Autism and gender

I came out as non-binary in mid-2018. My coming out was the result of a lot of reflection, soul-searching and talking to transgender autistic friends. I actually came out on Facebook before I told friends and family! It didn’t seem odd at the time because I live my life on social media possibly more than I do in the ‘real’ world. For at least three months after I came out I felt like dancing down the street. It was a complete liberation. I loved my new affirmed identity and felt like I could finally be myself after years of feeling something was not quite right about my identity. I am non-binary and transgender as I transitioned from being assigned female at birth to non-binary. I am a very proud trans person. I am also asexual and I should point out that while many people conflate gender and sexuality they are in fact wrong. Gender identity and expression and sexuality are very seperate things.

Shortly after I came out I was subjected to a lot of bigotry. I posted a coming out video series on Youtube and one of the posts attracted apparently every single trans[phobic bully on the internet – or it felt like it anyway! I had people  offering support and affirmation but I also had people who were filled with hate and bigotry. It seemed like every time I posted on gender someone would attack me. It took a few months to excise all the bigots from my social media but things are pretty good now. I hate closets and refuse to be closeted as a non-binary person. Closets are dark and scary and exclusionary. I am very proud of who I am. Recently I was in a mental health residential services and one of my fellow residents was very transphobic. Knowing I would be attacked I stood up to this person. It was really hard and there were many very unpleasant exchanges but I was true to myself. My dad recently said I am visibly happier since I came out. He was right, I am. It can be very frustrating being transgender as a lot of people are bigoted or respond with micro aggressions but I feel it is worth it. 

I want to talk about some issues around gender diversity and being out. The first is misgendering. Misgendering is when a person uses the wrong pronouns or uses your ‘dead name’. This happens all the time. In my experience pretty much everyone gets it wrong and often repeatedly. I have a few friends who have never misgendered me but I have had a lot more friends and colleagues who do it every single time. Mostly this relates to my pronouns as not a lot of people in my world knew me under my dead name. Misgendering is a form of invalidation. I always liken it to a person telling you their name is Frank and you saying “I don’t think you are a Frank. I think you are a Lisa so I will cal you Lisa’. Frustrating and invalidating! And when people doing the misgendering make it about themselves that is extremely difficult. People saying ‘They is not a singular pronoun’ or ‘that’s too hard’ absolutely infuriate me. If people get it wrong by accident I am not too bothered especially if they knew me before I transitioned but when it is intentional that is not ever OK. It really doesn’t take that much effort to get it right and is demonstrates respect and inclusion.

Another issue is assumptions. The number of times I get called a ‘lady’ or ‘girl’ is very large indeed and it always bothers me. I am not a lady, I am a person or a human. People make assumptions about gender identity based on what someone looks like. You should never do that. A person’s gender expression (ie how they dress) and gender identity (ie how they identify in terms of their gender) can be vastly different. I was talking with a trans friend and complaining that I am always mistaken for a woman and maybe my expression was too feminine and they responded that they only wear ‘masculine’ gendered clothes and they still get misgendered as female. The assumptions are really not OK. Never assume someone’s gender based on how they dress or wear their hair or other physical characteristics.  

Another issue which I have touched on is transphobia and bigotry. This is everywhere and is not ever OK. It is dangerous and threatens people’s mental health and wellbeing. I think most transgender people have been subjected to bigotry at one time or another. For some people who are visibly ‘different’ this can mean random violence and aggression from strangers. For people like me whose expression is slightly  androgynous we tend to get less random aggression when we are out in the world but we get attacked when we tell people that we are trans. It seems that gender diversity is an area where the bigots are pretty insistent and often fuelled by religious beliefs. Note to bigots: There is nothing in the Bible about transgender people and even if there was it was written 2000 years ago! Bigotry is dangerous and everyone has the right to live their life are from hatred.

In conclusion I love being transgender and non-binary. I am the truest version of me and that is a good thing. I wish I knew my identity years ago. It’s funny because nobody has ever responded with ‘You’re non-binary Yenn? Surely not!” My identity fits me and is like a warm inclusive hug. Being my transgender non-binary self is awesome.

The problem with functioning labels and autism

As an autistic person I often meet p[people who say ‘oh but you are so high functioning’ and think this is some kind of compliment. It isn’t. In fact the whole concept fo functioning labels for autism is highly fraught, unhelpful and misleading. The functioning labels describe a state of being for autistic people. They are completely arbitrary and do not benefit autistic people.

The idea of functioning is premised on the idea of a ‘norm’ of behaviour. Autistics deviate from this ‘norm’. The norm is seen as the pinnacle of being human. The idea goes that if you are ‘low functioning’ you are a long way away from that norm and if you are ‘high functioning’ you are closer to it which apparently is a good thing. I am an autistic advocate and espouse a neurodiversity and ‘different not less’ approach to viewing autism and other neurodivergences. As such I do not want to be closer to a ‘norm’ of being. In fact I don’t think there even IS a norm! And if there was I wouldn’t necessarily want to be like it. Masking / camouflaging comes into play here. As autistics we are told – either implicitly of explicitly – that we need to be ‘more normal’ and we are often bullied and abused for being different. This means a lot of autistics try to appear more like the ‘norm’ and try to squash down their autistic traits. This is not ever OK. In a better and more inclusive  world we would not need to do this.

