It started when, earlier this year, a gay man was appointed as chief executive officer of the American Psychiatric Association. Like many, I was delighted to see that Dr Saul Levin was heading up an organisation which, only forty years previously had categorised homosexuality as a mental illness. Another first thought was along the lines of “Wow, I hope in forty years time, or less, I’ll be reading about the first autistic CEO of the APA too“.
More recently, Daryl Hannah has been talking about being autistic. In this case, and in other articles in which people share having an autism diagnosis, language such as ‘coming out of the autism closet’ is being used. This use of language obviously echoes descriptions of public figures who decide to declare their sexual alignment.
All this has got me thinking, about the parallels between autism and homosexuality. And about how, if some of these parallels hold true, my research will be viewed in the future. So what are the parallels? Let’s look at some examples…
“Autism is something you’re born with whereas being gay is a lifestyle…” Oh wait, no, hang on. That doesn’t work. I admit, I used not to be clear on this, but this excellent video asking straight people to think about when they ‘decided’ to be heterosexual makes the point much better than I ever could.
So let’s try: “Homosexuality doesn’t confer disadvantages on gay and lesbian people, whereas autism can be debilitating“. This one needs unpicking. First of all, forty years ago being gay was a pretty huge disadvantage. In the UK consensual sex between two gay men had been decriminalised, but only if they were both over 21 years and of course it was decades before this change in the law led to genuine shifts in society. Civil partnership between gay couples started in late 2005 and gay marriage was only legalised this year. Other countries still have appalling records on gay rights. And of course the wider challenges of being gay might include bullying, employment discrimination, and a constant battle with stereotypes. This might be starting to sound very familiar for autistic people.
Still, none of that is relevant to kids with autism is it? Bear with me! Lots of children with autism struggle to develop spoken language. It seems uncontroversial to suggest that their lives, and the lives of those around them, would be improved by having access to speech. But I can easily imagine a well-meaning citizen some decades back saying exactly the same about gay men and lesbians having ‘access to marriage’ and similarly assuming that the appropriate solution is to help homosexual people learn to be straight. Or else expecting them to accept a celibate lifestyle. What we now realise, is that what needs to change is not the gay person, but the society around them. It is still a long way off, but a similar attitude to the challenges of autism might stand us in good stead. Instead of pouring effort into getting people with autism to learn the habits of the neurotypical community, perhaps we should be thinking more about how to accommodate their alternative way of being into the world we all share.
I am not the first person to have considered these ideas – the existence of the Neuroqueer blogdisproves that claim! What concerns me now is how all this re-frames my research. For example, during the recently completed Click-East project I explored whether a bespoke iPad app could help young children with autism learn basic social skills. Now I wonder, is what I’m doing the equivalent of people in the 1950s attempting to ‘teach’ homosexual individuals how to convincingly learn aspects of heterosexual behaviour? I truly hope not.
One factor which gives me hope that my work does have a valuable contribution to make, is that autism is also highly associated with intellectual disability. Figures range widely but there is no doubt that there is a large sub-set of individuals diagnosed with autism who face concurrent obstacles to learning. While it is obviously also possible to be both gay and learning disabled, this is where the parallels end. Or is it? I suppose there is one more lesson to be learned from the comparison – and that is to learn to evaluate and address needs in independent categories. No-one would have any difficulty separating someone’s sexuality from, for example, their dyslexia. Can we apply the same logic to autism? There has been a lot of discussion of this recently, not least the recent NIMH Director’s blog suggesting that research should be driven by attention to symptom clusters rather than diagnostic boundaries. In this context, maybe it will become more possible to accept autism as a mode of living, while simultaneously providing support for difficulties such as language delays or disordered attention.