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Double Rainbow: Navigating Autism, Gender, and Sexuality

Welcome to my guest blog series, Double Rainbow. I am very excited to be blogging for Bitch and for the opportunity to lend my voice to discussion about representations of autistic sexuality (and lack thereof) in popular media. I chose the title of my blog both as a playful reference to the "Double Rainbow" meme and as a reference to the fact that I am a lesbian on the autism spectrum. The aim of this blog is to explore and interrogate popular representations of autistic sexuality and gender performance from a queer, autistic perspective. (As a gender/cultural studies scholar, part of me insists that "queer, autistic" is redundant, but in this context I mean for it to refer to sexuality and gender and to signify non-heterosexual, non-cis identities.)

While—in my experience—many autistic self-advocates and bloggers tend to be quite sensitive to intersectional issues, autistic voices are difficult to find in feminist discourse outside of spaces with a distinctly third-wave-and-beyond sensibility, such as Bitch. To be fair, we have a hard time making ourselves known and heard anywhere outside of autistic spaces, particularly if we what have to say isn't what the non-autistic mainstream wants to hear and/or if we have to convey our thoughts and convictions through unconventional means. Those autistic people who are visible within mainstream discourse are tokenized and tend to support a paradigm that pathologizes, others, and silences any but the most "high-functioning" autists. For example, in his latest book, Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, John Elder-Robison completely dismisses nonverbal autists and—despite the title—actively advises young "Aspergians" to avoid being too different and to essentially be as un-autistic as possible.

I have found that confronting popular representations of and attitudes toward autistic gender and sexuality often means being the "bad guy" and laying into stories, articles, and works that are perceived to be beyond reproach. For example, take a look at this piece on "Navigating Love and Autism" that ran last week in the New York Times as part of a series on autism. I would like to say that I am happy for Jack (who happens to be John Elder-Robison's son) and Kirsten, and certainly wish them no ill. Yet I find this ostensibly "uplifting" article incredibly frustrating. It has the usual gawking, othering tone, and the usual dehumanizing rhetoric like:

People with autism, Dr. Grandin suggested, can more easily put themselves in the shoes of an animal than in those of another person because of their sensory-oriented and visual thought process.

One line in particular jumps out:

Her blunt tip on dating success: 'A lot of it is how you dress. I found people don't flirt with me if I wear big man pants and a rainbow sweatshirt.'

Gender normativity and backhanded homophobia in one "blunt tip." This is a statement made as part of a presentation in front of a group of young people with autism. No further comment is made on the remark in the NYT article, but it is deeply troubling. Not only are gay, lesbian, and trans* autists ignored and erased in the piece, we're actively shamed. There must have been young women in the audience during Jack and Kirsten's presentation who just feel more comfortable, more like themselves, in "man pants." There must have been young adults who are gay and/or genderqueer or trans*, or who are unsure of and are exploring their identities. The message they received was not that they are not alone and are worthy of love, but that they are undesirable. I know from first-hand experience that autistic youth are often already emotionally vulnerable. To be told that you are doubly broken, doubly unlovable and undesirable, because you are both autistic and queer, is devastating.

I hope that this blog series will provide an open and visible space in which to confront the erasure of autistic sexuality, particularly of queer sexuality, to interrogate the intersection of autism and gender performance, and to nudge these discussions toward the mainstream. Popular media is saturated with representations of autism; I certainly have plenty of material to address. Let me know if there is anything in particular—any film, book, or news story—that you think I ought to address. I look forward to exploring and discussing this topic with the Bitch community.

 

Related:

The Autism Women's Network

FWD: Feminists With Disabilities (although the site is no longer active, its archives are a fantastic resource)

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Comments

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Interesting topic! I will be

Interesting topic! I will be following it closely.

Looking forward...

...to reading your series. Just a thought I had while reading your blog was the narrative in _Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism_ by Kamran Nazeer. Chronicling the lives of 4 of his classmates, one narrative is about a young man in a committed gay relationship with a NT partner. I can't remember his name but the narrative resonated with me as simultaneously unique and ordinary.

