Giving people the voice to say who they are

I am an Autism advocate and mentor. Sticking that flag in the sand feels positive. It has taken a long time to write that sentence today, the rest of the post stretching out below as I tried to explain this part of myself. Explaining how autism can interlock with identity and ideas of gender and sexuality is not something the paediatrician discusses with you  (autism primarily being diagnosed in childhood) and is missing from a lot of the early help books you find on raising young people with autism, but it is really important.

Given the rising prevalence of autism, or probably more accurately, the rising diagnosis levels, there might be a day this post is useful to you. I write mainly from personal experience, but backed by the rising amount of intellectual study in this area. And with the proviso that every person with autism is different.

Autism defines my perception of self.

On some small, closed topics, I can give a nice clear answer of who I am. Where evidence can be examined and weighed I have developed strong views on

  • Brexit (who doesn’t?)
  • the rights of people to express individuality
  • the effects of humans on environments

On other more conceptual things though I have no idea. Despite lots of reading and thinking, I have no internalised idea of gender. I can’t get my head round race. I sort of understand sexuality, but only in so far as some things create a physical reaction that I enjoy and I can understand how for some people that comes from a regular pattern of responses from a narrowed field. Mine don’t. In the last five years I have been so glad to find the idea of pansexuality, so finally I have a word I feel describes me. This is not unusual.

Like lots of people with autism, learning to mask and blend was considered important. That means learning to conform to the generalised concepts of social and herd identity.

Cis female, I was socialised to an idea of female behaviours, dress and presentation. With a family that was open-minded, employment and education choices were not limited and I am grateful for that, but I am pretty sure they had no idea which messages they were using as definition were limiting and made me change something I might have naturally done or chosen.

Negative and limiting statements are defining, especially if you have a weak sense of self. “Girls don’t do x.”, “only x people do that,” become rules.

I am still learning that being an adult means I can make choices that don’t match social and herd expectations.  I think I love the tribe I have met at Eroticon because they are almost universally accepting of that.

I have three autistic children, and am navigating through this soup of information with my husband, trying to use everything I’ve learnt to make parenting decisions. I try to carry this through into my advocacy and mentoring. Children with autism often learn most strongly from modelled behaviour, so being a walking talking example of someone happy in their gender and sexuality has been an area for which I’ve had to develop language and confidence.

Neither of my elder children have developed gender identities. As parents, we don’t make limiting statements where we can help it. We ask others (schools and individuals working with them) to aim to avoid them also. It is rarely well received. The herd still like binary gender identities.

They will tell you they are boys, but they use it as a recognition of their body, not a definition of social behaviours. They have a transsexual grandparent, so they know bodies can be changed. “If I don’t try being female, how will I know if I like being a boy more?” is perhaps not the musing of a typical ten year old.

They won’t wear pink. “Boys don’t wear pink,” is a northern European, twentieth century idea, but they have been socialised to it. The message is so strong they find it worrying that their heterosexual, comfortably masculine au pair chooses to wear baby pink. It suits him, and he’s from Spain where pink is not so heavily stereotyped. The children think it is weird because he doesn’t fit groups for whom pink is socially allowed (girls, gay men and old men who talk about antiques, I think?).

Having said that, they do wear shoes that would be marketed exclusively for women. They wear pyjama’s marketed for women because they like the soft feel of the fabric. Their beautiful blonde hair is below their shoulders, despite their schools’ objections.

Their sister, socialised exactly the same, is an explosion in the pink and fluffy factory, but she is as likely to be playing with lego or talking about dinosaurs as they are.

They love watching old episodes of Top of the Pops with me, and my little girl is completely unable to judge the gender of the singers because of the different fashions. If staples like having a deep voice being masculine and a high voice feminine don’t hold (think Alison Moyet and Jimmy Sommervile as very basic examples) she is lost. Make up and clothes are useless in this context. The boys just shrug and say, “Does it matter?”

When my boys are misgendered, or more accurately, when someone tries to label them as female, they’re not upset. “Actually, I’m not a girl,” is often followed by “It’s ok, I don’t socially conform.”

If I’d had that vocabulary, I might present very differently now than I do. Might label myself in a non-binary manner. Might be more comfortable in my skin.

I had years of coaching as to what female in all its forms should look like on me. Terms like “ladylike” and “feminine”. Learning the social power of make-up, the social necessity of removing my body hair. Eating and drinking have sexualised and gendered expectations. I lived through the confusing period of the “ladette”, where mixing all of this up just left me without a rule set to cling to and increased social anxiety. I am never going to totally loose that conditioning and rules give me structure and keep me feeling safe.

Writing the types of things I do and the circle of people I communicate with through Twitter and this blog being the tribe they are, I know I can write about gender like this and feel I am probably not shocking anyone. To write this same piece on my problems conceptualising race and I would come across as ignorant and tone-blind. A privilege of being born white. Heritage and familial history and experience, yes, I understand. The concept of being self-defined by race (rather than socially defined), I just can’t conceptualise.  

Autism is often misunderstood as a learning difficulty and adult autistics can be quite invisible, because either they live very supported lives, or they “pass” for typical. Or they are so socially anxious, they don’t go out. Support is often limited to childhood, and post puberty issues ignored. Grasping the idea that autism is life long and can affect things as intrinsic to your happiness and wellbeing as gender and sexuality, is, I think, the next level of autism awareness that needs to be supported. I believe this community is one that can help spread this message and apply this understanding to individuals as they need it.