Body as a Second Language: Navigating Queer Girl Culture on the Autism Spectrum

“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.


Sensing Trouble

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.

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Emily Brooks is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist who works with kids and teens with disabilities. She spends her free time playing in ways usually reserved for children and researching her various passions. You can see more of Emily’s writing at www.emilybrooks.com.

Emily has written 3 articles for us.

82 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this! I was finally diagnosed last year, at age 25, and it put so much of my life into perspective. At the same time, I am trying to navigate new social circles, having moved to a new city in August. How much do you disclose to people you’re hoping to become friends with upon first meeting? (This is not a rhetorical question. I honestly have no idea what a neurotypical person would do in this situation.)

    I’ve gone to three Autostraddle meetups since I got here to Boston, and while I’ve really enjoyed myself and was glad I went, there’s always a part of me that feels awkward and a bit overwhelmed. I really want queer community here, but I’m still learning how to figure out if people like me and want to be friends or if they’re just being polite. This may sound like something that’s so basic, or like something that’s just an insecurity, but I genuinely have no idea most of the time. It’s a learning curve. I’ve had more than my fair share of faux friendships or friendships that went south because I didn’t know how to navigate the social climate and couldn’t read other people’s signals – and those were all before I knew I was on the autism spectrum, so you can probably imagine how confused I was.

    I don’t advertise that I’m on the spectrum. I try to “pass” most of the time. I’m lucky in that I have a lot of learned behaviors from a very young age that make it easy to pass. But that can also be a double-edged sword, as I’m sure anyone here who’s had to pass in any way can understand.

    I’m also incredibly lucky to have a fiancee who is truly the love of my life, who understands me far more than most people ever have, who supports me completely and is there for me throughout my journey. A lot of the dating things in this article probably would’ve been great for me before we met, but I’m more concerned with the platonic social stuff right now. I wish we could have a meetup for autistic queers. I feel like that would be so great, but I doubt there are enough of us here in the same city that it would work.

    I could probably write a million more words about this, but this comment is rambling enough, sorry! I tend to do that, online and off, and I feel like I’m more all-over-the-place than usual here, because I got so excited to see anything about autistic queer girls, especially on my favorite website. Anyway, thank you again for this article and thanks to Autostraddle for publishing it! I hope this won’t be the only one of its kind on here. I feel a little more represented right now, and it feels really good. :)

  2. I was once in bed with one of these old/ongoing-inverted-comma-wink-wink-friends, lack of clothing, the whole shebang (pun not intended). She asks ‘What is it?’ and I reluctantly mumble that ‘I’m trying to what work out what it is you want.’
    I have a sort of internal dread of these encounters (any level of physical encounter, really). I can never enjoy them as I should, because all it is that I’m doing throughout the entire ordeal is trying desperately to work out what it is that she wants or is intending to happen. To the extent that I’m not really present. My mind simply does not relent; it’s at hyper-speed analysing all variables and possible intentions. So I freeze up and that coupled with not having any idea of what to do with my body or where to place myself results in quite the rigid and awkward little situation. Thus leading to inevitable analysis of that fact, anxiety over this not being what I am intending or really actually want and that it probably isn’t enjoyable for her either and so on and so forth, it spirals into oblivion. In my mind at least. In fact it usually works out quite alright, but there’s always that hurdle. In hindsight it is all very clear to me, but in the moment my mind gropes more tenaciously than hormonal teenage boys do their own bundle and stalk.
    Subtle signs are just that. I can tell it’s a signal, but I don’t know what it’s for, so I have to ask and frankly that ruins the mood a little. But thankfully my winkwink-friend finds it charming. Most of the time.
    On a side note to all of those wonders, I’m intrigued to know what others’ experience with sympathy is. I feel empathy very strongly and I am sympathetic, however I can quell sympathy incredibly easily and I cannot physically and outwardly manifest empathy or sympathy and I never have been able to. It completely alludes me. It can be rather frustrating because I really want to help, but I just have no f***ing idea how to do it. Cue sitting awkwardly in silence giving practical and blunt advice or insight. This is not really the biggest of my concerns, it’s more that because I don’t show many of my emotions physically very often, or I don’t respond with physical emotions, people assume that they simply do not exist and will treat me as unfeeling, which hurts, rather ironically.
    I have come to realise that my ease in most day to day social interaction is a relatively calculated knowledge of what is socially necessary or inappropriate in certain situations and what is required in others. ALAS, this can’t always cut it.

    I’ve rambled on slightly, my apologies, but I’ve never actually written this down before, so I’m vaguely flummoxed and this is all probably utterly disorganised and/or incomplete and bitsy. Nevertheless, sharing and all that.

    This article clearly struck a nerve and I’m very glad to have come across it. It was needed.

    :)

    KM

  3. Thank you so much for writing this article. Nice to know I’m not the only one awkward at this coupled with severe sensory issues when in public. Forget facial clues. Oh, it’s impossible there with folks I’ve known under a year. Takes me time to figure out patterns of behavior. Once that has happened I’m pretty good, but until then it’s like trying to read the expressions of cardboard. Ugh. Add overlapping conversation, buzzing overhead light, and other sensory stuff and my time is limited in this surroundings. My friends told me my dating profile looked like a work resume. Well, hell, I write a good one of those. Anyhow, thanks again for writing this.

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