Double Exposure: Occupying Autism and Transness Simultaneously
So…lately there’s been a bit of discussion around the Interwebs that there’s significant overlap between being autistic and being transgender. Recently a friend of mine — Sparrow Jones, who blogs over at Unstrange Mind — talked about this in a guest post here. I briefly mentioned it in The Conversant interview with Cassie Mira Nicholson, my new intentional sibling. And while researchers seem to be interested in delving into the larger questions about why the correlation could possibly exist, people who are both autistic and transgender are navigating realities endemic to both of these aspects of their life. This post by blogger Alyssa Gonzalez, “Being Trans and Autistic Is Weird and Common,” also talks about this too, and it’s what inspired me to write this post of my own.
Those of you who’ve known me since I first began blogging as Nicole will remember that I began talking about being Autistic back in 2010. At the time, I had self-diagnosed as Aspergian and embraced the “Aspie” label. It’s what I had at the time, and how I understood my neurotype. This, of course, came with some positives and negatives. On the good side, I immediately tried to embrace being Autistic, deciding that it simply meant “different” as opposed to “broken.” Yet at the same time, internalised ableism, ignorance, and serious self-esteem issues began to push me towards a denial of the fact that I am disabled.
When the DSM V diagnostic changes came along a few years ago, I was a bit on the fence. I was partially worried that the disappearance of the term “Asperger” would mean that people like me would be missed all over again by diagnostic criteria, and that we’d be left behind when it came to getting critical services and our needs fulfilled. After all, I hadn’t been diagnosed until age 34. As a young person of colour assigned female at birth and growing up in a dysfunctional family, I had been completely overlooked by all the autism hoo-hah back in the 90s that chiefly focused on young white males. And perhaps I should be thankful, in a way. By age 13, I’d already been institutionalised once. Had the “autism label” been slapped on me as a teenager, it’s very likely I would have been committed on a more long-term basis — or even worse, I would not be alive now. Consider the frequent murders of young autistic people by family and caregivers, and you understand why I say this.
However, my evolution of thought and understanding towards embracing my disability began with this post on Shaping Clay. My friend who blogs here, Michael Scott Monje, Jr., discusses why the Autistic identity is critical while she reflects on the perceptions of the “Aspie” label versus Autistic. While I’m not here to police identity, I have also observed that some use of the term “Aspie” is linked to an idea of supremacy — of not being like “those” Autistics who are nonspeaking, who require assistance to carry out tasks of daily life, and so forth. Functioning labels only add to the fuckery at hand, and there’s also some ideological underpinnings of the term that inevitably lead to a divide between Autistics who do the “expected things” of self-care and adulting — holding down a job, paying bills, feeding oneself, and handling one’s transportation, to name a few — and parents who say: “You’re not like my child, and they will never be like you.” Significant is the existence of the blog We Are Like Your Child, whose posts regularly discuss and refute that notion. And once I began to understand these things, I stopped calling myself an “Aspie” and began to refer to myself as Autistic.
I’ve also undergone a mental transformation in terms of understanding my own gender. For years, I’d been haunted by the notion that I wasn’t really a girl. Christened Nicole Nicholson upon birth, I tried my best to embrace it. However, I remember a moment at age two when I looked in a full-length mirror in our first apartment in Milwaukee. I tried to bring this moment to life in one of the poems in my MFA thesis, Time Travel in a Closet:
“I first saw a boy in the mirror
when I was two.
My brain tickled:
stare into the glass,
look behind your face.
Then I wondered
where my penis was.
I tucked the boy I saw into a back
pocket heart, did
not let him see daylight;
he slept until I was thirty-eight.”
Believe me, I didn’t hate being in dresses. I didn’t despise dolls, or traditionally feminine colours, or things that were perceived as “girly” interests. Truth is, gender is way more complex than that, and cannot be limited to a simple male/female binary. Although I’m male, and I realised this nearly a year and a half ago, that does not preclude me from wearing dresses, using makeup, loving fashion, wearing nail polish, or choosing to present femme. Any suggestions that it does — or the violence and hatred towards transwomen, nonbinary femme-presenting folks who are read as masculine, queer men perceived as having a feminine affect, or gender non-conforming men who elect to break the binary — are rooted in nothing less than misogyny. In other words, an unqualified hatred of women, or of anything feminine.
Now, remember I just mentioned being haunted by the notion that I wasn’t really a girl? Well, it was a sort of a ghost of a thought — an unconscious idea, an ineffable feeling, an untouchable something around which I couldn’t even curl my own tongue. Every once and again, I’d feel that nagging in my mind, linger for a moment in my emotions. And just as quickly as it appeared, I’d magically make it disappear. I didn’t want to even entertain the idea that I wasn’t a real girl. But there it was, and throughout the first thirty-eight years of my life, it refused to go away, reappearing at inconvenient times. I was terrified to even allow it manifest into rational thought, much less tell anyone about it.
