In the shoes of others

I'm autistic and a lesbian

- Maybe because I'm autistic and I'm a university student, I wish that people understand that when I say « I don't want to go out partying to the big club nights », it's not because I don't like them and it's not because I don't want to be social and spend time with them. It's because my brain would shut down if I was around that many people with that much noise and that much lights. Also, side note, I'm gay. And... I'm sorry, this is not very good for your recording because I'm stopping and thinking. I wish that people would not automatically assume that everybody is straight all the time. So I wish that people maybe understood more about people who weren't straight, they might think for a second before asking you « Do you have a boyfriend? » Or « Do you have a girlfriend? » or anything like that, and they'd be like « Do you have someone you're seeing at the moment? » or anything... I think I've run out of things to say now.

- Okay! (laughing) Can I ask a few questions?

- Yes, go for it!

- Maybe we will separate the autism part, and then maybe the being gay part. Are you more comfortable using gay, lesbian, ... ?

- Lesbian. Let's go with that.

- Okay, let's start with autism maybe. You mentioned the clubbing example and I'm wondering, how would be the feeling for you to be in a night club?

- So it's like... everything, like the lights and the sounds that you can experience maybe one thing at a time, it just all presses in on you. And the louder it gets and the more people that are there, the less you're able to think and the less you're able to sort of understand what's going on around you. You can only focus on one thing at a time. So you can only focus on one thing at a time. So I might be able to keep focus on what I'm seeing. But then I wouldn't be able to think about what I can hear or what other people are saying or what's happening around me.

- Is it like too much stimulation?

- Yeah, it's like sensory overload. It's just too much all at one time.

- Is there other contexts or other kind of places that make you feel this way?

- It depends what sort of day I'm having, but sometimes like shops, or just walking, ambulance sirens which you know, you understand what the sound is, but like, you'd have to stop and cover your ears for a minute, because it's the lights and it's the noise. And also, it's the idea that the ambulance is going to someone, like people can block that out, but I can't block that out, like the idea that there's somebody going to... Yeah.

- Someone's in trouble and you can't not see that...

- Yeah, I can't stop thinking about that, and then I'd be thinking about that for the rest of the day. And then if you hear like five or six ambulance sirens in a day, then that's all you're thinking about for the whole day.

- Okay, it sounds pretty overwhelming! How does it affect your life at school for instance, do you feel like the education system is doing good with people who have your needs?

- I would say that the university system is a lot better than the school system. The school system doesn't understand extra needs, and also being a girl with autism, the thing is that autistic boys tend to be louder and more vocal and sort of make prob... I'm saying "make problems for other people", but that's, um, that can sound wrong, if you know what I mean. Like, it's often more visible, while girls who also have autism tend to just shut down on themselves so they are easily ignored... school doesn't tend to know this, you can be having a really, really hard time and you can say « I'm having a hard time » and then the teacher would be like « but you didn't say anything in class and you're quiet, I don't understand how you can be having a hard time because you're not making me have a hard time ». So the university is better because they believe you when you say you're having a hard time and there's more freedom to do things and there's also more people, so you can find people that you can be friends with more easily because there's just so many of us.

- I see! The teachers are also more aware of how they should adapt maybe?

- I think so, I think some of them are... generally they have more knowledge about it. And tutorial sizes are really small, and like the student support network here at Edinburgh is really good.

- Okay. When did you discover about autism and the fact that you were concerned?

- Um, I was formally diagnosed when I was 14, which is late for average, but it's quite early for girls being diagnosed because you're often misdiagnosed as having anxiety or depression if you're a girl.

- How do they diagnose that it is autism and not anxiety or depression, then?

- They have similar symptoms, but there's just... I don't really want to go into too much details because that's quite a whole thing, but the mental health services where I was from, they ask you lots of questions and there was like a form you filled out... I don't actually know. They knew that it wasn't anxiety and that it was autism, and then they just had to go through lots of things.

- Okay, they have their own procedure...

- Yeah.

- How did you feel learning that? Do you remember the day you learn that?

Um, I was a bit sad. A little bit sad, because I feel like there's lots of negative things about autism. So like, you're taught from a young age that autism is bad. But then I now like it because now I can put a name to the things I'm feeling and I can communicate what I need. And I feel like validated, like I thought that I used to be making a big fuss about nothing. And everybody would be telling me « everyone else can do that, they're not making a fuss » and I would feel really bad about myself. But now I'm like, it's just autism. Like, I understand now, it's just part of me.

