An introduction to the conference:
Dr. Damian Milton and Dr. Wenn Lawson have been kind enough to send us their presentations to use as an introduction to the conference’s subject matter, why it is important and timely. These presentations are useful viewing as an introduction to some of the themes that are going to be presented on the day.
Dr. Wenn Lawson’s video can be found here: Dr. Wenn Lawson introduction
This video concerns Wenn’s experience of autism, gender and gender transition. Wenn briefly explains how autism impacted his gender, what being ‘socialised’ as a female meant for him and why it took so long to join the dots.
Wenn, who is 66 years. old now (2018) began gender transition at age 60, with social, medical and surgical interventions between ages 61 and 66. His family have been supportive, although his elderly Mum is not accepting of who Wenn is today. Transition takes time and is a step by step process; many choosing only social and/or medical intervention alone.
Dr. Damian Milton’s video can be found here: ‘Here comes trouble’: Autism and gender performance
Presenters and abstracts:
Panel 1: What did you expect? Autistic lives queering perceptions
Pathologising the Past: Questioning Queerness, Diagnosing Disability and Assigning Autism – Jenni Hunt
Abstract: The term autism was first used in 1908, and applied to people we would now consider autistic in 1944, whilst male homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967. However, autistic people, and those on the LGBT spectrum, have existed throughout history. Unfortunately, often these identities left little in the way of evidence – with what evidence there is often created by those who aimed to discredit the individual they assigned with such an identity. Both LGBT groups, and those who are autistic wish to connect with their history, however for historians and museums identifying sexually and neuro-divergent individuals can pose a significant challenge.
By considering the example of three individuals often claimed as autistic, all of whom are also believed to have been non-heterosexual, (Alan Turing, Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci) I hope to show how British museums are tackling this issue, in particular examining whether these details are revealed in the presentation of these individual’s life-histories and work. I will also consider why this may vary between cases.
Rather than suggesting that a diagnosis of autism, or a sexuality label should be imposed directly on an individual whose story we cannot hope to fully comprehend, I instead suggest that museums embrace the concept of the queer and of the neurodiverse, recognising variation in individuals and acknowledging the barriers that they faced, but not attempting to pigeonhole them using terminology that is irrelevant to the life that the individual lived.
Bio: Jenni Hunt is a dyspraxic and autistic PhD student at the University of Leicester, who is examining how museums represent disability in their collections. She has previously worked as a history teacher and tutor, and volunteered in a number of museums, alongside writing a number of LGBT-focused short stories. Her research interests include the history of disability, the history of sexuality, and how museums have searched out stories that have been hidden within their collections. She has a twitter account @Our_Objects, where she posts a daily object linked to disability.
Not doing it properly: Tracking assumptions of healthy couple intimacy through an exploration of narratives of “non-sociable” autistic sexualities – Hanna Bertilsdotter-Rosqvist and David Jackson-Perry Presenter: Hanna Bertilsdotter-Rosqvist
Abstract: Asexuality and sexualities that prioritize objects or imaginary partners rather than ‘real’ human partners, are largely pathologised. People (not) practising sex in these ways may find themselves stigmatised and subject to educative interventions intended to bring them to a ‘healthy’, that is to say human partner-oriented, sexuality. Here, we use Gayle Rubin’s ‘charmed circle’ as a theoretical base to explore ways in which research into autistic accounts of sexuality may serve to confirm and perpetuate the hierarchies and definitions of ‘good, real and healthy’ sex. We consider this more particularly in relation to narratives of non-sociable sexualities (sexual expressions that do not involve a human partner or where another human is not the primary sexual object) and asexuality among autistic people on two online discussion forums, one based in the United States of America, the other in Sweden. In analysing these forums, we do not ultimately seek to better understand autistic sexual experience, but rather to explore how different meanings of non-sociable sexualities and asexuality are being used by autistic people to (re)negotiate meanings of autistic sexualities. We use our analyses of those narratives to deconstruct (NT) normative assumptions of couple (hetero)sexuality which dominate meanings of sociable sex. In doing so, we challenge how sociable sex is taken for granted, naturalized, and used to exclude alternative sexual expressions from domains of “healthy”, “good” and “real” sexuality.
