An Introduction to Neuroqueer Theory5 min read

I heard the term neuroqueer for the first time during one of my internet deep dives.  You know the ones: you have a seemingly-simple inquiry that you decide to look into and then BAM It’s 4 am and you’ve successfully hyperfocused your way down the spiraling timeline of the JonBenet Ramsey case, convinced you’ve figured out whodunnit.

This particular deep dive came after my recent ASD diagnosis.  I was diagnosed at 24 and was experiencing confusion, relief, anger, but mostly consuming wonder.  So I did what most people my age do when they don’t understand something.  I Googled.  I Googled the shit out of autism.

When I was dissatisfied with that, I logged into my college library database and downloaded studies, articles, books, documentaries, and whatever else I could that related to autism.  This went on…Well, actually it’s still going on because our understanding of autism is growing and deepening, and I want to be there for it all.

Autism is working its way into every aspect of our world.  How can it not?  We are everywhere.  We are on every continent and in all the histories.  We have always been here, even if the world didn’t yet know what to call us.  The branch of society known as academia also bears the impression of autism.  It was in this space that I was introduced to the term “neuroqueer.”

I was drawn to the term when I first read it, even before I actually had a clear understanding of it.  That term seemed to connect something that I hadn’t been able to before.  Does my neurological difference affect my concept of gender and sexuality?

I’ve always had difficulty finding a label that represented how I identified with these two aspects of self, even though new labels were arising at a seemingly-rapid pace, nothing quite “felt” right.

When I found the term neuroqueer it seemed as though I had finally found a way of accessing that part of myself that wanted to call forth the notions of my own gender and sexuality.

Disclaimer: I am not an authority on neuroqueer theory.  I am merely an obsessive gatherer of information.  I will relay what I have gathered from researching neuroqueer theory and do my best to represent it faithfully, but as with anything, the lens through which I see is biased, and there is nothing I can do to fully rid myself of it.

That does not mean that I will not try.  I write with the awareness of my bias so that I may hopefully be as transparent as possible in my writing.  This is in no way a comprehensive guide to neuroqueer theory but merely a sample.  The term is alive, meaning it is growing and spreading and being transformed by those who choose to nurture it.

Where did the term come from? 

The term was recently coined by writers Nick Walker and Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillion.  Walker also gives credit to author Melanie Yergeau for taking the term and expanding on it.  Walker tentatively defines neuroqueer in his blog Neurocosmopolitan as such:

Neuroqueer is both a verb and an adjective.  As a verb, it refers to a broad range of interrelated practices.  As an adjective, it describes things that are associated with those practices or that result from those practices: neuroqueer theory, neuroqueer perspectives, neuroqueer narratives, neuroqueer literature, neuroqueer art, neuroqueer culture, neuroqueer community.  And as an adjective, neuroqueer can also serve as a label of social identity, just like such labels as queer, gay, lesbian, straight, black, white, hapa, Deaf, or Autistic (to name just a small sampling).

Walker, 2015

A keyword in Walker’s definition is “practice.”  Though you can identify as neuroqueer, the concept of neuroqueer points to a requisite sense of awareness of that identification.  Within all my research, intentionality is a constant theme that runs through neuroqueer theory. 

So how does one neuroqueer exactly? 

A key foundational aspect of this theory is reliant on the concept of “intersectionality,” coined by civil rights activist and lawyer Kimberle Crenshaw.  Intersectionality refers to the interconnectedness of oppressed identities to reveal the “interactive effects of Discrimination.” (Crenshaw, 2003)

By being aware of your neurodivergent identity and your queer identity, and recognizing that they interact, you have successfully neuroqueered.  Considering how your other identities, such as race, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, ect., interact with your neurodivergence and your queerness is also neuroqueering. 

According to Walker, because I am neurodivergent and writing this article on my interaction with the term, I am practicing neuroqueering.  If you’re an artist and create a work that brings awareness to the interaction of neurodivergence and gender and/or sexuality then you have neuroqueered.  If you are neurodivergent and decide to represent your gender identity in an intentionally-queer way, as to subvert hegemonic ideas of gender performance, then you have neuroqueered. 

Walker gives other ways to practice neuroqueering in his blog post, which I will link below in the references.  They range from theoretical thought experiments to social justice work methods.  With a term this new and fluid, the possibilities are numerous. 

Using queer theory to examine the neurodivergent experience:  

Another prominent description of neuroqueer has to do specifically with the relations between the LGBTQ+ movement and the disability rights movement.  Melanie Yergeau, who is most noted when researching this particular definition of neuroqueer, parallels society’s rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQ+ movement with the neurodivergent movement in her book, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queering.

