More people paid attention to my last diary than I expected. Thank you, that was a nice surprise. I wondered what to write about next. I asked myself, “What is it that I have to say to others about people with autism?” My response was, “Accept us completely”. When my daughter was 10 years old, we had a conversation about what we would wish for if a magic genie showed up. I told her I would wish that she wasn’t bipolar or autistic because she had gone through so much pain. “But Mom”, she said, “then I wouldn’t be ME.” That answer humbled me. She taught me a powerful lesson that day.
(trigger warning: talk of suicide, suicidal thoughts, sexual abuse)
If you had three children - an autistic child, a gay child and a transgender child, which of them would you attempt to cure? In the 1970’s, the majority of parents and professionals would have answered, “All three”. The therapy used in all three cases back then might have looked quite similar, because the doctor who invented ABA therapy, Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas, also co-wrote two papers on conversion therapy for gay and trans children in the early ‘70’s with his grad student, George Rekers, that were widely circulated.
Modern ABA and conversion therapy are NOT the same as they evolved down much different paths. No conscientious parent today would permit Lovaas’ original therapy to be used on their children, nor would any ethical therapist knowingly harm their patients. Rumors still circulate within the autistic community that several of his original ABA patients committed suicide. I am not denouncing ABA therapy, but I do think discussions need to take place. I do think individuals who received past ABA therapy have the right to be heard. The allegations of classic ABA therapy leading to higher rates of increased sexual abuse should be investigated as a human rights concern.
I have never forgotten the wise words of Dr. Peter Gerhardt on speaking of the hazards of teaching behavior compliance to the exclusion of teaching non-compliance. As an early pioneer in transition to adulthood education, he saw that adults with autism who had had years of compliance-based behavioralism training lacked functional skills needed to survive in the adult world (start at 4:45). My daughter was in her early teens when I first heard him speak. Most of the therapy she’d received was strongly based on this kind of behavior modification he was speaking about. How compliant was she? I thought about her safety as a young woman becoming independent. Had we been setting her up for a predator? I worried that she might have a far higher chance of being sexually assaulted than she did of completing college.
After I got home from the conference, I did the unthinkable. I told my daughter there were times when she could say “No” to me. She liked that a lot. I also began educating her about sex. She wasn’t so interested. She wanted to talk about anime instead. I got creative and simply made places in our daily life to talk about sex, dating and relationships. I pointed out examples of healthy relationships from shows and movies we watched (I remember Gilmore Girls being a big favorite). I brought in examples of dysfunction for contrast. I made the family watch Tila Tequila during dinner hour and we talked about alcohol, consequences and bad decisions. I set boundaries, as much on myself as for her. I didn’t go into her room without asking. She picked what shoes she wanted and learned the hard way that heels hurt. She wore her cat ears to school and got in trouble for it. Must’ve worked – years later, at 22 years old, she’s far more conservative than I was and she makes better choices than I ever did.
So let’s go back to those three kids I mentioned earlier. What’s if there’s not three separate kids? What if there’s two kids, one’s who autistic and gay, or one’s who autistic and trans? What do you do? What part gets rejected, what part gets accepted? Is there a therapy where he’s told, “This part of you is OK, but this part is not, you’ll have to hide that part.” What’s if there’s just one kid, one’s who all three. Is that just too weird, too out there, too much to manage?
Hi there, I’m that kid. Grown up now.
I don’t like tomatoes. They give me a terrible stomachache. But it took me many years to realize that I could say, “Hold the tomatoes” when ordering food. In that same sense, I always knew I was different from other people, but I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it. For many years, I didn’t know transmen existed, and then after that I was confused because I thought transmen only dated women. All the ones I knew of were young and I didn’t know of any with children. They were able to leave their past identities behind and start a whole new life. That was not an option for me. I had a daughter plus two loving and supportive husbands (I’m polyamorous) who had stood by me through a lot. I wasn’t going to leave them.
I came out twice, first as autistic, then as transgender. For a time, after I came out as autistic, I thought that explained all the difference and alienation I felt. It was like a constant itch that I couldn’t scratch, and it grew worse over time. I thought about death a lot and while I wasn’t actively wanting to harm myself, there’d be times where I’d feel very floaty, disconnected. I’d catch myself doing something unsafe and I couldn’t explain why I'd done it. Finally when the awareness came together, I’d gotten enough words to go back to a therapist and talk about it.
Before in therapy, all I could do was make collages that revolved about gender themes. The previous therapist asked me why those images were important to me and I could give no answer. I couldn’t verbalize it. This time around, I could state how I felt and I got much-needed validation that yeah, I could be a male and still be a mother. I didn’t want to give up being a mother, but being identified as a female was slowly killing me to the point where my mind and body were shutting down. I learned that those dark feelings and numbness were part of gender dysphoria. I had been prescribed female hormone therapy for early menopause; my body and my subconscious rebelled against it. It took a long time for my conscious mind to catch up and hear what the rest of me was saying.
While autism and transgender might be viewed as separate boxes for other people, I really don’t see them as being separate. I am not able to divide myself up into components like that. I am one being, a somewhat complicated one, I am not a science project to be split up into pieces. Queer covers a lot of bases – which is why I like it so much. Intersectionality is another good word.
This is why when I say, “Accept autistics completely”, it’s not just about autism. I want all of you to know that some autistics are gay, or lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or asexual. Some might be intersex or demisexual or pansexual or agender. (There’s a whole lot of ways to be queer these days. Even I can’t keep track of them all.) They are starting to research gender variance among autistic people / autism among transgender folk and while it’s too early to claim a connection, the numbers indicate there will be one. Likely to be the same with sexual orientation and autism as well, although I’m not aware of any funded studies in the area.
I don’t know how it is in other parts of the country, but here in Phoenix, LGBTQ autistics are not fully accepted in either the autism or the LGBTQ communities. They’ll put in ramps for wheelchairs, but no one ever considers how to make LGBTQ safe space sensory friendly enough for autistics. In autistic space, an autistic male and an autistic female publicly dating is widely celebrated as a social skills success story, but in the case of two autistic males or two autistic females, they are told to keep quiet and not to show any public displays of affections around others. Trans*people are told to “save the costumes for Halloween” and sometimes get punished for displays of what is considered deviant or unacceptable gender behavior.
I couldn’t stand by and watch that happen, so I started a little group here in Phoenix called Rainbow Aspies (no website, wasn't able to maintain it, that executuve skills thing biting me in the butt again). It’s the first safe space most of us have ever had. After a lifetime of being so different, it feels good to belong somewhere. I hope in sharing this, that others might want to start similar groups in their communities. We want to break down barriers, so people like us can be more accepted, so we can have options. We want jobs, education, housing, medical care and social activities where we don't have to be closeted. A lot of groups for autistic adults that I have seen, tend to be about babysitting adults, where things are done for them. I think we need more groups that grow leadership among autistic adults, especially the young ones. I see my job as an Autistic “elder”, to teach them how to advocate, how to do things for themselves. That's what going to get them toward independence. That's what acceptance is all about.