Bio: Hanna Bertilsdotter Rosqvist is an Associate Professor in Sociology and currently a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social Work, Umeå University, Sweden.
Her recent research is around autism, identity politics, and sexual, gendered and age normativity.
Walking through Treacle: The lived experiences of autistic students in Further Education and Higher Education – Deborah Philip
Abstract: I originally started to explore the social and academic experience of autistic students and former students but after conducting fieldwork I quickly realised that I could not do this without exploring identity and intersectionality. As I started to interview my participants it became very clear that autism is ‘one story not the story’ (Runswick-Cole et al 2016:27) but that being autistic did impact upon issues of sexuality and identity. What I have found really interesting is that my participants needed me to know this at the interview stage as they all felt that it was inextricably linked to their identity and also their experience at either a college or a university. Every singly participant has either discussed a-sexuality, gender or gender fluidity, trans issues or relationship problems in an educational setting. Perhaps one of my most positive findings that is coming to light is that being gender specific or having a particular sexuality is less important than forming a meaningful relationship and the desire to conform to societal norms is not important: a finding I am working with as many educators believe autistic students struggle with this as autism is predominantly a social disability. I am sure this is true for very many autistic students but all my participants simply have no desire, as opposed to no ability, to conform. Some of the findings have certainly made me question some of the social training programmes we encourage autistic participants to join as part of their educational experience.
My research is qualitative, I have 8 participants and I am using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA).
Bio: I have been Head of Department in a School of Education and Professional Development in a University for the last 3 years but prior to that I had nearly 20 years of school and college based experience of teaching students. I have been an advocate for autistic people and their families for 21 years . I have never yet had a year when I haven’t taught, supported or supervised autistic students.
I am also a researcher investigating the lived experience of autistic students in Further Education and Higher Education.
In addition, I am the parent of a 27 year old autistic man who has been the impetus for this particular path.
Panel 2: Don’t tell me how to feel! Negotiating the normative gaze
As good or better: autistic relationships outside the gender binary – Felicity Sedgewick
Abstract: Having a stable romantic relationship or close friendship is valuable for mental and physical health and overall well-being. This is the case regardless of being autistic or neurotypical – everyone benefits from having people they can rely on.
Research into relationships, however, has so far exclusively considered those who are male or female, ignoring those who identify as non-binary. Considering the growing evidence that non-binary gender identities are more common amongst autistic than neurotypical people, it is important to know about the relationships of these individuals too. It has been theorised that the relationships of non-binary individuals may suffer, due to social stigma, but this has not previously been investigated.
As part of a large-scale online study, 486 autistic people completed the Unidimensional Relationship Closeness scale (278 female, 60 male, 132 non-binary). 203 people rated friends, 267 rated romantic partners (16 rated no-one).
On gender, we found that males rated their relationships as least close, then females, with non-binary individuals rating their relationships as closest. Romantic partners were rated as closer than friendships, as would be expected. We found an interaction between gender and person-rated, and further tests revealed that males rated their relationships as significantly less close than those of non-binary people.
These novel findings suggest that not only do autistic people have close and valuable relationships, but the patterns within these often echo those of neurotypicals. Most importantly, the relationships of non-binary people may in fact be ‘better’ than those of individuals who exist within traditional gender roles and expectations.
Bio: Dr Sedgewick is a developmental psychologist committed to understanding the lived experiences of autistic people. She completed her PhD on the friendships and relationships of autistic women and girls at UCL Institute of Education in 2017.
Her interest in autism and gender came from working in schools with autistic girls, who had different experiences and needs to autistic boys, particularly in the realm of friendships. Her research interests include gender differences on the autism spectrum, non-heteronormative gender and sexuality identities, mental health issues, and relationships. She is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at King’s College London on a project examining the overlap between autism and anorexia.
