Double Rainbow: Parent Guides, Part 2

In my last post and this one, I'm taking a quick look at a selection of four parents' guides on autism and Asperger syndrome, to see how sex, sexuality, and gender are addressed. This is not a book review, but an overview of how these topics are presented in literature intended for parents of adolescents. Do these texts contribute to the erasure of autistic sexuality? What do the books have to say about gender?

It was inevitable that I would come down pretty hard on these books, but in my frustration I left out an important point: These guides are not "disgusting" works of bigotry. They're unassuming parenting guides right off the "Children with Special Needs" shelf of a mainstream bookstore. They're meant to help parents of autistic adolescents guide their children through the transition into adulthood, and in that regard they're perfectly well-intentioned. 

The problem is that a text doesn't have to be overtly bigoted or hateful to exclude and become complicit in the oppression of gender non-conforming and non-heterosexual people. Even with all of the media attention given to same-sex marriage and, increasingly, to trans* issues, it's mainstream culture itself that remains bigoted. The gender binary and its attendant gender roles are still deeply entrenched as "common sense." Heterosexuality is still perceived as a basic, default, kid-friendly sexuality, while non-heterosexual orientations are too "complex" to explain to children. 

As I mentioned before, Growing Up on the Spectrum nods toward the inclusion of homosexuality (only homosexuality, even though gay and straight aren't the only choices) but the authors continue to frame relationships in terms of "opposite sex," a phrase that is both homophobic and transphobic. (And nonsensical; a person's sex doesn't have an "opposite.") The book also dwells on normative gender performance as a means of "looking good" and fitting in, placing it right alongside bathing and wearing clean clothes as if it is equally "common sense."

On my last post one commenter asked whether I would expect the text to address "every possible relationship" and asserted that the book is meant to cover "the basics" and that to address queer identities would have been outside of the scope of its purpose.

The problem I see with this line of reasoning is that heterosexuality and gender conformity aren't somehow more "basic" or less complex than non-straight and gender non-conforming identities. And the book's purpose is to help parents guide their autistic children through adolescence into adulthood. Queer people don't spontaneously coalesce as fully formed adults. We have childhoods, and we need guidance, reassurance, and validation through our own transitions into and beyond adolescence. Even if an author isn't qualified to comment on queer issues, I don't think an acknowledgment that they exist and a list of relevant resources would be too much to ask for. (Even big bad Autism Speaks does just that in its own materials for parents.)

In addition to the two books I have already mentioned, I took a look at two more books that specifically address "high-functioning autism" and Asperger syndrome. Neither book presumes to dictate gender performance, and both books address intimate relationships in neutral terms that emphasize forming healthy and fulfilling connections. This is all well and good on its own, but taken in comparison with the previous books I find it a little troubling. Autism Life Skills, the first book I mentioned, is directed at parents of children with a diagnosis of "classic" autism—children who are constructed as "lower functioning" than children with Asperger syndrome. It frames the avoidance of abuse and sexual assault as the primary—even only—reason to discuss sexuality with one's children, and never addresses romantic or intimate relationships. The uncomfortable implication is that enjoying sex and intimacy is a privilege reserved for sufficiently "high-functioning" autists. 

Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence, by Teresa Bolick, only briefly addresses sex and intimate relationships. The author initially remarks on basic interpersonal skills, like communicating and interpreting interest, and then focuses on safety. In one remark that stuck out to me, the author asserts:

...it's very important for us to teach that romance and sex occur within the context of relationships. This is important for all adolescents, but it's even more critical for adolescents with AS. Their interpersonal skills and social self-esteem are such that romance is unlikely to work except in the context of a strong friendship.

I'm not sure how to feel about that. I certainly don't believe that sex has to occur within the context of a relationship, and I actually think it's damaging to insist that young people treat sex as an emblem of emotional intimacy. I also don't know exactly how I would talk to teens about casual sex. Popular culture has a general problem with wringing its hands over casual sex among teenagers while consistently failing to address the issue in any meaningful way. 

In a chapter called "The Rules of the (Social) Road," Bolick offers lists of bullet points that describe the bounds of socially acceptable behavior. A couple of these address gender, and those that do struck me as a little...odd. Under a section titled "Rules for Sending the Messages You Want to Send," she writes: "Long hair (on boys or girls) is okay if it's clean and well kept." That's perfectly admirable, but it's also a little bit random and contradictory, since the same list of "rules" includes "Even if you don't care that much about clothing and belongings, try to match the basic styles with the clothing of classmates." 

