This is an entry for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. I didn’t quite make it in April. I moved in May. I’m finishing the alphabet in June.
R is for Relationships
This is such a huge topic, it would take an entire book to do it justice, but there are some very important highlights I need to hit when speaking of autism acceptance and relationships.
One of the questions parents of Autistic children ask most is “will my child ever be able to have a relationship?” In darker moments, its not even a question but rather a lament. “My poor, poor child! Autism has robbed them! They will never marry or have children!”
But what parents often don’t realize is that they’re not quite asking the right question. Too often, books about sex and relationship for parents of Autistics and for Autistic people ourselves make a basket of assumptions that can be very harmful to all developing young people but especially to young Autistic people who so often need extra mentorship and guidance in life.
Double Rainbow, a column of autism and sexuality, written by Caroline Narby and hosted by Bitch Media has addressed these assumptions multiple times. Narby writes, “The aim of this blog is to explore and interrogate popular representations of autistic sexuality and gender performance from a queer, autistic perspective” and goes on to say (speaking of a presentation in which autistic sexuality was presented as only being acceptable if it is mainstream with respect to gender and sexuality), “There must have been young adults who are gay and/or genderqueer or trans*, or who are unsure of and are exploring their identities. The message they received was not that they are not alone and are worthy of love, but that they are undesirable. I know from first-hand experience that autistic youth are often already emotionally vulnerable. To be told that you are doubly broken, doubly unlovable and undesirable, because you are both autistic and queer, is devastating.”
This is the big mistake I see so often in sex education targeted to Autistic people or our parents. The assumption is that everyone is heterosexual, everyone presents as the gender that matches the sex organs they were born with, and everyone wants to be in a sexual and romantic relationship. (Or, sometimes, the erasure goes the other way and the book or speaker seems to believe that all Autistic people are completely asexual and aromantic.) These kinds of stereotyped assumptions (that we’re all cis-het (in other words, not trans and not queer) or all asexual) are very damaging to anyone who is taking those first steps into the world of adult relationships.
In my own case, I had the standard sex education that assumes everyone is cis-het (I was in middle and high school in the late 1970s and early 1980s) and I felt frightened and ashamed to try to talk to someone about the thoughts and feelings I had that were not part of that model. When I finally found an adult I could talk to (a local co-ordinator for PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)), she was wonderfully helpful, but made the assumption that I was a lesbian. Since no one told me about non-binary gender and sexuality, I accepted what she wrote to me (I was too shy to call so I wrote a letter to her) and worked hard to fit in with my lesbian identity, unaware that there were other ways of being a sexual person.
As it turns out, I am pansexual. If you don’t know what that word means, think of bisexual — a concept you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with — and now think about what bisexuality looks like when there are more than two genders to choose from. Since I now understand that gender is not strictly a binary (there are cis-females, cis-males, trans-women, trans-men, intersex folks, genderqueer folks, third gender folks, and all kinds of other flavors I don’t have time or space to go into here) I can’t really call myself bisexual because that word implies that there are only two choices. There is a saying that, “a bisexual person sees a lovely woman across the bar, walks up and finds out they are actually a lovely man, and it’s okay.” I like to say that a pansexual person sees a hot person across the bar and maybe they are a man and maybe they are a woman and maybe they are something else entirely but it doesn’t matter, because they are lovely.
Because I am often quite literal-minded and because I accepted that the adults around me knew the truth and could teach it to me, my struggle to be “a good lesbian” was just as difficult and shame-inducing as my struggle to be “a good straight girl.” Neither one was working for me and I didn’t understand why for a long time. Of course this can happen to anyone, Autistic or not, but we are extra-vulnerable to these sorts of difficulties in understanding our identity. We need an atmosphere of openness when we are making those first steps of self-discovery.
Now . . . I realize that I’m talking about things that are complex and sometimes subtle — from the perspective of people who aren’t Autistic. It can be intimidating to try to figure out how to introduce all this complexity when you’re terrified just to talk about sex at all with your Autistic child. Or maybe you are nervous because right now you’re working on helping your child learn that touching their genitals is something they can’t do in the grocery store. Or at church. Take a breath and remember the joke: “how do you eat an elephant?” “one bite at a time.” Deal with whatever you and your child are dealing with right at this moment. But try to work on opening up your language and your mind to the thought that your child might be gay. Or bisexual. Or pansexual. Or asexual. Or transgendered. Or . . .
Let your child set the cues as far as gendered clothing. I see a lot of sex advice for Autistic young women that tries to convince us to put on make up or shave our legs or wear a dress instead of jeans and a sweatshirt. Some of us like to do those things. Some of us LOVE to do those things. And some of the Autistics who love to shave their legs and wear a dress and make up were born into a body with a penis. Focus on good grooming and let your child teach you what their sense of fashion is. Don’t try to force an Autistic young person to dress a particular way. We often learn — either through difficult therapies or just through living a life where too often we are told how wrong we are — to be extra-compliant and that can extend to trying to please others by dressing, speaking, and behaving in a way that feels completely unnatural to us. So often, we grow up feeling we have no choice but to comply and conform. Be aware of this and try not to unconsciously (or consciously!) force your child into a sex and gender mold that is not a good fit for them.
And all that “my child will never get married and have children” angst? I can understand why that upsets you, but you need to work on privately getting past that. Talk to your partner, if you have any, about those fears. Talk to a therapist or a close friend. Don’t write it in any place, public or private, that your child is likely to see some day. (And don’t think that just because your child doesn’t speak or interact with others right now that they will never read and understand things. You can’t guess your child’s life trajectory and you might come to learn that every thing you said in front of them, thinking they didn’t understand, went straight into their memory.) Because what if your child grows up to be an asexual adult? Or a childfree-by-choice adult? How will your child feel about your misery over the thought that they will never marry or have children if it turns out that they really don’t want to marry or have children? Do you think your child will feel accepted for who they truly are?
Everyone raising children needs to learn about different forms of sexual expression (or non-expression by choice.) Did you know that someone can be asexual but not aromantic? Some people who are asexual still want a loving and emotionally bonded relationship. Some do not. Some people fall in love with more than one person at the same time and choose to have relationships that are honest and open and not monogamous. It is important for every parent to learn about sex, gender, relationships, and love so that they are prepared to support their beloved child no matter what road of life that child grows up to travel. If you believe in autism acceptance, along with neurodiversity, you need to accept sexuality and gender diversity. Autistic people end up non-cis and/or non-het at the same rate as the general population . . . possibly more often. Just as autism is a core piece of who we are, sexuality and gender are deep and pervasive. To accept one and not the other is just as damaging as accepting neither.