Neurodiversity and LGBTQIA+: Gender identity, sexuality, neurodifferences and pride
This pride month and Neurodiversity Pride Day, we wanted to shine a light on the connection and intersectionality between the neurodiversity and LGBTQIA+ movements.
There is a lot of research that shows a significant overlap between our neurological, sexual and gender differences. We want to take a look at this research and talk about the compounding barriers people face, but also celebrate our diversity and those of us brave enough to question and explore our identity.
We’ll also feature a few stories from neurodifferent and LGBTQIA+ voices here at Cognassist.
Feel free to explore the topics below:
Exploring the connection between neurominorities and LGBTQIA+
The neurodiversity and LGBTQIA+ movements are both social justice movements. Led by members of the communities in question to increase representation and public acceptance of different identities and experiences.
The history of abuse, stigma and discrimination against these diverse minorities has been felt at different points, but this has created a growing activism, and at times protest, to create changes in public understanding and fight for equal rights.
Neurominorities and LGBTQIA+ people are both protected under the Equality Act 2010 in the UK or similar legislation in various countries.
Educational institutions and workplaces are keenly aware of their legal responsibilities to foster inclusivity and provide appropriate support.
Interestingly, a 2020 LinkedIn report found there was a 58% increase in diversity and inclusion job postings between 2019 and 2020 across Europe and the Middle East. Employees in these roles had also seen steady growth at 67% over 5 years (LinkedIn, 2020).
The reality that increased diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) impacts business performance is starting to filter through. We are seeing a growing shift towards more inclusive cultures, practices, policies and initiatives.
However, neurodiversity is still lagging behind more widely discussed areas like gender and racial diversity. With only 7% of global companies having a neurodiversity plan in place, compared to 73% for gender and 11% sexual orientation (Universum, 2020).
When you work in DEI, you realise that all areas on DEI coexist, co-occur and intersect.
The term intersectionality was coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American scholar and Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, in 1989.
It helps us to understand that our different identities intersect and impact our experiences, how other people view us and sometimes increase the barriers we face.
For example, Black autistic women are more likely to be diagnosed later and also experience exclusion from research (Diemer et al, 2022).
If you’re not looking at all aspects of DEI, you not looking at all aspects of your people.
For many people, this complexity can feel scary.
But if you have the right people and right tools to help, you can reduce the fear, create real cultural change and get more people interested and engaged in championing diversity.
The most potent commonality is the focus on listening to people’s stories and learning from the communities and their lived experiences.
One such story is from Charlotte Amelia Poe, who wrote about their story of survival, hope and being autistic, asexual and non-binary in their book, How to Be Autistic:
“Knowing who you are, discovering who you are, can take a lifetime. If you’re never told about the options, if that sense of wrongness just settles within you, it can lead to a lifetime of torment. So I think it’s important that we have the discussion, that we allow autistic people to exist on the various LGBT+ spectrums as well as the autistic one. It doesn’t hurt anyone to acknowledge that that could be an option, and is, most likely, a reality.”
There are so many ways to be in this world, and it’s our diversity and ability to challenge expectations that sets us apart as humans.
Neurodiversity and identity research: Gender, sexual orientation and sense of self
If you’ve spent time looking through the research yourself, you’ve probably come across the name Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. One of the key figures in autism research, he works at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge and developed the extreme male brain theory of autism (2002).
While this theory is not without criticism, Baron-Cohen’s wider research has led further studies into gender and autism.
One of his studies found that autistic individuals are more likely to be LGBTQ+ (Cambridge University, 2021).
Another study, the largest of its kind, with five datasets including 641,860 people found that autistic people are more likely to be gender diverse than non-autistic people. The same study also found that transgender people, both men and women, are three to six times as likely to be autistic as cisgender people (Spectrum News, 2020).
This research provides more dimensions to the experiences of some autistic individuals and how we can support them more fully.
Though if you’re looking to understand the women who also pioneered research into understanding autism, then Dr Judith Gould and Dr Lorna Wing work in the 70s was responsible for the creation of a spectrum of autism.
Dr Judith Gould is also a renowned specialist in autism in women and girls.
You might notice that a lot of research focuses on autism and much of the academic research is strongest in this area.
But neurodiversity research is growing.
Initial research with ADHD and LGBTQIA+ adults suggests that they are more likely to be adventurous and have more mixed preferences of partners (Young et al, 2023).
Our neurodiversity and sense of identity are closely linked, understanding these differences and how they can inform or make us question our sense of self is important to recognise.
You can have an impact here.
To make yourself or your family, friends, colleagues and people around you feel respected and experience the dignity they deserve.
