Podcast: Gender identity and autism with Kit and Beck

The Disability Download

In this podcast episode, Gwenyth Withers catches up with Kit and Beck to talk about autism and the gender spectrum, university experiences and dating life.


Beck Heslop: In the summer after my first year at university is when I finally told people or began telling people that I was nonbinary, asking them to use they, them pronouns. Um, and I came out to my parents and close family over that Christmas. And since then it's been a few years now and I've just been living my best nonbinary queer life.

Kit Carlier: I don't know whether this is just me, but it's hard to figure out sometimes. Is this a queer thing? Is this a nonbinary thing or is this an autistic thing? And you will not get a straight [makes drum noise] answer out of that [laughter].

Gwenyth Withers: Hello, and welcome to The Disability Download. Brought to you by pan-disability, charity, Leonard Cheshire. On this podcast, we respond to current topics and events, share stories, and open up conversations about disability.

Today, we're going to be having a chat about gender identity and autism, as well as university life. My name is Gwenyth Withers (pronouns: she/her) and I work at Leonard Cheshire, and today I am joined by Kit and Beck. Kit Carlier (they/them, xe/xem, he/him) is trans nonbinary, autistic and queer. They are a keen advocate for disability and LGBTQ+ rights, currently studying creative writing at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

Beck Heslop (they/them) is a queer and autistic postgraduate student at the University of Manchester. Pursuing a career as a disability historian, they run the website disabledinnovation.com to share stories of how disabled people have interacted with technologies throughout history. They were a finalist for the 2020 LGBT+ Undergraduate of the Year Award. Which is pretty cool, I didn’t even know they had awards!

Today the two of them will discuss their experiences, and I am here to guide the discussion. Let’s get started. 

Kit: Hi Beck, how are you doing today?

Beck: Hi Kit, I'm doing well today, all the better to be speaking with you. Oh yeah. It's very different to those pandemic times. Because we're totally in person now because that's a thing we can do. Wink, wink, sarcasm. We're actually doing this online because the pandemic is still a thing. Despite what some people think. How did you find the pandemic?

Kit: Well, no, I mean, at least we have the, the magic of technology on our side, because I mean, I don't know what I’d do, like without being able to talk to friends and to family and to you and to everyone else through this magic medium.

Gwenyth: I was hoping we could start with the discussion about gender identity. Could you share maybe a little about your gender identity and experiences?

Beck: I mean, I personally identify as queer. That's the usual term that I use to describe both my sexuality and my gender, if I'm pushed, or if there's only a few options on a form, which there often are, I might tick other. Love that, love to feel included with an ‘other’, and then ‘please specify’. Then I'll maybe put in nonbinary, which is a very, like all encompassing term for not male or female. But yeah, queer feels the most correct for me, nonbinary second for me personally- it's just the way that I see myself and experience the world. I feel like it's encapsulated within the term queer. And that's something that it took me quite a while to get to that point.

When I was about 13, I think is when I started kind of questioning my gender identity and I spent a few years really trying out lots of different labels. I was like, am I a trans man? Am I nonbinary? Am I bigender? Am I gender fluid? And these were all questions that were running around in my head, for like a number of years. And it wasn't until I was like, maybe. 19,18, 19, 20?

In the summer after my first year at university is when I finally told people or began telling people that I was nonbinary, asking them to use they, them pronouns. Um, and I came out to my parents and close family over that Christmas. And since then it's been a few years now and I've just been living my best nonbinary queer life. One of the great things is I just changed my name on Facebook. And then everyone just started calling me that name. I was like, this is great. Also one of my friends at university had gone round, (he only told me that he'd done this, like a few months after) but he’d gone round and told everyone to use they/them pronouns for me. And, the best person ever shout out to Jay. 

Kit: That was great. Like, I, I think I definitely relate to you on, on some of that. Like, I mean, I also identify as queer, in terms of both gender and sexuality. Cause it is just this such a malleable label. It's great. You know, you can do anything you want with it. It's there and it's, it's what you make of it. 

