by Katie Munday
The overlap of Autistic and LGBTQIA+ identities is a growing topic of conversation especially for those of us who occupy both spaces, and there are lots of us! We are all at differing points in our neurodivergent and queer journeys, some of us are clear of who we are, some of us are confused, some of us are more fluid and embrace the confusion, some of us are out and some of us aren’t.
So, what does it feel like to be living in two closets as a teenager?
The teenage years are difficult for all of us, growing bodies, raging hormones, different expectations; no longer being a child but not yet an adult. These years, often referred to as “the best of our lives” (!?), can be even more turbulent when you are both autistic and queer.
We spend so much of our teenage years confused by the seemingly illogical and irrational behaviours of others and perhaps even more so by our own changing behaviours! Most of us struggle with feeling like we don’t fit in and many of us are relentlessly bullied for being different.
Some of us as teenagers are unaware that we are autistic and may feel that our differences are due to being strange, lazy, useless, stupid–and all of us have heard those awful words at some point in our lives. No matter what we try, we don’t fit in. The rules keep changing and we are left adrift trying desperately to work out what is going on.
Even for those who have formal diagnosis teenage years can be just as awful–the names, the isolation, the weird looks–and this can come from school staff and parents as well as from our peers!
Some of us try to hide our behaviours and needs, adapting to others. This is usual for everyone in their teenage years but is scary and invalidating nonetheless: through this assimilation we lose a vital and beautiful part of our identities. We do this so we can make friends, feel belonging or simply so that we can go through school with the least amount of trauma possible.
A lot of the time this behaviour is called masking, but I think in relation to school especially that it makes more sense to call it ‘shielding’. We are emotionally and physically shielding ourselves from the awful remarks, bullying and abuse which reinforces the idea that we are strange and unlovable.
Unfortunately, acceptance isn’t always found within our families or with other people in our lives who are meant to support us. This can make us shield all day at school and then all evening and weekend at home.
Then add the confusion of gender and sexual divergence!
It is a mess for any teenager to understand their feelings towards their body, mind, and heart and that of others. When friendships are already difficult and exhausting, adding romantic and sexual attraction (or realising you don’t experience these) can make this even more bewildering. Being LGBTQIA+ has rules of its own, how do I flirt with someone who has the same body as me? Do I treat this gender the same as the other genders? How do I know a boy fancies me? Goodness knows this is confusing enough for heterosexual neurotypical teens let alone the rest of us!
Some of us also struggle with understanding our gender, or lack of gender, and there aren’t always words to express our feelings. Add this with alexithymia, an inability to articulate or understand our own feelings, and we are in for one rocky ride!
No wonder so many of us sit in these two closets for so long.
But there is hope, safe spaces for young people and adults who are both Autistic and Queer are emerging. Online there are groups and forums where we can ask for help and advice or just share interests with people with similar life journeys. There are face-to-face groups too and information and resources which cater to our access needs. There are even quiet and sensory spaces for Autistic people at a lot of UK Pride events (see No Pride without Disability Pride).
Spaces are opening for us as we are being more readily understood and accepted. The world is slowly getting better.
If you are struggling with being Autistic and Queer, know that there are others out there like you and there is acceptance, love and belonging to be had. And these people and spaces get easier to access as you gain more independence, as you question and understand yourself better.
And sometimes, it isn’t safe to come out of the closet and that’s okay too. You and your identity are just as valid. We see you and you are loved.
I am aware that I write about better acceptance and safe places for us from a place of privilege and that this is not improving for everyone across the World but hopefully together, through living our beautiful, and sometimes scary truth, we can get to that World quicker.