The Basics: What Is Autism?

Purple and blue box which reads "The Basics: What Is Autism?"

Welcome to The Basics, where I give an overview of a topic that I talk about a lot. This time, already more than a week late for the start of Autism Acceptance Month, I’m here to give an overview about autism. 

I talk about a lot of complex connections between autism and kink, autism and sex, autism and mental health, etc etc. I never want to condescend readers who are already immersed in the discourse, so I usually skip the bit where I explain what autism is and how it affects a person’s life. But there’s no shame in being unaware of exactly what autism is or what it’s like to live with – nobody is born knowing anything and a lot of conversations about it, like with most things, assume a level of knowledge that not everybody is going to have. If you don’t mind that this is a sex blog, this post will hopefully constitute a useful primer that you can send to your loved ones instead of trying to explain it all yourself.

Autism, originally named “autistic psychopathy” because psychiatric medicine was Like That, is a neurodevelopmental condition (that is, it affects the development of the brain), and some autistic people (including myself) regard it as a disability. (We sometimes refer to autism as a “neurotype” to indicate that it is not a disease or ailment but rather a valid way for a brain to be arranged. However, many autistic people express pride in their different neurotype, or neurodivergence, whilst still feeling like being autistic in a world built for allistic (non-autistic) people is disabling for them.) This of course means that autistic people are at risk of ableism perpetuated by individuals, as well as by organisations like Autism Speaks, which most autistic people hate for their emphasis on a cure, their advocacy for unethical practices including ABA, their puzzle piece imagery that suggests we’re incomplete people, and/or for the fact that only a fraction of the money they pull in is spent on helping autistic people in any tangible way (here’s a PDF from ASAN with more info). Because autism affects the brain, it expresses itself in a huge variety of ways, but some common ones can include hyper- or hyposensitivity of one or more of the senses, periods of intense hyperfocus on a singular topic or task, difficulty learning and applying social rules, and difficulty with interoception (the perception of one’s own body including hunger, thirst, etc). My favourite quote on this topic comes from Tony Attwood: “If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum,” i.e. autistic people are just as different from one another as allistic people are from one another. 

One thing that often comes up when autistic people talk about their experiences is the fact that they only represent, well, autistic people who can talk. Some autistic people never talk in English words at all, and some (like me) can talk your ear off until they’re overwhelmed, distressed, tired, etc, at which point they lose the use of most or all of their vocabulary. Some autistic people will find use in augmented communication devices that can say particular words or phrases for them, while others use sign language, write things down, or use a combination of different methods of communication. It’s true that I don’t know what it’s like to be an entirely nonspeaking autistic person, but I do know that nonspeaking =/= non-communicative. Some autistic people struggle to read tone, facial expressions, body language etc, but that doesn’t mean that these aren’t ways for an autistic person to communicate. I typically work on the assumption that all people have something of value to say, no matter how they say it, and that it’s worth trying to perceive the atypical, nonverbal ways a person might communicate.

As a linguistics graduate I also tend to assume that language is extremely important in most areas of human existence, but I’m confident in saying that it’s especially important when discussing disability, just as it is with other marginalised identities and groups. You might see a lot of autistic people talk about a preference for identity-first language, as opposed to person-first language. Person-first language refers to “people with autism”, while identity-first language refers to “autistic people”. Many autistic people, including myself, prefer the latter, as they feel that the former (often championed more passionately by allistic people than autistic people) linguistically removes their autism from them, positioning it the way we would a diagnosis of illness rather than neurodivergence, and implying that personhood and autism are at odds with one another. That said, we have the right to decide which language we identify with, and if someone tells you that they prefer to be called a “person with autism”, you should definitely listen to them. Also, given Hans Asperger’s relationship to eugenics as well as some people’s opinion that Aspergers Syndrome is essentially autism, but in a way that’s useful to capitalism, you shouldn’t apply the labels of Aspie or Aspergers to someone else unless that’s the language they use to describe themselves.

