by Gwen Greenwood
I’ve recently noticed the majority of autistic people I meet identify as Gay or Bisexual. LGBT+ people with a diagnosis of autism are rarely depicted in books, films and the media, mostly because audiences find it hard to stomach more than one deviation from the norm, and if a character has a disability that tends to be the main focus of their story line. But in reality, we’re everywhere.
In Women and Girls With Autism Spectrum Disorder Sarah Hendrickx states that ‘women with autism have a greater propensity to be asexual, gay or bisexual than would be expected of the NT [neurotypical] population. Women with autism specifically are found to show a significantly lower degree of heterosexuality when compared to males with ASD… Within the women questioned in this book, only around 50 percent defined themselves as heterosexual’ (Hendrickx). I was surprised to find out that more males with autism identify as heterosexual, as almost every gay man I’m friends with seems to have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Whatever the percentages are, it’s clear that a great many people who identify as LGBT+ also have autism. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps autistic people are less concerned with gender binaries. Perhaps autistic people find it difficult to fully grasp neurotypical prejudices, and are therefore more likely to come out than neurotypicals who are fully aware that the term ‘homosexual’ comes with a history of violence and oppression. Perhaps it’s a total coincidence. What worries me is that for a variety of social and sensory reasons, people on the autism spectrum often feel unable to attend Gay Pride and LGBT+ events.
I came out when I was a teenager, shortly after developing my first jaw dropping, eye popping, heart wrenching crush on a girl. I found the whole gay thing much easier to deal with than my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, mainly because of the plethora of “honorary lesbian aunties” that are part of my Mum’s social circle. I’d been raised in a very loving, but very small bubble of tolerance. I didn’t realize just how small that bubble was until I went to university. ‘You’re a LESBIAN?’ People would say, before poking me with questions in the same way a toddler might poke a lion with a stick, just to see if it would try to break out of its cage at the zoo.
I went to my Universities LGBT+ group a few times and enjoyed it. It was a relief to say I liked women without a single eyebrow being raised in response. But pretty soon the sensory stuff was too much. Too much noise, too much light, too much uncertainty and far too many unfamiliar faces. I stopped attending the group, just as I’d stopped attending the Bradford/Leeds Pride Parades a few months earlier. I want to march with a large group of LGBT+ people, rainbow flag unfurling, chanting that I’m proud to be gay. I’d love to have that sense of visibility back. But recently my sensory issues have gotten so out of hand that a Pride parade (or any similar atmosphere, such as a night club or a busy supermarket) would be hell for me. The onslaught of sights sounds and smells coming from a large crowd would send me straight into sensory overload. Whilst the eye contact from strangers would immediately trigger a fight or flight response – pumping my body full of enough adrenaline to fight for my life.
I’m sure you’ll agree that a Hunger Games style, Roman Gladiator-esque fight to the death would be pretty draining. You wouldn’t want to put your body through that kind of emotional/chemical reaction if you could help it. For people with autism, the fight or flight reflex often becomes part of our daily life. On a bad day, something as simple as a neighbor turning on their hairdryer can cause me to have a full blown panic attack, which explains why I just can’t deal with a screaming crowd. Most people with autism chose to avoid noisy, packed protests, no matter how much they agree with the causes these protests are fighting for.
Still… avoiding things you care passionately about can be both disheartening and lonely. Since a significant amount of the LGBT+ population has autism, something needs to change in order to make LGBT+ events accessible to us.
The following is a list of modifications that would make it easier for me to attend Pride events and LGBT+ groups. Every person’s experience of autism is unique, and I’m sure there are plenty of strategies I didn’t think of, so if you’re LGBT+ and have a diagnosis of ASD, feel free to comment with your own suggestions:
1) Bring the volume down
People who attend LGBT+ specific events often have loud voices and strong opinions that they’re eager to express. And that makes sense. They’ve probably come out to people who aren’t necessarily accepting of their sexuality. They’ve probably dealt with homophobia and discrimination on a daily basis, even if it’s just some kid exclaiming ‘that’s so gay!’ when they see a cupcake with pink icing. To go through all that and keep smiling, you need to have unshakable confidence in yourself. That confidence is a wonderful thing, but to someone with a social awareness and communication disability, it can be quite daunting, especially if we’re meeting you for the first time. Try to bring the volume down when you approach someone new. Don’t jump down a person’s throat if they don’t know about a particular activist/anti-gay law (but feel free to educate them on it). Above all, make sure you are respectful of personal space.
2) Gain familiarity
If an autistic person is nervous about joining your local LGBT+ group, why not start by introducing them to a couple of the group’s members over coffee? If they feel it’s necessary, you could go over strategies they think will help them feel relaxed and included in the group, such as reduced lighting or a ‘one person talking at one time’ rule. However, just being introduced to one or two members before facing a large unknown group of people can reduce the anxiety for someone with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.
3) More structure, less small talk
Most people with higher functioning autism can talk for hours about a special interest and express ourselves eloquently through the written word. But when it comes to small talk… well, we suck at it, and would therefore benefit from more structure and less open conversation at LGBT+ groups. Perhaps there’s a specific issue the group wants to discuss? If so, planning a formal debate where everyone is given a set time to talk would be a great way to do it. Autistic people love structure. It helps us with communication and makes us feel relaxed and safe.
4) Include sensory safe zones
A sensory safe zone is a small, private area with low lighting and minimal noise (or a pair of ear defenders if sound proofing is not an opinion). This is somewhere autistic people can go when sensory aspects get too much for them at social gatherings. Sensory safe zones shouldn’t be used by more than one person at a time. These zones provide people on the autism spectrum with respite from socializing, so while using them we shouldn’t be disturbed except in an emergency. If gay bars, LGBT+ groups and Pride rallies contained sensory safe zones, autistic people would be more likely to attend and could stay for longer. Knowing there’s somewhere safe and quiet for me to go to during the event of sensory overload reduces my anxiety, meaning I’m less likely to go into overload in the first place.
I’d planned to add a fifth idea to this list: creating groups specifically for LGBT+ people with disabilities. While a disabled LGBT+ group could be positive in some ways, in the end I decided not to add it to the list. It seemed like another way to marginalize/isolate people like me, when what I really want is for us feel more included. There is a place for autistic people within the mainstream LGBT+ movement, not on the outside of it.
Gwen Greenwood is a 21-year-old Aspie living in Bradford, England. Last year she received funding from the charity 2:28 (and two donors who wish to remain anonymous) to form a social enterprise for autism awareness known as Seeing Double, which works with children and adults on the autism spectrum to raise awareness, promote tolerance and encourage people effected by autism to express themselves through the creative arts. Visit the Seeing Double website: http://www.seeingdoubleautismawareness.com/