I look forward to reading

I look forward to reading more, too. I read the NYT article with a mix of irritation (at all that dress-like-a-girl stuff) and envy. Having tried for almost a decade to relate to other queer people on more than an abstract level, there's a part of me that wonders if inclusion will ever be enough. At some level, my communication will never sound quite natural. For others to be more aware or understanding of that fact just isn't the same as being in an actual relationship.

Trans spectrumite

I was given this link by a fellow feminist. Thank you for pointing out that there isn't one flavour of human in any category!

I identify as an autistic gay male; outwardly, though, I'm seen as a very quirky, straight grandmother. I've been happily married for 32 years to an Aspie guy who is straight but is often perceived as gay. We know each other's 'mental quirks' and love each other dearly. We met in 1979 through our mutual love of motorcycles.

I also have physical disabilities and chronic health problems.

It is such an irritation to me that people expect others to fit neatly into just one box and get annoyed with me for failing to fit a stereotype. They do not want to think about how each of my various differences influence, and are influenced by, the others, because that takes effort. Even the medical profession, the members of which one would expect to have at least some empathy, fail to understand that treatment for my heart disorders, for example, isn't going to go so well when my autism means that I am being stressed out by the noise, bright lights and general busy-ness of hospital surroundings. Or that my male brain is freaked out by being on an all-female ward. Unlike all the cis-women I've ever asked, I actually prefer mixed wards; I relax more and sleep better.

I'd love to see an article about the treatment of non-cis, non-straight, non-NT, non-currently-able-bodied patients in hospitals and nursing homes. I would like to suggest that there might be enough of us that hospitals might have to start taking our preferences into account if we were to make common cause with one-another. Actually, I'd like to go further than that: I'd like to see gender/neurological diversity awareness recognised as an issue in schools and other institutions. I'd like to see teacher training that imbued teachers with the knowledge that their students aren't going to be all one flavour and that they should be careful to use non-gendered, non-ableist language; e.g. Saying "Students, we are going to …" rather than "Girls and boys, we are going to …". Not asking their students to group along outwardly perceived gender lines. Not using derogatory language to address students with differences, and to be careful how they refer to groups not their own. To be mindful of how their use of language might be perceived by someone who doesn't fit the 'normal' stereotype. To be respectful, in other words.

I'd like to ban the word 'normal' from ever being used to describe a human.

Am I an incurable optimist?

Thanks!

Thanks for the positive feedback so far. I'll certainly do my best not to disappoint!

Glad that you pointed that

Glad that you pointed that out, excellent way to start!

I was offended by the "dating tips" mentioned myself- seriously? If you have to dress a certain way for someone to hit on you, a way that is not how you like to dress, then probably won't be a great relationship anyways. Adding in the Cis- Hetero-normativity- and the white middle class normativity too- just makes it a big pile of "uh?"

I personally disliked the article you referenced because it framed all of their issues as ALL ABOUT TEH SCARY AUTISMS instead of recognizing that most of the issues are communication differences, and learning to work with he other person's needs and wants plus finding communication that works for the particular couple. Like most couples, but with more obvious communication difficulties!

I much prefer my friend Lindsey Nebeker's relationship with Dave- which was covered by glamour a few years back actually in a way that I didn't find nearly as othering as this. Plus she has her own site about Autism and Sexuality, nakedbrainink.

Jack and Kristen are adorable, true. I hope the relationship goes well for them. But It's like their entire approach is based around allistic/non-Autistic relationship models and that's. . . well, it rarely works out well. It all works against their Autism instead of WITH it, which seems very disaster prone approach wise.

While I definitely fit the

While I definitely fit the double-rainbow category and am loving that you will be writing more about this, what most caught my eye in today's essay was the passage about the othering of "lower functioning" (hate that terminology, but it can make a useful shortcut in conversation) autistics by "autistic spokesmodels."

I experienced that first-hand when I got a chance to meet Temple Grandin in person and she was completely dismissive of the circadian rhythm disorder I struggle with, insisting that I HAD to work a full time job while going to school full time or I would never succeed. When I tried to explain to her why I am barely able to just go to school, her response was "get a good alarm clock." Oh, yes. I'm sure my sleep specialist is facepalming now that he never thought of such an elegant solution. (not.)

