For much of my life it seemed like everyone else was able to express themselves in a carefree, effortless manner. But it was clear from childhood that I was not like most other people. I had to hide my behavior, mannerisms, and desires. Over time as I learned why I was different, and that it wasn’t acceptable to be different, I had the urge to live in the closet.
But I chose a more challenging path. I chose to come out.
It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But I’m not referring to being gay — yes, I’m gay — but my story is also about a second, simultaneous closet: autism.
When I was 40, a lifelong friend, who is incidentally a psychotherapist, suggested I might be autistic. He pointed out the social awkwardness, an overall sensory sensitivity — to bright lights and colors, the feel of certain fabrics, musky smells, certain sounds — and a penchant for logic that organized my entire life down to the most minute detail.
After I talked to a specialist, it was confirmed: I am autistic. But that is where my journey began. This is the point where I learned the parallels of my experience as a gay man and that of being autistic.
In 1973, the year I was born, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. A father of modern psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, believed that homosexuality and paranoia were inseparable. What he considered “symptoms” of homosexuality were very often a reaction to living an outcast life in shadows: seclusion, low self-worth, and self-destructive behavior. These things take their toll on the mind. For many decades the blame was on just about anything from poor parenting to vaccines. Homosexuals were subjected to behavioral conversion therapy, shock therapy, injections, beatings, removal from imaginary catalysts, and social shaming to drive the gay out of them.
These very things currently happen in the autism world.
I have witnessed with much pain that treatments are used today on autistic children to drive the autism out of them. But as with homosexuality, we now know through better science that autism has a genetic and environmental basis. This still doesn’t prevent professionals from advising parents to seek “cures,” ostensibly to make life easier for their children. I have read stories of religious leaders telling parents that their child’s autism is because of some previous sin or nonconformity.
Similar to LGBTQI+ people who lived through the hostile 1970s, '80s, and '90s, autistics now are timid survivors who often live unidentified and very often ignorant of what we are because a nascent autism science still very often sees us as sick or broken. A widely accepted symbol of autism, the blue puzzle piece promoted by many organizations, is a not-so-disguised symbol of incompleteness, of never being quite whole. There are still common references to “having autism,” as opposed to being autistic. The former is a direct reference to an illness and, some hope, a curable one. It is for this reason that today we don’t say I have homosexuality. No, I am a homosexual. Likewise, I don’t have autism — I am autistic.
As a gay man who grew up in these transitional decades, I am keenly aware of the parallels: the fear, the ignorance, the desire to be out in private but closeted in public. I see those who are not self-aware, but I believe that, even with identification, would live their entire lives in the closet.
Despite the fact that we still have the social challenges in our lavender world as well as confusion around autism, there is hope. Education and science have a tendency to bring truth into the ugliest corners of our world. This light banishes discrimination, ignorance, and stigma, and we draw closer to acceptance every day.
Autism is nothing new. Records abound of those who saw the world a little differently, who had a quirkiness that was intrinsic to genius. For example, many now believe the heterosexuals (so far as we know) Albert Einstein, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Isaac Newton were all autistic. Each of them claimed to be able to literally see a world that was grid-like and interlaced with an infinite number of connections that they expressed in mathematical terms. We can’t even begin to imagine what the world would be like without the contributions of those who many now believe lived under the LGBTQI+/autism double rainbow — geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci, Archimedes, and Nikola Tesla. Each of these dynamic artistic/scientific pioneers displayed well-known characteristics of homosexuality and autism, but sadly we may never know their status for sure, since identification was not an option or stigma prevented even self-realisation.
It is no wonder then that when my psychotherapist friend suggested I might be autistic, I had never heard of Asperger's syndrome — which, I learned after a thorough five-hour examination — is the specific category of my type of autism.
That’s right, in this day and age, with my penchant for all things science and being a hopeless news junkie, I had never heard of what I am. And being the consummate researcher, I immediately Googled “autism and LGBTQI+” organizations — and got nothing. No organization existed in 2013 that addressed those of us who live under the LGBTQI+ rainbow and the autism spectrum — the “double rainbow,” as I call it.
But my research discovered why: Gary Gates of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Williams Institute estimates that 3.5 percent of the population is LGBTQI+, and in 2013 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 50, or 2 percent, of the population is autistic. That means 3.5 percent of 2 percent of the entire world population is under the double rainbow. That represents over 5 million people, but spread over the entire globe — in every country, of every race and sex. Interestingly as well, Daniel Schumer of the University of Michigan recently found that nearly 25 percent of young people with gender dysphoria have an elevated rate of Asperger's syndrome and display autistic traits overall. So here is a direct connection with autism and transgender tendencies.
Thankfully, we live in a much more open society. Autism is a civil rights issue, and there are no sidelines in civil rights. This led me to form Twainbow, a not-for-profit advocating for those under the double rainbow. For 2017 we are now beginning a census of our population, directly lobbying for change to autism terminology away from illness-related terms as well as overall recognition that autism is a permanent normality.
Autism is normal for us.
There is no need to change who we are.
I am a proud autistic gay man.