Since autism is technically a developmental disability, I once found myself punching one of my Year 7 classmates for using the word “retard”, which I think most people know is an ableist slur. Except I wasn’t defending my own autism; it would take 6 years after my younger sibling’s diagnosis for me to get mine, at the age of 14. There were a lot of reasons for this, but one of them was my assigned-female status that encouraged me to mask a lot of my difficulties and discouraged the adults around me from labelling them as autism. It is well-known that diagnostic criteria are usually sculpted according to the presentation of a condition in your average white male, meaning that many assigned-female autistic people are diagnosed late or never, as are autistic people of colour and autistic people with one or more additional condition. Autism is not a condition which significantly warps your relationship to reality, so you will find that a lot of autistic people (especially online) are self-diagnosed using the plethora of resources that are out there, and formally-diagnosed autistic people welcome them with open arms (and if they don’t, they suck and you should unfollow them), especially given the inaccessibility of a formal diagnosis if you aren’t a cookie-cutter white guy (and sometimes even if you are). 

Autism is often diagnosed in children, in part because they have not yet learned the bundle of masking techniques that make it harder to spot autism in adults, and in part because the diagnostic criteria were originally written based on only child subjects. However, because it’s how your brain is built, it’s a lifelong condition that affects adults as much as it does children, and autistic adults are out there in your communities, hopefully living fulfilling and safe lives. I say this because people often forget autistic adults in their zeal for helping autistic kids, when in reality autism can feel more disabling in adulthood because of the added pressures of employment, housing, etc. Upsettingly, this focus on kids still doesn’t result in them receiving appropriate resources. If you can deal with ableism and child abuse then I strongly encourage you to investigate the #StopTheShock movement, as well as to research the harms of ABA, or Applied Behaviour Analysis; both these things indicate a desire to remove a child’s autism, or at least make it less visible to surrounding adults, rather than increasing their quality of life and equipping them with skills that will make life as an autistic adult easier. Resources for autistic people in general are either non-existent or wildly condescending, which is one of the reasons so many of us are being shouty on the internet, and resources are even more sparse for adults than they are for kids. There are disproportionately more “autism-friendly” screenings of children’s movies than there are of teen or grown-up movies, and autism-friendliness seems to mean little more than “you can get out of your seat and the volume isn’t as aggressive” in most of these settings. Again, autistic people are as different from one another as allistic people are, so trying to make any venue or event “autism-friendly” sounds like something of a fool’s errand to me. (I need audio to either be nonexistent or painfully loud, for example, and dimmed lights make my head hurt because visual processing is not my forte even in regular lighting. This makes so-called “autism-friendly” screenings distinctly Morgan-unfriendly, but I’m glad that some people get benefit from them and I hope we can build on the model to allow even more autistic people, kids and adults, to enjoy cinema.)

There is a lot more to be said about autism and the amazing autistic people educating others than I can fit into a single blog post, but the key points are:

  • Autism is a brain difference that manifests differently in everyone
  • It affects sensory perception, social interaction and attention/inattention, among other things
  • It is a lifelong condition which many consider a disability, especially in a world not built for us
  • Most, but not all, autistic people seem to prefer identity-first language (“autistic person”)
  • If you say “retard” in front of me, in Year 7 or now, I will hit you
  • Autistic girls, people or colour and adults are underdiagnosed, but this doesn’t actually make them any less likely to be autistic
  • I personally stand strongly in favour of self-diagnosis for autism
  • Autism-friendly cinema screenings and shopping hours annoy me an unreasonable amount due to the aforementioned differences between autistic people’s needs
  • There are many, many autistic creators and educators whose voices are valid, valuable and worth your time to check out! I can’t link all of them, but here are a few:

 

Thank you for reading, and I’ll see y’all soon!

Eroticon 2019: How Accessible Was It?

Image is of Morgan, a blue-haired nonbinary human with facial piercings, smirking and holding their Eroticon delegate badge up to the camera. The badge reads "Eroticon, Morgan Peschek, @KinkyAutistic, Pronouns: They/them, Delegate".

