Maggie, a 24-year-old engineer from Toronto, knew she was queer from the moment she first experienced the spark. “I had my first kiss with a girl when I was thirteen and it felt like my whole body was electrified,” she says. “It was a random drunk kiss, so I didn’t get to explore the concept further.” By the time she was fifteen years old, she was in a relationship with another girl. “It was emotional and physical, and it lasted for two years,” Maggie says. Yet she didn’t “understand or accept” her queerness until her early twenties. Why? “Because of the social skills groups that I was put into, I didn’t really realize that I could be queer.”
Maggie, who has autism, was taking the classes to better handle teenage social expectations, but she was no stranger to social learning; ever since her autism diagnosis at age six, she was a social skills student. A staple of autism treatment, social skills classes teach social knowledge and behavior that most neurotypicals — non-autistic people — absorb with relative ease. After all, autism’s differences — body language difficulties, ineffective communication, inappropriate behaviors, awkward human interaction tactics — are all about understanding and communicating in the social world.
Maggie’s earliest social skills classes focused on what she calls the “basics”: answering questions, maintaining eye contact, and predicting others’ feelings by their facial expressions. While she used to rock back and forth and count to ten aloud, social skills instructors trained her to make her stimming — self-stimulatory repetitive movements — less noticeable: jiggling her leg instead of rocking, counting to ten in her head instead of aloud. Later, Maggie’s advanced social skills classes taught her telephone conversation and body language reading techniques. “Social skills classes are very important for people on the autistic spectrum,” says Maggie, who didn’t mind her early instruction. “They taught me how to interact with others, how to hold a conversation with confidence, how to get a job, and how to feel proud of myself even though I’m autistic.”
On the brink of Maggie’s adolescence, though, her social skills programming took a decidedly darker and more moralistic turn. “Right before I went into high school, my parents enrolled me in a couple of social skills classes to prepare me for the change,” she tells me. “They taught me how to behave in certain social situations, like when girls go into the washroom together, or how to behave when you get invited to a party, or when you want to ask someone on a date. That’s where I think the classes switched from being useful to being controlling.”
In a culture where heterosexuality and gender normativity is the default, social skills classes can teach people with ASD that “typical” behavior is only obtained by following dominant gender and sexuality codes. “There were very strong gender-normative and heterosexual messages in all of the social skills classes which I did when I was preparing for high school,” says Maggie. “I know that they were just trying to protect me from bullying and teasing, but it really made me believe that I wasn’t good enough just being me. I had to pretend to be this straight girly girl to fit in in high school.” Obviously, this damaged Maggie’s identity and relationships. “Queer was a definition for other people,” says Maggie, “a category which I had never practiced in social skills classes before, and therefore wasn’t allowed to be.”
To make matters worse, Maggie’s autism symptoms made it impossible to ignore these narrow gender and sexuality messages that her social skills teachers espoused. “I took the lessons that I learned in my social skills classes as hardline rules for behavior,” she explains. “I see everything in black and white – it’s a common trait amongst autistic people. Social skills classes gave me direct instructions for how to behave. Being queer was not one of those instructions.”
Maggie’s not alone — I’ve also seen gender and sexuality discrimination in the autism spectrum programs I’ve attended. As a queer person diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I participated in adult social skills classes. I’m also part of socialization groups where people on the spectrum get to know each other through fun activities while facilitators subtly guide us toward connection and better social skills.
From subtle sexist language to blatantly-limited lesson plans, there are scores of ways for social skills programs to be unwelcoming to queer autistics. In a dating skills class, a new participant says that he likes to cook. “The ladies will love that about you,” replies the instructor, smiling as he presumes heterosexuality. Maybe the participant likes ladies. But maybe he likes gentlemen, others, both, or neither. Too late — two women across the room are already giggling flirtatiously at him.
As homework in an adult social skills class, my teacher instructs us to observe men and women’s body language when they walk together in public: Is this their first date? How long have they been together? As a queer, I feel excluded. Don’t get me wrong — I understand straight safety, privilege, and visibility. But I live in a giant city that is exploding with gayness. Whenever I’m not hiding in my cave, I see other LGBTQ singles and couples, yet the teacher never asks us to look at two women or two men together and guess how long they’ve been dating. Plus, not every man and woman walking together are walking together.
My social skills teacher sympathizes with our executive functioning issues — problems with planning, sequencing, organization, time management that some people with ASD, as well as those with ADHD or learning disabilities, can have. She exclaims, “I wish I had a wife!” She chuckles and adds, “Not a modern wife, a good old-fashioned wife who would cobble my shoes and straighten my desk.” I feel extremely uncomfortable with her pointless joke.