One of the issues with functioning labels and masking is that it can mean we miss out on a diagnosis or other supports. The act of trying to be more like the apparent ‘norm’ means we get missed in term of support needs. Clinicians will deny an autism diagnosis because people ‘make eye contact’ or ‘are social’ not realising that the reason for this is that we are masking in order to survive.

The functioning labels are also unhelpful in terms of our ability to access support and how we view ourselves. I have a friend who has two autistic children. The oldest gets the ‘high functioning’ label. What this means is that they cannot access any support and also that people downplay their needs. Just because this child does well at school and holds it together during the day does not mean they are less in need of support. In fact if anything they need significant support. This child’s brother gets the ‘low functioning’ label. What this means is that they are expected to never achieve anything. They are not challenged and all of the expectations about this child are based on what they cannot do. This is also not a helpful approach to autism. The functioning labels – far from being helpful – present a misleading picture of these children and their capability and impact on them very negatively.

Functioning is also something which changes all the time. I saw my advocate colleague the excellent Jac Den Houting give a presentation a few years ago. Jac put up two slides of attributes. One slide was things considered ‘high functioning’ qualities and the second was ‘low functioning’ attributes. Jac then put up a third slide which said that both slide one and slide two were the same person – Jac themselves. This really resonated with me. I also vacillate between high and low functioning sometimes, even over the course of a few hours or a day. I was in hospital once and I got very paranoid and frightened and the nurse asked me where my support worker was! A couple of weeks after I was at Parliament House receiving an award. These extremes of functioning were definitely both me.

You probably know that the autism diagnosis in the current version of the DSM has three levels. Level one is what would have been called Aspergers Syndrome under the previous DSM. I have never really known what clinicians use to diagnose levels two and three as it all seems a bit arbitrary. I think level three tends to be non-speakers but I’m not 100 per cent sure of that – and sadly I suspect the clinicians aren’t either! These levels are very much based in the same concept as the functioning labels. It saddens me to think that the diagnostic criteria are based in deviations form the ‘norm.’ I don’t know how to address this as the diagnosis is not just for the purposes of identity but also for accessing support services and clinical services if we need them. 

I will share a personal story because I am Yenn and that is what I do! A few years ago I had a manager at work who was a bit problematic. One of my colleagues relayed something this manager had said about me which was ‘[insert Yenn’s dead name] should not say they are autistic because they are too high functioning’. I found this very upsetting and also quite ableist. This person had no idea of my life’s journey or my emotional and social issues. The Yenn that they saw was in their role as a corporate employee. This person had no idea of what I go through every day and they took it on themselves to decide how I should view my own identity. Sadly this sort of thing is all too common and it is not ever OK.

I think we need to remove the functioning labels from any discussion of autism. They are not helpful and not OK. I am autistic and that is that. My functioning is what it is and it changes over time and that is OK. The only discussion I want to see about functioning is when we need to access support in a specific field and the functioning discussion is about accessing what we need to achieve that. 

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it – The importance of representation 

Recently musician Sia made a film called Music which had an autistic central character, The actor who played this character was not autistic or neurodivergent and this caused-  rightfully – a lot of controversy. What interested me about this was that it caused controversy at all. This indicated we have come a long way in terms of the representation of autistic people. Of course it isn’t OK to cast an autistic character and have an allistic actor play them but up until quite recently it wouldn’t have been viewed as an issue. Representation has been an issue in many other intersectional communities. Representation is important, and for a number for reasons. 

I belong to three intersectional groups which have significant challenges with representation – in popular culture but also in leadership and political life. I am autistic and ADHD, have schizophrenia and am non-binary gender. All of these groups struggle with appropriate and positive representation. I will start with autism ./ Neurodiversity. Autistic people have only recently been included in a positive way in popular white. When I was diagnosed way back in 1994 autistic people were pretty much non-existent in popular culture until recently. Where there was an autistic character they were usually a ‘savant’ or a genius. They were pretty much always cis gender men or boys too. This has changed and we now have a range of autistic characters in the media, although they are still mostly – but not always – cis men.  Autistic characters are not always played by autistic people but this is changing. Autistic characters in dramas do seem to have quite stereotypical autistic characteristics and this serves to perpetuate some of the unhelpful myths about autism.  I feel like we are at a bit of a crossroads with autism ad representation. It is important to keep the pressure on where there are issues and to be supportive if a director or writer gets it ‘right’.