And I also use they/them pronouns. And, but I also used some other pronouns, like he, him and xe/xem and also more, but that is too much for people you know? That's too much for me even, sometimes, to remember, I have to like check my notes. It's like, wait, what pronouns do I use it?

As well as queer, I use the words like trans and nonbinary and stuff like that for myself. So, I'm going to say as a trans person, uh, like coming out to people is like a thing you have to do over. You have to do over and over. And I guess it kind of does tie into things like spoons, a little bit, like how much energy am I willing to spend on this. And will this go garner at anything in the long run? Like will people actually use these pronouns will be, will people actually use my name? Will they actually respect me? So I've got sort of a bit of an ongoing story definitely like internally and externally we're trying, you know, we're figuring it out here.

Like recently, I guess I started sort of realising, oh, I am okay with some more, I guess typically masculine terms like, and you know, he/him pronouns. And if you call me a man, I'm like, yeah, that's cool. I like that. That sounds nice. It's it's it's weird. 

Beck: I think what you said about coming out being a continuous process is 100% accurate.
We’re not at a stage in society where people will look at me and say that's a nonbinary person. They'll put me into a category of either like male or female and respond to that like accordingly. So, in order to be seen as nonbinary, I have to physically come out as nonbinary again and again, and as you say, like it's about picking your battles. If I'm talking to a bus driver and they call me ma'am, I'm not gonna start a fight with the bus driver or correct the bus driver. It's not worth my energy. It's not worth the like social anxiety of that. I just let it go. I'm not going to interact with this persoan again. It's not worth it.

I am personally quite happy with some binary terms. Which seems strange because I'm like nonbinary, but if a bus driver, for example, calls me son or lad, I'm like, this is amazing. This is the best day ever. And I think that's just because it feels gender affirming in that even though I don't consider myself a man per se, it's kind of a recognition that like my gender isn't always going to be assumed to be female, which it often is. So that I find quite validating.

Maybe like a month ago, a plumber come round to fix the shower that wasn't draining properly. And. I'm not sure what country he was from. I think it might be Romania. Um, but he had travelled all around the world, so English wasn't his first language, but he knew like 50 different languages to like a conversational level, which was just mind blowing. But anyway, I was sitting with him, just having a chat, like halfway through our conversation, he just stops me and goes, ‘I hope this is not a rude question, but are you a boy or a girl?’
And I sit for like 10 minutes trying to explain to this person, who knows conversational English, what being nonbinary is. And that's really, it was a really fascinating experience of trying to rearticulate in different terms, because sometimes I would say something and he's like, yeah, I don't really know what that means.

So, I'm having to kind of, change my definitions of being a boy and a girl all the time. I don't think he quite got it in the end. But he was so lovely. And kind of just accepting or even like respectful, even if he didn't fully understand the kind of ideas that I was sharing with him. He was open and like non-judgemental, which was really heart-warming.

Kit: I think the thing that really does matter is that when you are approached by an adult, or you approach the adults, and you have a conversation about gender and particularly sort of nonbinary identities is that, that they are, you know, understanding as they can be. You know, you're not going to get everything. I don't get everything about my own gender, so it's fair for you not to.  But when people do sort of. I guess, I guess, because you’re, expending your energy, I'm just going to say, you're expending your energy on explaining this actually pretty complicated concept to people, and they're like doing the same in listening to you. That's just great. 

Beck: I don't know about your experience, but I find that sometimes it's difficult to have those conversations as an autistic person. If I am like kind of experiencing some kind of sensory overload, a shutdown or a meltdown, or kind of approaching that state, and then being asked about my gender identity can kind of compound that.

Um, and I will sometimes just shut off, me personally, communicate very well in general. And me being able to communicate those feelings of now isn't the time for me to go into this, or it's really difficult for me to go into this, because of X, Y, Z, I feel like it's tied in with being autistic. 

Kit: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. It's like, sometimes it's like, I don't know whether this is just me, but it's hard to figure out sometimes. Is this a queer thing? Is this a nonbinary thing or is this an autistic thing? And you will not get a straight [makes drum noise] answer out of that [laughter]. 

