Written By: Jonathan Andrews
As well as being autistic, I’m also bisexual – and I’ve found many autistic friends or acquaintances tend to identify as non-straight, certainly more so than the general population. However, this is an area of autism with little research compared to others – and even less public awareness. Whereas many view the issues of sexuality and autism as totally separate, the truth is they overlap more than most know – particularly when bisexuality and gender identity are concerned.
Several studies have shown bisexuality to be over-represented among people with autism, sometimes extremely so –a 2001 studyfound just 50% of respondents identified as heterosexual, while 13% identified as bisexual (and just 4% as lesbian or gay). There was also a large 25% who responded ‘other’ or ‘undefined’, which likely included a good number of pansexual people (those who are attracted to people regardless of gender).
Other studies support the theme of over-representation among autistic people; one even placed the number at 35%. One recent study found higher rates of bisexuality was higher among women with autism, though this could be the result of men being more likely to be closeted just like in the general population.
This is backed up by numerous and varied testimony from autistic self-advocatebloggers, spokespeople, and others, who disproportionately identify as bisexual (as well as disproportionately identifying astrans* or genderqueer – calling into question the idea of autism as an ‘extreme male brain’).
The experiences of autistic bisexual people are, naturally, varied and depend greatly on the individual. Many with more severe forms of autism will be unable to express their sexuality – this, coupled with the tendency for society to view severely disabled people as asexual, means they are likely to live without ever having a partner. Naturally, though, this does not mean they are not bisexual.
Their severe communication difficulties can also put them at great risk of sexual abuse, whether from family, trusted people such as carers, or strangers. If they are unable to identify or understand their own sexuality – which is likely, since in addition to the difficulties severe autism brings, many also have alexithymia, and inability to recognise their own emotions and sensations – then sexual abuse can bring added trauma, further complicating their ability to understand themselves.
Even for those whose autism is mild, alexithymia can still affect their ability to understand their own sexuality. Additionally, a difficulty making and maintaining peer relationships means that autistic people tend to enter into sexual/romantic relationships later than most – meaning that while they may internally know they are bisexual at a young age, it will likely take them longer to have relationships with both genders (if, indeed, they choose to) – so others are less likely to view them as bisexual. Moreover, autistic people can appear content with a sexless lifestyle even if this isn’t the case, because of different ways of expressing emotions which aren’t easily picked up by others – so can be wrongly assumed to be asexual.
Those whose autism is either very mild or experienced in less visible ways are far more likely to be disbelieved when they are open about autism, under the reasoning that they “don’t look autistic” or “cope so well they don’t need a ‘label’” – which, when combined with people disbelieving them about bisexuality, can lead to stress, low self-esteem and a feeling of being misunderstood.
Some autistic people – especially women – can find it difficult to accurately determine “safe” people to enter relationships with, and so are more likely to experience domestic abuse. Much increased rates are also true for bisexual people – especially women – so when someone is both, they are at a far increased risk.
There has been comparatively little focus on intersections between bisexuality and disability compared to others, much less bisexuality and autism specifically. As a result, autistic people may not feel part of a wider bisexual community, and feel unable to attend events such as LGBT or Bi-specific support groups or workplace networks, or BiCon, because of these not being autism-friendly. Specifically, a lack of support for the different sensory experiences of autistic people (e.g. many are over-sensitive to sound, smell or touch, making large, crowded meetings in noisy places difficult) could exclude them from these areas.
Autism often occurs alongside other differences/disabilities/mental health problems such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, anxiety and depression (called co-morbidity); if bi events are also not accessible to autistic people with these conditions, they will be less likely to feel included.
However, while there can be challenges having both identities, there can also be advantages. Many autistic and LGBT people say they found having relationships with LGBT people easier (even when in an opposite-sex relationship between two bisexual people) because they felt less pressure to conform to a specific ideal and their traits and differences are more accepted.
Whether friends, relatives, carers, employers of autistic people, it’s important for people to remember that not everyone with autism is straight – just like not everyone with a disability is – and that many will experience issues related to both identities. Yet they should not be viewed as “unlucky”, or lesser, because of these identities – autistic people can have great skills to offer both work and society, and sexual orientation shouldn’t come into how people’s abilities are judged.