Moving onto schizophrenia and there is a BIG problem with representation. I would ask you to take a moment to identify any sympathetic or positive schizophrenic chatterers in books, movies or TV. I can think of three – Jahn Nash in a Beautiful Mind, Janet Frame in An Angel at my Table and me. (And I am not a character so that probably doesn’t count). Characters with schizophrenia are almost always violent and dangerous. They rarely do the things others do like having a job or raising a family. Every bad experience with a person with schizophrenia in the news compounds this. If we are moving in a positive direction with autism and representation we have not even started the journey around schizophrenia and representation. There are so few positive role models in the schizophrenia space. There is a saying, If you can’t see it you can’t be it and I think that is highly relevant here. Many years ago I was in a residential mental health service and a young woman there had just been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She asked me what it meant. I told her it didn’t need to mean anything in terms of what she could do with her life. I said it is an illness that needs managing but short of that it does not necessarily mean anything at all.

And to my final intersectional group in the space of representation – gender diversity. I identify as non-binary and transgender. Representation in the gender diversity space is really important. Historically transgender characters have only ever been figures of ridicule or disgust. Even now there is a lot of transphobia in the media. Transgender people face a lot of bigotry and it often seems like we are caught between the opposing poles of rampant bigotry and respectful inclusion. Popular culture definitely seems to reflect that assessment with representations swinging between ridicule and laughter and inclusion. Just a plug for a show I like…   It is called Work in Progress and has a wonderful tans man as the co-star. Anyway representation in the gender diversity space is extremely important. Well I guess representation in any diversity space is important, especially for younger people. 

We often use popular culture to inform how we see ourselves. So if we see a show that is transphobic and we are trans it will make it that much harder to be out loud and proud. But if we see a program that is supportive and inclusive we will view ourselves more positively and have a greater degree of self acceptance and pride. I have only really talked about representation in the media but presentation goes right across society. I think can all benefit form positive role models and representation of whatever groups we are a member of. Representation goes to politics, sport, work, art, writing and many other areas. And all intersectional groups face struggles with representation. Had I seen positive role models when I was a child and teen it would have made my life so much better.   This is an ongoing challenge.

What’s in a label or why I struggle with ‘I don’t want to label my child…’

I was talking to a relative about autism and a family we know that have clearly autistic children but have not sought a diagnosis as they ‘don’t want to label my children.’ This comes up all too often and it is problematic. Very problematic. The idea of autism being a ‘label’ and this somehow being a negative thing horrifies me. Autism is not a label, it is an actual thing. Giving a child a diagnosis can be incredibly helpful and open up new worlds of identity and self-knowledge. 

I have met a lot of autistic adults who went through the ‘we don’t want to label you’ thing and as soon as they left home they went and got themselves a diagnosis because they knew they were autistic and had been waiting for a diagnosis for years. 

And on the topic of ‘diagnosis’, that is actually quite fraught and is strongly suggestive of deficits. I don’t know how to address this. As it stands autism is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental health Disorders (DSM 5) but many autistic people – me included – see our autism as an attribute, a cultural difference and an identity, not a diagnosis so much as a way of being but that is beside the point.

Identity is important for everyone but particularly for autistic people and other neurodivergent folks. Our neurotype is a key part of what makes us who we are. Saying ‘I don’t want to label my child’ is denying us a key part of our identity. 

The ‘label’ issue is suggestive of autism being a negative thing, a curse or a burden. But denying us our identity is not helping us. Having the ‘label’ enables a child – and an adult – to understand ourselves better and to connect with like minded peers. It also enables use to access supports and services which will make our lives easier. Without the ‘label’ we cannot access these things.

Not wanted to ‘label’ is ignoring the fact that an autistic child actually IS different and getting through life without their identity is going to be harder than navigating life with that oh so important part of their identity, autism.   

I went through my childhood without a ‘label’ because an appropriate label simply didn’t exist. It was very hard for me to accept my autism because  it was an alien concept and I didn’t want to be ‘broken’ but when I did accept it it was a liberation. I loved my ‘label’ because it helped me understand myself so much better.

And not ‘labelling’ is actually actually quite foolish simply because a child – or adult – IS autistic whether they have the label or not. Worrying what others think about a child being autistic and judging them is likely to happen whether they have the label or not. You wouldn’t say to a woman “I’m not going to label you as a woman because people might be sexist.” Likewise saying ‘I‘m not going to label you as autistic because people might be ableist” isn’t very helpful. If a person is autistic then they are autistic. The word ‘autism’  can be applied for not – it makes no difference. If someone is autistic then they are autistic regardless of how you describe it.

I think the ‘not wanting to label’ approach is possibly based in fear and denial. I also think it doesn’t help autistic kids and in fact is a big barrier to inclusion. Having the ‘label’ can empower and encourage autistic kids and help them to accept and celebrate themselves. It also allows access to a neurodivergent peers and friends. The autism ‘label’ should not be seen as a negative but as a means of promoting pride and positive self-knowledge. I love my various neurodivergent ‘labels’ as they form the core of my identity and who I am.