This is what I wrote in my facebook when I linked this blog post for others to read:

-=-

While it's not the main topic of this (excellent) article, the author hit a particularly large nail on the head for me when she wrote:

"Those autistic people who are visible within mainstream discourse are tokenized and tend to support a paradigm that pathologizes, others, and silences any but the most "high-functioning" autists. For example, in his latest book, Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, John Elder-Robison completely dismisses nonverbal autists and—despite the title—actively advises young "Aspergians" to avoid being too different and to essentially be as un-autistic as possible."

I have felt seriously "othered" when watching John Elder-Robison speak.

When he says things like: no person with asperger's should ever be on social security disability because if a person with asperger's can't get a job it's just because they aren't really trying and are lazy and don't want to work . . . well, let's just say i don't feel particularly happy about him being one of the major spokespersons for a population that currently experiences an adult unemployment/underemployment rate of over 80%.

Now how much of that unemployment is due to intrinsic factors and how much is due to society's lack of understanding of needed accommodations? I don't know. It may well be true that ***if more employers knew about, understood, and were willing to accommodate asperger's*** there is no reason someone should be on disability for asperger's.

But since that's not the situation we live in today, saying something like that only serves to alienate, discourage, other, pathologize, and silence those asperger's adults who struggled all their lives to try to hold employment only to have little or no success.

In other words, it's not a helpful thing to say and, in my opinion, contributes much to the problem and nearly nothing to the solution.

-=-

Looking forward to future installments of Double Rainbow! I am a biromantic asexual autistic and thrilled that someone is speaking up about those of us who are not only outside the box, but outside the outside-the-box box!

I am autist myself and a gay

I am autist myself and a gay trans man in a committed relationship. I will totally keep an eye out for this and contribute to the discussion.

Autism and sexuality is something that is almost never talked about and almost dismissed. I have been wanting for a long time to write a essay about autists in the kink community hopefully that would be addressed too.

DOUBLE RAINBOW!!!

I'm looking forward to this series greatly, for I am also teh double rainbow. REPRESENT!

YES. YES. YES.

Agender autistic over here! This is sure to make my happy-stim rate go way up. :D

I teach, and at work we have

I teach, and at work we have a book club that reads books that relate to our community population. We read John Elder Robison's book, and also Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet, a gay male autistic savant.

Personally, I liked his story better than Robison's, because he didn't shy away from being who he was, didn't do his best to become mainstream "normal" whatever that is.

I felt like I have learned so much reading these books, but at the same time, I find myself wondering if they are representative of the whole community of those on the autism spectrum. From your brief introduction, I think they are not. I'm very much interested and would like to learn more, so I am excited about your series.

I'll definitely be mentioning this blog to my book club, which meets tonight to discuss both Robison and Tammet's books.

Oh, do you have any book recommendations? I'd love to hear them!

Well...

I'm afraid I don't have any recommendations of fiction or memoirs--books that would lend themselves to a book club. I'll have to check out Born on a Blue Day. I've seen it around but I haven't gotten around to taking a peek.

My favorite books on autism (so far) are academic texts. If you can find Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination by Stuart Murray, I highly recommend it.

It isn't really suited for a

It isn't really suited for a book club, but Aspergers from the Inside Out might give you a little more depth for the cis-male end of the spectrum. For book club sort of fare, The Uncharted Path by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg might be a good fit. http://www.journeyswithautism.com/

so glad you're writing these

My anectdotal experience is that there are a lot more of us who are part of this double rainbow (which I dig!) than should be statistically warranted. I'm not clear if it's because of some intrinsic connection between queerness/transness/autism or if it's just that we're a sort of definitionally less susceptible to societal rules about gender and sexuality than allistic people--it's actually what I would ultimately like to do doctorate work in.

So much of the relationship advice out there for spectrumites is SUPER het- and cis-centric, and so few queer spaces are comfortable with people with disabilities of any sort. The more people spreading this idea, the better.

Excited for this series!

My partner suffers from mild cerebral palsy because of an injury at birth. We are a straight couple, but still face criticism, particularly from some of my friends. I am excited to read this entire series, and I too this it is a wonderful, interesting topic I've never considered before, other than in my own experiences.

yay!

I'll be watching this with interest and I'm very glad it's being talked about! Thanks so much.

- Cath

Hi, this is Kirsten, from the

Hi, this is Kirsten, from the article.

