Autistic ≠ Asexual
I assume most of you reading this aren’t exactly on top of your Sesame Street news, which I’m only judging you for a little bit. In case you missed it, they added a regular character last year named Julia, an autistic four-year-old Muppet who flaps her arms and loves playtime and has a stuffed bunny/comfort object named Fluffster and basically I would die for her.
And you read that right, I said REGULAR character. She’s not just here for a Very Special Episode before disappearing completely — she’s now part of the main cast along with Elmo, Abby, Big Bird, and the rest of the gang.
This is an amazing step forward for the autistic community, who have always had a visibility and misrepresentation issue. Obviously Julia can’t represent the experiences of every single autistic child, and the show acknowledges this. When Big Bird asks an adult named Alan what autism is, he starts his explanation with, “Well, for Julia, it means…”, and goes from there.
Even still, the importance of having a character like this on a show with such a wide audience can’t be overstated. Today’s kids will grow up seeing an autistic girl (an underrepresented demographic in the already underrepresented wider autistic community) who doesn’t talk much, flaps her hands, echoes things, and gets overwhelmed by a passing siren, as just another girl in their neighborhood.
Even with this huge accomplishment, though, autistic representation still has a long way to go, especially once the media starts to skew more towards adults. That’s getting better too, though. Shows like The Good Doctor and Atypical have autistic people as main characters instead of the quirky side characters. There are valid criticisms of both shows, of course, but just acknowledging that the character is autistic at all shows how far we’ve come.
But one trope that pops up again and again is, whether both are explicitly named or not, linking autism and asexuality together as a package deal.
I mentioned this briefly in an earlier piece, but with both communities seeing a rise in visibility, it’s important that we crack into this right away. The idea that autistics are always asexual, and vice versa, is a myth. A dangerous one, at that.
“How dangerous?”, you may ask, whether as a way of asking the severity of the danger or even how it‘s dangerous in the first place. Either way, glad you asked!
How it’s Dangerous for Autistic People
Since we’re riding the Autistic Train at the moment (the softest and comfiest of all the trains), let’s start with why this myth is bad for autistic people.
As I mentioned before, autistic representation is slim, and not just on Netflix. Noted you-had-one-job organization Autism Speaks isn’t exactly known for letting autistic people speak for themselves. They didn’t have any autistic board members until late 2015, when they added 2 members. Since the board consists of 28 members, the board is still 93% NT (neurotypical) parents of autistic children. Like, imagine there was an organization called Women Speak, but its board consisted of 7% women and 93% men who have daughters. Wait, that’s the makeup of Congress, isn’t it?
Anyway, conversations about autism being dominated for so long by NT parents of autistic kids rather than autistic kids, teens, and adults has had serious consequences. This isn’t to say that these parents shouldn’t have any say, or that they can’t be great advocates for their kids or the community at large. But looking at autism through the lens of a parent trying to understand their kid has directly led to some of the annoying media tropes autistic people are now fighting against, from autistic kids being used as Inspiration for NT people to autistic people of all ages and abilities needing some sort of guiding NT figure to get through daily life.
Most relevant to this discussion, though, is infantilization. While this is mostly fine for autistic children who are literal infants, obviously, it becomes an issue for older autistic children, teens, and adults. How many times have you heard someone describe an autistic person as having “the mind of a child”? How many times have you seen autistic characters have some sort of “childish” special interest?
And how many implied-but-never-stated autistic male characters have long speeches to give about how they don’t enjoy dating or even see the point in it and women are icky but they’re not gay, etc. etc.? You know, like a little boy might talk about cooties but pull the hair of the person they’re interested in?
All of this has real-world consequences. Many people can’t even imagine an autistic person getting a date, much less having a sex life, because everything they’ve been taught tells them that all autistic people, regardless of age, are five-year-olds on the inside. So yes, they think, of course all autistic people are asexual, right?
As you can hopefully tell, this implication is insulting. Autistic people have just as much variance in sexuality as anyone else. Autistic people can be gay, straight, bi, pan, queer, and yes, ace. An autistic person is no more or less likely to be ace than a NT person.
“But MK,” I hear the contrarians say, “isn’t it still more likely, since autistic people have sensory sensitivities that could be triggered by sex?” Two things: 1) As the saying goes (and my apologies in advance for the person-first language, these aren’t my words), “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met…one person with autism”. It means different things for different people. One autistic person might hate the full body contact of sex and find it overwhelming, while another might find it deeply comforting in the same way that weighted blankets or pressure hugs might be. And 2), as I’ve mentioned before, sexual attraction, arousal, drive, and interest are all different things. Everyone has different levels of all four, and autistic people are no exception. In fact, there’s probably more than one autistic person out there whose special interest is sex! Someone please find those people, because THAT is the kind of well-researched, passionate sex ed we deserve.
How It’s Dangerous for Asexual People
If they do acknowledge it, it’s often in medical terms. They see it as a symptom of a larger issue, be it a mental illness or a physical one. I’ve heard asexuality “well, actually”ed into everything from depression to PTSD to diabetes, of all things.
And of course, there’s always autism. To clarify, autism is classified as a developmental disability, not a mental illness or disorder, but to the people trying to explain away asexuality, it doesn’t matter. That’s what’s “really wrong” with you, and that’s what you “need treatment” for.
The medical community and the queer community have always had a rocky relationship, and it’s no different here. Telling all ace people that there’s actually “something else going on” will lead to one of two things. The first is the person believes you, and undergoes dangerous (and depending on where you live, expensive) treatments to try and “fix” a “problem” that was never a problem to begin with and so can’t be fixed, which might lead to them actually developing depression or making the depression they already had even worse. The second is the person doesn’t believe you, but becomes afraid of even mentioning it at a clinic or in therapy for fear of having those treatments forced on them.
Either way, you’re not helping anyone. Maybe consider if you’re projecting, and in the meantime…
Why It’s Dangerous for Autistic Asexuals
You might have noticed I said that autistic asexual people do exist. Aren’t they at least getting something from this, you may well ask?
While it’s true that they do get to see themselves in these characters, as it stands right now, it’s usually limited and comes with a cost. Like I said, many if not most autistic characters are boys or men, and usually either the autism, the asexuality, or both are only implied, not outright stated. Not exactly helpful for people looking for representation, or even just an understanding of why they might feel different.
Because of this skirting around, and all the stuff we just talked about, “single autistic person who thinks they’re above sexual feelings” is now a stereotype. This means not only will people now get angry to see characters that represent an autistic asexual person’s experience, but they might even be criticized themselves for falling into the stereotype.
Breaking the stereotype is ALWAYS the job of the stereotyper, not the stereotypee. Still, everything I’ve mentioned is internalized by everyone, including people who are autistic, asexual, or both. Autistic people feel like they’ll never be considered as sexual partners. Asexual people feel like they should consider their entire medical history before committing to the label. And autistic asexual people feel like they’re stereotypes who just need to stop making excuses and put themselves out there more.
None of that is true, but that’s the message we’re sending. Diverse representation, both in the media as well as in government, education, and especially in organizations that are supposed to help these groups, is critical to breaking these oppressive thought spirals and fostering true understanding.
If you’re looking for better organizations to support than Autism Speaks, consider the Autism Self-Advocacy Network (they were the ones who helped Sesame Street develop Julia) as well as the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network. Do your best to push back against the infantilization of autistic people, the medicalization of asexual people, and the shaming of autistic asexual people.
And if the discussions get you too heated, you can always calm down by watching Julia fuckin’ destroy at Shape Hunt.