Winning at Sexuality: A personal reflection of passing in a hyper-sexualised world – Lexi Orchard
Neurodivergence and the Gaslighting of Rape and Sexual Assault – Susy Ridout
My contribution to this conference will be through collage. I shall offer some pieces produced in my journey during the report to court process and beyond. This medium facilitated my processing of information which had been gaslighted by service providers for many years, but which was ultimately raised through the Criminal Justice System providing a successful outcome. As a medium, it demonstrates the importance of visual images for some in the communication of our individual experiences as victims and survivors.
Bio: Susy completed her doctorate in autism in 2016 at the University of Birmingham on the subject of exploring mixed media as a means of locating the autistic voice to the fore in research, services and debate. Her research interests are narratives, autistic voice, intersectionality, disability service provision, survivors and wellbeing. She has built expertise as a mentor and academic skills support worker with autistic and disabled people in Higher Education and employment settings over 8 years.
As a neurodivergent survivor of sexual assault, Susy experienced a lack of support from services that were ultimately in positions of power to support. As a result, her journal of survival and recovery are not atypical of many autistic people today. As a means of processing her own emotions and making meaning of the institutionalised systemic chaos that he faced in the report to court process, Susy applied her own doctoral work to her experiences. Whilst in no means a method of demonstrating artistic ability, her focus is on demonstrating one way to story trauma and regain control in your life.
Susy advocates mentoring as an approach to examining barriers to learning, developing effective coping strategies and terminology used to voice these, whilst also being a key method of exploring issues relating to both disclosure and wellbeing within HE and employment scenarios.
Panel 3: Whose gender is it anyway? Services, access and identity
Narrating Autistic and Transgender: Implications for the Gender Clinic – Jake Pyne
Abstract: Those who have studied the systems that preside over access to gender transition, have often noted that there is no objective ‘test’ for transsexuality. Assessment in the gender clinic thus relies on the narrative provided – a trans identity must be storied. Yet recent research suggests a significant overlap between trans and autistic community and self-advocates such as Dawn Prince (2010) point to a persistent ‘language prejudice’ in the way neurodiverse people are evaluated and often made to fail against neurotypical norms. This presentation reports on a discourse analysis of 20 interviews with international clinicians who assess trans and gender diverse youth. Though this research did not set out to study autistic experience, curiously autism, both real and imagined, seems to be taking centre stage in the field of trans health. While guidelines recommend an autism diagnoses is not reason to deny or delay gender transition indefinitely, my findings suggest that neurodiverse trans youth are delayed or denied indirectly through a developing public narrative about who and what a trans youth is, and thus what one is not. More troubling still, recent media opinions suggest that some youth claiming to be trans may be “mistaken” and might be autistic “instead” (BBC, 2017). This presentation considers how and why the categories of transgender and autistic are seen as discreet “somethings” or “someones” (McGuire, 2016), and what this might mean for those who are both autistic and trans. As Hacking (2009) suggests, we might learn about X, by investigating what makes something not-X.
Bio: Jake Pyne is a Canadian trans activist based in Toronto and a PhD student at McMaster University in the School of Social Work and Gender Studies and Feminist Research. Jake has worked on projects to improve access for trans people to health care, shelter and housing, support for gender independent children as well as access to family law justice for trans parents. Jake’s upcoming postdoctoral project is entitled “Dis/human Others: A Discursive and New Media Exploration of Autistic and Transgender Forms of Life”. As a non-autistic researcher, Jake will work with a group of autistic trans co-researchers to creatively respond to the discourses they are subject to and to create resources, both discursive and material, through which autistic trans people might be better heard.
Gender Identification in Autistic Adults: Does Age Matter? – Laura Hull
Abstract: The proportion of people who identify as a non-binary gender or as transgender is higher in the autistic population than the non-autistic population. In the general population, initial research suggests younger adults are more likely to identify as non-binary or transgender than older adults. However, no research has yet determined whether the proportion of autistic adults who identify as non-binary or transgender varies across different ages.
Aim: To determine whether autistic adults’ different gender identities (cisgender female, cisgender male, transgender female, transgender male, or other gender identity) are equally distributed across age groups.
Method: 91 autistic adults aged 18-79 answered questions about their gender identity as part of a wider online study. Chi-square analysis was used to compare the proportion of different gender identities across age ranges in an online adult sample. Reflections on qualitative data are also discussed.
