In my last post and this one, I’m taking a quick look at a selection of four parents’ guides on autism and Asperger syndrome, to see how sex, sexuality, and gender are addressed. This is not a book review, but an overview of how these topics are presented in literature intended for parents of adolescents. Do these texts contribute to the erasure of autistic sexuality? What do the books have to say about gender?
It was inevitable that I would come down pretty hard on these books, but in my frustration I left out an important point: These guides are not “disgusting” works of bigotry. They’re unassuming parenting guides right off the “Children with Special Needs” shelf of a mainstream bookstore. They’re meant to help parents of autistic adolescents guide their children through the transition into adulthood, and in that regard they’re perfectly well-intentioned.
The problem is that a text doesn’t have to be overtly bigoted or hateful to exclude and become complicit in the oppression of gender non-conforming and non-heterosexual people. Even with all of the media attention given to same-sex marriage and, increasingly, to trans* issues, it’s mainstream culture itself that remains bigoted. The gender binary and its attendant gender roles are still deeply entrenched as “common sense.” Heterosexuality is still perceived as a basic, default, kid-friendly sexuality, while non-heterosexual orientations are too “complex” to explain to children.
As I mentioned before, Growing Up on the Spectrum nods toward the inclusion of homosexuality (only homosexuality, even though gay and straight aren’t the only choices) but the authors continue to frame relationships in terms of “opposite sex,” a phrase that is both homophobic and transphobic. (And nonsensical; a person’s sex doesn’t have an “opposite.”) The book also dwells on normative gender performance as a means of “looking good” and fitting in, placing it right alongside bathing and wearing clean clothes as if it is equally “common sense.”
On my last post one commenter asked whether I would expect the text to address “every possible relationship” and asserted that the book is meant to cover “the basics” and that to address queer identities would have been outside of the scope of its purpose.
The problem I see with this line of reasoning is that heterosexuality and gender conformity aren’t somehow more “basic” or less complex than non-straight and gender non-conforming identities. And the book’s purpose is to help parents guide their autistic children through adolescence into adulthood. Queer people don’t spontaneously coalesce as fully formed adults. We have childhoods, and we need guidance, reassurance, and validation through our own transitions into and beyond adolescence. Even if an author isn’t qualified to comment on queer issues, I don’t think an acknowledgment that they exist and a list of relevant resources would be too much to ask for. (Even big bad Autism Speaks does just that in its own materials for parents.)
In addition to the two books I have already mentioned, I took a look at two more books that specifically address “high-functioning autism” and Asperger syndrome. Neither book presumes to dictate gender performance, and both books address intimate relationships in neutral terms that emphasize forming healthy and fulfilling connections. This is all well and good on its own, but taken in comparison with the previous books I find it a little troubling. Autism Life Skills, the first book I mentioned, is directed at parents of children with a diagnosis of “classic” autism—children who are constructed as “lower functioning” than children with Asperger syndrome. It frames the avoidance of abuse and sexual assault as the primary—even only—reason to discuss sexuality with one’s children, and never addresses romantic or intimate relationships. The uncomfortable implication is that enjoying sex and intimacy is a privilege reserved for sufficiently “high-functioning” autists.
Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence, by Teresa Bolick, only briefly addresses sex and intimate relationships. The author initially remarks on basic interpersonal skills, like communicating and interpreting interest, and then focuses on safety. In one remark that stuck out to me, the author asserts:
…it’s very important for us to teach that romance and sex occur within the context of relationships. This is important for all adolescents, but it’s even more critical for adolescents with AS. Their interpersonal skills and social self-esteem are such that romance is unlikely to work except in the context of a strong friendship.
I’m not sure how to feel about that. I certainly don’t believe that sex has to occur within the context of a relationship, and I actually think it’s damaging to insist that young people treat sex as an emblem of emotional intimacy. I also don’t know exactly how I would talk to teens about casual sex. Popular culture has a general problem with wringing its hands over casual sex among teenagers while consistently failing to address the issue in any meaningful way.
In a chapter called “The Rules of the (Social) Road,” Bolick offers lists of bullet points that describe the bounds of socially acceptable behavior. A couple of these address gender, and those that do struck me as a little…odd. Under a section titled “Rules for Sending the Messages You Want to Send,” she writes: “Long hair (on boys or girls) is okay if it’s clean and well kept.” That’s perfectly admirable, but it’s also a little bit random and contradictory, since the same list of “rules” includes “Even if you don’t care that much about clothing and belongings, try to match the basic styles with the clothing of classmates.”
The same list of bulleted points also veers uncomfortably toward slut-shaming, with “Don’t wear ‘provocative’ clothing to school” because it might “make others think you’re showing off your body.” The rationale is that schools “want you to be thinking about schoolwork, not bodies,” and “besides, who can do schoolwork is she’s worried about falling straps?”
The fourth book that I took a look at is called A Parent’s Guide to Asperger Syndrome & High-Functioning Autism, and it’s the only guide that I might actually recommend because it seems quite thorough. (Though I didn’t closely read through the entire book.) It doesn’t presume to dictate gendered behavior, and in the section on sexuality and romantic relationships the authors avoid heterocentric language. The book also acknowledges the possibility that adolescents on the spectrum might not develop an interest in sex, though it doesn’t do so unproblematically:
For many, such as Temple Grandin, the option of living a productive life without a partner is more appealing and less complicated. As a parent of a child with AS-HFA, your mentoring can help your child understand relevant issues and make informed choices in this area as an independent individual.
I can’t and do not wish to rip that to pieces, but the wording suggests that autistic people who don’t pursue either sexual or romantic relationships (and one certainly can pursue one without the other) are ushered toward that identity because autism itself renders initimate relationships too “complicated.” It’s an assumption that subtly denies agency and erases asexuality as a valid sexual orientation, rather than a consequence of pathology.
I opened my previous post with a musing on whether the jumble of books available to parents of children with “special needs” reflect a coherent parenting culture. What is the relationship between spiritual books like Autism and the God Connection and the bizarre pseudoscience of “indigo children,” and practical parent guides? What about the proliferation of books about “overcoming” and even “curing” autism?
All of the subgenres of books and materials produced by and available to parents of autistic people offer a response to the cultural construction of disability as brokenness and lack. Guides like the ones I’ve looked at here offer advice on helping one’s child “fit in” and adjust “in spite of” disability, because the ultimate goal is to resemble non-disabled people—”whole,” “normal” people—as closely as possible. Spiritual and pseudoscientific texts that ascribe mysterious abilities to autistic people—or even more grounded, mainstream texts that extol the “gifts” associated with autism—appeal to a desire to find the silver lining of an otherwise debilitating and undesirable condition. The “gifts” associated with autism are a kind of compensation for the attendant impairments.
I understand that it can be overwhelmingly difficult to avoid perceiving autism as an expression of damage and lack. Mainstream media encourages parents to panic. Caregivers are overburdened, not because autistic people are a scourge, but because they are systemically denied compensation, respite, and access to community supports.
I would like to offer the radical and even inflammatory proposal that autism is neither a gift nor a curse. If there’s any “larger battle” to be fought, it’s the battle against structural ableism. A discourse that fixates on “fitting in” and uncritically mimicking socially acceptable behavior doesn’t just alienate queer autists, it marginalizes any and all autistic people who can’t “fit in” to a society created by and for non-autistic people. The rhetoric of “gifts” and “overcoming” is just a different facet of the same discursive paradigm, a paradigm that others and pathologizes. As long as the construction of autism as abnormality and lack goes unchallenged, institutional ableism will continue to harm autists, allies, and caregivers alike.