Gwenyth: That makes sense. A lot of people are now using the word queer for both gender and sexuality because it is that much more flexible. Along that kind of train of thought. Do either of you have partners or have you been trying to date, despite all the madness of the pandemic?

Beck: Dating? Wow. I'll let you go first…

Kit: To be honest, I don't, I don't think I have, you know, too much, too much to say about dating. Maybe because in part, you know, being autistic means you kind of, I mean, I do anyway, sort of overthink social interactions anyway. And, with the vast concept of dating, which is something, as I said, I don't know anything about basically it's like, I'm just jumping into this pool. I don't know how deep it is. I don't know if the waters are going to throw me up into the air and I will land with a huge splash and hate my whole experience about it.
As well as having way too many pronouns, you know, on, on, on my sort of notes app. I also have a long list of romantic sexual orientation labels, which are just, it's like why you know?

One of them is that, essentially, I'm on the A spec, you know, sort of, that's short for Aromantic and Asexual people and people who sort of come under that umbrella. That is a thing that, apparently a lot of autistic people also are at the same time. It's annoying how much they interact and make things foggy and blurry and murky. And it's like, I just want some direction here and it's not happening with this old brain, you know? 

Beck: Yeah, definitely. There's definitely crossover, I think, between the queerness and the autism. Like I had a partner during the pandemic, which was a really positive experience for me. And unfortunately, a few months ago we did break up. But it was a very positive experience. They were nonbinary as well, which they were kind of figuring out while we were dating in of, which was a really interesting experience.

Yeah. Now, I guess I find myself out in the single world and it's, it's difficult. It's difficult with this interaction between gender, autism and lockdown. I am definitely afraid, I would say of going out and meeting people, but also what might be stopping me is the fact that it’s difficult on dating apps to know what to disclose and when. I mean to begin with being nonbinary on Tinder, for example, which I haven't gotten the guts to redownload, but I'm probably going to in the coming months.

And you've got to decide whether you're going to show up in searches for men or searches for women or searches for both. But there's that fear of judgment and of not being able to find someone because they're looking for a man or they're looking for a woman. So that's kind of a thing. But that I feel more able to upfront be like, I'm nonbinary. It’s kind of a safety thing. If nothing else, whereas on a profile, I don't really want to say I'm autistic most of the time.

On one hand, I think it can be really beneficial to meet other autistic and neurodivergent people. That initially gives you something in common and that you can really like spark off, whether that's like a friendship or a relationship. But also, I know that saying that you’re autistic comes with a lot of assumptions about what that means you'll be like in a relationship, or what you'll be like as a person. And a lot of those are kind of negative assumptions. Do I tell people first, off the bat that I'm autistic? Do I tell them later and then wait for them to kind of judge me afterwards? Yeah, there's that added anxiety around dating! I just, just want a nice partner to turn up. We already know each other and everything's fine. And we can just skip the whole dating part.

Gwenyth: Dating is stressful even outside of the pandemic, I guess. What about uni? Has COVID changed how that's worked for you?

Beck: I've had mixed experiences with it because on one hand it is been absolutely like amazing to do exams, especially, online. I am very bad at memorising things or whether that's just a me thing, or if it's anything to do with autism –  I don't distinguish between those things anymore really. So having the ability to kind of do exams online, where we get 24 hour period to write an essay, or write several essays often, it’s been really helpful for me. And it's been very like accessible disability friendly. That's something that I'm hoping, in the future, universities are going to continue doing, because I think it has been really positive in that aspect. 

Kit: It's a shame that it's taken an entire pandemic to have some like actual accommodations for disabled people like us. And it's like we're in sort of a weird place where it's, it's almost like all things going to be taken away soon, because like, on my course, I do creative writing, there is a sort of mix between the in-person and online at the moment.

Beck: Yeah. I mean, my university has been really good. They actually record all of the sessions. And I dunno if this is something that only happened since like the pandemic, but they record all of the lectures that record all of the seminars, and they are available to everyone on the course. So that is amazing.

Gwenyth: You’re at Aberystwyth. How have they been in terms of accessibility?

