My autism and gender identity

Beck Chamberlain Heslop

Beck Chamberlain Heslop speaks to us about their experience of being a disabled, non-binary person.

I  originally wrote an entire post about the stigma associated with being non-binary, especially as an autistic person, and the difficulty of getting people to use my correct pronouns (they/them). But I realised that it probably wasn’t very helpful to anyone.

To be honest, reading it kind of made me sad. I don’t want anybody else to feel that way, so instead, I am writing about my experiences from a slightly different angle. That is not to say the struggles of being an autistic non-binary person are not valid. Still, I am reluctant to give people more ammunition to call me a sensitive snowflake.

Instead, I want to explain what being non-binary means to me, how it interacts with my autism and some suggestions for anybody reading on how to be a better ally.

A selfie of Beck Heslop

What does non-binary mean?

Non-binary is a term that describes the gender of someone who falls outside of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ (the binary genders). It is purposefully broad. It can encompass people who lean more towards being a ‘woman’ or ‘man’, people who are ‘bigender’ (meaning their gender is a mix of man and woman), people whose gender identity is fluid (meaning it changes), and people who feel that none of those labels fit them at all. If you aren’t familiar with all of these terms and ideas, then don’t worry.

There is a lot of information and many discussions out there that have been going on for decades. The good news is that you don’t need to understand everything to respect non-binary people. For example, I do not understand nuclear physics. Still, I can respect nuclear physicists and appreciate that nuclear physics exists whether or not I comprehend it.

My relationship with my gender

My relationship with my gender is complex, and I think that is especially so because I am autistic. The first time I really thought about my gender was around the age of 13. I was 15 when I came out to close friends as genderfluid (meaning some days I felt more aligned with being a man, other days with being a woman). But, it wasn’t until I was 20 that I began coming out to most people as non-binary.

During those seven years, I found it difficult to identify how I felt in general - not least in terms of gender. Once I cut my hair short, it was easier to see some patterns, though. People refer to me as a girl = bad. I still can’t explain exactly what those feelings are - maybe discomfort, upset, embarrassment, or anger. Definitely something negative. When people would refer to me as a boy, that would evoke more positive feelings (maybe pride or happiness, or just contentment). But saying I was a ‘man’ felt just as much of a costume as saying I was a ‘woman’ did. Hence, the label non-binary seems to suit me best.

I try to tell people right away that my pronouns are they/them because I know I get an icky feeling whenever I am misgendered. In general, I don’t want to go all day hating myself. It may seem like a minor thing to you, but having to go all day every day with people getting your name and pronouns wrong really weighs on your mind. Personally, it makes me shut down and go into a spiral in my own head, maybe even contributing to a full-blown meltdown if it goes on long enough. This brings us into how to be a good ally to non-binary people.

How to be a good ally

Like I said earlier, you don’t need to understand in order to respect a person’s gender. Many non-binary people use the pronouns they/them, but it differs between individuals, so it is best to ask. I understand that it does not always feel natural to ask someone’s pronouns, but there are many ways you can do it.

If you communicate online, adding your own pronouns to your sign-off by your name often prompts the recipient to include their own. Plus, it signals to the person you are messaging that you are an ally and safe for them to be out in front of you. Similarly, if you meet someone in person, introduce yourself with your own pronouns.

The more people normalise doing this, the easier it is for non-binary people like me to do so without marking myself out as ‘different’. Also, because you can’t tell that someone is non-binary just by looking at them, it is best practice to do this with every person you introduce yourself to.

It’s not just pronouns, but lots of things are gendered, which may be appropriate to alter if you are talking to or about someone who is non-binary. Mr and Miss can be replaced with Mx (pronounced mix), which is widely recognised as a gender-neutral title in the UK. ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ can be replaced with ‘Parent’, ‘sister’ or ‘brother’ with sibling, ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ with ‘partner’. Again, non-binary people are all individuals with their own preferences, so it is best to ask.

It is okay to slip up and make mistakes. If you do, correct yourself and move on. Dwelling on it by profusely apologising is uncomfortable for all parties involved, and not correcting yourself is just disrespectful. After practising for a while, it will become part of your normal vocabulary. You won’t have to think about it as much, and everyone can move on with their lives, which is all we really want. The only way we can make that happen, though, is by keeping open minds, educating ourselves, and respecting other people even if you don’t understand the nuances yet.

Want to read more?

If you'd like to read more about being non-binary, here are some blogs worth a look: