Autism, Sex, and Gender

Over the last couple of days, I watched all of the available recordings from a conference titled “Intimate Lives? Autism, Sex/uality, Gender and Identity.” It was organized by four doctoral students–Marianthi Kourti, David Jackson-Perry, Kirsty Allenby, and Daniel Bendelman–and funded by the British Sociological Association. It took place on May 18 at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Overall I thought the presentations were excellent, and while I’m not going to write up a play-by-play of each one, I wanted to share some of the content that particularly resonated with me.

Preliminary note: I have tried to use the proper preferred pronouns for each speaker, but if I have gotten any of them wrong, I sincerely apologize. Please let me know so I can update the post. In addition, if I have mischaracterized anyone’s statements or opinions, please let me know as well. I have done my best to accurate represent what was said, but misunderstandings happen, and I don’t want to attribute anything to anyone that they didn’t mean.

In “Walking through Treacle: The lived experiences of autistic students in FE and HE,” Deborah Philip talked about research she has been doing into the experiences of autistic students. This wasn’t specifically focused on gender and sexuality, but it was very interesting to hear how her research has changed directions because of her interactions with autistic people. She had initially been interviewing autistic people, parents, teachers, and other professionals, but then she noticed that the autistic students themselves were telling her quite different stories than their parents and teachers were. So she changed her plans and began using only input from autistic people themselves, and focusing on the issues that came up as being important to them.

Deborah brought up the idea of “learned helplessness” to suggest a reason why the students often pretended to agree with what their parents were saying, but then told her otherwise afterwards. (Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual is repeatedly subjected to painful conditions that they cannot escape. Later, when escape is possible, it is still not attempted because the individual has previously learned that they are helpless, so they don’t even try.) I thought this was a particularly poignant way of describing the experiences of people who are constantly talked over, their own experiences and viewpoints subordinated to other people’s.

One more thing I want to say about this presentation was what Deborah said about person-first language. (If you regularly read this blog, you’ll already know that I’m not a fan.) She said that while professionals tend to insist on person-first language, the autistic people she worked with preferred identity-first language. At one point she also invoked the phrase “living with autism” by saying, “I guess a society that wants to ‘live with’ something, would like to live without it.” I thought that was very powerful as well.

In the second panel, Lexi Orchard presented “Winning at Sexuality: A personal reflection of passing in a hypersexualised world.” They started with an overview of some of the ways in which autistic people attempt to pass as non-autistic, including suppressing our natural behavior, impersonating more typical behavior, and scripting. They also had their own term for another technique, which I found incredibly relatable: they called it “precog.” This involves attempting to foresee all of the possible directions a social encounter might go, following all of the potential branches and preparing scripted routines for each of them. This was so familiar to me, and I love the term “precog” (short for precognition, I presume) to describe it. I actually think this strategy really needs to be talked about more, because it is one of the things that makes social interaction so draining and exhausting for me.

Lexi also talked about how masking, scripting, and other techniques are done out of self-defense. They are survival skills that (hopefully) allow us to avoid painful encounters and also get access to social resources. But there are heavy consequences to passing, too: it takes a physical toll, and eventually makes it hard to even know yourself or your own preferences. At one point, Lexi said, “If somebody says, ‘What do you want?’, my brain suddenly goes into this passing mode where I attempt to figure out what you want me to want.” This, too, was painfully familiar.

As part of panel three, Jake Pyne presented “Narrating Autistic and Transgender: Implications for the Gender Clinic.” He talked about the ways in which autism and transgender identity are assumed to be non-overlapping, and the many barriers autistic people face if they want to transition. Jake also brought up the entwined history of applied behavior analysis (ABA) and so-called conversion therapy, which is aimed at gay, bi, and transgender people to “fix” them; Ole Ivar Lovaas and George Rekers worked together as they created these parallel behavior conditioning programs—one to eradicate autistic behavior, and one to eradicate gender-nonconformity. But while conversion therapy is starting to be banned in more and more areas, ABA is still considered best practice for autistic kids.

Olivia Astrid Pountney also talked about the barriers to transitioning that many autistic people face, in “Transitioning in a neurotypical world: A critical autistic analysis on gender identity services.” She talked about the typical narrative expected by gender clinics, and how it doesn’t always fit the trans autistic experience. For example, she talked about the ways in which people are expected to perform stereotypical gender roles in order to be accepted as being “really” their gender, but for autistic people those social norms are often nonsensical. They can also clash with sensory needs, which leads to the dilemma, for her, of choosing between wearing sensory-friendly clothing that isn’t stylish, or wearing more stylish clothing that conforms to gender expectations in order to be accepted as a woman (while being uncomfortable). She pointed out that there is no universal experience of being trans, autistic, or both, and emphasized the need to depathologize both trans and neurodivergent identities.

