What It's Like to Live on the Spectrums of Autism and Queerness

Despite the growing awareness in the US, there are endless misconceptions that feed into the erasure and stigma of the neurodivergent and queer communities. With the lack of representation in media, dangerous policy-making with regard to gender-affirming care, and practically non-existent education and resources taught in schools, it can be increasingly difficult to explore these coexisting identities.

But research on the intersection of autism, sexuality, and gender identity asserts that those with autism are more likely to identify as queer than the "neurotypical" population — and they're also more likely to face increased cultural stigma, discrimination, and erasure.

Jennifer Alumbaugh, 44, didn't come into her identities as autistic and queer until her late 30s. Like many who navigate both spectrums, Alumbaugh spent most of her life masking, or camouflaging the neurodivergent and non-heteronormative aspects of herself.

It wasn't until she embraced her queerness that she found the courage to explore other elements of her autistic identity that she hid for years. "I finally had permission to explore what is possible about my identity and who I am if I don't place limits on myself," she tells POPSUGAR.

Morganne Crouser, 38, shares a similar sentiment, telling PS that in discovering one identity, they learned to make room for the other. "Being autistic allowed me to think outside of the very rigid gender and sexuality boxes that most of us grew up with," Crouser says. "But in the other direction, I think my queerness allowed me to take up space differently and start to notice things about my autism."

Of course, different folks have wide-ranging experiences, abilities, privileges, and access to care, but in exploring the intersecting identities, we spoke to three people about how they navigate and celebrate their autism and queerness — plus, how they best find community.

Alyssa Chapman, 34, Saskatoon, Canada

I am autistic and on the nonbinary spectrum, but I have been on a journey of unmasking my identity over the last four years.

I've always been high-masking and high-performative, but growing up, I constantly had to advocate for myself. It never felt like I did anything "right" and people were always upset by the things I did, because I "should have known better." As a result, I pursued anyone that could possibly validate my experience, because as far as I was concerned, I felt erased.

I had a loving, well-meaning family and community, but diagnostic materials didn't clock me as "autistic." My sense of self never felt valid or heard, and unfortunately, that led to a lot of harm and trauma. I didn't know who I was for over 30 years.

"In a way, autism allowed my brain the space to ditch perceived labels and instead show up as my whole, authentic self."

Things finally started to unravel during the pandemic when I no longer had the stress of social interactions. Practically instantly, I felt a massive sense of relief and a weight off my shoulders. I was no longer masking myself through the social wringer, and that finally allowed me the space to deeply explore and claim aspects of my identity I always questioned.

From there, uncovering my autism and queerness went hand-in-hand. The more I unmasked my autism, the more validation I found to identify my struggles, and the more confident I became. Once I had the strength to realize my current self wasn't the entire picture, I felt free to think openly about who I was (and can be) and came into my queerness. In a way, autism allowed my brain the space to ditch perceived labels and instead show up as my whole, authentic self.

Another key validating step? Community. Autism Speaks Canada has been a beautiful network because it allows me to share my personal experience and highlight the available resources, so people don't feel so alone. In a world where stigma exists and people think it's OK to tell you what box you do or don't fit in, the support of others has taught me to rise up and be brave enough to say: this is who I am.

Morganne Crouser, 38, Springfield, Massachusetts

As an adult who reads as "mom," my autistic identity tends to disappear. I have my own sensory needs, but I'm supposed to be entirely there for my kids' sensory needs. My executive functioning as a parent is expected to be top-tier, every single day, between permission slips, themed snacks, and birthday parties, and my autistic self gets erased in a way that sometimes feels actively unwelcome.

When it comes to my queerness, that part of me is usually ignored or entirely not thought about. I came out as queer when I was 14, but people have preconceived ideas of what queerness should look like, and I don't always fit that image, especially as a mom. In fact, when I come out to people, they often respond with "oh, you don't look queer?!"

"It almost feels like the erasure is so palpable I have to constantly ascertain how to re-come out."

I think that comment is meant to preserve the other person's comfort because they're not ready to change their understanding of me, but regardless, it's unsupportive and plays into stigma. Not to mention, it tells me the person doesn't trust my own assessment of myself.

All that said, one of the hardest parts of being both queer and autistic is that the constant erasure can be sneaky. I don't necessarily have experiences where somebody has blatantly said part of me is unwelcome, but it often feels like there is a black hole in social interactions, and my queerness and autism fall into that hole. Both aspects are a huge part of my identity, yet trying to bring my queerness and autism into a room is challenging, especially in professional or new settings.

It almost feels like the erasure is so palpable I have to constantly ascertain how to re-come out. But the fact I'm continually having to come out means that these parts of my identity aren't coming into the room with me in the first place.

Jennifer Alumbaugh, 44, San Antonio, Texas

I didn't come into my queer and autistic identity until my late 30s and early 40s, and a lot of that was due to a religious upbringing. I was raised in an evangelical purity culture, and was always taught a very clear, gendered role of "womanhood."

"I never had permission, or exposure for that matter, to explore different identities other than that of a socialized girl."

As a result, there were elements of that mindset that colored how I saw myself for most of my life. I never had permission, or exposure for that matter, to explore different identities other than that of a socialized girl.

It wasn't until I started deconstructing religion that there was an "ah-ha" moment. I finally realized I could self-examine my sexuality and gender and didn't have to wait for God to tell me who to be. My identity was no longer masked by religion, and I had the autonomy to come into my queerness.

Around the same time, I started to become aware of my neurodivergence. I was practicing as a mental health clinician at the time, with very basic training on autism, but the stereotyped picture of what autism looks like is typically presented as a cis, heterosexual male–and if you're not that, it's harder to catch and diagnose. The basic information on autism felt relatable, but when I held a mirror up to myself, that stereotype didn't accurately portray me, and I felt unseen and invalidated.

Luckily, there's a lot of advocacy around to help people understand there are infinite ways autism can look and I ultimately encountered Embrace Autism. This space not only allowed me to be curious about my self-exploration with neurodivergence, but it verified how I was feeling. It confirmed that my way of thinking and behaving was not just happening in my head, and it gave me the tools to explore my entire self.

But the thing about queerness and autism is that there are no limits. Each identity has boundless presentations, abilities, and challenges, and my experience is very different from the next. Both autism and queerness are on a spectrum, and the intersection of the two only increases the unlimited ways to explore what is possible about my identity.

— As told to Andi Breitowich

Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based freelance writer and graduate from Emory University and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in PS, Women's Health, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.