“I always knew something was different about me…” Thus starts the stereotypical coming out story, and mine is no different. Once I realized I was queer, however, my story diverges. There was no deep sigh of relief, no lightbulb moment of, “Ohhh, that explains everything.” Liking girls and gender-nonconforming people didn’t explain my unending fascinations with grammar and Guatemala or illuminate my talents in taking warning signs literally, tripping over my limbs on a daily basis, and flailing fantastically in social situations. My moment of clarity arrived later, when I was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
It wasn’t long until I started to wonder how autism impacted the realms of queer dating, relationships, and sex, so I decided to interview lesbian, bisexual, and queer women on the spectrum from around the world. I’m not speaking on behalf of “the autistic community.” Although we hold our diagnosis in common, the way each of us experiences ASD is unique. Yet when other queer autistic women confided in me, I was struck by what we share.
Does She Like Me?
Did she invite you to the movies because she wants you to be her girlfriend, or did she just want a “girlfriend” to swoon over the hot male lead with? Even the scholar whose Ph.D. dissertation dissected the savvy subtleties of girl-girl flirtation probably sometimes finds herself wondering. Take that discomfort and uncertainty, stir in impaired body language ability, and you’d start to understand why dating feels so frustratingly impossible to some of us on the spectrum.
For me, reading and speaking body language is like communicating in any foreign language — I concentrate hard, I stumble, and I make embarrassing errors. Turns out other queer autistic people have this problem too. “In general I am below average when it comes to reading faces and body language,” said Camille, a 39-year-old bisexual from Canada. “I misinterpret things all the time.” How do you figure out if she’s into you without understanding her facial expressions, tone of voice, or body positioning? You don’t! “I find it very hard to tell when someone is flirting with me and completely miss any signs that someone is attracted to me,” said Fern, a 45-year-old bisexual from Canada.
Besides lowering our self-esteem by about 150 points, missing a come-on can spur hurt feelings and aggression from the accidentally-rejected. “I usually don’t realize that someone is flirting with me unless they walk straight up and tell me,” said Anika, a 29-year-old lesbian from Sweden. “It’s not a big issue for me, though, except that some people get really angry when they are flirting with you and you don’t pay them attention.”
Catching Her Eye When You Can’t
Not speaking fluent “body language” can make flirting itself into an ordeal. How do we catch her eye when eye contact is so far from second nature? “I do not flirt,” Camille explained. “It has never been something I have been able to do. I do not make eye contact with men or women, so if someone is looking at me I don’t know it.”
Choosing the wrong person to check out is another quick way to make enemies. “I have no idea how to tell if two people are romantically involved,” said Kelsie, a 23-year-old Canadian who identifies as asexual and queer. Kelsie described feeling “startled” when two friends announced their engagement. “My dad, who knew them a lot less well, had thought they might already be married. If I wasn’t asexual,” she speculated, “I might have shown interest in somebody who was taken already, simply because I was oblivious to it.”
Body Language Barriers
On the spectrum, speaking “neurotypical”, or non-autistic, body language is like traveling to a new culture without learning which of your normal hand symbols and facial expressions are hideously insulting there. “As someone who is gender-nonconforming I often get a bit more attention than I’m comfortable with,” confessed Anika. She described how when people hit on her, it’s “flattering, of course, but I often don’t know what to do and freeze up when someone I don’t know gets too close.” By pausing or stepping back, Anika could accidentally send a “not interested” message.
Even in close relationships, we can struggle to read situations correctly. “My now ex-girlfriend used to drop hints about things she wanted me to do, such as saying, ‘I’m going to take a shower,’ when she wanted us to take a shower together,” related Fern. “Of course, those flew right over my head. She also expected me to respond to non-verbal cues regarding whether or not she wanted sex, and again, I had no clue.” Fern may have looked disrespectful or apathetic; really, she and her girlfriend just weren’t speaking each other’s languages.
The autism spectrum goes hand-in-hand with sensory processing issues. Our senses are heightened, under-reactive, or all crossed and mashed together. Sensory processing can influence our touch, physical connection, and sex preferences. No two people on the spectrum are the same. Josie, a 23-year-old queer Canadian, loves to cuddle. Camille only likes certain types of touch. “As far as intimacy goes, my last girlfriend loved to brush my skin lightly with her fingers, and I hated it,” she said. Kelsie is not interested in any sexual contact whatsoever. She wants to someday be a mom, and pondered whether she could have a queer family without being sexually involved. “I might be lucky enough to find someone willing to be a co-parent without being a sexual partner,” she hoped.
Through our sensory reactions, do we unintentionally hurt people’s feelings or send the wrong messages? Because we speak different body languages through our manner of processing senses, the chance of misinterpretation is high. “I like to touch just from affection, but the women I dated always assumed that touch meant I wanted sex,” revealed Fern. “One woman actually said I was obsessed with sex!”
Sensory processing issues can affect our abilities function around bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, or distracting textures. “I like the idea of Pride, but the community celebration that takes place after the march, Pridefest, includes extremely loud music that can be heard a block away,” said Fern, who’s also “very sensitive” to the tobacco, marijuana, incense, ceremonial grasses, and sacred smudging at lesbian parties and spirituality events. “So many people cover themselves in noxious chemicals and smells and it becomes difficult to stay focused,” explained Madison, a 25-year-old pansexual from the U.S. I can’t put product in my hair, even if it ups the cute factor, since the strong scent and crispy feel of my hair are unbearable. Our brains are so sensitive to our environment that they can’t simultaneously socialize and take in overwhelming sensory experiences.
Sensory processing issues can affect not only the five senses, but also our senses of balance and where we are in space. “I fall a lot,” said Camille. “My last girlfriend—we broke up two months ago—saw me fall down three times.” Since I can’t fully keep track of my own limbs, dancing is anxiety-provoking. Being so aware (or so unaware) of sensory input can make the queer girl-on-girl scene very difficult to navigate.
Meeting and Mingling Madness
“It’s already hard to find a same-sex partner,” said Fern. “Being on the spectrum, especially if it means you don’t like loud parties or bars, makes it harder.” For those not interested in “the scene”, speed-dating, single-mingles, and group activities are purportedly less-conventional ways to find queer friends and dates. Unfortunately, these methods all involve the exhausting process of hanging out with strangers and interpreting multiple people’s body language. “It’s hard to find women to date,” said Samantha, a 23-year-old bisexual from the U.S. “I have no way to tell if a woman I’m interested in also likes women, unless I go to an all-women singles event. The one time I did that, it was incredibly nerve-wracking because I didn’t know anyone else there.”
Anika’s okay with small groups when she already knows somebody there, but “I never go anywhere without at least one close friend. Because of this I’ve never actively sought up any LGBTQ groups or such on my own,” she told me. After paying the admission price to the climbing gym where a queer meet-up gathered, I looked over at unfamiliar smiling faces pleasantly conversing and felt so unsure of how to join in that I bolted and walked home, crying. On the spectrum, “non-scene” singles events and groups aren’t necessarily easier to handle.
NEXT: Behind the Screen, Coping and more
Feature image by Rengin Tumer.