If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent way too much time on social media apps during the pandemic. While we’re in such a time of isolation, we’ve connected virtually in powerful ways. We’ve also done a ton of introspection and then shared what we’ve found with each other. Maybe you learned you love to bake sourdough bread. Maybe, like thousands of people around the world, you discovered that you’re actually not totally heterosexual.
And maybe, like many, many thousands around the world, you realized that you or your child is actually not neurotypical. As more and more neurodiverse people share how they experience the world, more and more people realize that Autism, ADD, ADHD, and a host of neurodiverse conditions present in many different ways. Not everyone presents like Rain Man, right?
This played out in my family. As the pandemic moved on and my partner and I spent way more time together than we ever have before, we began to notice that what other people were calling symptoms of neurodiversity, were things that she dealt with as well. Sensitivity to certain sounds. Inability to either move on from a certain task, or inability to stay focused on just one task at a time. Without a boss giving her deadlines or having to deal with a commute, suddenly her brain had the freedom to focus exactly how it wanted to. And I began to understand how she works in a whole new way, which led to strengthening our relationship.
As I simultaneously got closer to my partner’s parents and heard stories about her growing up, I began to wonder what it was like to raise a neurodiverse child. Her brain receives and disseminates input much differently than a neurotypical person. As a mom of four kids myself, I can only imagine the challenges that produced from the parenting perspective.
Now that I lead Pride and Joy Parents, a community of Rainbow Parents some of whom are queer themselves, I’ve begun to understand the need to learn about the overlap of neurodiversity and LGBTQ+ people. I knew the stats were out there but it was time to put them all into one place.
First let’s define neurodiversity. Lydia X. Z. Brown, a disabled and queer policy advocate, attorney, and expert, says that:
But that definition used the word “disability” a little too much for my liking so I liked this definition way better, from the National LGBT Center for Health:
For myself, I define it as a brain wired differently than what we perceive as the “norm”. And that’s important to this conversation because often compulsory heteronormativity makes us think that being straight and cisgender is also the “norm”. To me, that’s where the basis of the overlap begins.
If our brain is wired differently, it stands to reason that so is our body and hormones. But even more specifically, if your brain is wired to not embrace “normal” as the default, to not bend to social “norms”, then you’re likely to question your sexual orientation and/or gender identity at a much younger age.
Compulsory heteronormativity often dictates that we don’t recognize our sexual orientation or gender identity until later in life (me: coming out at age 38). But if your brain doesn’t use normativity to define what’s possible, then you’re free to explore all the options.
So is there a true overlap between being neurodiverse and LGBTQ? Let’s get that out of the way first.
In a word, Yes.
One study asked neurodiverse and neurotypical people if they identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum and the results were much, much higher in the neurodiverse group. For example, 22% of women (assigned female at birth or AFAB) in the neurodiverse group identified as Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) as compared to the neurotypical population of AFAB people identifying as GNC at about .5%.
Another study asked the same question but in another way. The neurodiverse group responded as “non-heterosexual” at a rate of 69.7%, all genders! The neurotypical group responded as “non-heterosexual” at a rate of 30.3%! The overlap is clear.
Now that we’ve defined neurodiversity and explored the stats of the overlap, let’s talk about what this means in real life, for our kids, and ourselves.
When a child feels or is taught that they need to mask their neurodiversity, it’s likely that they will apply that to their sexual orientation and gender identity as well. Additionally, when masking becomes the default, we can create a disconnect between our bodies and our souls.
I know that sounds woo-woo but imagine if you spent your developmental years trying to mask your need to fidget, your sensory issues, etc. then when your body is trying to tell you that this heterosexual relationship is damaging, you’ll likely try to mask that too.
This section of the SPARK article I found really drove the point home:
One of the best things we can do as parents raising neurodiverse kids is to help them connect with their bodies and emotions. The stronger that connection is, the more authentic lives they can live. Finding healthcare and social support that is cognizant of the overlap of neurodiversity and LGBTQ+ people is also incredibly important.
And herein lies one of the biggest challenges for a parent in my opinion. Neurodiverse people are three to five times more likely to also be gender diverse, or gender nonconforming (GNC). But in order to relieve distressing gender dysphoria, GNC individuals often need approval from a therapist and/or doctor to make changes to their legal gender. But if they also present as neurodiverse, it’s common for those professionals to see their gender nonconformity as a “symptom” of the neurodiversity, instead of a co-occurrence.
One article in Spectrum News put it this way:
An additional concern for parents is the increased link between neurodiversity and depression. This link has been well established for decades, as well as LGBTQ+ identities and depression. This could be due to “minority stress”.
To understand the concept of minority stress, I think about Black women and how we know that holding those two identities, Black and female, is exponentially harder than having just one of those. So consider being both neurodiverse as well as gender diverse. Is it detrimental to success? No. But does acknowledging the reality of minority stress on mental health go a really long way to increase quality of life? Absolutely.
Lastly, on the topic of parenting neurodiverse LGBTQ+ kids, a ton of the research I did point to lack of empathy as one of the traits of a neurodiverse child. And while I’ve seen that to be true in my interpersonal relationships, I’ve also seen the inverse.
Many of my LGBTQ+ and neurodiverse friends are actually on the other side, what I call “hyper-empathy” or commonly on social media as “empaths”. They’re overly aware of the energy another person exudes in the room or even over a phone call or even, watching a movie. Sometimes we poop on the word “empath” but having a lack of empathy is a commonly accepted trait of neurodiverse people and I feel like the opposite can also be true.
In the case of my partner, I’ve seen her unconsciously observe the sound my car makes pulling into the garage, the speed at which I enter our home, and the way I put down my purse and keys, to inform her decision to ask me “What’s wrong?” without even being aware that she was tracking those things. Yet when I question why she asked, she’s still able to point to the evidence that suggested I was upset.
Because I myself am still trying to strengthen the somatic connection between my emotions, my body, and my brain, her observations go a long way into helping me realize that a subconscious struggle is affecting my body and perspective. She is a powerful partner to have in my life.
If it’s a child, I can imagine that the hyper-empathy would make it extremely challenging to actually connect with yourself and sort out your own feelings about gender and sexuality vs. the feelings of all those people around you.
I’ll wrap up this article (for now because a conversation is definitely needed when it comes to neurodiverse LGBTQ+ people in the workplace) with a quote from one of the best parenting resources I found on the topic:
Are you a Rainbow Parent looking for support in raising your LGBTQ+ (and possibly neurodiverse) child? Join us for workshops, support, and conversation.
About the Author:
Elena Joy Thurston is an inspirational LGBTQ+ speaker, trainer, and founder of the nonprofit Pride and Joy Foundation. A Mormon mom of four who lost her marriage, her church, and her community when she came out as a lesbian, Elena’s viral TEDx talk on surviving conversion therapy has been viewed 45,000+ times and landed her media and speaking opportunities with ABC, CBS, Logitech, Michael’s, and more. Elena Joy recently launched Pride and Joy Publishing, the only publisher of solely LGBTQ+ empowerment and business books.