Psychiatric medications and autism

I have been taking anti-psychotic medication since 1995. I have been on several different medications. I think I have tried all of them actually! I also take mood stabilisers and an anti anxiety medication.

Like many people with schizophrenia I often doubt that I need the meds. If I am well for a long period of time I imagine that I am OK and the medication isn’t necessary. I have discovered that I actually do need the meds through painful experience. A nurse told m that schizophrenia meds are like insulin for diabetics in that if I take them I will feel healthy by if I stop taking them I will definitely know about it! I had one episode of illness where I mistakenly believed the meds were causing my illness. I convinced my GP to reduce the dose! Obviously this meant I got more unwell and ultimately had to take more medication!

Some people think psychiatry is a bad thing and that medication is a means of control. I have some sympathy with this view but I also know my medication is necessary and with out it I will not be in a very good place, putting it mildly! I have been placed on treatment orders in the past and forced to take meds and it isn’t pleasant but being psychotic or depressed is also not pleasant.

Medications can have side effects. Anti-psychotics are particularly known for this. Common side effects are weight gain, dry mouth, tremors, sedation and movement disorders. Sometimes it is a trade off between the benefit you get from the medication versus the issues with side effects. For me as a person with schizophrenia it isn’t really an option to stop taking my meds so, like many people, I have to live with the side effects. However different meds can have different levels of side effects so it can be a bit of trial and error as to which medication has the lower level fo side effects as well as which one is more effective. Medications can also have interactions with other drugs. Make sure you tell the pharmacist what you are taking when you purchase any other medications, even over the counter things.

Many autistic people take psychiatric medication, particularly things like anti-depressants and anxiety meds. Autistic people often need a much smaller or a much larger dose of medication than others do. Autistic people can also have paradoxical reactions to medication. It is important to get a psychiatrist who understands medication and autism although there are not a lot of those around! With recommendations for clinicians I always advise asking other autistics in your area for suggestions about who is a good psychiatrist. Although it is important to know that different doctors work well for different people and often one person’s preferred clinician does not work out for them.

Talking of preference, I am often asked what medication I take from people who want a recommendation of what the best meds are. Sadly the meds that work for me may not work for others. Psychiatric medications are very much an individual thing. I recently started sertraline for anxiety. It has been very effective and my anxiety is much better controlled than it was. However I know that while sertraline works really well for me it may not work for others – or it might! Sadly psychiatric medications are a very individual thing and often some trial ad error is required to get the right mix for you. 

As a person with schizophrenia who has been taking meds for over 25 years I have realised that I will almost certainly need to take heavy duty medication for the rest of my life. Coming to terms with this requires a good amount of radical acceptance. In fact radical acceptance  is pretty much necessary for me with all my various brain-related differences, but accepting that I need to take meds which have side effects that could kill me (clozapine has some potentially life threatening side effects) and that takes away all my sex drive is really challenging. I don’t think I am quite ‘there’ yet but I’m working on it. Acceptance is a very useful psychological skill which can make life less challenging.

A lot of kids and teens take meds these days, especially for ADD / ADHD. I have heard people say this is a bad thing. I tend to think if meds help someone then they should take them. That being said – and I speak form personal experience here – if you have a psychotic illness like schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder – don’t ever take ADHD meds. ADHD meds are stimulants and they can trigger off the psychosis chemicals in your brain. This happened to me a couple of years ago and I am still recovering. 

Not all mental health issues can be treated with medication. And some conditions that benefit from meds also benefit from talk therapy, mindfulness or psychological therapies like CBT or DBT. Mental illnesses often respond to a combination of psychological therapies and medication. Some medications are used for multiple issues. Some anti-psychotics like Seroquel are used in low doses for anxiety or sleep and some anti-depressants are used to treat anxiety.

Despite the negatives I like my meds. They allow me to live a meaningful life (mostly) free from psychosis and depression. When I went on clozapine (anti-psychotic) I had tried all the other anti-psychotic drugs. I remember looking at the tablets in my hand and saying ‘be my good friend little clozapines’ and they have been. My psychiatrist says I am as good as he has ever seen me after I started taking clozapine and my thinking is clearer than ever so big yay to that! I also have an anxiety medication which I started recently and which has been life-changing.

Meds are a necessary part of many people/s lives. It is definitely not shameful or embarrassing to have to take tham. If they help you then that is great. 

Autism and sexuality and relationships 

Content warning: reference to sexual abuse

There is a pervasive stereotype that all autistic people are asexual and single. In fact there is a pervasive view that all Disabled people are asexual and single. These assumptions come straight out of ableism and are really unhelpful. 

The idea that we are all asexual seems to come from the view that we are eternal children. This is far from the truth. A huge number of autistic people have partners and their own children. Some autistic people are asexual just as some people in society more broadly are asexual but many autistic people have a sexual appetite and a partner or partners A lot of autistic people are gay, lesbian, bi, pansexual or polyamorous. People make assumptions that we might not be able to manage in a relationship or that autistic people don’t make good partners. I think that autistic people are just as likely to be a bad – or for that matter a good – partner as anyone else.

