An Introduction to Neuroqueer Theory

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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11 Responses

  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. 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.

  5. Amazing I’m on a hyper focused deep dive to and I’ve never heard of this before! It’s very interesting and I feel as though I really identify with this term but I’m gonna do more research on it. So thanks for sharing such groundbreaking information! 😁

  6. As a bi autistic cis man, I find this term profoundly moving. At the same time, I also feel I’m not “queer” enough to neuroqueer and that makes me sad. I relate to queering as a political act but I feel like I’m unable to integrate my neurodivergence into it because I feel kind of unseen by portions of the autistic community who are on the vanguard (as someone who was diagnosed young, had a lot of interventions and was diagnosed with terminology that is now broadly rejected by other autistic people). I also would love to see more people neuroqueering sexuality specifically. I commend and celebrate my neurodivergent fam who are queering gender in transformative ways. While I’ve questioned my gender occasionally, I feel that the majority of my reflection on neurodivergence and my queerness are centered around my orientation, NT assumptions about ND gender and (presumed a)sexuality have been used to erase my love for men as a man, for example.

    Anyways, thanks to anyone who listens to/reads my complicated feelings in this comments section haha. I Love this article, and will definitely be thinking about this concept in the weeks to come 🙂

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