People with autism are far more likely than the general population to have non-conventional gender identities and sexual orientations. Here’s how to support them.
Note: This piece uses both person-first and identity-first language to reflect the different ways that autistic people like to be identified.
Educators are more aware than ever of the need for inclusion for students on the autism spectrum. They are also learning how to build LGBTQ2+ inclusive classrooms. But are they aware of the intersection between autism and sexual and gender diversity? Research shows that autistic people are far more likely than the general population to have non-conventional gender identities and sexual orientations.1 Yet most media representations of autistic people fail to reflect this sexual and gender diversity, leaving many service providers, professionals and family members unaware of these intersections. What do teachers need to know about autistic LGBTQ2+ teens, and what can they do?
Like other minorities, LGBTQ2+ and autistic teens face instances of marginalization and misunderstanding in various contexts, including within their own families. Both groups may struggle while negotiating common social situations such as dating and sexuality. The impacts of stereotyping, social exclusion and lack of self-acceptance place them at increased risk of mental health issues. Teens on the spectrum who do not conform to sex and gender norms have an additional set of challenges. Autistic LGBTQ2+ youth are more isolated and have fewer peer connections to discuss, share and ask questions about their sexual orientation and gender identity. They are more likely to have their gender dysphoria or same-sex attractions dismissed or challenged by people close to them. They also have more difficulties navigating systems and getting healthcare and other supports. Missed social and contextual cues can place autistic youth at high risk for victimization, bullying, sexual assault, and risky sexual behaviour. This is especially true for autistic females, who experience three times the rate of sexual victimization as their neurotypical peers.
Understanding Autistic LGBTQ2+ Teens
- Are more likely than neurotypical teens to have non-conventional sexuality and gender identities
- May not adopt the kinds of labels that are used by neurotypical heterosexual or LGBTQ2+ teens and may not be recognized or supported as LGBTQ2+
- Have fewer social opportunities to explore their sexuality and may have higher use of online material
- Are at high risk for sexual abuse and exploitation
Autistic LGBTQ2+ teens:
- Are at increased risk of anxiety, depression and suicidality
- Are at increased risk of bullying, victimization, sexual assault and risky sexual behaviour
- Often have their sexual orientation and gender experiences questioned by people close them
- May not feel supported or understood within LGBTQ2+ teen spaces
- Are unlikely to see themselves reflected in popular culture or school curriculums
What can teachers do?
Here are four practical strategies that teachers can use to support autistic LGTBQ+ students.
1. Build awareness and challenge stereotypes
The first and most important step for teachers to take is to build their own awareness of autism and sexual and gender diversity so that they can challenge stereotypes and build supportive, inclusive classrooms. Just knowing that students with autism are less likely to conform to a heterosexual sexual orientation and cissexual gender identity is the first step. The next step is to include diverse representations of autistic people in curriculum materials. Education about the sexual and gender diversity of autistic individuals can help normalize and support their experiences.
2. Teach about consent and social cues
Difficulties reading social cues can mean missed opportunities for social connection for students on the spectrum. Teach students the signs of what it might look like when someone might be attracted to them, and what are the signs that the person is not interested. Consent education is key, where autistic students are empowered to say “yes” or “no” in sexual encounters and learn to notice and respect the boundaries set by others. Proactive strategies can enhance personal safety by informing students of the risk and teaching assertiveness. Some students on the spectrum are not at the same point of readiness as their neurotypical peers to learn explicit details about sexuality. If you notice a student who is uncomfortable about the content, try to provide an adapted individualized curriculum that is focused on basic facts and personal safety.
When Sex Ed is Overwhelming
Kathy noticed that the girls around her were “boy crazy.” She had no interest in romance and wondered what was wrong with her that everyone else was boy obsessed. She was developing increasing anxiety about going to health class. They were talking about sex and other disgusting things but she didn’t want to miss class because she was a conscientious student with a perfect attendance record. She could feel her stomach hurting before health. After a few minutes in class the teacher began demonstrating how to put on a condom, using a banana. She couldn’t stand it much longer. Why were they forced to learn such private and disgusting things at school? She couldn’t bear it anymore. She ran out of the class and vomited in the bathroom.
