30th April 2021
By Alex, Intern
In this article I will discuss the challenges that people with autism who are also LGBTQ+ can face and how being part of both groups can cause challenges on their own. I will examine research that has been conducted into being both LGBTQ+ and having autism.
I discovered I was a lesbian before I discovered I have a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD). Coming out to my family aged 13 was nerve wracking as it is for a lot of young people. But I knew my parents would be understanding and supportive because they have had LGBTQ+ friends my whole life. Both of my parents have always been vocal about accepting people for who they are. I knew I was extremely lucky for having open minded parents and family and for not being disowned for my sexuality and thrown out on the streets.
Almost nine years later, I was diagnosed with an NVLD when I was at university. NVLD is a learning disability which has some similarities to autism, such as having social skills difficulties. It is thought to be on the autistic spectrum by some professionals.
Everything started to make sense for me when I received my diagnosis. Things like, why my friends and university peers were dating and in relationships, some of whom are LGBTQ+ and why I struggled with dating.
Unfortunately, Stonewall states that only half of lesbian, gay and bi people (46 per cent) and trans people (47 per cent) feel able to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity to their family; and almost one in five LGBT people (18 per cent) have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. In the United States alone, a shockingly high number of LGBTQ+ teenagers are made homeless every year, 1.6 million.
Milestones Autism Resources
I spoke with Nathan Morgan, a social worker who works at Milestones Autism Resources in the United States. I asked him his thoughts on prejudice experienced by the two communities and how we can support LGBTQ+ people who have autism:
‘Over the past few years, I’ve had numerous interactions with families and fellow autism self-advocates at various public speaking engagements. I have found that ableism and homophobia are still pervasive and are an impediment towards progress for people who are both autistic and LGBTQ. For example, some people have the mistaken belief that individuals with disabilities aren’t able to “choose” (using their word) their sexual orientation or gender identity because they don’t or can’t understand that aspect of their identity. Beyond this, many autism self-advocates feel isolated. In their groups they are told to “not be political” by bringing up gender or sexual orientation related topics or by voicing their preferred pronouns.
Many parents are also seeking to understand better ways to support their children and connect with other parents of LGBTQ youth. But they feel scared to share their voice because few models exist specifically to support them.
Most of my audiences have been silent when I ask “who here is the parent of a child that identifies as LGBTQ?” After my lectures, it is as if the entire audience comes up to me – parents send me emails or pull me aside in the hallway to ask questions. As a positive, a growing number of advocates and allies are passionate about equality and seeking guidance on navigating these discussions. Every day I see more articles published and presentations scheduled. This is monumental as self-advocacy can empower us and bring about change in our communities.”
“Coming out twice”
Some LGBTQ+ people who have autism feel they are in two minority groups and they have to “come out twice”.
“As a gay autistic man, it’s almost as if I have two identities. I have my LGBTQ+ identity and my autistic identity. Sometimes they both merge well together, and sometimes they don’t. LGBTQ+ people may have a greater understanding of autism, as they already know what it is like to be seen by society as ‘atypical.’ In some ways, being autistic and being LGBTQ+ are similar experiences. You may have to ‘come out’ in both communities. Both groups experience what it is like to be in a minority and face some forms of discrimination.” Tom Moran, speaking to the National Autistic Society.
As I was researching for this article, I discovered some really interesting facts. According to an article by SPARK:
- A higher percentage of autistic people identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) than the general population
- A 2017 Gallup poll found that 4.5 percent of Americans identify as LGBT. Studies vary widely on the percentage of people with autism who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. One analysis suggested the rate is 15 to 35 percent among autistic people who do not have intellectual disability
- Several studies also suggest that autistic men are more likely than autistic women to be heterosexual. In a Dutch study, only 57 percent of autistic women reported being straight compared to 82 percent of autistic men. The women were more likely to be attracted to both sexes, and also to neither sex
Empathy and understanding
It is clear that some LGBTQ+ people who have autism face additional challenges. Being a part of either of these groups means you can experience discrimination and prejudice; however, being a part of both communities further increases the chances of this happening. Discrimination and prejudice can affect mental health and wellbeing and quality of life. Empathy and understanding are needed for both the autism and the LGBTQ+ communities. We need to continue the fight to gain acceptance for both communities.