“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.
Behind the Screen
Virtual reality is a blessing and a curse. Madison, who lives in a rural area, feels like she’s a part of the queer community, “but only online. I have found groups on Tumblr and Facebook and in the blogging community that have made me feel connected to the community rather than as socially isolated as I am in person.”
In cases when the “real” world is unsafe, cyberspace can be a haven. “Talking to people online saved me,” said Anika. “It’s easier for me to express myself and make friends in writing.”
Yet we’re back to square-one when we meet face-to-face. “I had a woman break up with me because she didn’t think I was the same person in real life as I was online,” shared Fern, who “came across as much more self-confident online.”
Loneliness and Inexperience
“When I was younger it was hard,” said Anika of being both queer and on the autism spectrum. Besides “always falling for the wrong people”, Anika “didn’t have anyone to talk to” about her feelings. “I didn’t know how to connect with others at all,” she explained. “I didn’t really have any friends until I got older.”
Anika’s story of loneliness is common among people with autism spectrum disorders. On the autism spectrum, it’s hard enough to find friends… How the heck do you get a date? “I’m terrified of rejection,” admitted Madison. “Because I try to plan out the expected routes things might go, I get so wound up in how I could deal with it that I never end up giving it a chance of happening.” Samantha has similar feelings. “Most of the time I don’t know how to approach people for a date, or I worry I’ll bother them somehow,” she said.
Picking someone up not only requires recognizing flirtation in others and being aware of what signals you’re sending, but also the confidence to keep interacting after years of disappointment, combating the weight of past social failure. In some ways, I’ve got less practical knowledge than people half my age. “I haven’t been dating much,” said Anika. Same for Samantha, who went on her first-ever date at the age of twenty-one. “I’ve definitely been a late bloomer when it comes to dating,” she said. She’s currently disheartened that nothing has lasted longer than a month. “I want a long-term relationship, but I just haven’t been able to connect with any of the people I date,” she lamented. “Most of them seemed to just lose interest in me for some reason.”
When you are in a queer space, you don’t need to stop and tell that hot chick you are making out with that—gasp!— you like girls. But queer people on the spectrum face another “coming out” conundrum. Do we tell her we’re autistic, risking possible prejudice, or keep it a secret, even if she misreads our stilted body language as rude, awkward stupidity instead?
“It’s difficult to tell sometimes when to disclose that I have autism,” commented Samantha. “One person I dated happened to also be autistic, so we both mentioned that early on.” Fern wasn’t so lucky. “One woman I dated refused to believe I could be as clumsy as I appeared to be,” said Fern. “She thought I was faking it to get attention. Either that, or, ‘You’re disabled, and I don’t want to date someone who’s disabled.'”
It hurts when people reject us or exclude us just for who we are. Fern has witnessed an obscene amount of ableism in her local queer community. “The community must take a look at who they are excluding and how to change that,” she stated. She has “deaf friends who can’t attend events” without interpreters or captioning, “physically disabled friends who are excluded when a party, dance or event is held in a building with no elevators”, “people with diabetes or food intolerance who find they can’t eat the food that is served”, and friends on the autism spectrum “driven away from Pride by overly-loud music.”
However, Josie’s experience is proof that the community can work to welcome people of all abilities with positive results. “My local group is wonderful, and very mindful of the need to understand and combat ableism in order to make for a safer and more inclusive space,” said Josie. Her gathering informs visitors about elevator and bathroom accessibility, labels foods with allergens, “provides earplugs and quiet spaces at most parties”, and meets in “a scent-free building”. “Safer Spaces” officers attend events in case members get upset or over-stimulated. . “Overall, I’ve had a very positive and empowering experience with my local queer community when it comes to understanding my autism and my needs as a disabled queer,” she said.
Queer women with autism I spoke to found creative ways to work with their strengths in the queer social arena. Far from being passive victims, they learned to cope with everyday sources of social skill bewilderment, communication breakdown, and sensory overload to enjoy themselves in the community.
Unlike in-person queer events, which are usually not geared toward people on the autism spectrum, the internet eliminates body language and lessens sensory overload. Online dating allows Samantha to comfortably socially interact in her own way. “I’ve used online dating almost exclusively, mostly because I have difficulty making the first move or flirting,” she said.
Strategies to deal with sensory input are an important way to stay sane. “All noise sounds the same volume to me, so I cannot filter out one conversation when another is taking place,” said Camille, who knows smells “can make me sick to my stomach.” Avoidance is one tactic, but Camille has another means of regulating her senses. “I have to put one hand over one of my ears to focus,” she said, and for the smells, “I tend not to breathe through my nose anyway.”
Josie found herself inventing alternatives to spectrum-unfriendly situations. “My friends and I find Pride events to be inaccessible, and hostile to queer folk who are not white, cis, masculine, able-bodied and neurotypical,” she told me, “so we have decided to do our own Pride activities. Among them is an all-bodies swim at an accessible swimming pool.”
Having a supportive friend or friend-group can help us to comfortably participate in traditional activities. “I like going to clubs,” said Anika. “But I always make sure to have a plan B and that the people that I’m with, or at least some of them, know about my issues and that I might just leave if it gets too much.”
Around 1 in 20 people identify as LGBTQ, and at least 1% of the planet has an autism spectrum disorder. I’m no statistician, but that means millions people with ASD are queer or gender-nonconforming! One day, you’ll meet an adorable queer person who just so happens to have autism. What will you do?
When flirting with someone on the autism spectrum, leave out the nuanced body cues. Tell us your thoughts or feelings as literally as possible. “Don’t be afraid to ask if we are interested directly,” Madison advised. “We might not be able to tell from your usual rounds that you are, and we don’t always present as interested the way other people do.”
Because we may not understand all the inflections of body language, we’re easy targets for being “used” by faux friends and undedicated dates. Spell out unspoken rules and be up front about your intentions. “In my experience, being open and honest to people gets you a long way,” elucidated Anika. “The relationships I have been in have been with people who are honest from the start about how they feel.”
If we seem bizarre, remember that we don’t speak fluent body language but that most of us desperately want to connect. Challenge yourself to push past prejudice and get to know us first before judging. “Try to be considerate towards other people and the fact that they might not function exactly like you,” recommended Anika.
“I think neurotypical people in general need to stop seeing autism as something that needs to be ‘cured’,” emphasized Samantha. “It’s not a disease, just different brain wiring.” It’s true that our neurology makes the social world tougher. But our differently-wired minds are also behind our extreme honesty, our passion and knowledge about things we care about, our sensitivity to our environments, our innovation and openness to alternatives, and our loyalty to the people who love and accept us.
The autism acceptance movement is about celebrating who we are, and respecting our differences instead of shaming ourselves. Difference isn’t a deficit. “I think my autism has made me less concerned with fitting in,” said Kelsie. “I don’t feel any urge to be like others – in fact, the thought kind of scares me. So that makes it easier to admit I’m different in another way as well.”
Who understands choosing pride over shame more than us, the members of the queer community? “In my experience, people who somehow identify outside of the norm are often more open and appreciating of people being different,” stressed Anika. “I feel more accepted in these places and I don’t have to work as hard to appear ‘normal’. It gives me more room to breathe and makes me less stressed about being around people. I don’t feel that is harder in the LGBTQ community than anywhere else. If anything, it is easier.”
Feature image by Rengin Tumer.