In “Spanking my sensory needs? An understanding of myself as a human, a sexual being and an Autistic,” Jennifer Layton talked about the ways in which BDSM practices allowed her to inadvertently meet her sensory needs before she learned she was autistic. After a late diagnosis, she was given various recommendations for her sensory diet, and she came to realize that they were things she had always enjoyed through BDSM. For example, she was given the recommendation to wear tight clothing and/or wear a weighted backpack for a feeling of pressure…which is precisely the experience of being tightly bound in rope and/or rubber. Similarly, a recommendation that she swing back and forth was mirrored by her enjoyment of suspension play. Because kink is so misunderstood and pathologized, she had felt ashamed of her enjoyment of it, but she is starting to overcome that, in part through this recognition that it has allowed her to meet her autistic sensory needs before she consciously knew she had them.

The last presentation I’ll talk about is Sonny Hallett’s “To Hug or not to Hug: physical affection at the intersection of autism, culture and gender.” There were several fascinating aspects to their talk, including the experience they shared of growing up partly in the UK and partly in China with their grandparents. The two cultures have very different expectations about physical contact (and eye contact), especially between strangers, and Sonny found their autistic traits more normalized in China. They found the social environment harder to navigate when they returned to the UK, including knowing when physical contact would be welcome.

The main dilemma that Sonny conveyed was that, while they felt starved for physical affection, it was also often uncomfortable, and they didn’t know how to seek it out when they wanted it. On top of that, they mentioned how Westerners tend to sexualize everything, starting at an early age. Casual touching, or giving someone a hug, is quickly seen as a sexual overture, so knowing how people will interpret things becomes important. For an autistic person who has trouble reading social cues, this becomes even more difficult, and Sonny said they eventually ended up taking a passive approach to physical affection. But simply allowing physical contact whenever it comes your way can quickly become dangerous, because you don’t learn how to set boundaries. They described what they called “anxiety confusion thought-cycle paralysis,” which is when you’re trying to read a situation that is getting uncomfortable, going around in circles about what’s going on, and then ending up deciding that you’re overthinking it and not saying anything. This, too, felt very familiar to me.

All in all, this was a great conference, and I don’t want to give the impression that the sessions I didn’t write about weren’t interesting—all of them were, and together they offered a wide variety of research, observations, and personal experiences that centered autistic experiences of gender and sexuality in a way that was very encouraging. I hope to see more events do the same.


Crunch Week, With Ducks

This last week felt like a marathon run at a sprinter’s pace. My work schedule became something of a crunch just as I was finishing up the last week of my school semester. But finish it I did, and all of my work, too; there just wasn’t much time for anything else.

I did go to Pride last weekend, which was my first time. And it was fun, but very…overwhelming. I felt like I was constantly immersed in waves of people, and the sound system for the staged events was ridiculously loud (and I was wearing earplugs). If I wanted to be close enough to be able to see the stage, I had to put up with a volume level that threatened to give me a headache. I don’t understand how anyone could stand it, to be honest—especially the people who were even closer. I’m still happy that I went, but it was hard to enjoy it as much as I wanted to.

So I started my week feeling already a bit fried. Then I had a number of “extras” sprinkled throughout my schedule for the week—one-off events, or monthly appointments—that filled in a lot of the time and also made me feel continually pulled from one thing to the next. That also tends to leave me feeling fried. So here I am at the end of the week, trying to remember what it is I wanted to write about, and deciding I’ll just write about feeling fried.

This weekend is a busy one, too, and Monday is looking like a bear, but at least after that my schedule “should” be easing up now that my classes are done. But there are so many things that I’ve been wanting to get back to, or wanting to make time for, and I keep saying, “Ok, over the summer I’ll…” I want to make sure I don’t let those things slide, but I also need to give myself time to decompress from this latest crunch time.

Luckily, our beautiful land is full of spring wildlife, and the pond in particular has been a source of relaxing visuals and lovely sounds. (Although around dusk, those sounds can really ramp up. If you haven’t heard it, you’d be amazed at how ear-splitting a pond full of frogs can be.) I can’t help but take moments throughout the day to pause and look out at all of it.

So, here: have some ducks. In the past couple of years, we’ve had wood ducks bringing up ducklings in our pond, but this year it’s the mallards who have been around the most. Hoping for ducklings either way, though!