- Yeah, it validates the way you feel in the eyes of others...

- Yeah.

- Okay! What's the most difficult thing for you, being autistic? Well, I guess you don't know anything else...

- Yeah... I find it hard to tell when other people are being serious or not. And well, like everything else, I've got coping strategies to manage as I can. I can not go into busy places, I can have my headphones, I can do all that sort of stuff. But when I'm having conversations with people I sometimes misread signs and don't quite understand what they mean, and that can be really awkward and I don't like that because then I'm like « I've missed out on making a friend and they probably think I'm really strange », and I'm honestly trying.

- Is it always like this, or is it happening more with certain people or in certain contexts?

- It's more when I'm meeting people for the first time or in environments where there are sort of rules, like, I know how to act when you're like meeting a teacher or you're in a class because you talk about what the class materials are, but when you're just meeting someone randomly, or in an unusual place, like a party that you don't normally go to or something like that, then you're like « I don't know what the rules are supposed to be »...

- How is it with me right now, how do you feel?

- I'm a little bit nervous because I'm just standing on the street talking to someone I've never met.

- You are feeling a bit nervous?

- Yeah, I'm feeling a bit nervous. (laughing) But also, I'm interested in this academically, because I do social sciences and things like that at university. So I was like « Oh, that's cool, I can talk about that! ». Like, this is the sort of thing we talk about in our tutorial groups and things, so I've got my academic mind "on", which makes it easier.

- Okay! Is there anything else you would like to add around autism?

- Um, I'd like to say that it's not all negative. Like, there are good things as well. And also people often have this idea that everyone who's autistic has this like special superpower with maths or science or things, and they're incredibly brainy in one specific thing, and that's true for some people, but not for everybody. But I find that it means that I'm very dedicated to things and I can like really focus well on things that I'm interested in, and it's really helpful doing research, and I think it lets me see the world in a way that not many people get to see the world. So it's not all bad, and I wish people knew that as well.

- In your case, is there something that interests you a lot and that you've dedicated a lot of time to?

- Yeah, lots of! I'm very interested in traditional storytelling, so I know lots and lots of stories, and where they all come from and how they all interact with stories from different places. Don't get me started talking about this because I would keep going so I'm going to stop. (laughing)

- Okay, I won't! (laughing) Because you are a student, when you have to learn and remember something that's not interesting at all for you, how is it?

- That is really hard, because I'm just not interested and I'm not motivated and I can distract myself very hard, but I have strategies to help me. Like generally, I'm like « Well, if I research this essay, then I will let myself research the thing I'm really interested in for an hour once I'm finished ». So I motivate myself, but it was very hard when I was younger and didn't have like self motivation and sort of more discipline skills. I would just not do math, which was bad. I guess also that now that I am a student at University, I've chosen my courses. So I'm doing things that I want to do. And generally, I can find an interesting way into it. I can relate it to something I'm interested in, or if I can find someone else that's really interested in this thing that I'm not very interested about, then if I get them to talk to me about it, then their excitement makes me excited.

- Interesting! That's a good technique! Anything else to add around that?

- I don't think so. I think I've run out of things to say!

- Okay, so maybe we can go back to you being a lesbian? You were saying that people tend to assume that you are straight by default and interested in guys. Would you tell me more?

- Oh, it just annoys me that that is the first thing that people automatically assume, that everybody is straight until proven otherwise. And then you're like, forced to have an awkward conversation. And I don't like awkward conversations! (laughing) I find that really stressful. And yeah, it's just it's just really weird. I even remember being like four or five and people were like « Have you got a boyfriend yet? », but I didn't. I wasn't even thinking about that sort of things. And then imagine if someone went up to a five year old girl and was like « Have you got a girlfriend yet? », everyone will be absolutely mad about that! Which just makes me very angry!

- I understand yes... I guess it's complicated because, you know, most people are sexual and enjoy romance. And some people are not, they can be aromantic or asexual. By default, we don't ask « Oh, are you sexual? Then what's your sexual orientation? », so I guess we tend to do averages and to assume that because the statistics are so that most women and men are straight...

- Yeah, I understand why people assume that way... it's okay if you assume that about like everyone, but it's just... like, when people start asking questions about your private life, especially like family relatives you've not seen in a while, people you've met that are starting questions about your private life. You're like « Well, you chose to get involved ». (laughing)

- What would you like from these people instead, maybe at least to use a gender neutral way to ask and instead of asking « Do you have a boyfriend? », asking « Do you have a partner? »?

