The intersection of queer, trans, and autistic is a complex one, but it’s one that accurately describes my experience.
My name is Olivia (She/They) and I’m a trans woman. Growing up queer in a conservative Upstate NY high school was difficult enough, but it was complicated even further by being autistic. I felt like I was always holding down so many secrets, that I often wasn’t sure who I actually was at my core anymore. Older adults frequently used words such as, “creative, eccentric and talented” to describe me, but I frequently found myself tossing around words such as “confused and overwhelmed.”
Math and Empathy
My friends often described me as deeply caring and empathetic (something that was conditioned into me through stereotyping that an autistic person could not be) so therefore I couldn’t possibly be autistic? I mean, doesn’t everyone have to consciously think about what the muscles in their face are doing in a conversation? I mean, nobody likes math ALL that much, so crying and rocking back and forth when forced to do it can’t be that unusual, right? Looking at your hand that “makes the L shape” in order to tell left from right is something everyone does, right?
In my experience, there’s some overlap with discovering you’re autistic as there is with discovering you’re transgender. There are similar feelings of being an imposter. I would think: “I bet other guys think about wanting to have a chest and wear sparkly dresses,” or “Maybe I’m faking it. I can’t be trans?” or “I’m just not trying hard enough to be masculine; I just need to push myself harder!” I tried so deeply to find context that would make my trans feelings go away. I tried to just push it down and move on, but eventually those feelings would override everything else and it became impossible. Similar to masking autism, where it just becomes impossible to disguise the fact that you are indeed overwhelmed and your body has to take immediate action to regulate, I couldn’t pretend I was a cisgender man anymore.
Low Potassium and Burnout
In my first semester of college, while sorting through my trans feelings and my autistic feelings, I was hospitalized. There were so many obligations, responsibilities and new friends to make, and I was overwhelmed, but something that gave me routine and comfort was eating the same thing everyday. The daily emotions of a college campus were varied and unpredictable, but dining hall cereal and a banana was not. Eating solely one thing once a day, as your only form of nutrition isn’t sustainable. It wasn’t enough anymore, so I had a pretty major breakdown. Stuff got really dark, and I can’t quite remember all the details of that time even today. I remember the words “low potassium” though written on some nurse’s chart. I did an inpatient program for “depression,” but I didn’t feel like I was depressed. I felt like I was in a burnout. I find it strange that during my entire time in the hospital, no one thought to ask me about my need for a strict routine, bland texture foods, or my sensory issues, etc. Clearly I was not simply “depressed.”
As an autistic person who last year went through the ADOS-2 testing and only received “answers” in the form of: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, OCD, and Social Anxiety, I’m well acquainted with feeling like an imposter, even though I know with the same certainty that I understand my own queerness, Autistic makes much more sense. My first reaction to the results of this testing was anger. There was so much anger that bubbled up inside of me – anger about being misunderstood and completely unseen. Then that anger shifted to a place of determination. “I’m not being seen and validated in the ways in which I deserve, therefore I will keep making my truth known until I am properly seen.” That diagnostic process actually inspired the inner detective inside of me that I didn’t know I had. I found myself feeling extremely grateful that the autistic community has celebrated and encouraged my continuous searching and exploration of my rich inner world. A world which I am just now discovering new corridors and catacombs within.
Finding My People
So for now, I’m a self-diagnosed autistic person. I take comfort in my community around me. I’m grateful to know so many other LGBTQ+ autistic people. My queer community has been so helpful in supporting my journey of self-diagnosis. I think my biggest takeaway from my chosen family has been a fostering of ideas such as “exploration” and “discovery.” It’s this notion of flipping such sterile and clinical definitions such as those found in the DSM-5 on its head, that stokes a fire within me. Neurodivergent queer people are rebels. Partially by default because we live in a world that often leaves us behind, but also because we choose to be, because we understand ourselves so deeply. There are many of us! The diagnostic system hasn’t exactly caught up with the idea that autistic people are as diverse and varied as allistic people, and there isn’t one specific “look” for autism, but I hope that things begin to progress. Keep advocating for yourself. Take breaks to recharge when you need to, so that you have the energy to stand up for what you know is true!
Learn more about Olivia and her music at https://olivianied.com/