3. Respect autistic students’ autonomy and capacity
Teachers may need to first alter their own attitudes so that they can see autistic teens as emerging sexual beings who are figuring out who they are and what they want, just like any other teen. By recognizing autistic students’ autonomy and capacity to define and express their sexual orientation and gender identity, teachers can empower autistic teens to understand their own gender and sexuality, social norms around same-sex and opposite-sex dating, sexual consent, and healthy sexual behaviour. Identities may shift and change during adolescence but it is still important to recognize and support the sexual orientation/gender identity and pronoun choices of students with autism.
When Pronouns Aren’t Respected
Stella always felt different from her peers and was bullied throughout elementary and middle school. She had her first crush on a girl in Grade 7 and immediately told the girl, who ridiculed and rejected her publicly in front of another group of girls, and on Instagram. Stella felt even more isolated and hated going to school. Things improved in Grade 9, when she met a group of peers through the LGBTQ2+ club at school and formed friendships for the first time. Many of them were questioning their gender identity. It confused her – if her friends identified as trans, maybe she was too? Although she wasn’t sure, Stella changed her name to Sly and asked her peers and teachers to use “they/them” pronouns. When a favourite English teacher refused to use Sly’s new name and pronouns, they began skipping class and engaging in risky sexual behaviour.
4. Respect autistic student’s confidentiality
Teachers must maintain confidentiality about autistic students’ sexual orientation and gender identity when interacting with family members or health professionals outside of the school. The decision to “come out” or disclose one’s sexual orientation or gender identity belongs to the individual. LGBTQ2+ students who are out at school, may not be out in other contexts. Outing them, whether accidentally or intentionally, may put them at risk.
When Teachers “Out” Their Students
Michael was diagnosed with autism at age two. In middle school, Michael became friends with Jared, who shared his love of science fiction. They watched science fiction movies together, swapped their favourite books and kept up on the latest astronomy research. Their relationship began to change in high school. Michael was ecstatic when Jared expressed feelings for him that were more than just friendship. Michael and Jared began making out every chance they could, including in the classroom and bathroom at school. Their behaviour made the other students uncomfortable and it was brought to the attention of one of Michael’s teachers. In a parent-teacher interview, the teacher told Michael’s parents about the relationship. His parents were surprised and unhappy to learn that Michael might be gay. They had always been very protective of him and questioned his ability to make good decisions about dating and sexuality. They forbade him from seeing Jared anymore and threatened to have him moved to another school. Michael thought that he would die if he couldn’t see Jared.
5. Identify students in need
Teachers are often the first to notice behaviour changes that may indicate that a student is at risk. They may notice changes in students’ hygiene and social behaviour, such as withdrawal or acting out. Reach out and talk to the student to find out if they are struggling and if they need additional support.
Strategies to Support Autistic LGBTQ2+ Teens
1. Build Awareness and Inclusion
- Build awareness and challenge stereotypes about autism, sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Promote autism understanding and acceptance in LGBTQ2+ school organizations (e.g. Gay-Straight Alliances).
- Include representations of LGBTQ2+ autistic people in course materials and specialized programs and workshops.
2. Teach Consent and Social Cues
- Teach students with autism about consent, social cues and boundaries.
- Provide individualized sex-ed curriculum at an individualized pace.
3. Respect Autonomy
- Recognize autistic students’ autonomy and capacity to define and express their sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Recognize and support the sexual orientation/gender identity and pronoun choices of autistic students, even if these shift and change.
4. Respect Confidentiality
- Maintain confidentiality about autistic students’ sexual orientation and gender identity when interacting with family members or health professionals.
5. Identify Students in Need
- Look for changes in your students’ hygiene and social behaviour, such as withdrawal or acting out.
- Tell them you’ve noticed something is different and ask them if there is something bothering them and if they want to talk about it.
First published in Education Canada, May 2019
1 K., Simon, “Is There a Link Between Autism and Gender Dysphoria?” Huffpost (Feb. 2, 2016), www.huffingtonpost.com/kyle-simon/is-there-a-link-between-autism-and-gender-dysphoria_b_3896317.html; J. Strang, “Why We Need to Respect Sexual Orientation, Gender Diversity in Autism,” Spectrum (Nov. 27, 2018), www.spectrumnews.org/opinion/viewpoint/need-respect-sexual-orientation-gender-diversity-autism/