Some people think that any sexual relationship with an autistic person is exploitative and that our neurotypical partners must be abusing us as we are so innocent and childlike and incapable of ‘real’ relationships. Great big whopping UGH to that! Some people do exploit autistic people but it is certainly not that case that all relationships between a neurotypical and autistic person are exploitative. 

Many autistic people choose a partner who is also neurodivergent. These relationships can be very strong and inclusive as each partner is likely to ‘get’ their partner. That being said we have our differences too and some autistic people can be predatory. Your neurotype does not determine whether you will be a good partner – or a good human being for that matter!

Sex itself can be different for autistics. Many of us have sensory issues around touch. This can make sex a bit challenging. The key to managing this rests upon being able to articulate what is and isn’t OK and to convey that to your partner. While it can be challenging talking about these things it is really important to do so to ensure you enjoy your sexual experiences. Everyone has the right to gratifying and enjoyable sex – if that is what they want of course! I should note that there is a difference between having sensory issues around intimate touch and being asexual Having sensory issues does not necessarily mean a person doesn’t want sex at all. 

You have probably heard the term asexual which relates to someone who does not want sexual activity. There is another term which is ‘greysexual’. This is a bit like the gender identity of Demi boy or Demi girl. A Demi boy or Demi girl is a gender divergent person who feels a little bit masculine or a little bit feminine. Similarly a greysexual person is a little bit sexual. Greysexual people may have sensory issues around sexual contact – or they may not. I think it is wonderful that we have all these descriptors for sexuality and gender too. It makes it a lot easier to find others who share our experience.

Sometimes autistic people’s intentions are misinterpreted and we are seen as being predatory when that is not our intent. This is a huge issue. I know I used this example recently but I’ll use it again. I heard a story about an autistic young man who was on a bus. He leaned over and stroked a woman’s leg. He was not being a sexual predator at all. He was touching her silver stimmy stockings because he loved the look of them. Of course the woman didn’t know that and called the police. In her mind some creepy pervert had just assaulted her. In terms of predatory behaviour autistic people are sadly very likely to be on the receiving end. Teaching autistic kids and young adults about consent and body autonomy is really important because autistic people can be vulnerable to abuse. ‘Protecting’ kids form discussions around sex is not a good idea as ignorance can result in being less able to protect yourself. And in your discussions with autistic kids use clear specific language around body parts and activities, not vague discussions like ‘don’t let anyone touch you down there…’ Sometimes autistic people think that sf a person tells them something  is going to happen then we think we have to go along with that. There are some books about consent and autism available. 

Sexuality and romantic attraction can be different things. Actually gender identity, gender expression, sexuality and romantic attraction are all seperate, independent concepts. People often conflate these things but they are all different and often independent of one another. I myself an asexual but have romantic attention to androgynous folks – and police women for some reason! I am not looking for a relationship and have been single since 2004 but if the right person came along who was also asexual and who I found romantically attracted to I would probably have a relationship with them. 

Autism and criminal justice – Yenn’s story

There is a reason I am an author. In 2004 I was studying my honours degree in fine art. My work was very self referential and looked at my troubled past. Lots of people said I should write my life story. I ignored all of them thinking I couldn’t imagine anything worse than writing a tell all Yennski book. At the end of 2004 I met someone who would change my life, Polly Samuel. Polly was an amazing autistic author and advocate. We became friends and she did something nobody else had been able to. She convinced me to write my autobiography. Why did I agree to do it? Well Polly gave an example from her advocacy work. She told me that when she spoke to parent groups there was always a parent or couple sitting right up the back. They would leave before the end. These were the parents of autistic people who had committed crimes. When Polly said my book would be for these parents I realised I had to write it as those parents were also my parents. I wrote the book, it was published and I became the Yenn I am now, complete with books and talks and Yemes. Thank you Polly 🙂

People struggle to imagine this when they meet me now but for five years in my early twenties I was involved in the criminal justice system. My last offence was committed in 1999 so it is now ancient history but it was a hard time for all involved. I initially got involved in crime because I had a partner who was a very dangerous criminal. I was a naive twenty year old autist and it took me a very long time to figure out what he was doing. By the time I realised how dangerous he was I was in too deep. I knew if I left him he would track me down and probably kill me so I went along with his schemes, longing to be able to get free from him. We committed a robbery and both went to jail. It was the biggest culture shock of my life! I saw jail as being like school but a school where the bullies would actually maim or kill you. I set about masking like I had never masked before! I was so adept at masking that I fitted in perfectly and believed I was indeed a scary criminal. 

