Neuroqueering Childhood Cultures

Education Matters
SoEResearch

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by Aneesh Barai

In this blog post, I invite us to think intersectionally about neurodiversity in relation to other kinds of diversity, and to take an intersectional understanding of neurodiversity to the point of disrupting and questioning normative ways of thinking.

The proportion of neurodivergent people who are queer is higher than the average proportion of queer people in society, and in recent years, major studies have taken place that have identified this higher preponderance of queerness in neurodivergent communities. The largest study to date by Warrier et al. took place in 2020, drew on data for over 600,000 people, and found that trans and gender diverse people had a higher prevalence of autism diagnoses and autistic traits. A recent study at Cambridge of over 2000 adults found that “autistic patients may be more likely to identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Asexual, and other identities not listed here (LGBTQA+)”. Similar studies have been done for ADHD, but often these studies appear to build from a limited understanding of gender diversity and sexuality, in one case focusing on feelings of dysphoria and problematically linking autism as a ‘disorder’ with the outdated concept of ‘gender identity disorder’, and in the Cambridge study above concluding that being queer might also lead to poorer mental health for neurodivergent people.

A very different view of the frequent overlap of neurodivergence and queerness can be found on social media, especially in the work of queer neurodivergent self-advocates. One person I’ve found really interesting to follow is Lyric Rivera, who is non-binary, Native American and AuDHD; they post under the moniker Neurodivergent Rebel, and wrote a blog post about their own journey to discovering the multiple parts of their identity. Lyric and others write about the joy of finding others like themselves in online spaces, and the feelings that come from both neurodivergence and queerness of existing beyond social norms. In the choice to name themselves ‘Rebel’, Lyric shows they clearly enjoy this position, in opposition to social norms.

Neuroqueering

Nick Walker coined the term ‘neuroqueer’ along with friends in 2008, and she went on to write the book Neuroqueer Heresies in 2021. On her website, she introduces the term as follows: “I originally conceived of neuroqueer as a verb: neuroqueering as the practice of queering (subverting, defying, disrupting, liberating oneself from) neuronormativity and heteronormativity simultaneously.” That is to say, ‘neuroqueer’ is not only an identity that one can be, intersectionally, as both neurodivergent and queer, but is also a way of acting and responding to the world. She explains, therefore, that the term is not exclusively for use by neurodivergent and queer people, but rather is for those who show “engagement in practices of neuroqueering, regardless of what gender, sexual orientation, or style of neurocognitive functioning they may have been born with” (emphasis in original). Walker sets out multiple possible ways of defining the term, and part 8 of her definition is particularly apt for educators:

“Working to transform social and cultural environments in order to create spaces and communities — and ultimately a society — in which engagement in any or all of the above practices is permitted, accepted, supported, and encouraged.”

This is a powerfully inclusive concept, that invites us all in to create our own inclusive spaces, to push against normative assumptions, stereotypes or stigmas that might limit the flourishing of queer, neurodivergent and multiply marginalised people. It encourages us not only to show awareness of identities that sit outside the norm, but to learn how we might set off into the world without referencing the ‘norm’ from the outset.

Children’s Culture

An ongoing example of how neuroqueering might interplay with children’s culture comes from the Disney+ animation Bob’s Burgers. The show targets a teen audience (rated TV-14 in the US, and 12+ on Disney+ UK), and presents what on the surface appears to be a relatively ordinary-seeming nuclear family who run a burger restaurant. It has been celebrated in research for challenging gender roles in the characters of the two daughters in the family, Tina and Louise. It is also often recommended in neurodivergent groups for its characters — Tina’s autism and Gene’s ADHD being the most apparent. Beyond that, what is interesting about this show is that all the characters exist seemingly oblivious to the concept of social norms. Bob, the father, speaks in a monotone, creates high-pitched voices for all his utensils and talks with them, and has meltdowns when faced with too much socialising; Linda, the mother, often breaks out into off-key singing, forgets what she’s talking about, and acts on her impulses. Although Tina writes erotic fiction about zombies, and has real difficulties in communication and social cues, it’s not until twelve seasons in that somebody calls her ‘weird’, and that storyline ends with a heartfelt speech from Linda affirming her identity as she is, and the value of “being brave and expressing ourselves” (Season 12 episode 22).

In terms of queerness, the show avoids the common trap of American comedies of making the idea of a man being attracted to another man as a joke. Instead, Bob expresses attraction to other men, and describes himself as “mostly straight” (Season 4 episode 5). Whenever the children imply that an adult might be attracted to someone of the same gender (such as Bob, or the Japanese movie star Shinji), they do not recoil from the idea, and often acknowledge the positive qualities of their suggested partner. Shinji, for example, says “He’s a very nice guy, but he’s not my type” (Season 10 episode 6). In such gentle ways, the show refuses to buy into heteronormativity, or to casualise homophobia. Gene plays with ideas of gender identity, such as saying of himself “I’m just a girl with a dream” (season 3 episode 20) and “I was born to be a mother” (Season 3 episode 15), but also refers to himself as a boy, and appears unconcerned by any contradiction or inconsistency in these claims. The people around him typically don’t challenge or seek to ‘correct’ him in his gender expressions, and he comes across as comfortably free in playing with ideas of gender fluidity. Marshmallow is a trans character who occasionally makes an appearance in the show, and is something of a heroic figure in Bob’s mind. He says of her “All I know about Marshmallow is that she comes and goes as she pleases, she answers to no one, and she is truly free” (Season 6 episode 14). When the showrunner Loren Bouchard confirmed on social media in 2020 that Marshmallow is trans, he announced at the same time a new voice actor for her, the Black trans femme activist Jari Jones.

Overall, the world of Bob’s Burgers is open to diversities of neurotype, gender and sexuality, destigmatising the differences between people, and instead inviting us to love and embrace all the characters that flourish in their unmasked neurodivergence and understated but consistent queernormativity. Collectively, this world presents its audience with the possibility of the neuroqueer, a space where identities are not policed and suppressed, and models the joys that might come from encouraging and enabling people to feel free to publically be who they are.

Dr. Aneesh Barai is Lecturer in Education and Children’s Culture

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Education Matters
SoEResearch

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