Transphobia can be just as great a problem as homophobia in social skills programs. There’s something seriously creepy about passing off gendered behavior instructions as autism therapy. “I was taught that there was a certain way for girls to behave, and a certain way for boys to behave,” says Maggie of her teen social skills classes’ content. “For example, I was told that I shouldn’t be direct and ask a boy out, I should compliment him and touch my hair and wait for him to ask me out.” These tips weren’t useful to Maggie, a sexually-fluid “proud feminist” who says she doesn’t “put a lot of stock into gender roles.”
When social skills teachers try to control autistic participants’ clothing choices, they may end up restricting autistic students’ gender expressions. At a job skills workshop I attended, a neurotypical man lectured women with ASD all about how to look professional, but his version of professionalism was stereotypically feminine. After the vast majority of the two hour session included discussions of makeup, I was ready to teach our teacher a lesson or two.
Single-sex groups can also raise questions of gender inclusivity. When a class or group is geared solely toward “women on the autism spectrum,” can any woman join, or only those assigned female at birth? If facilitators of the “ladies” group I’m part of knew I was gender nonconforming, would I still be invited to take part? I’ve heard those discussing our group benefits by following the simplistic tired trope that sharing genitalia signifies deep understanding. Can single-sex classes or groups be flexible and fluid when talking about gender?
When individuals who struggle with social skills attend classes, teachers have a responsibility to break apart tired assumptions and offer activities relevant to the entire gender, sexuality, and relationship spectrum. Otherwise, it’s taking advantage of people with disabilities — whether or not that’s the facilitator’s intentions.
Social skills class participants sometimes make homophobic and transphobic remarks or behave in discriminatory ways. Whether the root is years in the social skills system, living in this stifling society, or just plain ignorance is not the issue here. Good facilitators have the responsibility to address these remarks instead of ignoring them. If it’s true that bystanders are no better than bullies, then leaders must redirect or check in when participants speak ill of any identity group — from race, class, and age to gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion.
During an art class, one participant paints a rainbow for neurodiversity, the movement that values brain differences such as autism as natural variations instead of disease. The classmate beside him loudly asks, almost accusatorily, “Are you gay?” He’s pressured to answer the question in front of the group and explain his creative expression, and I briefly wonder: If I came out in this class, would I still be accepted?
When a side conversation about relationships springs up at another socialization group, I take a deep breath and gather my courage: “I’m actually queer and a bit gender nonconforming.” Another participant says she doesn’t stick with gender roles either, but when I try to start a conversation with her about gender, she quickly backpedals. Instead, she launches into a long speech about wanting to support gay rights through writing but feeling conflicted because of religion, ending with, “I want them to be able to have rights, whether or not I believe homosexuality is moral.” I slide from solidarity into isolation in just a few minutes.
I’m not hating on my peers — they’re allowed to have different opinions and perspectives. I’m not perfect — I still have far to go. I know from casual conversations that some of them are struggling to come to terms with their own identities. I just want to know that our teachers are willing to stand up for those of us with differences beyond the autism spectrum.
Solving the Problems
I’ve enjoyed some social skills classes and socialization groups geared toward adults with ASD because it’s a break from the neurotypical world, and I need that break. I’ve liked them because it’s a safe haven where I can be myself with peers who struggle with similar issues. I have hope that I can stop stressing out and maybe make friends who think like me. Here’s where intersecting identities come in, though: In these groups for people with autism spectrum disorder, my brain feels safe and protected and happy, but my heart doesn’t. Just one comment from an ignorant instructor or classmate can ruin that rare feeling of acceptance.
At sixteen, Maggie took her last social class. “I wasn’t bullied or teased in high school, and I will always be grateful for that. But they also took away some of my individuality,” she reflects. “I don’t think I would ever take another social skills class again, because of that.” Social skills classes are particularly bad places to learn gender and sexuality lessons because they combine direct instruction with the neurotypical authority of telling us how to act. Socialization groups seem safer, but sometimes, gender and sexuality discrimination still subtly invade them. Where do we go from here? I believe the solution is multi-tiered. We need inclusive social skills models and outstanding leaders — and we need to listen to queer and gender nonconforming autistics.
Progressive Social Skills Models
When I interviewed leaders in the autism social skills field, I was pleasantly surprised about the thought they put into supporting LGBTQ autistic participants in their groups. Elizabeth Laugeson, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and professor, is Founder and Director of UCLA PEERS (Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills), a social skills intervention which teaches friendship and dating techniques to teens and adults with ASD and other related issues. PEERS is offered worldwide, making its gender and sexuality viewpoints extremely important.
“We attempt to avoid heterosexist perspectives during our lessons and practice exercises,” emphasizes Elizabeth. She gives the example of teaching participants with ASD how to flirt, a process to let others know you like them by making eye contact, smiling slightly, looking away, then repeating the cycle. To help participants learn “the act of flirting” by embodying it, Elizabeth structures the social skills classes to include flirting practice with social coaches. “In an effort to avoid being heterosexist, we make sure we have at least one male coach and one female coach available to practice the act of flirting,” she tells me. “Rather than requiring our group members to self-identify their sexual orientation during these practice attempts, we simply ask, “Who would you feel more comfortable practicing with?” while allowing them to choose between the male or female coach.”