Being in jail resulted in trauma as I was afraid for my life every day. When I was released I self medicated with illicit drugs, I became homeless and got a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Life was very hard. I ended up moving in with my parents but that wasn’t ideal. After a year of me drinking heavily and using drugs when my parents were in bed I became very unwell with psychosis. I spent some months in hospital where I had a delusion that if I went to jail I would be cured of my depression. I committed crimes so I could go to jail. When I got there I became very institutionalised. I would be released and stay out for a week. I was terrified of how big and unpredictable the outside world was. 

When I finally said goodbye to the institutional life I was 25. I had a total attitude change and enrolled in university less than a year after being released. I have not committed any crimes since 1999 and consider myself to be highly ethical and decent. My criminal past has given me some challenges in terms of employment but other than that it is pretty much something from another life.

The reasons I had for being involved in crime can be seen as being related to my autism. I longed for social acceptance from my boyfriend, I found the outside world overwhelming and scary and I masked so much I believed the masked character of me was actually me. I will say that I take full responsibility  for what I did despite the causes and mitigation factors. While it is true that crime has a social element and causes, it is also a personal choice and I repeatedly made very negative and damaging choices which hurt others and that is not OK. I don’t walk through life constantly wracked with guilt and remorse but I am never OK with what I did because it hurt people.

Autistic people can commit crimes for a number of reason. Of course autistics can commit crimes for the same reasons that neurotypicals do – to support a drug habit, to settle a score or because they cannot manage their anger. But autistic people have a number of other reasons for committing or being convicted of crimes. Sometimes it relates to misunderstandings. I heard a story of an autistic young man who was on the bus ands touched a woman’s leg. She probably thought he was a creep and a predator but actually he just found her silver stocking stimmy. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations can be a big issue in this space. Autistic people can also be taken advantage of by criminals. We will end up carrying the blame while they get off without being charged. Institutionalisation can be an issue, as I found. Sometimes autistic people can end up in trouble and their manner during police interviews and courts make them seem guilty even if they aren’t. Differences in eye contact can be a big problem.

For me the biggest protective factor when I was in that life was my parents. They visited me every month and were always there for me. My mum since reported that the other middle class parents didn’t visit their prisoner children. I am eternally grateful to my parents for their support and I am glad I wrote the book. 

A matter of class – poverty, wealth and Neurodiversity 

We don’t talk a lot about class these days. Class is usually the domain of sociology professors and communists. However class or socio-economic status has a huge impact on people, especially Disabled people and neurodivergent folks. 

I was brought up in what you might describe as a lower middle class family. My attitudes have always been quite middle class, despite me becoming poor and inhabiting a very different world to the one of my childhood. I spent 15 years of my life in poverty. I was homeless and lived in supported and public housing for many years. I am now quite wealthy. I have owned property and currently live in a very flash rented apartment surrounded by nice things. I have actually always liked nice things but could never afford them. I now have designer this and bespoke that and am very comfortable indeed. I would even go so far as to say I am a little bourgeois. My journey out of poverty was an unusual one involving a lot of motivation and determination and a few lucky breaks.

When I was poor I didn’t mind having to be frugal. My problem with being poor was the complete lack fo choice I had in major life decisions. Accommodation was a constant nightmare and the lack of choice had me living in all sorts of horrible places. I lived in boarding houses and mental health residential programs. I had no say over who I shared my space with and some fo my housemates and neighbours were unpleasant quite violent. I spent years being an alcoholic in order to be accepted by my neighbours – most of whom were also alcoholics. 

What drove me to seek professional employment was actually being stalked by one of my neighbours. She had pursued me for many years and was violent and abusive. I realised that I needed to move out but I was on the disability pension which meant I wouldn’t be able to afford a private rental. I applied for government jobs, was successful and moved to Canberra to start a new chapter in my life. 

In Canberra I and a housemate who was something  of a bully. It took me a long time to work this out because the bullies I had met when I was poor were more overt in their problem behaviour. My Canberra housemate had all sorts of beautiful things and a sense of style but her life seemed to me to be quite empty. A friend who visited said my housemate ‘has nothing.’ It was interesting to compare the poor behaviour of a wealthy person with the poor behaviour of my public housing stalker. It made me realise that money doesn’t anything when it comes to a person’s character.

Socio-economic status or class is an intersectional consideration. People living in poverty form an oppressed group and there is often an overlap with other intersectional groups. Autistic people often struggle to find suitable – or any – work for a variety of reasons. This means that many of us are living in poverty. Being poor and autistic is not good. For one thing it can mean that we struggle to access a diagnosis or support as these can cost money. It can be very frustrating to be unable to secure work. Autistic people often have a lot to offer the workplace but can’t secure employment due to issues with recruitment processes or bad experiences in the workplace. Many Disabled people live in poverty de to being unable to work. I have met lots of people who are amazed that I as an autistic person with schizophrenia should have a professional job. I want a world where me having a job isn’t remarkable.