Results: No significant difference in the proportion of gender identities across ages was found, although trends suggested a greater proportion of transgender individuals in adults aged 50 and above. Some autistic adults identified as a binary gender, but said their gender identification was weak or fluctuated over time.
Conclusions: Research into gender identity in autism should consider autistic adults of all ages – non-binary and transgender identities are not restricted to younger generations. Future research could include options to report the strength of gender identity as well as categorical identifiers.
Bio: Laura Hull is a PhD student at University College London (UCL), based in the Research Department of Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology. She previously completed an MSc in Social Cognition at UCL (2014-2015) and a BA (Hons) in Natural Sciences at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge (2011-2014). Her research focuses on social camouflaging in autism – the use of strategies to compensate for and mask autistic characteristics during social interactions – and the impact of gender on experience of autism. Recent publications include “Putting on My Best Normal”: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions (JADD, 2017) and Protective effect or missed diagnosis? Females with autism spectrum disorder (Future Neurology, 2017). Laura’s PhD is funded by a Demonstratorship in Research Methods and Statistics for the Doctorate in Child & Educational Psychology at UCL. She also works as a PhD Tutor for The Brilliant Club, a charity dedicated to increasing the number of students from under-represented backgrounds attending high-level universities.
Experiences of Autistic Adults: gender identity, mental health and access to psychological services – Kate Whitaker
Abstract: This presentation will discuss the research I hope to conduct as part of my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Royal Holloway, University London. The research project, supervised by Dr Eilidh Cage, will investigate the experiences of trans*, non-binary, gender-fluid and gender non-conforming autistic adults, in relation to experiences of mental health and accessing psychological services in the UK. This project is in its initial phase, so the presentation would also be a consultation, inviting the views and expertise of the autism community, and incorporating this into the research.
Evidence suggests that autistic people are more likely to identify their gender as trans*, non-binary, or another gender different from that assigned at birth, than people in the non-autistic population. Autistic people and trans* people are also at higher risk of developing mental health problems and may experience barriers to service access. However, not much is known about the experiences of trans* autistic people, especially within the UK mental health system.
My research therefore aims to investigate trans* autistic adults’ experiences of mental health and psychological services. For this project, I hope to utilise both qualitative and quantitative methods. As well as looking for the themes in peoples’ experiences, I hope to find out more about what support is available, what is needed, what constitutes excellent care, and what barriers exist. I also hope to add to a growing body of participatory research, supporting the voices of trans* and autistic adults in influencing service provision.
Bio: Kate is a Trainee Clinical Psychologist from Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research interests include gender, autism, and time perspective, and she is committed to making research more participatory, accessible and available to the general public. She has a keen interest in social issues, especially the relationship between social and economic inequalities and mental health, and is a member of Psychologists for Social Change, a group interested in applying psychology to policy and political action. Kate is also a musician and, outside of training, works with the charity Girls Rock London, which aims to help girls and trans* and non-binary young people build confidence and self-esteem through music.
Transitioning in a neurotypical world: A critical autistic analysis on gender identity services – Olivia Astrid Pountney
Abstract: In a dominant cisgender, neurotypical, society being anything different to the norm can be an alienating experience. When having to prove oneself as “transgender enough” in order to access medical interventions to aid in gender transition, autism often acts as a gatekeeping barrier. Autism is still often seen by professionals as a childhood condition that impacts on the ability to make rational choices, and this extends into gender identity clinics (GICs), thus giving GICs control over trans-autistic identities and reducing us to an infantilised state where medical professions can mould us in their own image.
By sharing my own experiences, anecdotes and insights as an autistic transgender service user of (GICs) across in UK, I aim to shatter the stereotypes and misconceptions around us and expose unfair double standards that are placed on us. I also hope to shift the discourse of “the right to identify and be” away from the medical establishments, lawmakers and psychiatrists and place autistic-transgender people as the centre of this discourse.