Pair of mallard ducks standing at the edge of a pond

Academic Aspirations

So I’ve decided to take the leap. I’m going to start making preparations…to apply…to eventually enter graduate school. It’s a slow-motion leap, since the application deadline is all the way in January of next year, and I’ve got several things to do to get ready. But I’m hoping that after one more year taking undergraduate classes, as well as taking the GRE and preparing a solid application, I’ll be a good candidate for the program I’m looking at.

And that program? It’s a doctoral program in sociology. Gulp. I had initially discounted the idea of aiming for a PhD, feeling that it was too long a road to start down in my forties, and unsure how I would be able to pay for such a thing. But this department offers assistantships and tuition credits, so not only could I have my studies paid for, I could essentially have paid work in the department while I study. Sounds like heaven to me.

So, yeah. Sociology. I’ve been realizing that I am strongly drawn to social science research and writing, and I would love to explore sociological theory as it applies to the autistic experience, as well as areas related to disability, gender, and stigma. And this particular sociology department sounds like a very socially-conscious one that seeks to use its research to influence public policy in various areas, and that sounds like a great combination to me.

But it’s going to take some work to get there. I’m hoping to take the GRE this summer, which will take some preparation; I’ve always been pretty good at test-taking, but a lot of the relevant knowledge has atrophied since my original college years. And I want to put together a really great writing sample that showcases my interests and writing ability; I actually have an idea for a project that grew out of some planned blog posts that kept growing in scope until they really deserve to be a longer piece.

And that brings me to my current academic advisor, who is awesome. I had a meeting with him last week to register for next semester’s classes and discuss my eventual goals. He’s always been very encouraging of my plans, and after actually having me as a student in two of his classes this semester he has become even more enthusiastic about my plans for grad school. So when I told him about my plan to produce this research project as my writing sample, he offered his advice and support in refining it, and proposed that I work on this project in place of some of the future assignments for one of his classes.

So I am off and running on putting that together. And I’m very excited to be moving forward with a plan. I’m still very nervous about several things, of course. What if I don’t get into the program? Or what if I do, and it all ends up being too much to handle? But I’m remembering how much I really love academics when I’m studying something I’m passionate about, and I am very passionate about this.

And autistic passion can make things happen.

Doesn’t Feel Like Spring Yet, But…

My spring semester starts on Thursday of this week. I’m taking two in-person classes this time; I didn’t really like the experience I had with an online class last semester, and I found two I wanted that meet back-to-back on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’m really looking forward to both of them, for different reasons.

The first one is Introduction to Human Services. I’ll admit this initially sounded a bit bland to me, but it’s the prerequisite for most of the other degree-specific classes I’ll need, so I wanted to take it soon. And I figured that at the very least it would give me a wider overview of the field I’m potentially looking to move into. But after I met with the professor and saw the syllabus, I started to get really excited about it. He’s got some very interesting projects incorporated into the coursework, and I think I’ll really learn a lot.

The second class is Social Psychology. After falling in love with sociology last semester, I was psyched (hah) to see this on the schedule, because it feels like a logical complement to that. (Does it make sense to say something “feels logical”? Makes sense to me, but it just occurred to me that it’s an odd formation. But anyway.) According to my preliminary understanding of how they relate, sociology focuses on the large-scale social structures that exist outside of the individual, while social psychology looks at how the individual navigates that social world. Both are particularly interesting to me as an autistic person, because the social world has never made intuitive sense to me, but studying it analytically has helped me understand it better.

I also think that being autistic is actually an advantage in this area of study, because I think I take less for granted as “just the way things are.” The “way things are” often strikes me as utterly bizarre and nonsensical, and therefore I treat it as something that needs to be analyzed and explained, rather than taking it for granted. I think most people navigate social norms like the proverbial fish in water—it’s a comfortable, familiar environment, but also entirely invisible. In that case, it can take some work to learn to see the details of that environment, much less question why they are the way they are. But I feel like I’ve been questioning aspects of social interaction all my life, which is why the systematic study of social life has really appealed to me.

That’s got me seriously wondering which direction I want to be moving in. I went back to school with the idea of eventually getting a Master of Social Work degree, with the aim of working with other autistic adults in a professional capacity. There is such a disconnect between the lived experience of autism and the attitudes and beliefs about it held by most clinical professionals, and I am interested in helping to bridge some of that disconnect. But there is also a disconnect between the autistic experience and the attitudes and beliefs of autism researchers, and that is also a possible direction for me. My previous scientific training would assist me in that realm, too.

