, if you have the same issues with getting your thoughts together in real time.

I have compiled lists of commonly agreed upon symptoms of autism that I have exhibited in the past and presently; all of my special interests; my stimming behaviors; and my scores for self-assessments such as the RAADS-R, the CAT-Q, and the Autism Spectrum Quotient. I’ve also made note of the result statistics of those assessments where applicable in order to make it known where I fall amongst others who have taken them. I list this information off to the person I’m speaking to, and answer any questions they may have once I am done.

When speaking to older people, I’ll include a bit about how diagnostic criteria and language surrounding autism have changed since my childhood. While some people may not like to have their beliefs contradicted, it gives me some peace of mind to know that I laid all of the information out to the best of my ability. At that point, I try to accept that the person’s response is ultimately out of my hands.

My wife has been a big supporter of my autism journey. They were diagnosed around the time we started dating, and were instrumental in my own realization as our relationship progressed. We have many things in common outside of our autism, but do I believe that commonality has allowed us to connect on a deeper level. While not everyone may have friends or partners who are also autistic, having the perspective of an outsider who is informed on the topic can definitely be helpful in your path to better understanding your neurodivergence.

I have never felt more seen than I do with my wife. While we unfortunately do not inhabit the same brain, we know how the other thinks, due to our shared experiences as autistic queer people. My identities and neurotype are not deterrents to them; they’ve made our relationship stronger than any other that either of us have had. My wife is attracted to me, no matter my gender presentation on a given day, and they know that that extends to them as well. We’re mindful of one another’s social batteries, and can recognize when the other is overstimulated. I don’t feel like I need to over-explain myself to them. We wouldn’t have the bond we have now if they hadn’t enabled me to be open with all aspects of my identity.

It can be incredibly affirming to be in a relationship where all parties are neurodivergent, but it’s still important to establish an open dialogue with your partners, and not assume that they can read your mind. Despite my wife and I knowing each other very well, the thing that has been key to keeping us in lockstep with each other is letting the other know what is going on in our heads. We’re both autistic and both have ADHD, but these conditions present differently from person to person. There have been a few instances where I or my wife have made assumptions about one another’s thoughts that ended in miscommunication. These miscommunications were all small things that are bound to come up when living with a new person, but they also all could have been avoided with the help of clear communication. We both have some issues expressing ourselves verbally at times, so it can be easier for us to communicate through text. If you are unable to communicate through text or writing, sticking to yes or no questions can be of great help during times when a partner is non-speaking.

Some topics that are important to have a plain and honest conversation about when one or more people in a relationship are autistic are things like: negative sensory triggers, what stimming can look or sound like for a person, and how to proceed when they, you, or both are overstimulated. My wife has a lot of negative texture triggers, as well as some sound triggers. I mainly have issues with sound, but also have scent triggers. To accommodate them, we’ve excluded velvet from our home decor and furnishings. We also have set rules that I should vacuum when they’re not home, and that I should shut the bathroom door when I dry my hair. For me, my wife will warn me about sudden loud sounds, such as running the garbage disposal, or using noisy tools. It’s also understood between us that I may retreat to our bedroom when they’re cooking something with a strong smell, with no offense taken on their part. Stimming for my wife can entail clicks and sound repeating, playing with our arsenal of fidget toys, and using American Sign Language to sing along to music. For me, it can be things like tapping and snapping fingers, hand and body movements, and playing with stim toys as well. I also feel comforted and centered by covering my head and body with a blanket when at home, and my wife has been very respectful of this. Care during overstimulation typically looks like spending quiet time in a dark room for both of us, either together or separately. We are especially mindful of each other’s boundaries and personal space when overstimulated or burnt out, as we both know how stressful it can be to have boundaries crossed when in a raw state.

I am many years removed from the first time I came out to myself as a queer person, but I feel confident in saying that acknowledging my autism has been even more fraught. Being a school-aged kid in the aughts had me surrounded by queerphobia and queerphobia-motivated bullying, of course, but ableist rhetoric at school and the culture that bred it were all-encompassing. Plenty of my peers spread rumors of my queerness growing up, but I was called the r-slur just as much. Even by people who I respected. Admitting that I was queer after being accused of being so filled me with shame, and I felt the same when I realized that I’m autistic. It is not shameful to be queer or autistic, but I hated the feeling of other people telling me who I was, and them ending up being right.

It has been incredibly healing to find my community of people who get me, and get what I’ve been through. Many of my close friends had similar experiences of being bullied or othered as kids, just for being queer and autistic. It’s made me realize that there was never anything wrong with me, or with them. If I tell my loved ones that they shouldn’t have to feel ashamed, why shouldn’t I extend that grace to myself? All of the various comings-out I’ve had in my life have taught me who my real support system is. It is because of them that I feel comfortable enough to openly claim all facets of myself. I’m queer, autistic, and doing just fine. I wish the same for you.

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