Bio: I am an autistic transgender service user who is involved in the autistic advocacy movement. I believe that autistic people should be the ones leading the conversation around autism and autistic people, rather than the parent/professional–led organisations who currently dominate it. I have served and continue to serve on the committee of many autistic user led organisations, including Autistic UK. I use my duties and responsibilities as both an activist and a committee member to center the voices of the most vulnerable and marginalised people within the autistic community, as well as building bridges and connections to other networks where autistic voices may find solidarity and support.
Panel 4: Touchy feely? Contextualising sensory sensitivities
Spanking my sensory needs? An understanding of myself as a human, a sexual being and an Autistic – Jennifer Layton
Abstract: I love being spanked!
I love to wear rubber, be tied and suspended in rope.
I am an Autistic woman who has also identified since fourteen as bisexual, of non-binary gender, polyamorous, and kinky. It has taken me a long time to find these sex and identity positive words – much like the paradigm shift I made from having Autism Spectrum Disorder to being Autistic.
So on lots of counts I’m definitely not normal.
Am I sick though?
Psychiatry says I have (according to the DSM-5) Sexual Masochism Disorder, Sexual Sadism Disorder, Other Specified Paraphilic Disorder and probably also Hypersexual Disorder if it had made it in.
This push-pull between the covert pathologisation of human experience (and fun and enjoyment of our bodies) and the need to create self determined identities creates particular difficulties for Autistic women for whom there are yet no positive gender or sexual role-models.
I often wondered just why I liked what I did and if it made me as bad as some people suggested?
My sexuality has been used as a weapon against me, and as a means of control. It has caused family strife, and sibling hatred. It has burned me to the ground and lifted me up again. Yet, the process of discovering my Autistic nature and all that entails, has enabled me to definitively and positively answer these questions.
This presentation is dedicated to my partner who I first explored a lot of stuff here with died last week. I have dedicated this piece of work to him, because he was very instrumental in my initial awareness of this stuff about me.
Bio: Jennifer is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and also a Fellow of the National Institute of Mental Health.
She works with the Derbyshire Autism Partnership Board as a member with lived experience, to help shape the work being done locally for individuals on the spectrum and also works with Derbyshire Healthcare Foundation Trust to train and raise awareness of Autism amongst their staff whilst studying for her MSc in Mental Health Recovery and Social Inclusion
Jenn works with Derby Museums Trust as a creative producer, has trained as an NHS Peer Leader, and works as a member of the NHS England’s Co-production Group, specialising in the personalisation on mental health for the individual.
She is a mum, a partner and Autistic. She is passionate about social justice, culture and the arts and her little boy.
On sensory issues colliding with gendered school dress rules, including the lived pain and present issues for those of us in the generations who missed having any gender rights at school – Maurice Frank
Abstract: My sensory issue for shorts is my physical wellbeing, hence my total identity. Despite sensory issues being known, school dress rules still exist, including making older boys wear long trousers however hot it is. Told all the Schools Transgender policy writers: if I was a schoolboy now, I would pretend to be trans, to escape from the hurting long trousers. Less rough PE is another benefit.
It is important that trans supports within schools are more aware of autism and our needs. In order to be sympathetic when a child’s gender switch is motivated by sensory issues, or by discomfort with boys’ rough social culture: and to accept that this need and the gender discomforts were still genuine if the gender switch turns out to be temporary.
In adult situations fighting the present judgmental prejudice against men and social exclusion by it, it worked really well to withdraw social consent to manhood and call myself Imogen. I did this for 4 weeks in a workplace, and later, in a falling apart autistic society.
So it is sensible to opt out of usual gender to obtain fairness, adapting gender situationally.
Because I really did these adult actions, no-one should say to my school point: “yah you could never have really done it, because of bullying”. For the generations whose schooldays were before trans support, it is more oppression to fear getting told that now. If school trans support is effective against bullying now, so could it have been for us.
If it takes separation from peer group to protect a gender switch in school, for autistics I think it an attraction to get that too! But a concern and dilemma if success at acting trans necessitates taking hormones.
