As an autistic person, telling someone you’re autistic comes with a set of challenges. Mainly, what do they know about autism and what are they going to think of you? Will they say “I am sorry” on hearing you’re autistic, like you just told them you have cancer?
Autism originated as a medical diagnosis in the 1940s based on the work of child psychiatrist Leo Kanner. Kanner theorised autism based on children who had come to his clinic showing what their parents thought was abnormal behaviour. Most of these children were young white boys, the demographic subsequent autism researchers focused on and as a result for an average person, autism means a young white boy, who also might be a savant—an image further solidified by countless portrayals of autism in the media based on a very narrow understanding of what autism is.
Autism is pathologized, considered a disorder that must be cured, because we live in a neuronormative culture. If heteronormativity is the idea that being straight is the default and straight people are systemically privileged over everyone who diverges from the straightness, neuronormativity is the idea that there is only one right way of thinking, being, and everyone who diverges from the norm is abnormal, they must be pathologized and fixed. Neuronormativity privileges those who can conform to its ideals—neurotypicals—over those who can’t—Neurodivergents.
Autistic people can’t make eye contact. Abnormal. We must be fixed. We might not like physical touch. Abnormal. We must be sick. We like to stim through repetitive physical movements.
Abnormal. Something is wrong with us. None of these things that autistic people are pathologized for are bad on their own. They are considered abnormal only because the neuronormative culture creates arbitrary norms that we all must adhere to. Autism is not a disorder, it is a disability—as neuronormative culture actively disables us to function in society:autistic people have a higher rate of unemployment because everything from job interviews that require eye contact, smiling, verbal communication to workplaces that are sensory rich—too many people, too many lights, too loud—make it hard for us to hold down a job.
Heteronormative and neuronormative norms are so violently enforced because the dominant heteronormative and neuronormative culture knows its norms are arbitrary, artificial, and they can appear to be natural only when they are violently enforced. There does exist a treatment for autism. It’s called Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy. It is essentially conversion therapy.
Autistic children are mentally and physically abused to make them comply with the neuronormative norms.. If we find eye contact painful, ABA is designed to teach us to make eye contact through the pain. Ivar Lovaas, who created ABA, later also created gay conversion therapy and both function on the same principle—compliance through violence.
At the same time, heteronormative gender norms and neuronormative norms don’t exist separately from each other. Nick Walker argues in her book Neuroqueer Hearsies that the performance of heteronormative gender roles is intrinsically linked to performance of neuronormativity. Both of these are based on policing people’s bodies, categorising them in simplistic labels based on arbitrary norms, and creating an idealised version of normal personhood that everyone must conform to.
Imagine a 10 year old boy. He is autistic and he stims by flapping his hands. His parents will not like that. He will be punished because flapping hands is not normal, especially as he is a boy and if a boy does it he must be gay and girly. For that boy to behave like a normal boy, he must behave in a way that conforms to both heteronormativity and neuronormativity. His hands must be in its proper place—so that doesn’t come across as girly or neurodivergent. Our hair is also gendered. If you’re perceived to be a woman, you’re expected to have long hair. But many autistic people might not like long hair because the sensory experience of hair on our skin can be too much, it can be unbearable.
In this way for all autistic people, our experience of gender is linked with our experience of being autistic. Even those of us who identify as cis-gender, the autistic experience of being cis-gender is different from the experince of a non-autistic, cis-gender person. You have to be cis-gender in a very specific way, neurotypical way. And that means you have to mask—hide your true self, pretend to be someone you’re not to be able to better fit in. But most of us don’t fit in.
A 2014 study explored the rates of gender variance in children as reported by parents. Using a population sample obtained from Washington DC, USA, the study found that autistic children were 8 times more likely to show gender divergence than non-autistic children. Another study published in 2018 based on an international online sample, found that up to 70% autistic people identified as non-heterosexual. While in the same year, a study in Netherlands investigating the relationship between autism and gender concluded that autistic people were up to 3 times more likely to identify as trans-gender and non-binary.