“I think the keys to a happier life are awareness and acceptance (both self- and society’s) of people’s differences, combined with knowledge and self-understanding. If both autism [alongside wider neurodiversity] and the whole spectrum of sexuality are discussed openly and sincerely in mainstream society, then maybe there will be more tolerance of people’s differences and this will lead to young people having the courage to be proud of who they are and not feeling so much pressure to conform.” (S. Hendrickx, 2015)
In the spirit of self-acceptance, we have two stories from Cognassist’s employees, and we are proud to share their lived experiences and of their willingness to do so.
In my own time and space: A personal story from Helen at Cognassist
I don’t often think of my autism and bisexuality together because there was a gap of about 10 years between understanding both these things about myself.
I’m a naturally questioning person and I do love my research.
When I started to think I might be autistic, I went and read every blog and bought every book I could, hoping to see my own experiences in their pages.
But if you know autism and its infinite variations, you’ll already know this was a fool’s hope.
Sure, I got snippets.
I owe my diagnosis to the still growing conversation about autism in women and reading so many of their stories that I pieced together my experiences into a Frankenstein’s monster of all of them.
Maybe one day it won’t take so long for women like me to find the answers to why they feel different.
But I’d like for my research to be put to good use, and one of these books had an interesting perspective on these correlating identities:
“It should come as no surprise that when issues regarding sexual and gender identity come into the picture, the logical mind of an autistic woman can sometimes struggle to make sense of where she fits, who she is and who she might want to sleep with (if anyone). This sense of identity may not feel like it comes naturally and intuitively, and may have to be ‘worked out’.” (Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder, 2015)
I can definitely say my sense of identity did not come naturally, and I’m still on this journey.
The two years before my diagnosis were some of the worst in my life. I had more bad days than good, and my partner helplessly stood by me, witnessing my panic attacks, meltdowns and shutdowns, which I can’t even find the words to explain the raw despair of these.
But I am in a much better place post-diagnosis. In some ways I feel unrecognisable, and it has given me a level of self-compassion I didn’t have before.
During my diagnosis, the specialist who completed by ADOS said that she finds more autistic women want to fit in and often have a specific interest in areas like human psychology – I’m happily guilty of this – whereas autistic men have less of this desire to conform and will take to hobbies like taxidermy, which seems like a perfectly acceptable hobby to me!
But there are always exceptions to generalised statements like this one.
And I think it’s, therefore, important to acknowledge that autism and questions of sexuality or gender are not always intrinsic to one another.
However, I do see a broader link in terms of the language we use around our identity and community.
I came out as bisexual to my parents when I was at university.
I was very lucky to know that parents wouldn’t be fazed by such news, and they weren’t.
My mum responded, “I did wonder if you were exploring your feminine side.” Which is the most well-mannered British mum response I can think of – it still makes me giggle.
At this time, there wasn’t the same diversity in the terminology as there is now. There are now ongoing conversations and sometimes heated debate about the difference between pansexuality and bisexuality.
It has given me pause to think about the language I use.
For me, being bisexual and using this term are part of my life and who I am. I can’t see myself changing my mind.
I see bisexuality as being attracted to people the same gender as me and those of a different gender to myself (regardless of the gender) – this is not how everyone views bisexuality. For some people, it is only a binary, two-gendered term.
But what’s the connection with autism?
I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Condition in January 2023. Again, my parents were unfazed and supportive, although my mum felt a little guilty that she didn’t notice when I was younger.
I didn’t experience the same regret or anger that some people do when they receive a diagnosis later in life, for all the years of missed support or how things might have been different. And I don’t hold anything against my family because they did a lot to support me without realising I was autistic.
However, if I had been diagnosed before 2013, I likely would have been diagnosed as Asperger’s instead.
The term Asperger’s was retired with version 5 of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-5) with input from the Autism Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN).
There has been much ongoing debate about the changes.
But these changes in terminology have also made a lot of people question their identity and the language they use to describe their neurological differences.
Some people still prefer to use the term Asperger’s or Aspie rather than autism because it’s part of their identity, and I recognise this feeling.
People are complicated. We relate to language in different ways.
The language we use to describe our neurodifferences is as varied as that of our other protected characteristics – LGBT has already grown to LGBTQIA+ in recognition of greater inclusion.
Regardless of the language we use to describe our experiences, it is our experiences that matter.
I feel like there is currently quite a lot of judgement about the terms people use or don’t use within the neurodiversity space and conversations, often coming from neurodifferent people and public speakers.
It feels like there are too many people dictating what language should be used, and it makes the space feel less welcoming, open to discussion and hearing multiple perspectives.
People should use the terminology that feels right to them, of course, but I don’t think it’s fair to expect others to feel the same way or say that there is a right or wrong way to talk about these areas – so long as you’re not attempting to hurt anyone.
Our experiences exist on broad spectrums, and no single definition or label will suit every person.
