Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Why Coming Out Doesn't Apply as Well to Autism

Often, parallels are drawn between autistic rights and gay rights. I agree with many of these parallels (I'm currently reading On Being Gay and seeing many problems described which are also present among autistics, such as the difference between gay community and other minorities who are more genetically and familially distinct) but there's one aspect which is different, which I want to explore. That is coming out.
The first important difference is that autism is more obvious than gayness. It's relatively common for an autistic person to be identified as such by someone else before they even know they're different. And many autistics can't hide it in some or most situations no matter how hard they try. For example, if you watch Amanda Baggs's videos of herself on YouTube, it's hard not to realize she's disabled. Even my father, who seems pretty NT, was recognized as autistic by an educational psychologist because when he quoted Temple Grandin, he quoted her Texas accent as well as her words.
So it's more common for autistics than gays to be given no choice about whether to come out or not, because autism is more obvious. In fact, it's probably much more common for autistics, especially of the younger generations, to be diagnosed by someone else instead of self-identifying. And then it's on record that they're autistic.
Secondly, if an autistic isn't diagnosed, very often they don't know what autistic is. Most people know the defining characteristic of gayness - being sexually attracted to the same gender instead of the opposite gender. There is no such defining characteristic of autism, or if there is, it's not known. Instead, it's defined by a cluster of traits that are not easy to define or determine. The self-identification of autism basically is 'I feel my mind works similarly to people I know of who are considered autistic' which is certainly not well-defined. And since autism is both less common and harder to define than gayness, most laypeople have a much poorer understanding of how to tell if someone is autistic. So an autistic may know they're different, but have no idea there is a word for how they're different. How do you come out if you don't know what you are?
The normal is less clear too. Most gay people are certainly aware that the norm is to be sexually attracted to the opposite gender. But many autistics think various aspects of their differences are normal. I thought everyone thought the way I did, but for some inexplicable reason were better at handling the world than me. I knew that I was gifted, but thought that just meant having a good memory and thinking fast (and because I didn't remember everything perfectly and sometimes processed more slowly, I doubted I was really gifted).
In addition, gayness primarly affects personal relationships, whereas autism also affects performance in school/work and self-care and things like that. (I know gay people have been fired for being gay, but I'm talking about effects directly as a result of interaction between one's mind and the work environment.) Diagnosed autistics may need to reveal their difference in order to get things like extra time on exams, natural lighting, etc in work or school or else they will have trouble performing. And they may need assistance caring for themselves on a daily basis, such as getting regular meals, although they're less likely to actually get it. In this area, a better parallel are other disabled people.

Labels: , , , ,


Blogger Elizabeth McClung said...

This is the first I have heard of comparing gay and autistic rights. What region would this be affecting as in Canada the judicial aspect has certainly been one on medical grounds; as in disability access (education, training, etc) while in the UK the ignorance level is so high, I would say the fight was more basic mental human right recognition (since identified autistic children are often institutionalized for life). One is an orientation which society is extremely prejudiced against (and has legislated against in many country making the existance of the person themselves illegal in some countries), while the other is a difference in cognative diversity and the rights and resources needed to educated and be recognized. I agree that is would seem to be more aligned with disability rights as someone is more likely to say, "We don't want to hire you" based on percieved ability than on a feeling of moral aspects of the person.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Ettina said...

However, there is also the 'I don't like this person, they're creepy' reaction that many people have to someone who acts autistic.
Gay rights is often used as an analogy for autistic rights because autism is less accepted than gayness, so using that analogy (hopefully) encourages people's view of autistic rights to improve.
There's more parallel with the medical kind of homophobia than the moral kind. No mention of autism in the Bible, as far as I know - if any autistics appear in the Bible they were probably 'cured' by Jesus. ABA, a common treatment for autism, has also been used on kids with 'gender identity disorder' (generally they turn out to be gay). Basically it systematically punishes them for acting different and rewards them for acting normal. If it is effective, it is not in changing actual internal orientation (sexual or otherwise) but simply teaching them to act a certain way regardless of how they feel.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

"coming out" interesting, as a parent of an Autistic boy. I have heard of parents whose primary goal is to recover their child they "lost" to ASD. They don't tell school staff of the label because it might affect how the child gets treated. I have seen videos of "recovered" autistics. They're still autistic, but they know the NT act. I could barely believe the attitude of the parents who desperately want to keep their child "in the closet". My boy is too obviously "flaming". He has the dx for a reason, to get the help he needs.
I just surfed in from a year old post on Autism Every Day. You nailed it. It's all about the parents who didn't get the child they wanted. wah wah wah.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

What you say here is true -- at least up to a point, or at least in certain circumstances. But, it's easy to point to exceptions. For example: there are some gay men who fit the stereotype of "effeminity" so perfectly, and to such a "flaming" extreme that they genuinely cannot hide who they are. And, yes, some of them have actually suffered anti-gay slurs ("faggot" etc) or otherwise been "identified" by others sometimes long before they themselves realized exactly what it was that made them "different." I once read a story about a gay advocacy organization (I think primarily gay men) in a very very conservative African country (perhaps Zimbabwe, but I don't remember for sure). At least one of the men involved and maybe more was someone pretty much in this situation: he knew it was highly dangerous to life, limb, and safety in all the literal ways you can think of to be so out and public as a gay man in such a conservative and homophobic society, but he was so flamingly effeminate he figured he had no choice in being out anyway, so he might as well be both out and proud. So at least in his perception, he didn't really have a choice in being out, only a choice in HOW he chose to be out.

And: you're young, so you've grown up in a time when GLBT people are relatively visible, which means most young GLBT people today are growing up with both the vocabulary and the role models they need to figure out who they are-- even if they're in a setting where it's not yet acceptable to talk about it. But it wasn't always like that. Twenty, 40 years ago, many GLBT people growing up had very few role models, or none at all, to help them figure out who they were. ESPECIALLY if they were bisexual or transsexual (or otherwise transgender). This is still somewhat the case for some bi and many transgender people, especially in more remote, rural, or conservative parts of the country. Sometimes they lacked (or lack) even the correct vocabulary until they were much older.

I did not come out to myself as bisexual until I was 23, in good part because until then I simply didn't know any other bisexuals and therefore had no one to talk with to help me make sense of the things I felt and experienced. Until then, I had dismissed all my same-sex attractions as simply being "proof" that even a straight person can "once in a while" feel "a twinge of attraction" to the same sex. If you ever show up at a transsexual support group, its not unusual to see a room full of transsexual people who are only BEGINNING to transistion in their 40s--or even their 70s. In some cases they knew they were transsexual from a very young age (though they probably lacked the vocabulary for it) but felt obligated to make their families and friends and teachers and classmates and co-workers happy--everyone but themselves. So they tried to suppress their feelings until one day they couldn't stand it any more. In other cases, they suppressed their feelings so throughly that they did not even begin to EXPLORE their identity until they were much older. In some cases, no one else knew. But in others, family etc. may have caught on that "something" about them was different long before they did.

So I think it depends on the exact circumstances you're looking at: in some cases, the parallel between the GLBT experience and the autistic experience might well be closer than you think! (Or in other cases, of course, further apart than *I* think ... :-) )

5:06 PM  
Blogger Sari Legoh said...

Coming out as gay is already the same thing as Coming out as autism. Obviously you don't want to admit gay = on the spectrum.

8:09 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home