(To those of you who follow me on Twitter and are bloody sick of hearing me talking about Eroticon, worry not! This is the last blog post I’ll put up that directly relates to it. Next week will be a continuation of last month’s stalkery Smut Saturdays story, and after that I have posts about why there are so many autistic people doing kink, how I feel about receiving cunnilingus and plenty more in the pipeline!)


It’s been just shy of a week since Eroticon 2019 came to an end, and I have to say: I loved it.

For those not in the know, Eroticon is an annual conference held in London all about sex, sex writing, sex blogging and sexy, sexy search engine optimisation. This was my first year attending (and was, in fact, my first experience attending any kind of conference) and I was anxious about every element of it, but I particularly wanted to discuss its accessibility since my whole Thing™ is about being simultaneously slutty and disabled.

I’ll start with the good things, and then mention areas for improvement, but I want to stress that Eroticon was an unbelievably positive and welcoming environment and that I could sense the whole time how much thought and care was poured into its planning and into making it as accessible as humanly possible. I already have plans to attend again next year and I’m even toying with the idea of pitching a session, so you can rest assured that even the things that were less than ideal weren’t nearly enough to ruin the fantastic experience I had. I’m also only going to talk about the accessibility of the conference itself, not the Friday night Meet And Greet or the Saturday night social, because those were hosted in a Holiday Inn entirely beyond the control of the organisers and because this post is running at too many words already.

The Good:

  1. Whilst trying to assuage my ever-growing anxiety about the fact that I was going to fucking London for a fucking conference, I spent hours studying the Eroticon website and was pleasantly surprised to find both a floor plan and a virtual tour of the building in which it was taking place. This is, as far as I’m concerned, an accessibility feature – being able to visualise a space before I have to navigate it in the flesh realm is anxiety-reducing and makes it marginally less likely that I’ll get lost. (I did get lost, but that wasn’t for a lack of signage in the building – I just get overwhelmed easily and forget how to read sometimes.)
  2. The aforementioned building, Arlington House, features a step-free entrance and both lifts and stair lifts to make all the rooms stairlessly accessible. I was thankfully having a good weekend in terms of my joint pain and stability, but knowing that I could have foregone the stairs if I’d needed to was a huge comfort.
  3. This only tenuously fits under the heading of “accessibility”, but the toilets were all gender-neutral, including the larger, wheelchair-accessible one. I suppose this is only an accessibility feature if you, like me, have debilitating anxiety that is worsened by dysphoria, but then again, all accessibility features are designed to accommodate specific needs that not every disabled person will have.
  4. The lunch options available were, as far as I could gather, brilliant for anybody with particular dietary needs – food that had to be allergen-free was stored separately from food that didn’t, and there was the opportunity to request vegetarian and vegan options and other such specialist things. Unfortunately, there was no “I am a fussy bitch baby” option, so the only things I could face eating were the fruit and the cake, but I can’t fault anybody for that – I have such particular, limited tastes in food that I wasn’t expecting to find much I’d like. I can heartily recommend the red velvet cupcakes, though.
  5. There was a room labelled the “Silent Sanctuary” where people who were overwhelmed, needed to rest, etc. could go to lie or sit down, and it even featured the thoughtful touch of colouring books. As I’ll go into below, it wasn’t perfect, but it was an enormous relief to slip into when I was finding myself somewhat burnt out and in need of some quiet crocheting time.