Who we are is a difficult enough question to answer without other people in the same community questioning you as well – so be considerate of the language people use to identify themselves because often they’ve thought long and hard about why they use it.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite terms, the Te Reo (Māori language of New Zealand) word for autism, Takiwātanga.
It translates as ‘my own time and space’.
Whatever your journey towards understanding yourself and your personal characteristics, it can only happen in your own way, your own time and space. It’s certainly been that way for me.
I know how easy it is to compare yourself to others when you’re trying to learn how to be yourself, but ultimately, you’ll find yourself unlearning all these things the closer you get.
So take the time you need and best of luck, fellow wonderer.
Coming out… twice: A personal story from Georgie at Cognassist
[Content warning: negative coming out experience, hate speech]
As an openly gay 37-year-old female with ADHD and dyslexia, it’s taken me a long time to love myself and be proud of the person I am today.
The journey to getting to know who I am, and self-acceptance has been long and windy, to be fair. If it wasn’t for my mother writing all my English essays and my best friend outing me to myself in art class at 17, my life could be looking very different today.
Being a gay female in the noughties was colourful, but not very cool.
I was forced out of the closet at 18 by my sister, very kindly shouting out, “This house is disgusting. Nic’s in bed with his boyfriend and Georgie’s bought her new girlfriend home, this house is full of gays.”
After an awkward conversation with my mother, declaring I was bisexual and not actually gay, and this was just a friend upstairs (none of which was true), her response was simply, “Do not tell your father he will be heartbroken!”
It’s funny because the advice to hide aspects of myself from others would come not once in life, but twice. Hiding one’s true self seemed to be easier for others to cope and for me, I would just be another pigeon amongst pigeons.
Despite being hidden in my family, I was always out and proud at work. However, I won’t lie, this did come with its own challenges.
My first and most memorable threat at work was when I was just 17 and working my first Saturday job in a supermarket, “I’m going to get my boyfriend to run you over you filthy, diseased lesbian.”
It was from a female co-worker, 20 years my senior, as I simply re-tuned the radio when it was playing her favourite song.
When I made the complaint to HR, she was simply moved from Café to Tills. I was horrified, the system had failed to protect me.
School was also a challenge.
I loved the chit-chats and social aspects, but I had my parents supporting my learning at every turn. You name it, I was retaught it!
Amazingly, I did make it to Uni, studied fine art sculpture and adored those days, but there were aspects of my course that I found crippling! This was when I finally accepted that I couldn’t succeed in the academic world alone, I was debilitated. I no longer had my scaffolding of my parents. I needed help. I needed to get my diagnosis.
Not only was I dyslexic, but they also assumed I had ADHD.
“She can’t sit still long enough to learn,” I was told.
I was sent off to the GP, and as quickly as I walked in, I was laughed back out. Their response was that ADHD didn’t exist in adults! The system had again failed me.
When I did finally leave university and start in my career, my mother very kindly advised, “Darling, I worked in HR for years, we didn’t take on newly married women, nor would we take on dyslexics so don’t mention it, you won’t get the job.”
The lack of support and hiding my neurodifferences at work became a pattern of my career. The stress of it eventually led to me suffering two breakdowns, the final one in 2017.
When my CEO said to me, “I’ve got a mate starting a beauty therapy company, its simple sales. I think it would be perfect for you.”
I realised my neurodifference was being interpreted as a lack of intelligence and ability. That was the day I knew my working environment needed to be different.
ADHD was finally confirmed at 35. I was working full time as a project manager in the middle of a house renovation, and it was Covid. The cracks started to show, I was a chronic insomniac, riddled with anxiety in a crumbling marriage and once again, I felt I was failing at life.
My wife told me that she would leave me if I didn’t get diagnosed and take medication. Despite gaining the diagnosis, it was still cited in my divorce papers by her as a reason to leave me, and once again, it was being used against me.
However, the diagnosis was the final missing piece to the puzzle I had been trying to solve.
I finally had the full picture!
The woman writing this today is very different from the one 2 years ago.
Yes, I am a 37-year-old single, female, living with my cat and time-ticking womb bomb with no kids. And my life couldn’t be any further away from the hetero-normative lifestyle I dreamed of, but what I can say is I am the happiest and most content I have ever been.
Self-acceptance: I understand myself in a way I didn’t before. I’ve taken the time to get to know myself, delving into every crack and flaw, and learning not only to love them but to know they are not a thing to hide or to be punished for.
I’ve learnt that we are all humans, we are all unique, we look, think, act, and feel differently about the world around us, and that’s okay.
I’ve learnt to know when to forgive and when to walk away.
I’ve learnt (the hard way) that, as a society, we need to enable and not disable and that the first step to that starts with ourselves. So…
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