“People who identify as neuroqueer often reject binaristic ideas of gender and sexual orientation. They can be nonconformists who think radically about queer and disabled identities.”
I'm not neurodivergent or queer;
is this article still for me?
Yes! This article is an introduction to the term neuroqueer. It’s primarily for people who are both queer and neurodivergent to try out and try on. See this article as your personal invitation into the fitting room of identity. And if you like the term neuroqueer, it’s all yours. Please take it and wear it with pride!
If you’re not neurodivergent or queer or only one of these, this article may offer you some fascinating insights into how some other people experience gender, sexuality, and sex.
If you’re neither, then your neurotypical, heteronormative privilege may benefit from a gentle prodding. Come and see how your “normal” is certainly not normal for whole communities of other people.
Let’s explore what neuroqueer means and how it impacts gender, sexuality, and sex.
What does neuroqueer mean?
Although debated, the term neuroqueer was first officially used in 2008 by Nick Walker (she/her). The term has evolved over the years and Nick acknowledges it’s still a work in progress. Currently, it contains 8 aspects which are grouped below into 3 core elements.
At its most simple, it is the identity and experience of being both neurodivergent (self or clinically diagnosed) and queer.
Importantly, it is a self-defining term used by academics and activists to counteract the pathologising of, and stigma around, queerness and the medical model of neurodivergence. In this sense, it challenges both heterosexual societal norms and ableism.
What is neurodivergence?
When we talk about neurodiversity we typically tend to mean autism, ADHD, Asperger’s (no longer used), OCD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and similar presentations. Someone may also have related conditions such as synesthesia. The terms neurodivergence and neurodiversity are often used interchangeably and you can read a good introductory overview here.
While there is a medical model of neurodivergence (ND), how ND individuals self-define varies hugely. For example, some describe themselves as disabled and some don’t. Clinically speaking, neurodivergence is classed as a psychosocial disability.
Whether someone wants it or not, getting a clinically-recognised diagnosis is a privilege and not available to many ND people. In some countries it’s possible to receive a free diagnosis for children but not for adults. In the UK, for example, it can take up to two years to complete the free process for an adult through the NHS. In comparison, private organisations can give you an assessment appointment within weeks and tend to cost around £2000.
For those who can’t afford or are unable to access diagnostic services, self-diagnosis is completely valid. Search Google for specific tests. Please be aware that the quality and accuracy of online tests can vary significantly. The screening questionnaires for autism are currently available here.
Neuroqueer: adjective, approach, and verb
Neuroqueer means a lot of different things to different people. While this is absolutely ok, it can be confusing for a newbie or outsider. So here are 3 key components.
First, as explained above, it is a self-defining identity label. Neuroqueer includes elements of being both ND and queer or actively exploring these two qualities. It also includes how the two aspects relate and interact with each other. This can result in the expression of someone’s neurodivergence being queered. (More about that in the gender section below.)
Second, it’s a theoretical lens. It helps us question, reframe, or reject mainstream gender and sexuality roles and expectations, and other identity boundaries (as in queer theory). This makes neuroqueer more of an intellectual perspective or a critical thinking tool that includes “strategies to break free from normativity and binary expectations of gender, sexuality, and ability.” As one academic puts it, “neuroqueering is a rejection of able-hetero assimilation and counteridentification in favor of misidentification“.
Third, neuroqueer defines what some people do rather than who they are. As such, it’s more of a verb than an adjective. These neuroqueer people live their lives in such a way that they embody this societally challenging perspective. In practice, this means actively transforming and creating social and cultural spaces that are safe and encouraging for neuroqueer people. For example, I aim to do this through my inclusive therapy practice and by writing articles like this.
Unsurprisingly, many neuroqueer people tend to have a non-standard, non-binary approach to gender. In studies on young people, gender variance was 8 times higher than the general population in autistic people and 7 times more in those with ADHD.
A 2017 study found that 75% of the respondents who reported experiencing dysphoria had ADHD. This suggests an inherent mismatch between neurotypical gender identities and neurodivergent ones.
This mismatch can be a subconscious felt sense or an active conscious rejection of what is expected by society. As author Rudy Simone writes about autistic women, “she doesn’t understand society’s gender roles and may be unwilling or unable to conform to them.” In my practice, I find many neuroqueer people feel that the gender ‘boxes’ offered by society just aren’t relevant or appropriate.
However, some ND folks, especially those with autism (and previously Aspergers) adhere very strongly to gender roles and can be rigidly “old fashioned”. This extremely restrictive approach to gender is not often acknowledged by either ND or NT communities. Those I’ve met who experience this often feel deeply misunderstood. Some prefer the term autigender. “Autigender is not autism as a gender, but rather is having a gender that is so heavily influenced by autism that one’s gender and autism cannot be unlinked” according to NeuroRebel.
As a lot of neuroqueer people reject gender roles, so it’s not surprising that they consequently don’t restrict their attraction to one or specific genders. This creates a unique and personal experience of sexuality for each neuroqueer individual. As George Morl (artist) explains, “I see autism, sexuality and gender as interwoven like a matrix.“
Some ND people are asexual, ranging from sex-neutral to sex-repulsed (but not all ace people are sex-repulsed). They may still have a high libido even if they don’t want to have sex or only want to have it with themselves.
Many of my ND, and particularly autistic, clients are gender blind. They may identify as bisexual, pan, omni, or some other multisexual sexuality, but these labels can cloud the reality that they just don’t see gender in the same way. Speaking for myself, there are many other factors in choosing a mate that are higher up the list than their gender or genitals.
If you’re ND and struggle with dating, this article might help.
Given the significantly different ND understanding of gender and sexuality, it’s not surprising that neuroqueer sex can also be very different to the norm. (To gain a better understanding of non-cishet sex and intimacy, although not specifically neuroqueer, I recommend Queer Sex.)
Neuroqueer people in particular might be seen as extreme in their need for sex to either follow a set pattern or routine (more common with autism) or require constant novelty (more common with ADHD). There’s also a significant overlap between neuroqueer people and kinky and non-monogamous people.
(I have a smorgasbord of research on ND sex that I’ll link here when published.)
So...I think I'm neuroqueer!
“Spending time around other neuroqueer persons or groups helps me feel a sense of community and belonging —
perhaps because these are seemingly the only spaces devoid of norms, where nothing and nobody is perceived as “odd”.”
Hurrah! Welcome to the community. We don’t have a secret handshake but may I offer you a hug if non-sexual touch is your jam?
Let’s conclude this article by affirming that neuroqueer includes and celebrates all gender expressions, presentations, and queer sexualities. All are valid. This includes how you do or don’t like to have sex. Being neuroqueer includes the space to experiment or play with different genders, labels, and sexual preferences and to discover what feels most congruent and authentic. Neuroqueer is fully inclusive and non-hierarchical when it comes to genders and queer sexualities and sex.
If this is something you’d like to explore with professional support, why not get in touch?