Queer and Autistic: How it Feels
Think coming out as LGBTQ is hard?
I was six years old when the nun walked me across a sunny courtyard to meet a “nice lady.” The nun terrified me even though she was my first-grade teacher and even though she was always perfectly kind.
School terrified me. It was new and different and NOT my bedroom where I could curl up in a ball in the closet and stick my fingers in my ears. At home, when the world pulsed too loud and bright, I could always find a quiet place to slow my breathing and calm my stomach. At school, people yelled at me if I fled into the comfort of the dark cloak room.
Powerful adult arms would lift me up and deposit me back into a cacophony that made me throw up.
The “nice lady” let me color quietly in a little book. She asked me questions and let me play games that felt like the puzzles my mother gave me at home. She smiled funny every time I finished one.
When I embraced queer, I embraced the power of odd.
When the nun walked me back across the sunny courtyard, my parents were waiting to take me home. She gestured them into a corner and talked to them for a long time, arms waving, voices so loud I stuck my fingers in my ears.
Sometimes when I tell people I didn’t learn to read until third grade, they look at me funny. Like, “Wow, I thought you were smart.” So, I don’t tell anybody. I also don’t tell anybody I’m autistic. Because it’s none of their business. Right?
I didn’t know I was autistic until ten years ago
Nobody did. The “nice lady” in the first grade? She was a child psychologist hired to evaluate me. My teacher told my parents she was afraid I was “mentally retarded,” a phrase that wasn’t as unacceptable 40 years ago as it is today.
I tested off the charts. I guess that explains the funny looks when I finished each puzzle so fast. I heard all about it because my dad boasted to everyone in earshot: “My son is a genius.”
I didn’t FEEL like a genius
I felt terrified and overwhelmed, mostly when I had to cope with groups of people. At home with the horses and dogs and nature and everything else predictable and routine, I was carefree and happy. I remember that, and my family agree.
I couldn’t learn in school
Class was too loud. Colors were too bright. My stomach couldn’t take it. First grade and second grade passed in a whir I barely remember. I don’t remember anything until third grade and the miracle of Miss Escrúpulo. I don’t know how she understood and made the time, but she did. For 30 minutes a day, she took me into a quiet corner and taught me how to turn letters into sounds into words.
After two weeks of that, lightning struck. I laughed with astonished delight once I understood the simple PATTERN. From that day forward, you couldn’t pry books out of my hands. I read all day and all night, sneaking a flashlight into bed. I devoured words and worlds. I obsessed. I learned to read so FAST it freaked people out. Sometimes my reading speed still freaks people out.
Next came chess.
For about a year, before I turned 11, all I did was play chess. Nobody could beat me, but I didn’t care about that. I hated competing, I loved the cool patterns. I thought about chess all day long and dreamed about it all night. I knew which moves to make before I understood HOW I knew.
Gay puberty knocked me for a loop
I fall in love at the drop of a pin. Always have. By the time I was 11 I was falling in the love with the wrong people. By the time I was 12, I knew they were the wrong people. The same father who boasted about his “genius” son preached at a fundamentalist baptist church that demonized gay people.
I learned I was gay about as fast as I learned how to read — meaning overnight. I did the same thing I always did when the world grew too loud and overwhelming. I ran into a restroom and vomited.
My body couldn’t handle the news. I was used to that reaction, but I wasn’t used to not being able to to make the stimulus go away. I couldn’t hide in a closet or a stable. I couldn’t plug my ears. I was gay from the inside out, and nothing was ever going to change that.
The intersection of queer and autistic
I’ve known for a long time that literal communication is not what “normal” people usually do. I’ve known for as long as I’ve known I’m not “normal,” meaning longer than I’ve known I’m queer, but not nearly so long as I’ve known I’m autistic.
Knowing isn’t the same as understanding
I get the idea that neurotypical people decode unstated meanings in writing and speech in AI-like flashes, much like I used to flash on patterns in chess. I can’t do that with writing and speech; my brain doesn’t work that way. I can decode unstated meaning, and I’m often thrilled when I do it right, but I have to think about it, and it’s HARD.
I’m much better at it today then I was 45 years ago, so just imagine the intersection of queer and autistic for 12-year-old me listening to hate speech roaring down from the pulpit. “Sodomite! Unnatural lust! Abomination!”
No wonder I threw up.
Coping with Queer
Coping with my identity as a gay man meant struggling to reject literal meanings of condemnation. Practically, that was pretty simple even if emotionally draining. I had to separate myself from the world that rejected me.
It’s funny, people talk about coming out of the closet, but for me, well … I don’t hate closets, I love them. Owning my queer identity felt as comforting as running into a dark closet and sticking my fingers in my ears. The shouting died down to background noise I could tolerate without throwing up.
