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.