The ‘Double Rainbow’ of Autism and LGBTQIA+
by Charlie Hart
For Bi-Visibility Day in 2020, Charlie Hart answered some questions from her colleagues about her lived experiences on the ‘double rainbow’, as an openly autistic and bisexual adult.
Can you explain what the term ‘double rainbow’ means?
Studies show that autistic people are far more likely identify as a sexuality minority and/or a gender minority, compared with the general population.
Both the autistic community and the LGBTQIA+ community often use rainbow imagery, for example in the gay pride flag and the autism acceptance rainbow infinity symbol.
I came across the term ‘double rainbow’ on the website of the US charity Twainbow who advocate for and support people who are both on the autistic spectrum and the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. I stumbled across Twainbow from an Internet search, as I had been wondering if any help may have been available for Iggy had he looked for it. Here in the UK, we now have AIM for the Rainbow and Rainbow Mind and now also Iggy’s Initiative.
What is the difference between Autism and Asperger’s syndrome? Do they both sit under the umbrella of neurodiversity?
Human brains are collectively neurodiverse. No two brains are exactly alike, and neurodiversity is a framework for celebrating and accepting all the different types of brains, all the different ways of processing and thinking (yes, even neurotypical brains). Diversity, including neurodiversity, is advantageous to humans as a species.
An autistic person may be considered neurodivergent, which means our brains are wired a little differently from the typical brain.
Asperger’s Syndrome is a rather outdated diagnosis given to autistic people who do not have learning disabilities or language development delays. More recently, the diagnostic terms are usually Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC). My own diagnostic report says I have Asperger’s Syndrome, but personally I just call it autism, simply because I do not think I am any more important than autistic people who are non-verbal or who do have learning disabilities.
Not all autistic people are gifted or have a ‘super power’. One of my talents is my highly detailed visual and auditory long-term memory, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is tremendously helpful to me in my role as HR systems analyst, and wonderful for remembering dearly departed relatives and reflecting on happy memories, but also I have seen and heard traumatic things that I would rather not recall so vividly and thus I’m more vulnerable to Complex PTSD.
In your opinion, do you think autistic and other neurodivergent people are less concerned with societal norms and so are more likely to identify as LGBTQ+?
I have never been one to conform to societal norms to fit in. For example, I deliberately chose to have my first child before getting married. I also wore a pink and purple layered chiffon dress at my first wedding. When I married my second husband, I wore a dress my cousin’s partner had made for me, a knee-length 50s-style dress in shades of silver.
I do think neurodivergent people more often value individuality in preference to fitting in, and we can also be very honest and open.
Personally, I do not believe that non-conformity affects our sexuality or gender identity, because I think we are born this way. However, we may be more likely to be more open about our sexuality and gender identity, compared with the general population, so perhaps more of us ‘come out’ as for example bisexual or gender fluid rather than keeping it to ourselves.
Do you think it is important to state or be open about who you are e.g. neurodiverse and / or non-binary and does this help others to better understand you and your needs?
This is very much a personal choice, and depends on your personal boundaries, comfort, and safety. People are more likely to be open about who they are if we all work together to build a culture where everybody is comfortable to be our authentic selves without fear of discrimination and prejudice.
Is it OK to ask someone to explain what a specific term means if you have never heard it before?
In my view, it is good to ask for definitions of a term you do not fully understand, rather than making assumptions.
It is not okay, however, to ask inappropriate probing personal questions. For example, it is not okay to ask somebody who is trans about what gender affirmation treatments they may or may not have had, or about the contents of their underpants. Asking for preferred pronouns is okay though.
Curiosity is good, but above all we must all respect every individual’s privacy and dignity.
Is it true that autistic people are not taken seriously about their decision to identify as LGBTQIA+? Is this something you have experienced?
Not personally, but I feel if anybody does not take my sexuality seriously this is more likely to be because they dismiss bisexuality as a phase I went through before I settled down. Actually, it has been constant since my teens.
I understand that some trans and gender fluid autistic people are concerned that being open about their autism may lead to people thinking that being transgender is just an autistic thing, which may not be helpful to their cause for acceptance.
There is also the “eternal child” bias, where some people assume autistic people are not capable of knowing our own minds, due to our condition. That is a misconception, and a stigma which needs to be challenged.
It may also hark back to old attitudes from times when sexuality, gender dysphoria and autism were all considered to be mental health issues that could be “cured”. We are not quite at the end of the journey to acceptance.
Sexual orientation and gender expression may fluctuate over the course of person’s lifetime. Can neurological conditions also change and fluctuate?
I have not noticed any real fluctuations to my sexuality since I first became aware that I was sexually attracted to women as well as men, in my mid-teens. I did not suddenly become straight when I married a man.
I have been talking more often and more openly about my sexuality recently, because since losing Iggy I have become more acutely aware of the importance of positive visible LGBTQIA+ role models.
I have also more recently come to understand that I am attracted to individuals, regardless of their gender, and that this makes me ‘pansexual’.
In terms of neurological conditions fluctuating, I do not believe it is possible to become more autistic or less autistic. You are either autistic or not, and autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition. I do not believe in ‘regression’, but I do believe some traits can become more profound. I am not sure about other neurological conditions, as this may vary, and there are acquired neurological conditions as well as those we are born with.
I do have more sensory sensitivities and autistic meltdowns of greater severity when I am going through a period of ‘autistic burn-out’. This is a state that resembles clinical depression and happens when I am overwhelmed for extended periods of time.
Over the years the impact of some autistic features may change. Sometimes this may relate to hormonal changes, for example sensory issues can be exacerbated by puberty, pregnancy, menopause.
What are some of the challenges that autistic and LGBTQ+ people face?
Coupled with the social differences of autism, such as coming across badly at times and having difficulties interpreting neurotypical cues and nuances, at times I have encountered difficulties forming both social friendships and working relationships with other women. Sometimes I have encountered bi-phobia, and my intentions have been misunderstood.
There are many challenges with being an autistic in the social and sensory minefield that is the workplace, but with a combination of formal reasonable adjustments and minor changes an autistic worker can thrive and add tremendous value. I do get overwhelmed when I am in lengthy or frequent meetings, due to the expectation to exhibit professional behaviours and demeanour for extended periods which does require heavy masking.
Autistic people can be tremendously loyal when we have the right support, and I have been working for my employer for sixteen years.
What can allies do to support people who are neurodivergent and identify as LGBTQ+?
Well that is a big question, which I could talk about at length. But in brief, we each have a role in working together to build a culture of acceptance, where it is not only okay, but encouraged even, to be open about any difficulties and support needs, an environment where each and every person belongs and can drop the mask to thrive as our authentic selves.