Autistic, Bisexual, Non-binary: Why Neurotype & Queerness are Inseparable for Me
Two years ago, I had a mental health crisis. I had been depressed for a year, I had no idea why, and no matter what I did, it was only getting worse.
When I began to reckon with my deteriorating mental health, I realized that I needed to embrace my sexuality and gender. I could not see a world where I would be able to mentally heal while still harboring immense shame about my queerness.
I decided to go back to the beginning, and address the things I had been running from. This meant coming out to my parents at 28, and beginning to live openly as bisexual.
I stopped dating men and started exploring. My first serious relationship with another queer person opened the door to my gender identity. I had never been in a relationship where I wasn’t relegated to being some guy’s girlfriend, and forced to carry all the expectations that came with it.
Suddenly my sex life was not centered around male pleasure, and I was not expected to perform as submissive or receptive. Sex was no longer linear and goal-oriented, but more like a playground where I was allowed to explore power dynamics for the first time. I got to top and I realized that I liked it.
The men I dated had never let me be in charge — being “on top” is not the same as being The Top (although straight people like to equate the two). Being The Top means you are giving the pleasure, directing the activity, and making the decisions (based in consent and pre-determined boundaries, of course).
This development coincided with another new area of play: gender expression.
In my early teens, I had been obsessed with wearing boy’s tee-shirts and soccer jerseys from the thrift store. I combined these with flowing skirts that I liked for the sensory aspect — they were fun to twirl, allowed free range of motion, and the fabric didn’t cling to my skin (something that still causes me stress to this day).
As I grew older and tried to embody femininity, I moved away from this style. I didn’t feel like I was allowed to wear “boy clothes”. I copied my female friends to fit in, and wore tight tops, short skirts, and heels because my boyfriends liked them.
I don’t hate femininity — it’s fun. But I found that I hated having to perform it constantly. I wanted to wear baggy button-up shirts and loose men’s jeans with pockets bigger than my hands and backwards caps and boxers. I wanted options, and a queer relationship made space for that.
I started trying on my partner’s blazers, and enjoyed the way they made me look and feel. I snuck into their closet while they were at work and put on one of their binders. I liked the way it made men’s shirts lay flat across my chest, how it smashed my breasts in a way men could not ogle, and I liked to juxtapose menswear with a full face of make-up.
I started to re-consider my relationship to “woman” when my therapist asked me to write about what it meant to me.
After reading over what had flown out of my brain during this stream-of-consciousness writing exercise, the common theme I found was feeling trapped. Assigned. Woman as a thing placed onto me, not a thing I chose.
Tearfully, I admitted to my partner that I wanted to choose my own gender, but I didn’t feel like I had the right. They affirmed that I could identify however I wanted, and they gave me one of their binders as encouragement.
I started to identify as non-binary, a label that allowed me the freedom to play that I had been missing all my life. It was an explanation for the way I always felt different in groups of girls, like an imposter trying to fake my way through femaleness.
Constructing your own identity is also a process of deconstructing everything you’ve put in place to survive the social world. It’s peeling back layers of paint to discover the hardwood underneath, and sometimes peeling one layer pulls another with it.
The social isolation of this year’s quarantine improved my mental health more than all the psychiatric meds I’d tried combined. It gave me space and time to peel off all the layers, and it led me to the realization that I am autistic.
I began to consider that this mysterious feeling of inherent difference could have also been due to my neurodivergence.
The title of a 2019 study called “I Don’t Feel Like a Gender, I Feel Like Myself” has stuck in my head; these are the words I needed for my own experience.
The study, led by an autistic researcher, asked autistic people assigned female at birth to design their own research on their gender identities. This kind of study is called “emancipatory”, meaning subjects are allowed to determine the course and remark on the outcomes.
Using an online forum, participants posted answers to questions they helped develop, and their opinions were recorded based on the amount of likes each statement received.
A “fluid sense of gender” was reported by most participants, one saying:
“Love & desire have more to do with the personality of the individual than gender does.”
Another common report was a sense of feeling agender:
“I don’t feel like a particular gender I’m not even sure what a gender should feel like.”
A majority also reported being tomboys growing up. One specifically identified as a trans man, and others said they felt upset that they had not developed like boys did:
“I believed myself to be a boy and was mortified and sick when I [started] developing as a girl.”
My own feeling that neurodivergence and gender are inseparable and necessary to understand in order to love myself were echoed in the study:
“Finding out that I am an individual with autism has helped me understand myself a lot. It explains why I’ve been so different and why I struggle with male/female roles and identity. It helps me to better accept myself. It doesn’t solve the struggles, but it helps with my own personal acceptance.”
Research in this area is limited, and research by neurodivergent scholars even more so. I was able to find some studies that looked at gender identity and ADHD specifically, with similar outcomes, but they were done by neurotypical researchers, so be warned when reading that the language can be oppressive and the perspectives are not our own.
A 2014 study found that people with ADHD were almost 7 times more likely to report gender variance, or a gender that falls outside culturally-defined norms.
This study looked at four other groups: autistic people, two groups of people with other neurodevelopmental diagnoses like epilepsy and neurofibromatosis, and a control group.
The autistic group was almost 8 times more likely to report gender variance, while there was no difference observed in the control and other neurodevelopmental diagnosis groups.
Higher rates of anxiety and depression were found in the groups that reported gender variance, although this was observed to be lower in the autistic group. Researchers theorized that this could be because autistic people may be less aware of societal pressures against nonconformity.
A 2017 study looked at gender dysphoria and “attention problems”, and found that 75% of 20 respondents who reported dysphoria also had ADHD.
This population-based study in 2017 found that autistic people were about three times more likely to report they did not identify with “traditional categories of sexual orientation”.
The study allowed participants to choose between straight, gay, and bisexual categories and specifically found that bisexuality was more likely, but many reported identifying as another orientation not listed.
(For more lived experience on this, a book called Gender Identity, Sexuality and Autism was published in 2019 that collected voices from across the autism and gender/sexuality spectrums.)
It’s important that we understand the link between neurodivergence and queerness, especially because both aspects of identity carry with them increased rates of anxiety, depression, trauma, and suicidality.
The case of Kayden Clarke is a horrific example of how dangerous it can be to deny someone the chance to be themselves.
Clarke, a trans man, was told by a therapist that he would have to “cure” his autism before he would be allowed access to hormones and gender-affirming care. This invalidation of his identity and the hopelessness that likely ensued contributed to a mental health crisis in February of 2016, during which the cops were called to check on him.
Like so many wellness checks gone terribly wrong, Clarke was killed by police.
Validation is a life or death issue. Queer and neurodivergent people are not inherently mentally ill — the invalidation we receive from society is what causes us to suffer. This is why I cannot separate my mental health from my queerness, and why one cannot be addressed without considering the other.
The term neuroqueer feels like a wide, comfortable umbrella; a noun, a verb, and an adjective that encompasses many aspects of my identity.
Since I came out as autistic, bisexual, and non-binary, my depression has eased, my anxiety about performing a role and meeting societal expectations has lessened, and I feel generally more hopeful about my life and my future.
I used to feel broken, but now I have answers to the pain in my past. I am still healing, but I’ve been able to find other people I can see myself in, who understand my experience and support my growth.
I don’t think I would have gotten to this point without immersing myself in the queer and neurodivergent community and engaging in outrospection — the process of getting to know yourself by relating to others.
Community has been a better kind of treatment than anything I’ve received from the medical system so far. We may not always be able to see ourselves in research or doctor’s offices, but we can validate each other, and that is a powerful kind of healing.
A previous version of this essay was originally posted on Patreon.