Blog by Charli Clement
At fourteen, I came out as asexual. A year later, I was diagnosed autistic.
My identities come together and intertwine for me, particularly in a healthcare context. As a chronically-ill-and-multiply-neurodivergent person who has been under physical and mental health services since they were ten years old, I’ve faced a lot of medical misogyny & casual aphobia and queerphobia.
I was often told I was too young to know I was asexual before I knew I was autistic, but people’s disbelief and want to explain it away suddenly became twofold at the point of me waiting for assessment and receiving a diagnosis.
When I was admitted to a psychiatric unit at age fifteen, I was told by staff that I believed I was asexual just because I was autistic. That I couldn’t possibly really know my own sexuality, and that I would grow out of it.
One day, I was talking to one of the boys on the unit.
“They told me my sexuality was just because of my autism”, he said.
I immediately said I’d been told the same.
“So you’re pansexual too?” he asked.
It didn’t really matter your identity to them - it mattered that you were autistic and that meant you couldn’t know yourself better.
Growing up with poor mental health as a result of trauma and not knowing I was autistic meant that I’ve also been told that when I get better mentally, my asexuality will just go away. There is an assumption by healthcare professionals that asexuality is something that will just change, and this seems to especially intertwine with their beliefs about autism or mental health.
Like many autistic people, I’ve often seen the tone of an appointment change immediately upon the professional learning of my diagnosis - becoming immediately patronising or talking to my mum instead of me. This often also has an impact on their biases surrounding my asexuality, where I’ve been told multiple times that I wasn’t “mature enough” to know it.
I’ve also been told repeatedly in a medical and casual social context that I must have a hormone problem. This is something said to many asexual people, but I find it is also often linked back to the fact I am autistic and experience multiple chronic illnesses.
When I was diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma which significantly raised my prolactin levels in 2021, it was implied to me by some that my asexuality might change after treatment.
This isn’t an impossibility, of course. Some people do identify as asexual and then find this does change with hormone changes, and those people’s experiences are extremely valid - but it shouldn’t be the first thing people say or assume when we come out.
Autistic people are more likely to be LGBTQ+, more likely to be trans or non-binary, and are also more likely to be asexual.
There’s no definitive answers as to why this is yet - some scholars argue it could be because we don’t conform to social norms and so might see gender or sexuality in a different light to others, and are less likely to feel the need to conform, and are therefore more authentic. Others argue there is likely a biological link, and others say it is likely a combination of the two.
What we do know for definite, however, is that, regardless of the reason, our identities are ours and are real and valid.
Part of the reason why both asexuality and aromanticism are often devalued in society is because of allonormativity (the idea all humans experience sexual attraction) and amatonormativity (the assumption all humans want or should be in a romantic relationship). Society places so much emphasis on sex and romance, that it is unfathomable for many that there are people who do not experience these in the ways that they do.
Not all autistic people are asexual, and not all asexual people are autistic. It’s a caveat I have to provide day in day out, almost every time I come out to someone. I shouldn’t have to - society should just accept that the two identities intertwine for many of us and make up our lived experience, without placing this as a belief on entire communities.
For me, I believe people do this partially because they view autistic people’s experiences of empathy and social situations in a stereotypical way, and automatically associate this with ideas that we couldn’t possibly engage in sex or relationships.
This is something actually almost backed up by the autism diagnostic process. In my Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) assessment, I was asked at length about relationships, whether I had a boyfriend, or if I wanted one.
I said no - I am demiromantic as well as asexual, and so only experience romantic attraction after the forming of an extreme emotional bond. That was taken as indicative of me lacking empathy or the social understanding for a relationship, but I’m actually one of many autistic people who experiences hyperempathy, and who understands but doesn’t value social norms.
It’s extremely frustrating for outdated or stereotypical ideas about autism to be baked into the diagnostic criteria and assessments as it is, but for me and many others, our sexuality, romantic orientations, and gender identities are simultaneously disparaged and belittled, too.
Asexuality and aromanticism are both almost totally at odds with the way our society functions and the norms people find themselves in - not unlike the way that autistic people challenge many norms, too.
For those of us who are both autistic and fall on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrums, we live a life of people not wanting to understand or believe in several parts of who we are; a dichotomy in their beliefs about sex and relationships, versus the way they medicalise our bodies and minds.