She points to the similar rhetoric surrounding queer and autistic people as well and how it’s used to justify conversion therapies; she argues similarities between gay-to-straight conversion therapy for queer people and Applied Behavioral Analysis for autistic people. 

Sociologist Justine E.  Enger uses “neuroqueer” similarly in her article, “The Disability Rights Community was Never Mine: Neuroqueer Disidentification.”  She writes, “Neuroqueering is a rejection of able-hetero assimilation and counter identification in favor of disidentification.” (Enger, 2018) 

Neuroqueering is ultimately an act of resistance.  For writers like Enger and Yergeau, the questions and critiques formed by the LGBTQ+ movement and queer theory can help facilitate the emergence of a new, self-defined rhetoric of autism. 

Questions for you:

Now that you have a brief outline of neuroqueer theory, I’d love to hear about your experience and reaction in the comments.

If you are neurodivergent and also identify as queer, what is your initial reaction to the term?

Does it help bring clarity to your personal experience?

What are your thoughts on using queer theory as a framework for understanding the neurodivergent movement and many autistic people’s relationship with gender, self-perception, and sexuality? 

If someone is neurodivergent (for example, ADHDers) but does not identify as queer, can they, too, practice neuroqueering? 

As a neurodivergent person, your perspective about neuroqueer theory is valuable and most important, and what it means to you is valid.  When it comes to the autistic experience, it’s your words that matter most.

References: 

Crenshaw, K.  (2003).  Traffic at the crossroads: Multiple oppressions.  In R.  Morgan (Ed.), Sisterhood is forever: The women’s anthology for the new millennium(pp.  43-57).  New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Egner, J.  E.  (2019).  “The Disability Rights Community was Never Mine”: Neuroqueer Disidentification.  Gender & Society, 33(1), 123-147.

Walker, N.  (2015, May 2).  Neuroqueer: An Introduction.  Retrieved from https://neurocosmopolitanism.com/neuroqueer-an-introduction/

Yergeau, M.  (2018).Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness (Thought in the Act).  London, England: Duke University Press.

Dallyce Potess

Dallyce is a Texas native who recently graduated from the University of North Texas. Her main focuses are philosophy, women's and gender studies, political science, and sociology.

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5 Comments

  1. In response to the questions, it’s a great word in that it makes clear that by definition, we don’t think about/experience gender and sexuality in the same way as neurotypicals.
    I think neuroatypical cishet people are welcome to neuroqueer as allies as long as they defer to LGBT people.

  2. Author

    Definitely some neuroqueering happening in that post.  You brought up a really interesting point when describing your ‘broken gaydar’ experience.  It makes complete sense that you would have difficulty making assumptions about people’s sexuality.  I think ideas of what defines gender and sexuality is based on societal constructs and manifests individually by how we perform them.  Those of us on the spectrum have a difficult time picking up and putting on these norms.  I really think there is something the world can learn from autistics in this area.

  3. If you are neurodivergent and also identify as queer, what is your initial reaction to the term?

    It’s an useful term given that, along the spectrum we have more LGTBQIA+ people around in terms of percentage.

    Does it help bring clarity to your personal experience?

    Well, I found the link by myself while discussing with a terf about the fact that the autistic experience and the (in this case) trans experience have more that one point in common.  Arguments didn’t matter to her much, I must add, yet it mattered to me realising how, if we simplify this a bit, it has to do with wearing a mask and being someone who you are not, but who is convincingly similar to them, and the baffling experience of that impersonation being preferred rather than your real self just because the sake of normality.  And I’d said, let’s try to diversify normality instead of normalise or make diversity normal.

    What are your thoughts on using queer theory as a framework for understanding the neurodivergent movement and many autistic people’s relationship with gender, self-perception, and sexuality? 

    I’m afraid I’m not familiarised with the theory itself much (not other than the basics at least), but perhaps there’s this Transtrenders by Contrapoints dispute.  I’ll have to look for material but I couldn’t understand a group trying to be part of the normative group through effort, partially to deny some other people their rights.

    If someone is neurodivergent (for example, ADHDers) but does not identify as queer, can they, too, practice neuroqueering? 

    I’d struggle thinking about why they couldn’t as good allies, so it’s a yes, thank you, you’re cool.

  4. Hadn’t heard the phrase Neuroqueer before but instinctively I like it!  As a woman who’s identified as gay all my life but only just discovered I’m autistic it makes a lot of sense.

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