“You don’t come across as autistic; is it just mild autism?”
I’m paraphrasing a little but this is a sentiment that I’ve heard several times recently. I found out not too long ago that I’m autistic but had managed to fly under the autism radar for 32 years, bamboozling my teachers and doctors without ever having stirred up more than a casual comment about me being a “complicated” child.
Since I was finally identified as being on the autism spectrum last year, I’ve learnt a lot. Most importantly, I realised just how staggeringly little I actually knew about autism. What little knowledge I had was gleaned from film character portrayals like that of Rain Man, but I was quietly confident that this wasn’t an accurate representation of who I was and that counting cards in Vegas would be a significant waste of my time and money.
Having quickly exhausted the educational power of Dustin Hoffman, I realised that I would have to look elsewhere. I was surprised by the wealth of information shared by other autistic individuals on social media. It’s one thing to read a book written by a doctor which, while informative, is still quite clinical and cold; it’s quite another to read the shared experiences of an entire community across the world who are all linked by their neurodiversity.
It made me realise just how little I really understood about who I was. I found complete strangers writing so eloquently about things that I clearly recognised in my own life but until this point never realised were there: a mental and physical exhaustion from masking my autistic traits to fit into neurotypical society; sensory processing issues including a hypersensitivity to light which has resulted in regular migraines throughout my life; and a history of shutting down when the cumulative stress and sensory overload of my environment have been too much for me to process.
These revelations brought a wave of both sorrow and relief: sorrow for the years I lived desperately trying to exist in a world I didn’t understand, and relief for knowing that there was a reason I felt this way. Like I‘d been looking at the world through frosted glass, recognising the movements and sounds but always wondering what things were happening beneath that blurred surface. And now I found that the world had become crystal clear.
This feeling wasn’t alien to me though; in fact it was quite familiar. Less than a year before I came out to both myself and publicly as being bisexual.
For 17 years I’d refused to acknowledge the existence of a part of myself that I just didn’t understand. One of my first crushes was on a boy in my secondary school but I just suppressed those feelings and pretended they didn’t exist. Every time I saw a character on TV or film accept and celebrate their sexuality it would reduce me to tears, but I wasn’t able to break that barrier in myself until I was the wrong side of 30.
So when I felt these same emotions flood my mind again a year later I recognised that I was once again feeling the mask drop away and discovering my true identity for the first time – now not only as a bisexual man, but as a bisexual autistic man. Feeling years of denial and lack of self-awareness slip away felt like I’d suddenly opened myself up to a whole new capacity for love and happiness.
But discovering I was bisexual and autistic was not all acceptance and celebration. For one thing I am a bisexual man in a heterosexual relationship. There are some people who will decide that I’m “not gay enough” to be accepted in queer spaces, while there will be people who decide that I’m “too gay” to share their straight spaces. There’s also the idea that I’m just passing the time in a heterosexual relationship while
I dip my toe into the gay water, building up the courage to dive in balls deep.
Just as my relationship status doesn’t mean that I’m only a “little bit bisexual” the fact that I’ve spent my whole life unconsciously hiding my autistic traits doesn’t mean that I’m only mildly autistic.
It’s not like Salt Bae rocked up to the maternity ward and sprinkled a dash of autism into my crib.
It’s just that I’ve been able to pass my autistic traits off as relatively “normal” in society, albeit with varying success and a great deal of stress and anxiety on my part.
These problems are exacerbated by a lack of representation. Some recent studies have indicated that people on the autism spectrum may be two to three times more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than the neurotypical population. So why is it that when our screens are finally graced with the presence of an autistic character their sexuality is almost a complete blind spot? Not even their sexual identity, but even just the idea that they are complex human beings who will have sexual desires and a sex drive they may wish to act upon.
There are some in the entertainment industry who hold such little regard for an autistic individuals’ capacity for thought, love, and emotion that they don’t even register them as human beings. While promoting a film recently an interviewer spoke about a non-verbal autistic character, saying she “might as well be an inanimate object like a wig”.
We all understand the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream culture. As you grow from childhood through into your adult life you gain an understanding of who you are as a person; being able to see representation of who you are on TV and film allows you a level of support and confidence in how you fit into society. Without this you would feel lost and cast adrift. And
for people on the autism spectrum we need this representation not only to understand our place in society, but to understand who we are in ourselves.
We learn these social nuances from our environment, with varying degrees of success between each individual, which means that a severe lack of representation will have a dramatic effect on our lives. It’s like we’ve been given a compass to navigate through life but it only ever points “Due Hetero”. How can we ever experience life living as our true self if we have no opportunity to learn how?
That is a complete sentence in and of itself, but when it comes to autistic representation, it’s not only extremely important for the autistic individual but also the neurotypical population as a whole. The most prominent example of autism for most people is still that character from Rain Man, an autistic savant character from a movie that came out the same year I was born.
The more representation that we see for people across the autism spectrum, including their sexual identity, the more people will realise how diverse the autistic population actually is. I look forward to the day that autistic individuals are free to express themselves wholly and truly without the weight of their own and other’s expectations for what autism is “supposed to look like”. I look forward to the day when autistic individuals can experience the same joy and relief that I have felt in understanding and celebrating my identity as both autistic and queer.
If you’d like to find out more about autism, you can find information at the National Autistic Society website
Written by Chris Morris