I wanted to clear up some things:

>"It has the usual gawking, othering tone, and the usual dehumanizing rhetoric like:

People with autism, Dr. Grandin suggested, can more easily put themselves in the shoes of an animal than in those of another person because of their sensory-oriented and visual thought process."

I knew this would be taken exactly this way, and I prefaced it as such to the reporter. I said that Temple Grandin herself admits that without proper context this sounds quite dehumanizing, and I wish the quote weren't so condensed. I see no problem with pointing out that a visual/sensory oriented awareness is something that many "lower" mammals and autistics have in common. It is obviously not true of all autistics; no two people are alike. But I myself find myself to be very good with animals because of this, and I can connect and empathize with animals in a way that I just can't with people, because I understand them so well. Take Temple Grandin's story about the slaughter house where the cows simply wouldn't walk through a cute, no matter what the staff tried. Temple got to cow height and walked through the cute herself, and noticed reflective metal that was scaring the animals. Things like reflections and bright colors will make an animal balk in a way that neurotypicals may never notice or even think of.

>"Her blunt tip on dating success: 'A lot of it is how you dress. I found people don’t flirt with me if I wear big man pants and a rainbow sweatshirt.'"

Again, this is something that sounds horrendous without context. I consider myself to be a pretty extreme feminist and gay rights advocate, and I think this quote does require elaboration. I was explaining to the reporter that in high school I would cut my hair myself, simply chopping it off as short as I could. I also wore baggy men's clothes and had an obsession with rainbows. I didn't realize that this was advertising a societal role. I didn't think about the secondary social meaning behind my clothing. It wasn't until I was almost out of high school that some of my classmates told me that plenty of guys had thought I was cute, but everyone assumed I was gay because of how I presented myself and thus I was never approached. I used this as an example of how autism interferes with communication in indirect ways. I had no idea that I was presenting an image of iconic lesbianism. I just liked to dress comfortably and, well, rainbows are pretty! "A lot of it is how you dress" is true. A huge amount of social image comes through visual means. Backwards baseball caps tell a story, as do dreadlocks, mohawks, and rainbow belts. This is something many autistics (including myself!) simply don't realize. A shirt is a shirt right? But it's not always so simple.

I still wear men's clothes. I wear baggy sweat pants to school if I feel like it. I am in no way gender queer, but I'll be the first person to denounce binary gender rolls. As someone with autism, I often have problems communicating my thoughts and feelings vocally (I'm much better in text), and so I say things like "big man pants" because I have no other way to describe my meaning on such short notice.

I agree that gay and trans issues are totally ignored in the autism community. Romance and sexuality are all but ignored, and any alternatives to the cookie cutter hetero norm is never even touched upon. In the position I am, I'm looking forward to being able to do speaking engagements and write blogs about these very issues. You bring up very legitimate points, and I just want to make sure you and the readers of this magazine understand the context, and don't jump to conclusions.

Also, as a post-script, I

Also, as a post-script, I originally responded to the quotes from me because they pertained to me, but I want to take a moment to defend John a little.

His book, "Be Different" is about learning to embrace autism as an identity, not pathology, and teaching autistics to better cope with the neurotypical world they are forced to live in. If you think this means he's advocating autistics to "be normal" than you are sorely mistaken. It's not about "normal", it's about being able to fend off bullies, to make friends, and find love. Just because maybe you don't need any help doesn't mean we're all so lucky. What about an autistic who doesn't have any friends because he hits people over the head when he likes them? If he's incredibly lonely and wants companionship, is it harmful to tell him not to hit people, and to teach him how to make friends? That is in no way advocating an autistic to suppress their identity, it's about finding one's own happiness.

Thanks

Hi, Kirsten. I only just saw your comments--thank you for the clarification of your remarks. I do disagree about the interpretation of Be Different and the overall message it sends to the autistic community, but I appreciate your clear and calm reaction. I am sorry for misreading your words (you're right; that article, though well-intentioned, offered a poor context) and I am glad that you are supportive of the queer community.

I don't think that gay and

I don't think that gay and trans issues are completely ignored within the autistic community; I think they're largely ignored in advocacy "for" autistics by non-autistics.

Also, I am unsurprised that the New York Times offered your quotes inelegantly and without proper context.