Finding my tribe meant the word quieted down and hurt less.
Coping with Autistic
How can you cope with something you don’t understand, that you don’t even know exists? I managed. That first-grade school psychologist (and several who followed) wasn’t wrong. I’m plenty smart. When things clicks, I can master new skills so fast I shock even myself. That’s just how my brain works. But when they don’t click, I get frustrated and angry and can’t learn anything at all.
Somehow, without anyone teaching me, I learned how to find a mental place to make things click. I learned how to leverage my obsessions, how to go with the flow. I learned that if I felt compelled to spend two years learning French every minute of the day and night, I’d better give in, because the compulsion might never strike again.
I learned not to take jobs that required me to think in ways other people dictated. I learned to trust my creativity, but not to trust I could summon it on schedule. I learned I couldn’t work in crowds of people. I needed a door to close. I learned to tell people that was a deal breaker.
I learned I was odd, but odd was OK. Then one day …
I grew up thinking I was an odd duck because I was queer. When I embraced queer, I embraced the power of odd. I reveled in strange. I’ve always known my brain doesn’t work like everybody else’s, but I didn’t connect the dots until a therapist helped me out.
“Jim,” he said to me one day 10 years ago as we chatted about PTSD and fear management. “Has anyone ever suggested you might be on the spectrum?”
“Hell, yeah, Doc,” I joked. “I’m all colors of the rainbow. Fabulous!”
After he finished laughing, he said it straight out. “After getting to know you for a couple months, I’m pretty sure you have Asperger Syndrome. Would you like me to run some diagnostics to find out for sure?”
I aced the test. Asperger with a capital A
They don’t call it Asperger’s anymore. These days it’s “high functioning autism.” I’m not sure I like “high functioning,” though, because the word “high” implies a value judgment. If I’m high, which sounds like a good thing, then somebody else must be low, which sounds like a bad thing.
My brain works in geeky little ways like that. Does yours?
Disabled and differently abled
People with autism are sometimes disabled. I’m not, I’m differently abled. The way my brain works is totally cool with me, though maybe not with everybody else. I like some things about being autistic. I dislike things too.
Things I don’t like about being autistic —
- Understanding indirect communication is hard. If you tell me things “between the lines,” I likely won’t get it. I will probably know I don’t understand, and I will feel very frustrated.
- I rarely grasp sarcasm and simple humor. I love intricate jokes with plays on words, especially multilingual puns, and I often laugh because they’re so clever. I probably don’t laugh for the same reasons neurotypical people do, and I know I’m missing out on something, which makes me feel sad.
- I have a hard time recognizing faces. Not all autistic people do, but I do, and it drives me crazy. If you get a haircut and change your clothes, I might walk right past you. Not fun!
- People think I’m rude. Sometimes I’m rude on purpose like anybody else, but usually I don’t mean to be. I’m direct, because that’s how my brain works. I can’t always figure out how to be appropriately indirect. Plus, if I like you and I’m excited to talk to you, I can forget to be indirect and piss you off. Which is sad and frustrating.
- I get overwhelmed very easily. Today was a bad day. Things were too loud, too bright, and too constant. I couldn’t sit in a closet and stick my fingers in my ears, because I have responsibilities. So I felt nauseated most of the afternoon.
What I like about being autistic —
- Learning about autism has taught me I’m not super smart, I just have the ability to be super focused. I can geek out on projects, obsessing down into gritty detail that would bore the hell out of a neurotypical person.
- I can be very comfortable inside my own head. Quiet closets are awesome.
- I can do intense, focused friendship like nobody’s business. One or two close friends at a time are awesome.
- My ability to focus and see patterns is a super power when it comes to learning languages. Learning other languages is awesome.
- I can close my eyes and be part of a world I’ve never seen. My ability to focus on those worlds lets me write novels, which is … you guessed it, awesome.
- Because I have a hard time understanding indirect communication, I have mastered clear, direct writing. That can piss people off, so it may or may not be awesome, but I love it.
Queer and autistic, a double whammy
I love my identity as a gay man and I love how my brain works. Both conditions present me with challenges, but that’s OK, because it’s what I know. Coming out is a double whammy, though.
Being queer stigmatizes me among certain sets of people. Being autistic stigmatizes me among other sets. There’s some overlap, but not as much as people might think. Gay men can be very cruel. Jokes about disabled and differently abled people are rife in our communities.
I’m coming out very publicly today as a gay autistic man because I want to be free to discuss the issue on a personal level, and because I want to dispel some stigma.
I’m the same writer, activist, lover, husband, foster father, mentor, friend as I’ve ever been. I’m queer and autistic, and that’s OK.
James Finn is a long-time HIV/LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.