Bio: Scottish adult diagnosed aspie, with a strong sensory issue for shorts. Soft totally non-macho straight man disliking all masculinity culture. Childhood in south Wales 1970s-80s was devastated by getting believed gifted, for islands of ability now explained by autism. It encouraged wishful predictions, unsuitable conservative disciplinarian schooling, pressure trap, and crash at age 14. Equally domineering child psychiatry followed, and I had to escape by my teenage wits from 2 parties fighting to own my future. Life opportunities unjustly lost included as a child author.
Gardener. Lifelong passionate school libertarian, and I discovered Asperger’s through following that cause. I would never have been discovered by doctors, after the teenage story had left me unsafe to go to them. That is a moral object lesson against the unjust cruel idea of “letting go” and accepting life wrongs passively, and for sustaining a reforming anger about them.
To Hug or not to Hug: physical affection at the intersection of autism, culture and gender – Sonny Hallett
Abstract:Physical contact can be a tricky thing for many autistic people. Many of us are wary of it or even find it extremely uncomfortable, but many of us also really appreciate (even crave) it under the right circumstances. Either way, the social etiquette surrounding being physically demonstrative can be very difficult to navigate. When is it ok to ask for or refuse a hug or even a handshake? How can we be safe and learn to be confident in our bodily autonomy? How are these issues further complicated by culture, gender and sexuality?
Drawing on my own experiences as a non-binary (assigned female) autistic person who grew up between the UK and China – two cultures with superficially very different cultural norms regarding physical intimacy and body language, my presentation will explore the ways in which these factors affected my own attempts to navigate physical contact and assert bodily autonomy, what impact this has had on me in terms of platonic and romantic relationships, and more generally how the intersection between cultural norms, social expectation, and autistic experience can affect individuals.
I also hope to illustrate my presentation with some short comics about my personal experiences, which I would make available on the day and online.
Bio: Sonny Hallett is an artist, naturalist, and autistic activist based in Edinburgh. Growing up between two very different cultures (the UK and China), being interested in both art and science, being neurodivergent, and identifying as gender non-binary, it is probably inevitable that they are especially interested in the intersections between different identities – especially when those identities are often not so clear cut. Sonny is also a founding member of AMASE (Autistic Mutual Aid Society Edinburgh).
Jigsaw Identity – Gill Loomes
A painful, confused elision
The “autistic” piece
Girls aren’t autistic
Male disorder; male terrain
Extreme Male Brain
Holding up to the light
Staring, squinting, looking, measuring
Autistics and lesbians
Autistic boys: poster boys
Blonde boys; white boys
Peering through frosted glass
Where are all the girls?
Autie hand raised
The “woman” piece
Not being but doing
Boys’ clothes and dungarees and hairy legs
So “unfeminine”, must try harder
But “feminine” is tight and hugging and scratchy and stilted and false
And “ethics of care”
I care about justice
Compromises, sacrifices, acceptances
What looks good, what feels good
Sometimes an “and”, sometimes a “versus”
But from the compromises, sacrifices, acceptances
Comes a boldness of spirit
That says, “I am”
Autie hand raised
The pieces don’t always fit
And that line, that join tells a thousand stories
War stories, survival stories
Trace your finger over it and let it talk
The pieces don’t always fit
But they’re my pieces
Hard fought-for and hard won
I will not labour to throw my pieces away
I will not sacrifice them
Instead, I will smooth them, shape them; ease them till they fit
Comfortable and neat
Trace your finger over the line and let it talk
This is labour I will accept
The birth of autistic feminism
Claiming the pieces
Owning the pieces
And making them fit
Bio: Gill is currently doing a PhD (a socio-legal study of the Mental Capacity Act 2005) at the University of York. Gill is also a tutor at ACER – the Autism Centre for Education and Research, University of Birmingham – and has experience as a research consultant, including for the Autism Education Trust. Gill’s professional background is in advocacy, and she has a strong commitment to autism advocacy, and to its potential to support our communities.
A video presentation by Sonja Zelic titled: “Intimate lives? (originally Blue Movie)” will be shown in the main room during lunch time.
See Sonja’s poster, which will be shown on the day, here: InitimateLives_BlueMovie3
You can watch her video on her website: http://www.sonjazelic.com/blue-movie