Another thing about poverty is that the idea of a sort of underclass culture. When I lived in public housing I had a friend whose partner was a carpenter. He earned as much as I didd when I first joined the public service. My money was all going into saving to buy a property but this person spent his income at the pokies and alcohol. So while he earned the same as I did his focus on what to use the money for was very different. My friend also had some attitudes about money which demonstrated a sort of cultural difference to my more middle class considerations. This friend inherited $80,000. Her sister – a public servant – said my friend should put a deposit on an apartment. My friend did not do this and for what can be seen as good reason: My friend had a three bedroom public housing flat that she could live in as long as she wanted and which had very low rent. Buying property would actually put her in a worse situation financially. Instead of putting the money on an apartment my friend spent a year going out for dinner, going to the pub and gambling. It is funny because conventional wisdom would say my friend was being foolish but she had a wonderful time.

I think attitudes around poverty can be unhelpful. We have this concept of the deserving poor. A lot of people won’t give money to beggars because they might spend it on alcohol. I tend to think that I often spend some of my salary on wine. How would I feel if someone said I shouldn’t do that? In fact nobody is going to say to a middle class public servant that they shouldn’t spend money on alcohol. So why is it OK to say that to poor people? It demonstrates a kind of paternalism around poor people. There is also that saying ‘he was poor but honest’. We don’t say that about wealthy people although many wealthy people are not honest! I feel that a lot fo the attitudes around poverty are quite paternalistic.

I am glad I am not poor at the moment, Poverty steals your confidence and your ability to have choice. I remember when I was poor I wouldn’t; go into ‘nice’ shops because I felt like a buzzer would go off saying. ‘Poor person looking at the shiny things!!!!’ and I would be ejected from the shop! Poverty did bad things to my sense of identity.

Thoughts on religion – or why I don’t want to argue about my favourite colour

Content warning: Bigotry

Upbringing 

I was born into the Christadelphian faith. Christadephians are Protestants but have quite unconventional beliefs. They are strongly focussed on Biblical prophecy and talk a lot about the end of the world. They like the book of Revelation and when I was a member they frequently predicted the end of the world. The Christadephians refer to their religion as ‘the Truth’ (note the upper case T). I like to joke that they put the fun into fundamentalist dogma but actually there wasn’t a lot of fun happening!

I remember being about 11 years old and realising that my life as a Christadelphian woman would involve me getting married to a man, raising good Christadelphian children and keeping my opinions to myself. Even at that age I felt trapped. At the age of 14 I left the church (or ‘the meeting’ as Christadephians call it) and never looked back.

I am not anti religion or anti Christian but I have some major reservations about organised religion. Fundamentalism baffles me. How do people know they are correct? How can people fight wars over which god is real or what happens after we die? The only person who could tell us with any authority what happens after death is a dead person and they generally don’t talk much. How can anyone know the ‘correct’ theology? They are interpreting texts and scriptures which were written thousands of years ago. You cannot just call God on the phone and ask Him what His thoughts are. I always say that arguing about religion is like arguing about your favourite colour.

Rules and morals

Most religions set out a set of rules or a moral code. With most of the established religions this makes sense and is based on solid ethics. But religions do not have the monopoly on morals and ethics. And sometimes people of faith are highly unethical and the rules they follow are not based in anything positive. Some of the most ethical people are atheists or agnostics.Many religious groups are highly homophobic and transphobic and this is not ethical or moral. It is just awful. To my mind it is immoral to be full of hatred and I can’t imagine the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament agreeing with such judgement and hatred. 

Many autistic people find religion very comforting and love to have the certainty that a faith gives them. Others however find being pinned down by rules and a prescribed moral code to be restrictive and unpleasant.

Religion and illness 

I am a person with schizophrenia who was raised very religious. This can cause some problems. When I am unwell my religious side goes into overdrive. It is usually frightening thoughts and delusions that I am in hell or purgatory. I become terrified that God is personally punishing me and making me suffer for challenging His laws. I see demons and angels and feel like I am a ghost. While when I am mentally healthy I am probably agnostic, when I am unwell I am thrown into a terrifying world of angels and demons. I think I have sold my soul to Satan and will spend eternity in the hell that is psychosis.

Bigotry and religion 

In Australia and may other countries there is a lot of bigotry associated with the Christian religion in particular but also in other religions. When there was a plebiscite on marriage equality in Australia a few years ago I heard countless horror stories of LGBTQIA+ people being targeted by Christians. One person was even assaulted by a woman hitting them with a Bible. In one instance a thirteen year old trans kid was attacked on public transport. This is never, ever OK and Christianity is supposed to be about love and kindness and forgiveness, not hatred and bigotry. Jesus in the Bible never instructed anyone to be homophobic or transphobic. I have been attacked by Christians in the past for speaking out about gender diversity and it just baffles me. I have read the Bible and Jesus was a lot more concerned about hypocrisy and people being judgemental than he was about them being gay or trans. I guess it is easy to attack people who are different but it definitely isn’t OK and it does not fit with the Jesus portrayed in the Bible. And anyway people using the Bible to justify bigotry should probably remember that it is a book written between 2000 and 3000 years ago and it says that all the animals in the world could fit on one ship so maybe not the most helpful justification for prejudice!

