“…Neuroqueering is a rejection of able-hetero assimilation..”
– Neuroqueer Disidentification, Justine Egner
To me, neuroqueer does not have a fixed definition. It’s not what you are, but what you do. It is how who you are expresses itself (or doesn’t) in your everyday life; it is a verb, rather than a noun or adjective. As Neurocosmopolitanism magazine puts it, you’re neuroqueer if you neuroqueer. It’s the intersection between neurodivergence and queerness, and involves how the two experiences influence one another to be expressed as a psycho-social disability.
It’s vital to pinpoint and understand the fusion of these concepts, because they both involve a rejection of binaries and resistance to what is accepted as the norm. The most obvious way that one influences the other is the impact of being queer in a socio-politically oppressive state. Obviously, one’s location in social hierarchies influences their mental health. Most queer persons (with differences in socio-political privileges taken into account) live through structural and systemic suppression at every stage of their lives – having to hide one’s reality, being under threat of violence for one’s identity, being non-normative in a normative world, on a prolonged basis, can result in complex trauma.
Study after study has shown that instances of anxiety and depression are higher in LGBTQ+ persons than in cisgender and heterosexual people. In addition, queerness sparks neurodivergence, often leading to double the misery for this demographic in a cishet-normative, neuroconvergent world.
This is because being neurodivergent shapes one’s ideas of what is socially acceptable, and by extension, one’s expression of queerness. In a study that looked at links between neurodevelopment and gender variance, researchers found that the experimental group which consisted of persons with autism was almost 8 times more likely to report gender variance than the broader control group. Researchers theorized that persons along the autism spectrum were less aware of societal expectations and norms of conformity, also contributing to lower rates of anxiety among them. Furthermore, the group of respondents with ADHD was almost 7 times more likely to report gender variance.
Similarly, a 2017 study found that 75% of the respondents who reported experiencing dysphoria had ADHD, and that people with autism were 3 times more likely to not identify with traditional categories of sexual orientation.
Interestingly, Nobili et al. also found that scores of autism were higher in transgender respondents assigned female at birth, theorizing that the difference may be caused by an additional layer of social difficulties and conditioning faced by the sub-group.
Regardless, it is not a stretch to conclude that systemic trauma is a contributing factor to poor mental wellbeing.
Moreover, personally, neurodivergence has shaped the way in which I see oppressive systems like the gender binary and heteronormativity. It makes me “different” and less likely to “fit in” with social groups, and therefore more likely to question group norms. It isn’t possible for me to perform functionality in the ways that are expected under capitalism — my attention span does not allow me to hold traditional 9-to-5 jobs, nor does it let me work in a field that cannot hold my complete interest. It appears to be a Herculean task to pay attention in class for more than ten minutes, on top of bearing being misgendered by teachers. Given these hurdles, the likelihood of my scoring straight As and landing a high-paying job is extremely slim to begin with. In addition, being trans makes me an unviable candidate in most capitalistic workplaces, as my identity is immediately sexualized and seen as unreliable.
Contrarily, my private interactions with my identity bring me the experience of liberation. Spending time around other neuroqueer persons or groups helps me feel a sense of community and belonging — perhaps because these are seemingly the only spaces devoid of norms, where nothing and nobody is perceived as “odd”.
It’s important to note that while correlations have been established between the two factors, there is little to no evidence of causation as of yet. Theories abound on whether neurodivergence makes one more likely to report gender variance or if structural trauma contributes to mental illness. However, it cannot be said that all/most queer persons are autistic or mentally ill, as such generalizations would be crude and harsh.
To me, what’s most important are the ways in which queerness and neurodivergence can be similar in spirit: how both groups are often treated as outcasts of society, are forced to engage in “masking” to assimilate, and struggle due to their defiance of the conventional. Both identity markers must be seen through an intersectional lens, while developing a singular experience of liberation, rather than as cause-and-effect in various social contexts.