Representing autism and sexual orientation in fiction

Jun 25 • Newsroom • 860 Views • Comments Off on Representing autism and sexual orientation in fiction

By Heidi Cullinan

Humans love stories. Be it a retelling of our day, a cozy mystery or a Hollywood blockbuster, one of our favorite pastimes is wallowing in tales of what has happened, what might happen, or what we wish would happen. We love hearing about people and places we haven’t seen, but there’s a deep pleasure in seeing ourselves in story, especially when we’re featured as heroic, strong, or powerful.

As humans, we cherish love stories, because we all dream of connection, of passion. Yet many of us discover finding tales where people like us are cast in the starring role can be difficult to find.

There are absolutely works of fiction featuring people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), but not many, and not nearly enough with positive, affirming representations. Finding romances featuring adults with autism is even more difficult. Romances featuring characters with autism and who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender? Very rare indeed.

I wrote a novel featuring a hero who is gay and has autism, and the germ for that idea came from several sources.

The greatest source came from working years in several adult-assisted living settings, including two summer programs for young adults with special needs. In those settings, I regularly met, and fell in love with, clients with ASD. I loved everyone in the program, but I’ll admit it was a tossup over who stole my heart more: the clients with Downs syndrome or the clients with ASD.

I was in my early 20s at the time, struggling to start my life and figure myself out. However, each interaction with this population came the reminder of what was important in life and not let what others deemed successful. It allowed me to dismiss my worries about what other people thought of who I was or how successful I managed to be—or even what success was—cloud my sense of personal identity. Because I was close in age to the clients in the summer program, I made more than a paycheck. I made friends.

Twenty years later, I was watching the television series Alphas, featuring the character of a young man with ASD who was literally a superhero. He quickly became my favorite part of the show. Not only was he was witty and clever and delightful as a character, but he reminded me of all the adults—young, old and in-between—I’ve known and worked with who have autism.

The character of Gary Bell brought out all the things I loved about people with ASD, the strengths and the quirks, reminding that me people on the spectrum have a great deal to remind us about life, about what we value and what we prioritize.

In my research, both scholarly and anecdotal, for writing Carry the Ocean, I quickly learned while there may not be many stories featuring LGBT adults with ASD, real life tells a very different tale. There have been a number of studies regarding ASD and sexual orientation, even more with gender identity.

Over a dozen studies have linked ASD and gender dysphoria, particularly for genetic females identifying as male or between genders. There’s also the research surrounding ASD and “extreme male brain,” and the work of Lilan Ruta et al finding significantly higher levels of male hormones in both men and women with autism. There are no clear answers from science about the link between gender identity, sexual orientation and autism, but there are certainly a lot of questions.

Beyond science, however, is the fundamental issue of sexual orientation as a social construct. Most young adults with autism who find themselves attracted exclusively, or inclusively, to their own gender don’t experience a great deal of existential angst over who they hope to fall in love with. It isn’t until others around them take pains to make it an issue.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are hotly contested topics, debated from politics to dinner tables, and people with ASD remind us this conflict is social, not natural. Adults with ASD are whole human beings, experiencing sexual desire and romantic love the same as the rest of us.

Be it biology or the ability to navigate an unplugged world with weighted social structures, it’s not a difficult leap for adults with ASD to find themselves attracted to their same gender, or to understand they are male or female when their biology says otherwise. They can see it, feel it, understand it. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense for people to argue otherwise when to them, their experience is so clear.

I can’t pretend to be a scientist or a sociologist, and despite all my experience and research with ASD, I could fill rooms and houses with what I have left to learn. What I can tell you is that my novel featuring a hero with ASD—a hero, the one who saves the day, who leads the way for others, who rides off with his man on a train into the sunset—has resonated with readers like none of my other works to date have.

Parents of children with autism have expressed their gratitude at seeing a child in a positive, uplifting role—not only in representation but in accuracy. I pull no punches with the character of Emmet Washington. He’s high-functioning, yes, but he has all the tics and quirks I’ve known and loved from people with ASD in my life. He can’t drive a car, has trouble looking people in the eye because it’s often overwhelming, and don’t you dare put nuts in his banana bread.

But he also loves trains, math, pizza and ice cream. He fights with his parents, and loves them, too. He has a difficult time expressing his feelings more often than people on the mean, but he’s clever and crafty, and he’s found ways to get around that.

While I never want to drive the message behind my novel, wanting to tell stories more than give sermons, I’ll admit in Carry the Ocean I went out of my way to showcase a confident, competent successful young man who identifies as both gay and autistic. His ASD and his orientation are part of who he is.

And while sometimes those facts give him a little more conflict than his peers might experience, they in no way limit his ability or right to a rich, full life. Because those of us who know and love people with autism, those of us who are on the spectrum, we understand it isn’t and shouldn’t be something that sidelines people from life. We also know that if we allow it, autism can enrich it.

It’s been heartening to hear people who understand autism tell me I “got it right.” However, I’m most excited when people say the book opened their eyes to the way we often arbitrarily decide what is normal and what is not. What is acceptable and what is not. Who deserves stories, who gets to be the hero.

Readers with no other significant exposure to autism have said they won’t be able to view ASD the same again, and several lamented the Emmets of real life are too often invisible and sidelined. We all deserve to see ourselves in stories. Not as sidekicks or sad examples, but stars—bright and shining heroes and heroines of our own epic adventures.

We all deserve models and avatars. Stories are what teach us how to dream. Books, movies and television are where we let those hopes bloom into a fictional reality, their positive, affirming resolutions the fuel we use to chase our real-life happily ever afters. Stories of falling in love and finding our own family are a huge part of the human experience. Adults with ASD deserve those representations, too. No matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.

I reflect on my previous clients and hope they have found love and happiness, that their lives are full of more opportunity than limitation. I hope beyond anything else that they see themselves as capable and deserving of whatever they want out of life, and I hope they’ve found ways to achieve their dreams.

May that be true for all of us, whatever ocean we carry.

Heidi Cullinan has always loved a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. She enjoys writing across many genres but loves above all to write happy, romantic endings for LGBT characters because there just aren’t enough of those stories out there. Her most recent release, Carry the Ocean, can be found at this link or in ebook and print wherever books are sold. Heidi is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights and is proud to be from the first Midwestern state with full marriage equality. Find out more about Heidi, including her social networks, at

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