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Monday, September 3, 2012

Coming Out on the Autism Spectrum

Coming out is never easy. To admit to yourself that you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer is hard enough, but to say that to others, to be open about this aspect of yourself to the people in your life and the world at large, can be a petrifying prospect for anyone.  To do so as a person with an autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s in my case), however, presents its own set of challenges.  How do you join the LGBTQ community when you have a neurological disorder that is marked by social disconnectedness and awkwardness due to communication problems, not to mention serious difficulties understanding the nuances of social interactions that most non-autistic people learn naturally as they develop, and that they understandably take for granted.

This is the situation I found myself in this past January when I finally built up the courage to come out as a lesbian at almost 34 years old.  I’m proud of myself for taking that step, but coming out isn’t enough.  After all, what’s the point, in any practical sense, of coming out without joining that community?  What is the point of coming out if it means you’re still feeling just as isolated and alone as you did before?  Somehow I need to find a way to break through the difficulties associated with my disorder to become a part of this vibrantly beautiful community I see flourishing around me, both online and in my own community here in Utah.  I’ve tried, but so far my attempts have been unsuccessful.

You see, I don’t know how to easily strike up a conversation with a person, or how to keep it going in a socially acceptable way. “When is it my turn to start talking? To stop talking?” Those are questions of social reciprocity, the give-and-take flow that keeps a conversation running smoothly and naturally.  Those are questions that I have to constantly think about in a conversation, but that most people rarely, if ever, have to consciously consider.  That’s just the beginning of my confusion.  Next come figures of speech and things people say to be polite, but which aren’t meant literally.  I take things very literally (think Amelia Bedelia here) and wind up confused, or worse, completely misinterpreting a situation, leading to embarrassment and/or hurt feelings.  It took the first 31 years of my life, for example, to discover that when a person asks “How are you?” they are often just being polite and the appropriate response is “fine,” or something to that effect.  My immediate impulse (and what I did for the first 31 years of my life) is to answer the question honestly, and in great detail. 

Another problem is what they call “theory of mind,” the ability that most people have of being able to figure out what a person is likely thinking or feeling in a given situation. People on the autism spectrum have a lot of trouble with that.  Combine that with our trouble reading facial expressions and body language, and most people remain a mystery to us, all we have to go on is what a person is saying.  It turns out that most people, to some extent, don’t actually say what they mean outright so we’re often at a complete loss when interacting with others.

It’s true that we have these problems with everyone, not just the LGBTQ community, but it’s quite different in this situation.  A heterosexual person doesn’t have to enter a whole new community, different from the one in which they were raised, to meet other heterosexuals; they just have to walk outside their front door. Most of our society already is comprised of heterosexuals, and society itself is built around the lives of heterosexuals (however wrong and exclusive that is).  Minorities, who suffer from discrimination, need a community for support and fulfillment, as well as to help work towards rolling back the institutionalized discrimination, and most LGBTQ people were not born into this community; we have to seek it out and enter into it on our own.  

So what do I do?  How do I do this?  I attended our local Pride Festival this year with my daughter, and we spent a good deal of time in the Kid’s Zone there (she’s 4 ½).  I tried several times to initiate conversations with some of the people there, but all of my attempts failed.  Why?  I have no idea, but that’s usually the way it goes for me.  That’s another problem.  If no one tells me I’ve made a social blunder, then I won’t figure that out for myself, and therefore learn from it.  I have to be told.  Social rules don’t come naturally to me, I have to learn them the way other people learn a second language or the customs in a foreign country.

I’ve gone to the cafe at our local Pride Center, but most of the people were on their laptops, texting, or involved in what appeared to be serious discussions, so I didn’t want to interrupt.  I stayed there for about two hours sipping my latte before I left.  The only spoken interactions I had consisted of ordering my drink and asking where the restroom was.  Maybe I didn’t appear approachable, maybe I ought to have tried to strike up a conversation, who knows?  I know I didn’t want to interrupt anyone, and everyone seemed so busy, but maybe I should have tried.  I don’t know. These are just two examples of my attempts to enter this community, but there have been more, and each attempt has had similar outcomes.

From what I’ve written so far, my situation might look bleak.  I’m a newly “out” lesbian with an autism spectrum disorder, and I’m finding it difficult at best to navigate an entry into the LGBTQ community.  I refuse to give up, however, because this is too important to me.  I refuse to live my life alone and in isolation from a community that is so necessary for me to thrive, so I’ll continue to try.  I’ll find my way in because I have to.  Tomorrow I’ll take another trip into the city, my sweet daughter in tow this time, and back to our local Pride Center. I’ll order my latte and her juice, we’ll find our seats, and I’ll make another attempt. Wish me luck, I just might need it.