The same list of bulleted points also veers uncomfortably toward slut-shaming, with "Don't wear 'provocative' clothing to school" because it might "make others think you're showing off your body." The rationale is that schools "want you to be thinking about schoolwork, not bodies," and "besides, who can do schoolwork is she's worried about falling straps?" 

The fourth book that I took a look at is called A Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome & High-Functioning Autism, and it's the only guide that I might actually recommend because it seems quite thorough. (Though I didn't closely read through the entire book.) It doesn't presume to dictate gendered behavior, and in the section on sexuality and romantic relationships the authors avoid heterocentric language. The book also acknowledges the possibility that adolescents on the spectrum might not develop an interest in sex, though it doesn't do so unproblematically:

For many, such as Temple Grandin, the option of living a productive life without a partner is more appealing and less complicated. As a parent of a child with AS-HFA, your mentoring can help your child understand relevant issues and make informed choices in this area as an independent individual.

I can't and do not wish to rip that to pieces, but the wording suggests that autistic people who don't pursue either sexual or romantic relationships (and one certainly can pursue one without the other) are ushered toward that identity because autism itself renders initimate relationships too "complicated." It's an assumption that subtly denies agency and erases asexuality as a valid sexual orientation, rather than a consequence of pathology.

I opened my previous post with a musing on whether the jumble of books available to parents of children with "special needs" reflect a coherent parenting culture. What is the relationship between spiritual books like Autism and the God Connection and the bizarre pseudoscience of "indigo children," and practical parent guides? What about the proliferation of books about "overcoming" and even "curing" autism?

All of the subgenres of books and materials produced by and available to parents of autistic people offer a response to the cultural construction of disability as brokenness and lack. Guides like the ones I've looked at here offer advice on helping one's child "fit in" and adjust "in spite of" disability, because the ultimate goal is to resemble non-disabled people—"whole," "normal" people—as closely as possible. Spiritual and pseudoscientific texts that ascribe mysterious abilities to autistic people—or even more grounded, mainstream texts that extol the "gifts" associated with autism—appeal to a desire to find the silver lining of an otherwise debilitating and undesirable condition. The "gifts" associated with autism are a kind of compensation for the attendant impairments. 

I understand that it can be overwhelmingly difficult to avoid perceiving autism as an expression of damage and lack. Mainstream media encourages parents to panic. Caregivers are overburdened, not because autistic people are a scourge, but because they are systemically denied compensation, respite, and access to community supports. 

I would like to offer the radical and even inflammatory proposal that autism is neither a gift nor a curse. If there's any "larger battle" to be fought, it's the battle against structural ableism. A discourse that fixates on "fitting in" and uncritically mimicking socially acceptable behavior doesn't just alienate queer autists, it marginalizes any and all autistic people who can't "fit in" to a society created by and for non-autistic people. The rhetoric of "gifts" and "overcoming" is just a different facet of the same discursive paradigm, a paradigm that others and pathologizes. As long as the construction of autism as abnormality and lack goes unchallenged, institutional ableism will continue to harm autists, allies, and caregivers alike. 

Previously: Parent Guides, Part 1; Autism and Masculinity

Related:

School's Out: Asexy Teens

You Can't Fight Child Abuse Without Fighting Ableism

Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I lost interest in this

I lost interest in this critique after the Temple Grandin quote. Much of what you're attacking is any implication that there may actually be differences in interest in and pursuit of sex and relationships between autistic and non-autistic people. Asexuality is *not* the same as a personal evaluation that finds the inescapable challenges of sexual and romantic relationships to be greater than the rewards. Such differences do exist for some, and acknowledging that shouldn't be problematic.

You're also attacking mainstream guides for not incorporating bleeding-edge queer and gender theory - although these books are up to ten years old, before some of that theory had been explicitly articulated by advocates. That's constructive.

Obviously, there's a need for a rollicking, sex-, queer- and trans-positive guide to adolescent sexuality on the spectrum - so write it, and quit shooting fish in a barrel.

Hm...

First of all, I don't think Caroline is "attacking" anything in this critique, and in reference to the quote you mention, she makes it clear that she "can't and does not wish to rip [it] to pieces." She's merely pointing out that using the word "complicated" in this context could be interpreted as ableist and problematic.

In addition, the needs and desires of GLBTQ and gender non-conforming kids on the autism spectrum should not be considered outside of the "mainstream." If a book in question are out of date, why isn't it the author's responsibility to release a new edition? (It is.)