Despite all this I am not anti-Christian. Many Christians do exemplify the values that I think Jesus was talking about. Many Christians are not at all bigoted and are kind and respectful and supportive of LGBTQIA+ people. My parents would fit in this group. They left the Christadelphians years ago and I suspect that they haven’t looked back either. There are also quite a few LGBTQIA+ Christians. Religion and faith are a way of making sense fo a challenging world. Having a church or other faith-based community can be a great support and can be helpful for people’s sense of community, belonging and their mental health. 

Yenn’s faith  

I don’t really have a religion of my own. I tried – and failed miserably – to be a Christian for many years but it really wasn’t for me. That being said I am not a principled atheist. Given my own history and the large amounts of bigotry that I have seen from Christians I don’t think that Christianity is ever going to be my ‘thing’. I like a lot of the philosophy in Buddhism but I feel no need to become a practicing Buddhist. I am happy not being religious. I don’t pretend to know what happens when you die and I don’t need a prophecy or guidance from a minister, shaman or Imam. I am content to be an agnostic and I don’t see any value in arguing about my favourite colour. I don’t have any answers in the world of faith and I think that is perfectly OK. I will find out what happens when you die when I die – I suspect that it is nothing but am willing to have that challenged when the time finally comes.

Pride: A great way to change the world

‘Pride comes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction.’ I don’t often quote the Bible in my posts but this one is relevant as it was the message I was given about pride when I was a kid. I was brought up very religious and a lot of the messaging seemed – to me at least – to be that being confident around who you are was a failing. Not wanting to risk divine retribution but I would have to disagree with that approach. For autistic people and LGBTQIA+ people and anyone else who faces discrimination, hate and stigma due to their membership of one or other intersectional group, pride can actually be a life saver. 

If you belong to an oppressed group a sense of pride in who you are is actually a positive and highly political act. The Pride of oppressed people challenges bigotry and oppression and is usually a very good thing. 

Sometimes people ask me why I am proud of things I cannot help – my neurodivergences, my non-binary and Queer identity. The pride of oppressed people is not the same as the pride we have when we accomplish something impressive. Pride in the context of intersectionality and oppression is more about challenging the negative messaging and embracing yourself just as you are. It is also about expressing that pride to the world so everyone knows you are proud to be you and that you support others with a similar experience to you.

Autistic pride  

Autistic pride is premised on the notion that autistic people are valuable, worthy and an important part of human society as they are as autistic people. This does not mean they will not experience difficulties with some areas of life or that they don’t need support but it does mean recognising and fostering their strengths, talents and interests and supporting them to like and value themselves.  

Despite there being a lot more awareness and understanding of autism in recent years, we are still discriminated against. This is demonstrated in a number of settings from the still appallingly high rates of bullying of autistic kids in schools to the very low employment participation rates and low educational attainment statistics.

Autistic pride is a great way to counter this. If a person is genuinely proud of who they are and sees their autism in a positive light, as part of their character and personality, it helps them to navigate the world better. This is relevant for all autistic people – those who use verbal speech and those that don’t, those with all cognitive abilities and accomplishments and those with any additional ‘labels’ as well as autism. It is a quality that parents can play a huge part in fostering and supporting.

Pride feeds into a bunch of very useful attributes like self-esteem, self-confidence, resilience and independence. Even better, it allows us to value ourselves in the face of a world that often does not respect or value us and to educate others and advocate for other autistic people too. Someone who is filled with a sense of pride and self-respect is more likely to navigate life well, be fulfilled in life and achieve their potential. Without that sense of pride and given all the barriers stacked against us, it can be very hard to be who we want and need to be. Pride is great at helping to level the playing field for autistic people. It is one of those qualities which is pretty much always a good thing. The example that a person who is proud of who they are sets for others is fantastic and it also demonstrates a model of viewing autism through the lens of pride. This will almost certainty impact on neurotypical people and change their understanding of autism for the better.

LGBTQIA+ pride

Pride for LGBTQIA+ people is now the focus of many well established events in different countries. LGBTQIA+ people face significant discrimination and hatred and have done so for a very long time. Pride is a highly effective counter to this. When I came out as non-binary in 2018 I was so full of joy, liberation and pride that I wanted to dance down the street. Socialists talk about a ‘festival of the oppressed’ and that describes how I felt as a newly out and proud non-binary person. I marched in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 2019 – less than 12 months after I came out – and the sense of pride was palpable. I don’t think I have ever been happier than that evening with hundreds of thousands of people cheering us on and demonstrating their support. Pride is a really important part of who I am as a non-binary and Queer person.

Pride can be an amazing thing. Me showing my pride supports others to show their pride. Everyone has the right to acceptance and respect and to live a life free from bigotry, hatred and oppression. I share my pride with you because I hope it will change your life as it has changed mine for the better.