Editor’s note: In their blog, Rivera capitalizes “Autism” and “Autistic Person/People” These style choices are reflected in this article at their request.
When Lyric Rivera learned they were Autistic, they were a fully grown adult almost in their thirties. The diagnosis completely changed their life, but when they searched for more information from other Autistic people six years ago, there was nothing. This dearth of Autistic-led and -authored information online led Rivera to start their blog, Neurodivergent Rebel. Now, Rivera has more than 250,000 followers online, all interested in learning more about what it really means to be both Autistic and queer.
Rivera spoke to Georgia Voice about their blog, the connection between neurodiversity and queerness, and how antitrans bills may impact Autistic adults in the future.
Quotes have been edited for clarity.
Just to start, can you tell me a little about you and your background?
I didn’t know I was Autistic for the first 29 years of my life. When you find out you’re Autistic and you’re almost 30, it’s a big, shocking, life-changing bombshell. For me, it really changed how I saw myself and the world and everything that had happened to me up until that point.
I always knew I was different. I felt different, even when I thought I was “supposed” to be a non-Autistic person. I didn’t have words to describe why I was different. Same with being nonbinary: I never really felt like I was a woman, but because I didn’t know about gender outside of the binary and I didn’t have the language to express that, it was like I’m going to keep this to myself because nobody’s going to understand what I’m talking about. Similar with being Autistic; I knew I was different, but those labels were ‘lazy,’ ‘not enough,’ ‘inferior.’ I had different labels before and no way to talk about these things. Getting these labels gave me a language to explain things I’ve known my whole life.
When you say you felt different, what did that mean before you had the language to describe it?
I didn’t feel particularly different until I entered the public school system. I was around other kids, and the expectations were that I could behave and perform the way other kids did. When comparing myself to my peers, it was like I could see that other kids were doing things easily that I was struggling and trying my hardest to do. When I would be trying my hardest to do something, the teacher would be like, ‘Oh, you just need to try a little harder, you need to apply yourself.’ As an ADHD kid, being able to sit still and quiet and be attentive in class was something I could not do until I was much older … I never got to have recess in the first grade. I wanted so badly to be good, and I couldn’t be good. I couldn’t be still and quiet. I needed more time to get that energy out, the environment was overwhelming. The punishment was taking away what I needed to regulate myself. These things at home were nonissues. Everything I needed and did at home was pretty normal. I didn’t have neurotypical expectations at home. It was the neurotypical expectations that made me feel difficult, because I tried to hold myself to those expectations and when I couldn’t do it, I felt inferior. I felt like I wasn’t enough.
That leads to the inception several years later of Neurodivergent Rebel. I would love to talk about the blog and how it came to be.
I started my blog when I was first diagnosed. It was a Twitter handle at first because I was trying to find other Autistic people. The person who diagnosed me sent me home with recommendations with reading that was put out by other Autistic people. I digested the books very quickly and I was obsessed. I went to the Internet, and I wanted more. I Googled Autism. Six and a half years ago, it was all really gloom and doom, things that were by parents of Autistic children about how hard it was or medical things about treatments. There wasn’t a lot of firsthand experiences of Autistic people. That’s why I started on Twitter.
I was trying to come out and tell people I was Autistic, and nobody could understand it. Everyone had this idea that Autistic people are Rain Man or a very specific narrow stereotype, and they couldn’t comprehend me as Autistic. I was like, people who are not Autistic really need to understand Autistic people from us. So, I created this hashtag #AskingAutistics for asking questions, which has been a driving force behind my blog and social media. We need a lot of Autistic experiences to be heard so we can take back our own stories.
When I started learning about myself as an Autistic Person, most of the organizations, charities and publications were by non-Autistic people about Autistic people. That’s why I created my blog; I wanted to become the resource I needed at that time in my life.
That leads to talking about your book, “Neurodiversity Rising.” Can you talk to me about your experiences being excluded in the workplace?
In school, one of the core traumas I’m still dealing with is being treated as the problem when I asked for help or speaking up for my needs. When I found out I was Autistic, I started having similar traumas being brought up where I was being treated as the problem in the workplace.