- Yeah, yeah! « Do you have a partner? » or « Are you seeing someone at the moment? », it's not a lot, but just making it clear that they're not expecting anything from you. And it's just easier to respond. Like, if someone says « Are you seeing someone at the moment? » you can be like « Yes, I went for a date with a girl the other day! », but then if someone says « Oh, are you interested in any boys at the moment? », then you're like, « Well... »

- « No! » (laughing)

- « No! » (laughing) « But there is this girl I'm seeing at the moment... »! It just makes the conversations so much easier...

- Yes, that's a very good point! How do you feel being lesbian in 2021 in Scotland?

- Yeah. So I feel I have to keep remembering that in Scotland, it's so much easier for me than it would be in so many other places in the world... we're incredibly privileged. Well, I'm not going to call it a privilege because it's not a privilege, it's a right. But I'm grateful for the people before me that made it easier to be a lesbian in Scotland than it is to be a lesbian in many other parts of the world. I would say that it's okay. Homophobia still exists. It's still very, very present all the time. Even if people like to think that it's not, I generally think that people who like to think that it's not, are people who just sort of walk around with their eyes closed most of the time. Okay, I'm getting political again and probably shouldn't do that. I didn't answer your question, right? I don't know.

- It's an open and vague question. (laughing) You did, yes! I was wondering just how you feel in general, because like you said, there's parts of the world where you just cannot be out, you know. Like the statistics you find are that there's zero percent of homosexual people in those countries, but it's like...

- You know that around 10% of people are homosexual or bisexual...

- Exactly! The painful truth is that if they say anything, they will face death penalty, so of course there's suddenly zero percent of queer people in those countries, so... yeah. I don't know if you know that, Scotland is the first nation in the world to have LGBT history introduced at school?

- Yeah! I saw that, and I'm so happy about that! Like, I'm really proud of Scotland and I'm proud to be Scottish, that we've done that and people sometimes get a bit antsy when they're like « Oh, does that mean like five year olds are gonna be learning about, like, intricate sexual stuff? », but it's just like... we talked about Alan Turing when we were doing World War II in P6, and nobody mentioned that he was gay. Not a single person and that's a big part of his story!

- Who, sorry?

- Alan Turing, who broke the enigma code. And he was prosecuted for being gay. He basically helped win World War II, and then like 10 years later, they were like « Oh, you're gay? Well, we're gonna like torture you with chemicals! », and then he died. So we were taught about him in P6, and nobody mentioned that!

- That doesn't feel right, yes... hopefully we learn from our mistakes! How was coming out to your parents, if it's something you had to do?

- Yeah, I did come out to my parents, I am very lucky that they were supportive. I know I had friends at the time, who were also gay and their parents were not supportive. But I was very, very lucky that I had really lovely parents. When I was about 16, I was like « I want to go to Pride! » and my dad was like « Okay, you can go to pride but for your first Pride, I'm coming with you! », so he took me to my first Pride parade. Because it was also the first time that a Pride parade has ever been held in my local city. So it was like « Okay, it's the first one here, it's your first one ever, I want you to be safe, so for the first one I'm gonna come with you » and that is a very special memory for me.

- It's beautiful! It's really literally being by your side.

- Yeah, it was very literal!

- Okay, that's good, so that was easy, that's good to hear! Okay, anything else that you would like to add around this topic in particular?

- I'm not sure... I don't think there's anything else to add. This might be a side note that you might not use, but it's been annoying me recently, so I'm just gonna say it. The recent thing with the trans rights when people are using lesbians to be like « Oh, it's like unsafe for lesbians to have trans women, that's going to be... », we don't care, we do not fucking care. Like it's not a problem for us at all!

- To be inclusive with trans women, you mean?

- Yeah, every single lesbian woman I know, they do not care trans woman or cis woman. And I think lesbians are being used as like a tool in the cultural wars at the moment. Like, lots of right wing people are suddenly pretending to care about lesbians, but they don't, they're just using us as a tool to be transphobic. I understand if you don't want to use that in your interview, but that's something that has got me annoyed this week, so I'm sharing!

- Okay, yeah... we hear a lot about feminists and the fight with the TERFs movement...

- Yeah.

- Well, we hear a lot about that, yet, I guess it's just a very tiny proportion of people, no?

- Yeah, a tiny, tiny proportion. It just makes a lot of noise.

- Yeah, it creates a lot of useless pain.

- Yes... I can't think of anything else to say now! (laughing)

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