In the last couple of years, the field of research exploring the links between neurodivergence and the LGBTQ+ community has grown. Many queer adults who were not diagnosed as children are just now receiving neurodivergent diagnoses and information. Despite this (or, perhaps, because of this), neurodivergence is still misunderstood and underrepresented in the queer community. We created this blog post to highlight some of the basics of neurodivergence and how it affects the LGBTQ+ community.
The term “neurodivergence” describes a wide range of experiences and variations in social communication, learning styles, attention capacity, and other brain functions. Some examples of neurodivergent diagnoses are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and dyslexia. Although many of these identities are considered disorders or conditions, neurodivergence isn’t something that needs to be “cured” or “fixed”; neurodivergence is just one of the many aspects that makes you, you! However, a diagnosis can be helpful in gaining access to tools which help to navigate a world that was not built for neurodivergent people.
Neurodivergence is more common in the LGBTQ+ community than it is among cisgender, heterosexual people. Why is that? Researchers theorize that, as neurodivergent people are less likely to adapt to social norms, they are more likely to question and explore their gender and/or sexual identities (1, 2, 3, 4). A 2018 study found that almost 70% of people with autism identify as “non-heterosexual” (1). A 2020 study of 247 women with autism found that only half of them reported being cisgender and only 8% of them reported being exclusively heterosexual (4). Another study found that “people who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth are 3 to 6 times more likely to be autistic than cisgender people” (2). This study also found that gender diverse people were more likely to report autistic traits and suspect that they have undiagnosed autism.
Despite harmful misinformation about the “overdiagnosis” of certain neurodivergent identities (such as ADHD), the reality is the opposite for people in the LGBTQ+ community. Generally, LGBTQ+ people are less likely to get the health care they deserve and, because of this, are less likely to receive certain diagnoses and corresponding care. Cisgender women and AFAB people are chronically underdiagnosed when it comes to neurodivergence (5). Clinicians often misdiagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and ADHD as other conditions or behavior patterns in young, AFAB people. Diagnostic criteria are also not always inclusive of the ways neurodivergence can show up in people who are socialized as girls, as they often have a “quieter presentation” of traditional neurodivergent symptoms (5). Additionally, LGBTQ+ neurodivergent people experience discrimination related to their gender and/or sexual identity. According to a study from 2018, 70% of gender-diverse, autistic teenagers reported needing gender-affirming medical care, but 32% said that their gender identity had been questioned due to their autism diagnosis (3). Discrimination in the health care system as well as cissexist and sexist understandings of neurodivergence leave many queer neurodivergent people undiagnosed and/or unsupported.
Due to the many layers of financial, inaccessible, and discriminatory barriers that often prevent marginalized folks from receiving official diagnoses, the practice of self-diagnosing is generally considered an acceptable route for many to take; especially since the amount of neurodivergent support services specifically for adults is incredibly limited (6, 7). While self-identification isn’t enough support for everyone, for many folks, self-diagnosis empowers their understanding of themselves and makes it easier to seek out tools and resources to help them in daily life (6, 7).
Despite the barriers and discrimination that LGBTQ+ neurodivergent people experience, there is so much queer neurodivergent joy and celebration in the world. The past couple of years have also seen a rise in queer neurodivergent creators, entertainers, artists sharing their stories via mainstream channels. Here are a couple of our favorite examples of representation for queer neurodivergent artists, people, & characters:
- Josh Thomas is a queer comedian, actor, and writer who was diagnosed with autism later in life. His TV shows “Please Like Me” and “Everything’s Going to Be Okay” star queer characters & actors with neurodivergence.
- Hannah Gadsby is a comedian who also received an autism diagnosis later in life. Hannah talks about it in her most recent comedy special “Douglas”.
- Nora’s photography project is a response to the misinformation about ADHD and the focus given to cis men. Her photos highlight the lived experiences of those with ADHD that are not shared as often.
- The Autisticats are a group of autistic young adults that make digital content through their blog, Instagram, and Twitter platforms that revolves around autism research, resources, and their own personal experiences with ASD. The popular account, that currently has over 188K followers on Instagram and 28K on Twitter, is run by 4 full time admins: Eden, Leo, Abby, and Laurel, and a fifth content creator, Tee, who partners with the account often. All of them are part of the LGBTQ+ community and have made content specific to their identities within the community and how research has supported the overlap between autism and LGBTQ+ identities.
Resources for Neurodivergent LGBTQ+ People
LGBTQ+ Affirming Health Care
Do you think you might be neurodivergent and would like to speak about it with a health care provider? Check out our list of LGBTQ+ safe and affirming psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners on our Vermont Diversity Health Project.
- Why Neurodivergence is Also an LGBTQ+ Topic
- Neurodiversity & Gender-Diverse Youth: An Affirming Approach to Care 2020
- Largest Study to Date Confirms Overlap Between Autism and Gender Diversity
- Gender and Sexuality in Autism, Explained
- Why are Many Autistic Girls Overlooked?
- Self-Diagnosis-Friendly Resources and Communities
- To Diagnose Or Not Diagnose, That Is The Question