The Bad:

  1. Like most of the things I’m about to list, this was beyond the control of the Eroticon organisers, but it’s still worth mentioning for future attendees: the Silent Sanctuary was not silent. All of its occupants, when I visited, were exceptionally quiet and respectful, but its doors opened right onto the vendor area, so even when they were shut, a continual murmur of noise leaked through – and whenever anybody opened them, it was like being right back in that busy corridor. I appreciate that it was probably a priority to keep the Silent Sanctuary close to the busy vendor area precisely so that overwhelmed people like me could access it easily, and I’m not sure how anybody could have soundproofed it, but it’s worth bearing in mind so if you’re the noise-sensitive type you can consider bringing earplugs or ear defenders.
  2. The vendor area itself was the only place I ever visited where seating wasn’t readily available. I don’t know how they might have crammed seating in there for attendees, as it was situated in a corridor that saw heavy footfall most of the time, but my knees, hips and ankles were not best pleased about the fact that I had to stand for the entire duration of my (genuinely fascinating) discussions with various vendors. I can only suggest knowing your limits and maybe popping an ibuprofen before visiting the vendor area; the breakout space and all the talks had chairs available, so you could always duck out and plant yourself on one of those, but if you wanted to hang out with vendors and learn about exciting new products, it was standing room only.
  3. Again, I can’t blame the Eroticon organisers for this, but there were a lot of scents making appearances over the weekend. I’m not sure whether it was the rooms themselves that were scented with some kind of air freshener or whether attendees were wearing scents, but as a hypersensitive autistic baby, I found myself suffering bouts of nausea as well as more frequent overwhelm as a result of scents seemingly coming from all directions. I’m hesitant to suggest a no-scent or low-scent policy for next year because I don’t want to be entitled and demanding, but some people have migraines and other physiological conditions that are triggered by scents and others, like me, find them overwhelming even in small doses.
  4. I fully understand that hosting Eroticon in Camden makes it accessible to a lot of people who are arriving by public transit, and I also understand that finding an accessible venue that will host sex-related events is an unimaginable ballache. However, Camden is on the cusp of being financially inaccessible: even if you receive one of the tickets funded by sponsors, finding affordable accommodation and food in Camden is a whole task in and of itself, and if you choose to stay in an area of London outside of Camden you have to account for the price of public transport to get over to Arlington House. Again, I have no suggestions for where to host Eroticon instead, especially since Arlington House are an excellent organisation doing excellent work, but I have to mention financial accessibility, especially since us disableds are some of the people most likely to experience financial difficulties.

The Overview:

I had a brilliant time at Eroticon. I really, really did, and I cannot imagine a better first-conference experience than the one I had. The minor criticisms I have are all things that don’t fall directly at the feet of the Eroticon team and are near-impossible to remedy, but they’re things I wish I’d been aware of before I attended so I could make sure I had ibuprofen and earplugs – which is why I’ve mentioned them here! I’d love to meet even more members of this loving, supportive, truly incredible community, so I figured I could do my bit by equipping potential 2020 attendees with some knowledge that’ll make their Eroticon experience even better.

What Should I Do With My Body Hair?!

Image is a close up of a white person's skin with dark brown curly hairs growing out of it. It is unclear what body part the image is of.

I grow a lot of body hair.

Not a truly atypical amount for an assigned female, estrogen-influenced person’s body, just kind of… a lot. My hair is thick and dark, so it’s noticeable as soon as it grows in – on my legs, under my arms, along my forearms, between my tits, in a trail down to my mons pubis, and all over my pubic area itself. These are all very typical places for an adult mammal such as myself to sprout hair.

The conundrum is whether I should keep it.

The obvious answer, the one that everybody I ask defaults to, is that it’s my choice, and I should do whatever makes me most comfortable. But therein lies the problem – what makes me most comfortable is changeable and confusing. There are so many components to my comfort that it’s almost indecipherable, and I’m easily overwhelmed – so I figured I’d break down these components in a blog post, partly so that people in similar tangles can come to their own conclusion about their own hair, and partly as therapy for me.