As far as putting the responsibility on Caroline to write these books herself, well, as much as I like her writing and think that could be a cool project if she was into it, that's not a solution to the problem. It's not on her (or me, or you) to write new books—it's mainstream culture that needs to change. Critiques like Caroline's are asking for that change and (hopefully) inspiring it in others.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

When the issue of autistic

When the issue of autistic people choosing to remain non-sexual and non-romantic is always framed as a matter of our not being able to handle intimate relationships, it becomes a problem. That's what I'm getting at--the assumption that asexual and/or aromantic autistic people express that orientation because they are autistic. As if, were they not autistic, they would exhibit a more "normal" sexuality and/or interest in romantic relationships. 

Asexuals and Aromantics

I think asexuality is erased when the person in question is NT, and I think that's a large part of the problem. If society does not awknowledge that NT's exist who are asexual, then it is much easier for people to assume that asexual autists are that way solely because of the autism.

I therefore think the answer is more awareness of asexuality in general.

Guidance through Adolescence

I think this critique is actually understating the problem of heterocentrism in the sexual education of adolescents on the autism spectrum. And I think it's completely fair to hold books (as old as ten years!) accountable for lacking diverse and inclusive views. It's not like issues of sexual and gender diversity just popped up in the 21st century. And it's not like people with autism get a pass on having to figure out their own sexual and gender identities. But I think that what Caroline is pointing out is that educators (be they parents, teachers, or authors) often act like kids with autism do get a pass on this stuff because it's easier for us, the educators, to pretend that they do. If our kids get a pass, then we don't have to think about respectful, constructive ways of talking about these things with our kids. If our kids get a pass, then we don't have to address our own discomfort with and lack of knowledge about sexual/gender diversity. But the thing is, our kids don't get a pass. In fact, kids on the autism spectrum are much more likely to question "traditional" orientations than are their neurotypical peers simply because they are much more likely to challenge social constructs in general. They may also need more direct help understanding their feelings and experiences. Thus, glossing over issues of sexual and gender diversity is a real harm to them because it is antithetical to everything we know about successfully teaching people with autism. We know that all adolescents, especially those with autism, benefit from direct, clear communication about sexual and gender issues. When that is lacking, all sorts of mixed messages are sent and received which makes the process of sexual maturity very difficult. How strange it would be to be very clear and concrete regarding every other aspect of life and to suddenly get vague and sketchy when it comes to gender and sexuality. But that's what most people do. It's a great disservice to our kids. Expecting them to "pick up on" or somehow disregard such an elemental part of life is ridiculous. Many people at all levels of functioning on the autism spectrum need to be explicitly taught about hygiene and the social rules associated with that. We use visuals, task strips, checklists, social stories, books, worksheets, video modeling, prompts, practice and review to make sure this basic, but important, concept sticks. But what are these guides recommending about sexual and gender education? Absolutely nothing. So my question becomes is the lack of education because we don't want kids on the spectrum to understand their gender and sexual identities? Or do we believe that people on the autism spectrum are so fundamentally different from everyone else that they don't have questions of sexual and gender identity? The latter assumption is just false. That leaves me to really wonder about the (conscious or unconscious) motives behind the former.

Normality=/=Happiness

On of the most pervasive problems in just about any autistic person's education is the intense focus on *Normalization At Any Cost*. I'm an autistic 30 year old in college, and I do a lot of self-advocacy, speaking, and agency with other autistic students at the same college, who are usually about ten years younger than I am. A lot of these kids were diagnosed younger than I was on account of the changes to the DSM around 1994, and I have seen the effects of forced normalization from a very young age, and I have to say i'm not pleased with what I see in a lot of ways.
I see a lot of young women who are quiet little church mice, who have been taught to keep their mouths shut tight on their opinions, who have been suppressing their sexuality because of "avoiding assault" type sex education, and seem used to being talked to like they are hopelessly defective.
On the flipside, I've also seen young men who have been "normalized" to produce sexist, racist, and homophobic attitudes, because in our broken society, that is considered "normal".
As a third option, the most balanced individuals I have met have been those who were diagnosed at 10 years old or later. Now, I must say it has been my observation that when a person is diagnosed later, you take some pretty hard knocks from life. But at least you are immersed in life, mainstreamed, and find some way to cope that isn't constant apologizing, systematic suppression of behaviors that are harmless but still considered "abnormal" (like stimming), and moreover, are able to develop a self, including sexuality, in a way that is relatively (and I do mean relatively) unimpeded.
Autistic kids are treated as if they are sick. It's the damn medical model of Autism at work, and a lot of the ways Autistic people are "trained" to be normal are very similar to ways in which attempts have been made to "cure" queer people, including ABA, aversives, and overmedication. It just makes me so angry to see these young people who seem as though they've had some kind of "NORMAL" stamp overlaid on them a second and ill-fitting skin, with pain and confusion underneath. These are kids who've had their personal boundaries ignored for their entire freaking lives. NO WONDER people with disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual assault or abuse. Especially autistic people, who have been taught that being touched by other people all the time is a "normal" thing they just have to get used to!
Anyhow, that's my rant.

