by Andrew Harris, MEd
This year, in honor of Autism Awareness month, I wanted to highlight the LGBTQ+ subsection of the autistic* community. I have had the privilege of working with a growing number of LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and more) teens and young adults who are on the spectrum, and through my work I have realized this is a population that is often underserved. I wanted to take time this April to highlight some of the things that I’ve learned about folks living at the intersection of these two identities.
In recent years, topics related to gender identity and sexuality have become more commonly discussed and queer people have become more visible in our culture. My lived experience at MGH Aspire reflects a similar trend; of the teens I’ve worked with this year, more than 10% don’t identify as simply ‘male’ or ‘female’, and close to 20% are members of the LGBTQ+ community.
My research into best practices and my work with these participants has highlighted for me that queer autistic teens and adults have a constellation of challenges and obstacles to overcome that solely autistic or solely queer folks do not. Having a queer identity usually means navigating complex social interactions (e.g., socially transitioning from one gender to another; advocating for others to use gender neutral pronouns), increased vulnerability to bullying and discrimination, and coping with the constant stress of society not acknowledging who you are. These challenges would be difficult for anyone to navigate; they are often doubly so for the teens I work with, who can struggle with self-advocacy and stress management. At MGH Aspire, we foster these skills and provide opportunities for our participants to further develop them. MGH Aspire strives to provide safe and supportive environments, giving opportunities for friendships to grow that can become the foundation for social support outside of groups. By better understanding the experience and needs of LGBTQ+ people, we have been able to provide strategies that are tailored to this population.
MGH Aspire's “3S” Model emphasizes the importance of developing self-awareness in our participants, and the facets of one’s identity (such as gender and sexuality) are at the core of this competency. We can support growth in this area by providing accessible education related to gender and sexuality. Learning about these topics in a place that feels safe and supportive and allows folks to feel comfortable asking questions is critical. Many of the queer autistic people I have spoken with complained of a lack of access to resources related to this topic in their childhood, adolescence and youth. These topics are integral to becoming an adult, and should be included in health and wellness education, especially for our population.
This year at MGH Aspire, we have reflected and implemented changes to our program spaces, curriculum and intake processes to ensure that they are welcoming and affirming for everyone. In support of our LGBTQ+ participants we have hung ally signs around our offices, trained our summer staff on queer topics, identified gender-neutral bathrooms, consulted to schools on these topics, and have presented at a conference about creating safe and affirming places for gender-expansive campers. For my part, I strive to provide education and opportunities to discuss these topics in our discussion-based groups and summer programs. Last summer, our teens began their own GSA (gender and sexuality alliance) club in Newton’s Explorations Program, a safe space to ask questions and discuss LGBTQ+ topics. At the core of our mission at MGH Aspire is the belief that diversity and difference are valuable and should be celebrated; we are proud to welcome and support members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Resources for additional reading:
- Gender Identity, Sexuality and Autism, by Eva Mendes and Meredith Maroney (former Aspire staff)
- GLSEN.org (amazing LGBTQ+ organization)
- thegenderbook.com (a great free resource for tweens and teens)
*A note on language – I will use identity first language when describe our participants in this article. While there is certainly no consensus within the broader autistic community, there is a strong majority within the group of individuals I have worked with, and they prefer to be called autistic people, not people with autism. I will also use the term queer when describing folks in the LGBTQ+ community; this term was once derogatory but has since been embraced by the community and become an affirming identity.