"People who have autism are more likely to be queer or trans," Josh Thomas tells The Advocate, sharing the impression he was left with after reading personal essays and hearing anecdotal stories while creating his Freeform series Everything's Gonna Be Okay.
Introducing a queer storyline for leading character Matilda puts Everything at the forefront in providing visibility for teens on the autism spectrum who also identify as LGBTQ, or "dual spectrum." In the series from Please Like Me creator and star Thomas, Nicholas (Thomas), who grew up with his mom in Australia, chooses to raise his high-school-age half-sisters Matilda (Kayla Cromer) and Genevieve (Maeve Press) in their home in Southern California when their father suddenly dies.
The series was already a game-changer in having cast Cromer, who is on the autism spectrum, in a lead role. But exploring the rather large Venn diagram of people who are on the autism spectrum and part of the LGBTQ community is a first on-screen. Early in his (non-scientific) research for the show, Thomas noticed what seemed to be a high percentage of autistic people whose sexual or gender identities fell under the LGBTQ umbrella.
"I read up to the 12th essay [in a book about people on the autism spectrum] and eight of them identified as queer or trans. That was the first time I realized this is missing a lot." The gay creator, who also plays gay in the show, says that was a welcome discovery. "I was just really excited because I like having queer people in my show," he recalls.
Over the course of several episodes, Matilda explores her sexuality, first by blithely proposing a sexual experience with two friends, Jeremy (Carsen Warner) and Drea (Lillian Carrier). Thomas explains that his research showed that people with autism are typically good at absorbing their environments and that Matilda grew up around sex-positivity.
When Jeremy decides to bow out of the tryst, Matilda and Drea move forward sexually, form an emotional bond, and become girlfriends.
"These characters are very guided by discourse. I would say that Drea and Matilda would identify as pansexual," Thomas says. "[Their story] is about being true to yourself and very anti-shame."
Scientific research on a potential correlation between queer identity and those on the autism spectrum is paltry. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disordersfound that "about 22 percent of women and 8 percent of the men with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] reported some gender non-conforming feelings.... Compared to the general population, more (about one in seven of the women and one in 20 men with ASD) indicated attraction other than to someone of the same and/or opposite sex."
But there is anecdotal evidence from professionals in the autism field to support Thomas's theory that there's a lot of crossover of identities.
"What I have found in working with the populations of students over the last 16 years is that the majority of them are identifying as LGBTQ," reports Jane Smith, who holds a degree in psychology and works with students on the autism spectrum. Smith asked to use an alias to protect the identity of her students.
"The majority of the students that I have in my program are identifying [as part of the LGBTQ community]," she adds.
One theory about why there appears to be a higher percentage of autistic people who are queer than the percentage of neurotypical LGBTQ people is that those with autism have already dealt with being on a spectrum.
"They're focusing on forming who they are and [often] sexuality gets put off to the side," Smith says. "By the time they sort out 'I'm on the spectrum and this is what this means, this is where I'm missing social cues, and this is what I need to work on,' the sexuality comes trailing in a little bit later."
"Because they march to their own drum and they have this freedom of understanding of 'I'm different and that's OK,' their ability to accept themselves as having another spectrum within how they decide to identify is not as challenging as neurotypical folks."
"Individuals on the autism spectrum tend to be less influenced by or responsive to societal expectations or constraints," according to the Asperger/Autism Network's website.
A stereotype that Thomas smashes with Matilda and Drea's sweet loves story is that people on the autism spectrum are immune to emotion and heartbreak. When Matilda refuses Drea's proposal to prom because she's not cool enough, Drea breaks up with her, leaving Matilda devastated.
"One of the mistakes that people think about people on the spectrum is that they don't have feelings," Smith says. "It's a huge mistake to think that way. Oftentimes, I've found my students have so many feelings. They just don't know what to do with it because it kind of explodes out because they feel so deeply."
"There's this kind of movie-TV stereotype that [autistic] people are sort of robots," Thomas says. "If you've spent time with autistic people, more often than not actually there is an extreme emotional vulnerability."
Eventually, Matilda and Drea carve a path for themselves, which is indicative of Thomas's takeaway from researching stories about dual-spectrum people.
"It's exciting that people on the spectrum are boldly leading and as far as identity goes. They're more seriously being true to themselves, which is cool," Thomas says.
Everything's Gonna Be Okay's season finale premieres Thursday on Freeform.