There are arguments on why we show such a high rate of gender divergence. Are we more likely to publicly come out as queer because being autistic marks us as outsider and thus we might find it easier to identify with our queer identity? identifying as queer is not easy in a heteronormative society no matter your other identities. It can be relatively easier with certain privileged identities like caste and class but there is always a threat of violence hanging over with your queer identity. Being autistic and queer comes with an added possibility of violence where you will be policed for both your identities.
I would argue autistic people are more likely to be queer because of how one’s gender identity is formed. Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble that gender is constructed through repetitive performance of culturally determined norms. What it means is that there are culturally prescribed gendered ways of behaving, talking, and acting—women are supposed to have long hair, men are supposed to be aggressive, women can’t be loud, men can’t wear makeup: the endless list of norms and prescriptions we are supposed to follow based on what’s between our legs. If you keep repeating them, these gender norms are internalised, and may feel natural.
If gender identity is formed through these culturally determined norms, and if the autistic thing is, we apparently suck at social norms and conventions—we can be oblivious to them—then it makes sense that we are less receptive to binary heteronormative gender norms, we are less likely to internalised the socially determined ideas regarding gender. We are more likely to be queer.
For the longest time, I was ambivalent about my gender. As an assigned-male-at-birth person, I am of an age where I am supposed to be a man. But I have always felt a disconnect with the idea of manhood. Whatever being a man entails, it is based on a neurotypical man. It requires performing all the made up intricacies of binary heteronormative gender roles that I can’t because I am autistic. I don’t want to be the man of the house, I don’t want to socialise during family gatherings, I don’t want to greet any guests, I just want to be left alone doing my own thing. But when you’re perceived to be a man, you are supposed to perform all these things that a man is supposed to do. And it creates a distance between what you’re supposed to be and what you are.
Cis-gender, non-binary, trans-gender, none of these labels completely expressed how I feel about my gender until I came across this label: autigender. Autigender is when your experience of gender and its perception is shaped by your autism. You can be autigender, or you can be autigender boy, or autigender girl, or autigender enby, or anything else that best articulates your experience of gender.
Autigender boy is what I am. And here is the thing: for many autistic people boy/girl and man/woman are two distinct gender categories. I am a boy, but not a man. I will argue we experience these categories differently because as we grow older, the pressure to fit into the heteronormative binary gender roles keeps increasing. Being a boy or girl is easier than being a man or woman. A boy flapping his hands in public is still more acceptable than a grown man doing it. A girl having short hair is more normal than a woman having long hair.
And to be clear, I am not saying those of us who identify as autigender boys or girls are still children. Autistic people have been infantilised for far too long. What it means is our sense of internal gender that we developed in younger days is what feels closest to us. We are not trans-gender or cis-gender, we experience our gender in a way that is unique to us shaped by our autism.
How do you figure out if you’re autigender? bell hooks defines queer as “being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” I think this also applies to those of us who are autistic. We have been marginalized and silenced, our stories told by others—our parents, psychiatrists, autism researchers. It’s only in the past few decades with the advent of the internet that autistic people have been able to tell our stories, especially regarding our gender and sexuality. Autigender as a gender identity was theorized on the internet, it had to be theorized on the internet.
We are inventing it, defining it, and shaping it in real time with each new story, each new experience. Earlier, I explained autigender as when your perception of your gender is shaped by your autism. But what exactly that means is up to you. You are autigender, if you think you are autigender. Autigender as a place. If you think no other labels doesn’t feel you, come here and make this your home. You can redefine it to mean whatever you want it to be, you can create new narratives of autism and gender. These narratives are important. These narratives are revolutionary. If most of us are queer, then our stories, our knowledge provides new ways of understanding, and challenging the dominant neuro-heteronormative culture that has marginalized us. Being autistic and queer, we are odds with the world—the world is not made for us. We can create a new world. We should create a new world.