Simple steps like these make a huge difference to queer social skills students. “Previous group members who have later identified themselves as homosexual or bisexual have indicated that this approach was comforting to them,” explains Elizabeth, “because they were allowed to practice with a person of relevant gender, while not being required to discuss feelings of sexual preference that were not yet solidified or known commonly to their family and friends.”
Elizabeth never wants her social skills students to make friends by “adherence of gender roles”; rather, she encourages them to “identify groups that they might fit in with, where they might feel comfortable and accepted” and acknowledges that “for some teens and young adults, LGBTQ is among the groups in which they identify.” Because family or friends may judge their decision to identify with LGBTQ groups, she teaches participants that friendship and group affiliation is a “personal choice.”
She also teaches teens and young adults to take “embarrassing feedback” into account when considering how they dress, which treads a thin line between educating and limiting self-expression. Most of the appearance problems her students have stem from hygiene, though. “If we like the way we dress and how we appear,” Elizabeth believes, “we don’t have to change that for anyone.”
“We certainly see a share of individuals who are in the LGBT community,” says Pamela J. Crooke, Ph.D, Director of Research and Clinical Operations and Senior Therapist for Social Thinking, a social skills method that teaches people with ASD and related conditions strategies for figuring out the hidden social rules and adapting accordingly. “We have worked with teens and adults who are transgender or do not fall into traditional gender roles. We take each person for who they are and what their strengths and needs are, and structure our sessions around their needs — period.”
Pam says the Social Thinking model works the same for all people, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. “Thinking about how to share space, perspective-taking, and reading intentions are all part of what we teach,” says Pam. “This is something all of us have to learn how to do whether LGBT or straight, neurotypical or ASD.” Pam and Michelle Garcia Winner, the speech therapist who founded and heads the Social Thinking clinic, program, and publishing company, actively work toward diversity by using inclusive terms at social skills conferences “regardless of the state or country where we speak”, “making sure audiences think about sexuality and ASD”, and trying “to expose and discuss stereotypes in our lessons.”
In Pam’s clinical experience, she doesn’t focus on personal appearance in social skills classes. “We don’t work with our teens/adults to change their clothing choices to fall within trends, although some of our teens talk about the fine art of ‘blending in….in order to stand out’,” says Pam. Instead, Michelle and Pam shift their coaching to “the ‘why’ underlying the use of social skills.” However, she says Social Thinking has room for growth in their book illustrations, which don’t yet address the broad spectrum of gender expression. For instance, she sees that their manga book characters “are more stereotypically girl/boy”, and thinks future art should “include girls who are wearing pants, shorts, and have short hair or guys who have longer hair” and “girls playing video games and sports.”
While no social skills model is perfect, I’m comforted to hear from leaders in the field like Elizabeth and Pam. Not only are they making inclusive choices, but they’re also hyper-aware of shortcomings and willing to take action.
Inclusive Facilitators and Leaders
We need more than a good social skills model; we need good teachers. Maggie doesn’t entirely fault her social skills teachers; she understands that her social skills teachers were “trying their best to make us fit in in a world where we naturally stood out” and “giving us tips on how to fit in to help us get further ahead in a neurotypical world.” But that’s no excuse for perpetuating gender and sexuality stereotypes. “If my high school social skills teachers would have even presented the idea of being gay, or even leaving social skills classes as gender neutral, I think I would have discovered who I was a lot earlier than I did,” says Maggie.
Stronger, more informed teachers can be game-changers for queer and gender-nonconforming social skills students. Can we please get more autism service providers who are willing to learn about LGBTQ identities, or just more autism providers from the queer community?
Looking back at times when I felt invalidated, put on the spot, or unsupported largely unheard, invalidated, and uncomfortable, silenced, many of these instances could’ve been avoided.
For instance, when the fellow group member went on a tangent about homosexuality and morality right after I came out, nobody facilitating — including the leader sitting between us — asks me how this makes me feel. Facilitators need to learn to step in when participants start uncomfortable homophobic or transphobic rants. Make clear statements about how everyone will be accepted and uphold these guidelines.
When one art classmate turned to another and demanded to know his sexual orientation, facilitators could’ve made it into a teaching moment and explained that nobody is forced to answer uncomfortable questions. Set rules and limits about the way to talk about other people’s identities, including and beyond gender and sexuality.
When my social skills teacher joked about needing a wife or the job skills coach told us that we need to wear makeup, I felt uncomfortable. Facilitators have to take a step back and check their own privileges and biases, as well as the homophobic and transphobic cultural messages that influence all of us. How are these influencing their language choices, lesson plans, and assignments?