What further added to my confusion was the fact that my parents did not insist on gender-stereotyped norms and behaviors as they raised me, yet my family in Middletown, Ohio with whom I lived after my parents split up — primarily my abusive aunt — frequently did. Prior to age twelve, I played with Barbies, toy trucks, Matchbox cars, and Cabbage Patch dolls. I had an Easy-Bake oven and a toy workbench. I read the Oz series of books, the Alice in Wonderland adventures, and about Pipi Longstocking. I idolised those girls, because they were curious, imaginative, and had wonderful adventures. For an entire year, I tried my best to dress like Punky Brewster. And at the same time, I also wanted to be Keith from Voltron, Defender of the Universe. (Truthfully, I’m probably more like Pidge — but that’s a whole ‘nother post.) I wanted to be Shana from Jem and the Holograms AND Panthro from ThunderCats. You get the idea.
However, once my aunt entered the picture, that was all over. All I had shoved down my throat was normal, normal, normal. And I don’t just mean when it comes to erasing behaviours that I now understand to be Autistic, as I’ve documented before. That included the policing of gender norms. I’ve already talked about in my last post how I was judged to be unfit as a romantic female partner based on my lack of volunteering for emotional labour demands. I was also criticised about my lack of enthusiasm for styling my hair (particularly in “white” ways and fashions), my lack of interest in what was touted as “normal things that teenage girls do,” and so forth. After being bullied at school repeatedly and undergoing physical abuse at home, I was content to stay in the world of books for a while and only interact with people I trusted. But when I did express an interest in one thing that’s seen as a “normal teenage girl” thing — boys — I was immediately discouraged and slut-shamed.
Little did I know — and little did the adults around me even know — that my experiences were much bigger on the inside. That nagging feeling that I wasn’t a girl? Well, it kept popping up during my teen years, too. I had the double exposure effect living inside my own body, and with my own sexuality, of a liminal existence of being two things at once — one true, and one false. I felt “queer,” but my understanding of gender confined me to “girl” and thought it was impossible to be queer as I was. At the same time, I was attracted to boys, but felt like a gay boy myself instead of a girl. The idea of being a “girl” attracted to boys in a heteronormative way just did not seem natural to me. It felt incredibly foreign, but I could not put words as to why. Additionally, I was attracted to girls as well, but felt sorta like a boy (and not the “straights” I was surrounded by in school) at the same time.
And during this time — while being called a girl just felt so damn wrong — I tried mimicking my female friends, only to be seen as botching up horribly and then being laughed at. I constantly felt like I was a fraud and a failure, and I tried not to give a shit. But the truth was, it all fucking hurt. Intensely. And it hurt like God’s hammer on my soul when I was accused of being a lesbian by my aunt a few months before my eighteenth birthday. I was called a bulldagger, by the uncle I’d come to trust and admire, the one who’d beaten his alcoholism and had gone clean. It hurt so fucking much that I attempted suicide. Thank God I failed.
So now here I am, after more than 25 years of “faking it.” I’m 40 years old, all grown up. Owning that I’m autistic, queer, and trans. I had to divest myself of so much harmful shit it’s not even funny, in order to get here. Internalised ableism, racism, misogyny, and cisnormativity — and I’m sure there’s still more manure under which I’m ideologically buried. I had to embrace truth, come out of four different closets, retool my life, and leave a job at a seminary that I’d held for eight years in order to even begin to free myself. I’m progressing towards medical transition once my type 2 diabetes is under better control, and my kidneys are firmly out of danger.
And even now, I’m making new discoveries about what it means to be neurodivergent and trans. Remember that I said I had to come out of four closets? The first three were: as queer when I was 18 years old; as autistic at age 34; and as transgender at age 38. The fourth is multiplicity, a few months before turning 40. In my case, Ian — the person who’s composing this post — is one of four people in the multiple personality system that occupies this body. Three of us are male, and one of us (Nicole) is agender. We’re all transgender by the simple fact that none of us are the gender this body was assigned at birth. And that makes my experience of gender WAY more complex than I would imagine it would be for a singular individual.
It ain’t a cakewalk, folks, but at least I know what I’m dealing with. I’m both excited and scared. Meanwhile, there’s a part of me that’s also worried that all the efforts to understand what makes us folk who are autistic and trans tick will also be used against us to “treat” us, convert us, make us conform, or worse. There are already a lot similarities between queer/trans conversion therapies and ABA, as observed by Amy Sequenzia. Can you blame me for being afraid and suspicious? I’m trying to keep a positive outlook, but elect to be aware of what could harm our common communities as a whole.
Acceptance for one should become acceptance for both. I ask people who are opposed to queer conversion therapy whether they would support ABA — and if so, why is it not okay to force queer kids to change, yet it’s perfectly alright to try to change autistic kids? The effects of either are devastating. These kids emerge scarred for life, and come out as bitter individuals with severe cases of PTSD, along with a learned helplessness and self-hatred in some. The home-grown ABA carried out on me through physical, emotional, and sexual abuse almost killed me. Let me say that again, in simpler terms: ATTEMPTS TO CHANGE ME ALMOST KILLED ME. Had it not been for a bit of internal stubbornness and the support of people who cared about me, it most certainly would have.
Long story short: I’m autistic and trans, and it took a long path of emergence and coming to peace with myself to be able to say both of these things. And there’s a lot more of us out there. It’s time for those outside our communities to embrace both gender diversity and neurodiversity. At the very least, there’s a likely linkage between the two, and acceptance will benefit both.