I think this is also

I have felt like this whole

I have felt like this whole series has been attempt to make autism a feminist or gender issue when it never will be and misses the point entirely. The point being the irony of this article saying that it is an insult to autistic community to insist on normalizing them yet this article is doing the same thing. Autism is neither a curse nor gift that goes without saying but articles like this don't help. Not when it's not allowing autistic people set their own boundaries. I think articles like this deflect away from what it is to be autistic. I have been a long time fan of bitch but this series has made me dislike the magazine very much so. It is bigotry and it is disgusting to sit around and discuss a group of people like they are subhuman or animals. It is so neither here nor there in a blog that is one second discussing last nights project runway and in another offering mix tape compilations. I miss the old fearless bitch that focused on the media and feminism. An article about autistic parenting guides I could see in a parenting magazine or medical magazine but here it's so out of place it's a bit tacky. I remember the article that made me love bitch wich was about the on contradictions of the dove campaign for beauty, no insults no attacks, no anger just a clean, open debate about the subject. It was dissecting a national ad campaign and it was relevant to all women. This doesn't even invite the autistic community to feminism it sort of ostracises the community and encourages the divide between non autistic and autistic. Really I gotta say only doctors, experts, and people with autism should write about autism. Then each individual can decide what's relevant to them but this whole series stereotypes people with autism and generalizes the needs of the community. I don't know too many autistic people that care if they are following gender norms in the grand scheme of things it's the least of our problems.

I don't really understand

I don't really understand where you're coming from. First off, the author of this series is herself autistic, so I don't really know why you think she shouldn't be writing this piece, since "people with autism" are included among the people you think should be allowed to write about autism. Second of all, I'm an autistic woman and I've been really enjoying this series and I fail to see how it "ostracises the community and encourages the divide between non autistic and autistic" as you claim it does. I don't see why you think this series is "bigotry." Not once while reading it did I see autistic people spoken about as though they were "subhuman or animals." Can you explain why you feel this way?

Furthermore, I do think autism is a feminist and gender issue. Autism is treated as if it is a specifically "male" thing, and not conforming to gender norms is seen as a "symptom" of autism, something to be "corrected" through the teaching of "social skills." So yes, autism is a feminist and gender issue.

what a bizarre, innacurate response.

It feels to me that this commenter didn't read the same articles that I did. Also, the author of these articles is autistic. If you're going to attack someone, at the very least pay attention to basic facts like this before you strike.

To the author: I loved this series; thank you. As a disabled queer raising a kid on the spectrum it really matters to me that you did an analysis of these texts. Maybe the above commenter doesn't think that parenting is as important as Dove ads; that's her business. I do.

I'm an autistic person and I

I'm an autistic person and I freaking love this series.

The assumption of asexuality is unacceptable to me, & it's a common thing. I used to do conferences and half of my burnout was the questions people asked about sex, after being surprised that OMG AUTISTIC CHICK WITH A LIBIDO. Gender roles always confused me, I know a *lot* of gender nonconforming autistics, & it's just not talked about. Part of the perpetual child thing is the assumption that these issues don't apply to us.

As someone who often feels excluded from feminist spaces bc the oppression and assumptions that apply to me are ignored or downplayed or even it's assumed that people like me aren't capable of doing activism, I am so glad Bitch is doing this series.

Thanks! I'm glad some people

Thanks! I'm glad some people have gotten a lot out of this series, and I appreciate the genuine critiques I've gotten.

In this case, I'm pretty sure that commenter was just trolling.

But there very much ARE

But there very much ARE gender issues implicit to the study of autism, and the way that people see gender/sexuality has very much affected how they see autism, and vice versa. Autism may never be a major or mainstream feminist issue; that does not mean that it's not worth studying from the viewpoint of sex and gender.

I am an autistic person who was already thinking a whole lot about the intersection of autism and sexuality before Caroline started writing this series, and I've been appreciating and enjoying it a whole lot. (Among other things, Caroline nailed my thoughts about Mattie Ross. Loved that post.)