First of all, there’s the gender thing. My gender is… unpredictable. Sometimes I’ll have a masculine-of-centre phase so long, so intense and so dysphoria-laden that I’ll genuinely consider medically changing my body through HRT or surgery… but then the pendulum will swing and I’ll find myself watching hours of makeup tutorials, dressing exclusively in skirts and contemplating growing my hair back out to shoulder length.  Equally, sometimes I’m just indifferent to gender and I simply want to do whatever is most convenient. As far as I can tell, my genderswings (y’know, like moodswings, but trans) aren’t linked to any environmental factors (though my masc phases sometimes coincide with lower mood, but that may well be because the low mood is caused by the dysphoria that accompanies my masculinity). There is no way for me to anticipate them, so I just have to maintain a level of androgyny that can be accessorised with to match my moods. Of course, body hair isn’t inherently gendered, but it’s perceived by other people as masculine and it feels masculine to me – so when I run into a masc phase the day after I’ve shaved my pits bare, I’m disgruntled. Luckily, my body hair grows fairly quickly, so as long as a masc phase lasts longer than a few days, I can revel in my hairy armpits for at least a little while.

That is, until the sensory side of it becomes unbearable. Autistic people can be acutely sensitive to particular stimuli – and, in my case, I’m hypersensitive to some tactile inputs. It’s not usually the hair that bothers me, though. I barely register my leg and arm hair, noticing them more by sight than by feel. The two big problems I have are my pits and my pubes. I use stick antiperspirant almost exclusively (due to my lack of proprioception making it inevitable that I’ll get spray deodorant in my eyes or mouth, as well as having lived with an asthmatic mum and then an asthmatic housemate for most of my deodorant-wearing life) and when you apply that stuff to a hairy armpit, it takes an age to dry, and feels slick and slimy for a ridiculously long time. Application to a bare pit, on the other hand, means that it dries in moments, as well as getting all over the actual skin I’m trying to deodorise, so I don’t have to deal with sweaty pits either. (For the record, I like other people’s sweaty armpits just fine, especially if I’m being sorta headlocked into them – but my own sweaty pits give me the bad autism somethin’ awful.)

Meanwhile, the pubes issue is rooted in a deep hatred for the way that menstrual blood interacts with hair, but is also complicated by vaginal discharge, lube and other people’s sexual fluids whenever those things enter the region. I hate having wet and/or clumped-together hair anywhere, but I have some particularly vivid memories of my labia literally being tangled together by menses-soaked pubes back when I used pads (and had heavy, birth-control-free fourteen-year-old periods, rather than the more manageable ones I have now), so now I keep my pubes trimmed out of habit and fear.

The third and final component of this conundrum is the feminist one. I’ve spent this evening researching criticisms of neoliberal, uncritically choice-oriented feminisms for a module I’m doing at uni, and it solidified what I’ve felt for a long while: that blindly advocating for personal choice in all matters is a woefully lacking feminist strategy, since all our choices are going to be influenced by patriarchal bullshit. To painstakingly remove all my pubic hair in an emulation of porn performers’ genitals (which are, as I understand it, hairless for cinematic convenience more than anything else) and insist that I’m doing it solely for myself, without pausing to consider why I think that emulating porn produced by cishet men counts as an act of self-care… it would be naive at best and wilfully ignorant and apolitical at worst. So instead, I have spent many, many hours agonising over what I should do with my body hair, well aware that I’m taking into account my own aesthetic preferences (influenced by pop culture, porn and patriarchy) and those of others (including people who don’t even see my genitals any more!) alongside the factors I deem more “legitimate” like transness and autism. Then I get myself into a spin about why I don’t prioritise my aesthetic preferences (regardless of where they come from) and whether disregarding what I want to spite the patriarchy is still letting the bastards win, and, and…

And it barely matters. It’s a few square inches of hair that always grows back. The people who get to see my genitals are ones who already understand and respect my feminist principles and who understand that free choice under patriarchy is virtually impossible, so, while we should all be as self-aware as we can, we should also be kind to ourselves and to each other, and save our energy for things that have more real-world consequences than “I have once again had to dredge pubes out of the shower drain in order to prevent overflow”. At the end of the day, in this case, I really should do what makes me feel best – and if that means spending a few minutes before each shower doing a little introspection, feeling around for my confused and abstract gender, and prioritising my sensory needs over the bold statement I could make with my underarm hair, then I think I’m okay with that. I don’t need to have a fixed body hair policy.

I just need to be self-aware, and to be kind to myself.