If I come out in class, I often find myself fielding questions about my sexual identity, gender identity, and relationship type. I do it but with silently-gritted teeth — I don’t want to be the “LGBTQ issues educator” when I’m trying to attend programs as a student! In order to not force students of any minority into being ambassadors, facilitators must learn more about LGBTQ issues and how they impact autism. I remember the social work intern who knew what an open relationship was and called it “cool”, the social worker who smiled and softly said, “Good” when I introduced myself honestly as queer and in an open relationship at a dating skills class. Even small acts of support can be meaningful.
“In terms of our day to day work with teens and adults, we always structure our lessons related to dating based on who is in the group,” Pam says, to which I challenge that the naked eye alone can’t read gender identity and sexual orientation. Facilitators must assume that there are queer and gender-nonconforming autistics in any social skills classes. Tacking on “gay” as one lesson isn’t the answer, either. The best way to reach all students is by being consistently inclusive in programming.
Something as small and seemingly insignificant as the symbols in the marketing materials can leave queer autistics out. My heart sinks when I see the graphics accompanying a dating skills class advertisement: lifted directly off those bathroom doors we hate, a red heart floats between a pink skirted figure and a blue trousered figure. Facilitators must evaluate advertising images for sexuality and gender-based stereotypes. Do marketing materials send subtle messages about who is welcome in the program? What types of language and graphics are inclusive to diverse participants?
“I didn’t know that I was ‘allowed’ to be queer, or how to tell if I was in fact queer,” said Maggie. “It might sound silly, but for someone who needed instruction to figure out how to maintain eye contact, the social skills that it takes to even get to the point of coming out are mind-boggling. It would have been nice to have had some help through that.” Facilitators can consider assisting interested participants with queer-specific social skills. The queer community is a subculture, and each cultural group has different norms. Queer autistics need help picking up on queer subtleties, as well as tips for building self-esteem. Tips for learning to read queer body language, which sometimes differs from straight body language, would be helpful, but all too often, social skills instruction relies on stereotypes of male and female behaviors. Whether or not students are queer, these stereotypes are a confusing waste of time.
Maggie has no plans of becoming a social skills teacher, but if she were one, “I think I would just try my best to make my classes gender neutral, and tell kids that it’s okay to like someone of any gender.” Talking to people who are there or have been there is extremely important. LGBTQ people on the autism spectrum can offer invaluable insights. We can communicate experiences to family or friends, advocate for issues in the queer or autism communities, and make a scene about homophobia and transphobia in autism programming. Maybe we can even revolutionize social skills classes and socialization groups.
It’s time our perspectives were considered. I’m grateful that the professionals who run the programs I attend are committed to creating ASD programming that is inclusive of and sensitive to people of all genders and sexualities. These program planners and facilitators feel more like friendly collaborators than distant authority figures. My social workers pull us aside to talk about what programs we want and help us amplify our voices on how gender, sexuality, and relationships intersect with autism spectrum disorder. They listen when we express that social skills classes aren’t working for us. The leader and counselor of a socialization group brainstorm with us and take our complaints about workshop facilitators and use it to start a constructive conversation on finding those who could best work with us. These professionals are part of the solution because they appreciate our perspectives and are not just willing but also excited and proactive to update the programs which are meant for us.
“At the core of every social skills class, there is by definition one jarring principle: that as an autistic person, your natural reactions to social situations are unacceptable, and that you have to be changed to fit into society,” says Maggie. While this message helped her learn strategies to avoid being “bullied for rocking back and forth or for ‘strange’ social interactions”, it was also an excuse to teach straight femininity. “It wasn’t until I met my wife that I really understood and accepted the fact that I was queer,” she tells me. “My love for her is more real than any other feeling that I have ever experienced. That’s when it clicked for me — the moment when I realized that I was in love with her.”
Today, Maggie’s works her dream job as a professional engineer in power generation and volunteers with senior citizens and she’s happy with and accepting of herself. Her struggles make her hopeful that social skills programs in the future will be different. Opening the dialogue about what social values we teach to people with autism spectrum disorders isn’t just about helping queer and gender nonconforming people on the spectrum. It’s also about teaching nuances of sexuality and breaking down stereotypes among straight autistics and creating space for neurodiverse people in the often neurotypical-centric queer community. It’s about challenging the expectations that the only healthy relationships are heterosexual and the only healthy people are gender-conforming — within and outside of the autism community.
“When it comes to teaching autistic children that you have to conform to gender roles or a sexual orientation to be accepted, whether that message is blunt or subtle, that is not okay,” emphasizes Maggie. “Autistic people have to change enough to fit into society as it is. The least that society could do for us is to accept our gender presentation and our sexual orientation.”
feature image via shutterstock.com