I’d done a really good job at putting myself into places that were neurodivergent friendly or I was in roles that played well into my strengths, so I didn’t need a lot of accommodation. At the workplace that inspired a lot of stories for the book, when we changed into a new office and they wanted to move things around and I said it didn’t work for me, it was like, ‘Nobody else is complaining, it’s not fair to give you special treatment, those nicer quiet window seats are for management.’ It was like, shame on you for asking to be treated differently. I was physically sick to the point that I had lost 20 pounds in six months. They knew I had been calling out of work because I was having a lot of seizures and migraines due to the fluorescent lights in the office. I just needed to change lighting, sit by a window, not sit in the busy aisle, and have noise canceling headphones. They were like, ‘We can’t do that for you.’ I immediately went and started looking for a new job.
How did these experiences lead to your book? What function does it serve?
I was working to launch a neurodiversity initiative for a consulting firm. It was going to launch in March 2020. Of course, that didn’t happen. It went on pause, and a few months later I lost my job. It pushed me to start doing the consulting thing on my own.
I can only take on a couple clients a month, so the book is the answer to the fact that I can’t and don’t want to be everywhere. The book is all of the things I’ve been teaching organizations since around 2018 put into a simple, easy to digest handbook where people can pick a section and make immediate change. Just hand it to someone who is neurodivergent or understands neurodiversity, and it costs almost nothing to make change that will make not only your neurodivergent employees’ lives better but everyone’s lives better.
I would like to shift to talk about the intersections of autism and neurodiversity in general. There is research suggesting more Autistic people experience gender dysphoria. Dr. Wenn Lawson, an Autistic researcher, said, “The non-Autistic world is governed by social and traditional expectations, but we may not notice these or fail to see them as important. This frees us up to connect more readily with our true gender.” Does this resonate with you? How do you see autism and gender exploration connect?
As an Autistic person, in general whether it’s gender or any social construction like monogamy, none of it made any logical sense to me. You can’t give me a ‘why’ to make these rules and me having to obey to them make sense to me. When thinking about Autism as diagnostic criteria, they say we struggle with social constructs. We know statistically, on paper, that Autistic people are more likely to be trans. I wonder if we’re really more likely or that less of us are willing to go along with what society says is the box that we need to be in.
I think once it’s less stigmatized to be trans and queer in general, I know we will see more non-Autistic and neurotypical people coming out as trans and queer, too.
For many Autistic people, truth is so important as a core value. Me saying that I’m a woman, now that I know what nonbinary is, is me lying. Now that I know I’m lying, I can’t. It feels dirty and wrong.
I think it’s so interesting that you find it hard to know why these social constructs are in place, because it doesn’t make any sense! These constructs don’t hold up to scrutiny for anybody. I think people are just coerced into abiding by them when in reality if you do ask “why,” it falls apart pretty quickly for all of us.
Yeah! I’m so demand-avoidant that anything that feels compulsory feels overwhelming, feels like I’m being crushed and stifled and weighed down by it. It makes me uncomfortable when you push it on me.
That makes sense. You wrote a blog post about these antitrans bills that have been popping up and how they impact not only trans Autistic adults but all Autistic adults. You mentioned this concept of mental health comorbidities. Can you talk to me about that a little bit?
They’re using this argument that children are too vulnerable to know their own gender identities. Autistic people are more likely to be trans. They have used this fact to draw some conclusions that we have been tricked into being trans, so now in certain states that they’re starting to adopt this Autism language. They say you have to be evaluated for being Autistic, having depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, and they have to be resolved before you can seek gender-affirming care. Depression and anxiety are temporary things that might be able to be resolved, but they are often side effects of gender dysphoria and the remedy to that would be to transition. For Autistic people, the recommendation is to be screened for Autism and before Autistic people can be put into any kind of trans-affirming care, they have to be put into behavior modification. They’re basically going to be recommending [Applied Behavioral Analysis] over gender-affirming care, which is basically like conversion therapy for trans people.
Now, they’re saying that Autistic people are in a vulnerable class of people. What other things are they going to say that Autistic people can’t do in the future? What’s next? If we’re too vulnerable to make our own decisions, where does it stop?
That’s so indicative of how infantilizing people treat neurodiversity, especially Autism.
There’s this perception that just because you have different strengths and weaknesses than the general population, that means you’re less capable. In many ways, Autistic people are more capable depending on the circumstances. They say we can’t know our own genders, but Autistic people are some of the most introspective people I know. ‘Autism’ comes from a Latin word that means self! Now it’s convenient for people, they say we can’t understand ourselves. That doesn’t make sense.
Learn more about Rivera and Neurodivergent Rebel at neurodivergentrebel.com. You can buy “Neurodiversity Rising” on Amazon.