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Across the autism spectrum, there are gifted and talented individuals. While people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are characterized by social skill, communication, behavioral, and sensory differences, they may also have a wide variety of strengths, from art, music, and writing to science, engineering, and connection with animals; and like any other population, some gifted people with ASD will be queer or gender-nonconforming. (The term queer is often used for sexual outsiders and the term gender-nonconforming for gender outsiders. I use both in this article simply to mean somebody who is LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer — in one way or another.)
Supporting queer and gender-nonconforming youth on the spectrum is important to me — not just as somebody who works with kids and teens with disabilities, including those who are twice-exceptional; it’s also personal. I am a member of the queer and gender-nonconforming community myself who was diagnosed with ASD and, as a child, was labeled as gifted. My questions regarding the members of this community are these:
Unfortunately, autism, giftedness, queerness, and gender-nonconformity are all misunderstood, stereotyped, and politicized issues. Autism spectrum disorders affect 1 in 68 U.S. children. Much of the attention paid to ASD focuses on searching for a cure instead of providing better support to autistic individuals in their everyday lives.
While people with any sort of autism may also be gifted and talented, the autism community gets caught up in discussions of “high-functioning” versus “low-functioning” autism. This binary perspective whitewashes the struggles that “mild” autism can bring while presuming incompetence for those with “severe” autism.
Despite increasing gay rights and same-sex marriage, LGBTQ identities are still often seen through a moral and religious lens as being in opposition to “family values.” It’s a fight to get general curricula to include LGBTQ history, books about same-sex families, or comprehensive sexuality education, much less issues like queer youth homelessness or transgender discrimination.
The first step in parenting, teaching, or counseling a gifted autistic LGBTQ child or teen is to let go of any stereotypes you may have concerning autism, giftedness, and gayness. Focus instead on this young person as an individual — not as a problem or an embodiment of these hot-button topics. Then add in supports specific to their ASD, giftedness, and LGBTQ identity.
One way to help the queer autistic gifted child or teen in your life is to determine the types of disability supports that work best for this individual. Everybody on the autism spectrum is different, so you’ll have to individualize the supports you put in place.
Those teenagers who are in a special education program may receive less or different sex education. Autism-specific social skills curricula and special education guidebooks may suggest keeping things simple or may overlook the possibility that teens with autism may also be queer or gender-nonconforming. All students, no matter how affected by autism and how much or little they can communicate, can still be LGBTQ. I recommend teaching diversity in social skills and sex education programs in the special education classroom. There’s no reason why dating-specific advice, for instance, has to talk about a couple as “a man and a woman.”
On the other hand, those who are mainstreamed may receive general sex education, which may or may not include information about queerness and gender-nonconformity. Even if it does, that doesn’t guarantee the student will learn about LGBTQ identities in a positive or non-stereotyped way. Research shows that teens learn a lot about sexuality from each other, and the social disconnect that many with autism spectrum disorders experience will impact what they know about sex.
In the mainstream high school setting, “gay” is an insult that flies around, so the mainstream autistic student may not know much about gender identity and sexual orientation. I recommend that general curricula include more positive and accurate portrayals of LGBTQ people and that sex education include all sexualities and gender identities without bias. Creating school cultures that value diversity is difficult; but doing so will help all the students, including those with individualized education programs.
To support the young person’s gender identity or sexual orientation, you may want to first figure out the best methods of interacting and communicating with the individual. Is she a visual learner who prefers seeing pictures? An auditory learner who likes listening to stories or lectures? A verbal person who likes reading books and asking questions? For teens on the autism spectrum, be specific and literal in your discussions of sexuality and gender identity. If you tell them to ask you any questions on the topic, be open to whatever they may ask.
Being mindful of limitations and supports needed for a teen’s autism is important, but remember that one thing gifted people truly hate is being bored. Another is feeling that adults or peers are underestimating their intelligence. Because of stereotypes surrounding autism and general lack of knowledge about being twice-exceptional, being underestimated may happen to gifted ASD kids or teens more than to others. Counteract that boredom and agitation by engaging their minds and their talents.
When working with gifted children or teens who are either questioning their sexuality or gender or already forging their own LGBTQ identity, tie that in with their gifts or talents. Do they excel in science? Maybe they’d be interested in analyzing the latest gender or sexuality-related biology or neurology research. Are they artistic? Maybe they want to view a queer painter or sculptor’s work. Are they highly-talented readers and writers? Maybe there’s a college text on gender and sexuality theory that’s at their level.
Growing up in a family supportive of all types of genders and sexualities, I still was afraid to grapple with my own queer feelings. I still didn’t want to face the fact that my desires weren’t straight and my gender expression unconventional. My peers had negative attitudes about gay people, and I wasn’t immune to what the media said about queer and trans issues. I’m saying this to explain that young queer, autistic, gifted people might be scared of expressing themselves. They might have been lectured at school and at home about what love is or what being a man or a woman is. They might have expressed alternative genders or sexualities and been teased into submission by peers who didn’t think twice about picking on the “weird kid.” They might have overheard people on the news at night lambasting gay rights, or they may have never seen a book or movie that showed characters who felt the way they felt.
The most important part of working with kids and teens is to be caring, encouraging, and supportive, especially when they are trying out new expressions, questioning their sexuality or gender identity, or adopting an LGBTQ identity. These kids are fragile and, above all else, they need your support. Remember that your attitude about LGBTQ issues, your openness to talk or listen if they want to, and the affirmation that you don’t want to change them will make the biggest difference.
In my case, even though I was scared, I knew my family would support me and love me, and that gave me the courage to live authentically. So whether you are a parent, educator, counselor, or community member, your emotional support can be the foundation for a young person’s future healthy, happy self-expression and relationships.
Autistic people already experience the world in a different way, and being queer or gender-nonconforming adds to this experience. People with ASD are on the margins, so LGBTQ autistic people are on the margins of the margins. To reach the autism, adapt to the young people’s abilities with individualized disability supports. To reach the giftedness, let them know you value their talents by challenging them while engaging them on the topic of gender and sexuality. And to reach the gender-nonconformity or queerness, offer unconditional encouragement and emotional support. As caring members of these young people’s families, communities, and educational settings, it is not just a choice but also a duty to provide the support that young gifted LGBTQ autistics deserve.
Emily Brooks, a journalist on the autism spectrum, writes to change perceptions of gender, sexuality, and disability. Currently, Emily writes from Brooklyn, New York, where she works with kids and teens with disabilities, including those who are twice-exceptional. To read more of Emily’s work, please visit www.emilybrooks.com.