But, for now, I am continuing onward with these two classes. I think they will combine well as a way to continue to test the waters to learn what I might like to do; one will give me an expanded sense of the options available in the human services/social work field, and the other will continue my education in the social sciences to see if my education should bend in that direction instead. To be honest, I kind of expect I’ll end up with some hybrid approach; I never have been able to decide “what I want to be when I grow up,” mostly because I have never wanted to be just one thing. I’ve gotten to be comfortable with that, though, so for now I’m willing to just keep studying and see what happens.

Three Things On My Mind

I started three separate topics for a blog post this week, thinking I could use one or all of them, but frankly none of them is really coming together. For each one, I started to expand upon my observations and draw conclusions…but then things just fizzled and I couldn’t find the point. So here’s just a glimpse into some of the things swirling in my brain at the moment:

1. I’m done with my school semester! I’m very proud of the work that I did in both of my classes, and I’m looking forward to my spring courses, but I also need a break. Luckily, I have a little over a month off — which of course I have already started filling with work on personal projects. I tend to be reluctant to talk about things still in the works, but those are proving very exciting to me, and I’m looking forward to having some time to dive into them.

2. Gift shopping sucks. I spend so much time trying to find something the other person would like, when their interests and tastes are so much different from mine (and screw you, Theory of Mind theorists who say autistic people can’t understand this) that it stresses me out that I might get it wrong. In fact, I get jarring flashbacks to times I was criticized (sometimes quite harshly) for not spending enough, or not choosing the right thing, or some other gift-giving failure. I recognize that this was entirely not ok, but that doesn’t make it easy to shake off. So gift shopping sucks…but at least it’s done for this year.

3. I’ve made some new friends this year, and reconnected with an old friend I hadn’t spoken with in a long time — but I’m wary. So many times I have thought I found a friend who really “got” me, when in reality, I got them. At first that can feel like the same thing, but in the end it’s not. Ultimately, it takes some time to let things build and figure out whether there is some mutual understanding building, or if it’s more uneven. But that’s what makes me wary.

So yeah, just a few things pulling my thoughts about (and of course there are more, in all sorts of directions). But overall I am heading into my long weekend feeling ready for a rest — which for me includes lots of reading, writing, programming, and crafting, now that I have a little “down time.” Hah!

Putting In The Effort

I’ve written before about how much I’ve been enjoying my sociology class, and that enjoyment has continued as the semester has progressed. There are only three weeks left of classes, and while I’m looking forward to having a break, I’m going to miss this one. The readings were well chosen, and we’ve had some great discussions about them.

I haven’t liked my psychology class as much, but I attribute that primarily to the structure of it as an online class, and to frustrations with the textbook. It’s also a little too basic, given my earlier familiarity with a lot of the material; a psych class in high school got me hooked on learning about how humans work, and it’s been a fascination for me ever since.

That’s mostly because explicitly learning about this stuff has really helped explain so many things that didn’t make sense to me intuitively. I feel like I’ve always been something of a social scientist, making observations, forming hypotheses, and testing out different approaches. Other autistic people have expressed similar feelings; perhaps the most famous is Temple Grandin’s description of herself as being “an anthropologist on Mars,” trying to figure people out. Many of us analyze our every interaction, looking to crack the code.

The thing that strikes me most about that right now is how much effort we put into this whole human interaction thing. And it really is a ton of effort: the amount of processing that goes into even casual social interactions can be exhausting, and the mental strain that results is often a big factor in autistic burnout. Plus the time it takes to get things “right” can easily lead to social anxiety, as the cumulative weight of failed interactions starts to add up.

So why is there still a pervasive stereotype that says autistic people are not interested in social interaction? Certainly, some of us aren’t; we’re a varied bunch, after all. But as a generalization, it falls far short of the reality, and I think the sheer volume of effort we put into every interaction gives an indication of how short it falls. And given that some new research shows that neurotypical people are less interested in interacting with autistic people based on superficial first impressions and social judgments, it’s past time we stopped placing all the blame for social difficulties on the autistic side of the interaction. We are putting in the effort. I think we should get some credit for that.

Still Flowing

Well, it’s going to be another short-post week this week. I said last weekend that I expected this week to feel long, even though the workweek was short, but it actually flew by, and the weekend was no exception. I got almost everything done that I wanted to do, but now that it’s Sunday evening I don’t have a whole lot of brain space left for thinking up a blog post.

I’m actually really looking forward to Thanksgiving week, because my husband and I stay home, and it’s a nice long weekend to catch up on things. Things usually get hectic again after that, and now I’ve got end-of-semester stuff to look forward to, on top of holiday preparations, so…yay?

But for now, things are still flowing. Onward!

Water swirling down a waterfall and past bare rocks in late-afternoon autumn light.