Struggling to find a sense of belonging is nothing new for queer people. Yet even after I came out, I still had a persistent feeling of wrongness; of feeling like an outsider even within my own community.
Recently, I realised that I’m on the autism spectrum. I can now see that what I had put down to eccentricity, being “difficult” or feeling out of place are mostly byproducts of trying to get by in a world built for neurotypical people.
I’m not the only queer person with this experience – some studies have suggested a higher percentage of autistic people identify as LGBTQ than the general population, though further research is still needed to confirm and explore this overlap.
“Our society often puts down difference to whatever’s most visible,” says Charlie*, a bisexual non-binary university student who was diagnosed with autism in their early 20s. “Growing up for me, a lot of my neuroatypical behaviour, thoughts, feelings, experiences were put down to queerness or put down to just whatever was most visible in the situation.”
“It was kind of doubly erasing because it made my queerness take on lots of attitudes and stereotypes that aren’t necessarily true, whilst also erasing my neurodiversity.”
Charlie’s self-described “chronic disorganisation” and “touch-and-go [attitude] about social events” were seen by others as an example of their “inner confusion about [their] bisexuality” – a biphobic stereotype in itself – rather than a sign of their executive dysfunction, a common problem that causes autistic people to struggle with time management and completing tasks.
It doesn’t help when experiences like mine or Charlie’s aren’t portrayed accurately in the media. Like much representation of marginalised communities, autistic representation is severely lacking. Sia’s recently released musical film Music centers on the life of a girl on the autism spectrum, and has since earned two Golden Globe nominations. But its protagonist is played by Maddie Ziegler, a neurotypical actor, and in one scene she is forced into a prone restraint – a dangerous, traumatic and potentially fatal act that the film treats with little sensitivity or forethought.
Music has been rightly criticised for treating neurodiversity like a costume – something pulled on by neurotypical actors for entertainment’s sake. But it’s the latest in a long line of Hollywood missteps, stretching from Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man to The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon and, most recently, Atypical’s Sam Gardner – all of which fall into the stereotype of white, cisgender and straight male characters with autism, and all played by neurotypical men.
If, like me, you’re autistic and queer, you can expect your reality to be doubly erased – first by neurotypical actors getting cast in neurodivergent roles, and then by the ongoing phenomenon of straight cis actors getting cast in queer roles.
Twenty-year-old Tylan Grant (above) is one of the few autistic actors to actually play a character with autism. As Brooke Hathaway on Hollyoaks, they are a stark contrast to most TV and film representation.
“It’s interesting having an invisible disability and also being queer, and a person of colour, and non-binary because the world already treats you differently from the jump,” Tylan tells VICE, adding, “It’s weird working in an industry that I don’t usually see myself in, and when I do it’s played by people that aren’t autistic or aren’t queer.”
They say that it can be a struggle to find working environments that accommodate autistic people and queer people respectively, let alone both. “It’s already so difficult for us to advocate for ourselves,” Tylan says. “It’s quite a scary thing. You shouldn’t have to be on a job and not want to tell people you’re autistic because you might lose the job and they might think it’s too much.”
Before Tylan joined the set, Hollyoaks sent everyone on staff for two days of autism training, which was more than even what their own school provided for teachers. Scriptwriters on the soap also consult Tylan to make sure that autism is portrayed accurately on the show.
“There’s quite a limited view of what autism looks like and the assumptions that people make of what it looks like, especially on screen,” Tylan explains. “I think that’s why it plays such a part in real life. People forget the impact that television actually has.”
You might think that queer autistic people could leave behind the prejudice of wider society and seek refuge in the LGBTQ community, but things aren’t that simple. Even before the pandemic shuttered queer venues, many of those with autism found them inaccessible.
“I think a lot of queer spaces are not inviting,” says Chuck SJ, a trans and neurodivergent multidisciplinary artist who is part of the queercore band Byenary. “They think they are, but they’re not. I know so many people who have said ‘I don’t feel trans enough to enter that space’... There’s no quantity of trans, you either want to screw the system or you don’t, and if you do then you’re welcome.”
Chuck explains that a lack of understanding about autism can impede the way neurotypical people communicate with their neurodivergent peers in these spaces. The practice of masking – in which autistic people perform certain behaviours to appear more neurotypical – can be exhausting.
“It’s this thing of constantly having to hold the same masks you’ve always held before whilst putting on more and more until you eventually fuck it and burn loads of bridges,” Chuck explains. “I wish that people were aware that that’s something autistic people do.”
Queer people with autism are part of a huge neurodivergent community, and it’s about time that the misinformation and woeful ignorance around our disability changed. A lot can be said for people to simply listen to and understand our realities.
Chay Graham, a spokesperson for the Disabled Students’ Campaign at the University of Cambridge, says that there are plenty of ways to fight this ableism. They list by way of example: “Supporting someone applying for benefits against the DWP, turning up with them to an appointment to make sure their doctor listens to them, seeking out lists of queer-friendly doctors that will help trans people transition and let queer people get a diagnosis…”
“A lot of people going for gender-affirming treatment are being told, ‘It’s just because you’re autistic or because you’re mentally ill,’” they explain. “In these situations, having another queer person to advocate for them can be invaluable.”
But the golden rule, says Charlie, is that autistic people are the experts on autism, and they should be treated as the authority on the subject. “The spectrum is not a gradient from non-autistic [to] quirky to super-autistic. Autistic people are categorically distinct from non-autistic people. We are radically different.”
This radical difference is something to be celebrated, adds Chuck: “I think being trans and being neurodivergent is awesome.”
*Name has been changed for privacy