Kit: Yeah, so I think, I mean, I don't know if it's fair to say, like I'm biased or like that maybe there's a different thing between departments, but I'm in the English department. And with, I mean, it's great, you know, on the whole it’s really great and like a sort of friendly, and also we're getting stuff done, but you know, a really nice like generally non-intimidating environment. With some lecturers that really seem to like understand people have the needs to sometimes not attend things or sometimes, you know, they won’t they, I mean, they won’t force people to like have the cameras on and all that sort of stuff.

But, yeah, there are some things that I feel like, I don't know whether it's that they can't do it, or I don't know, there’s always something that just, there are always days that remind me: ‘Oh yes, I am autistic. I am disabled.’ and sometimes university just as a concept is just like not compatible with that fact. 

Beck: Sometimes you don't have the spoons to be able to like go to university, to participate in all of your lectures and everything, and still be able to do all of the other things, like get dressed, get out of bed, brush your teeth. And sometimes those more like basic things are what you need to do. Even if that means that you can't do all of your work 110%. 

Kit: Yeah, that's, that's true. Like, I, I am that you just reminded me actually, about uh, I I've read a couple articles recently, that were sent to me by my disability advisor. And they were sort of around like things like spoons and like how to sort of how autistic people are sort of managing their energy and stuff like that. And I'm sort of, I, myself am sort of coming to terms with the fact that I am not like, you know, I'm not a machine, I'm not a robot. I do have red days, green days, no spoon days, that kind of thing.

Gwenyth: Considering everything, have either of you have the chance to join societies and go to socials and things?

Beck: Coming to Manchester University, I had an idea in my head that I would kind of join the queer and the disabled societies, because I thought it would be a great way to make friends and I'm sure it is. And I did go to a cafe crawl with the disabled society in Manchester, and they were absolutely lovely people. This sounds like it's going to be like a really weird story about how they were mean or something, but they were absolutely lovely. There was a lot of crossover as well. And a lot of the people in the disabled society were queer, and quite a few of them were autistic, and there were also people with other kinds of disabilities.

I only went to one of their, society meetings. And since then, I've kind of been using my spoons to prioritise self-care and, unfortunately, that's meant that going to societies hasn't really been able to fit into my routines and for me to be able to maintain doing my master's degree. So, unfortunately, I haven't really been able to engage with the societies as much as, as, as I had hoped to. However, I would just like to, have a shout out to the practices of the disabled students’ society in Manchester, because for the cafe crawl, and I believe they do this for all of their events, that accessibility information is very clear and quite comprehensive from the beginning. With the cafe crawl, they had a list and rough timetable of all of the cafes they would be going to in what order, which, brilliant - I do love a good schedule. They also had basic information about whether a place was wheelchair accessible. And obviously they only went to places that were wheelchair accessible.

That had information about the toilets, which is useful on the disability front to be able to know if there's accessible toilets, and also, on the gender front, to know whether there's gender neutral toilets or at least an accessible toilet that is gender neutral. Um, and they also had information about the levels of light. And what type of lighting work in each of the cafes and how busy the cafes usually were and how loud the cafes usually were, which is just amazing. 

Kit: Just even listing mean those things. I was like what people actually think about these things, but, uh, like actually like lighting. Oh my gosh, like cold lighting in, in if it's in a cafe or something that is just, no, that is, that is not what we're here for. Like that's, that's great. 

Gwenyth: I'm so, so impressed. 

Beck: It's evidence of how much good can be done and how useful that information can be when the control is given to disabled people, themselves, because it's disabled people who ran that society and provided that information. And I don't think the same level of attention to detail and the same usefulness would have occurred if it'd been non-disabled people providing that information or determining whether a place was accessible or not. 

Kit: Yeah. 

Gwenyth: I mean the light levels and sound thing. That's completely unprecedented, like I've never heard anyone refer to that on a thing, but it would help so many people with so many different impairments. I have a slight hearing loss, so I partially lipread, if I'm in a space where there's any background noise but knowing the extent to which I'd need to do that would be amazing before going to a place. I'm sorry that you haven't been able to engage with that more. I’m glad you got to kind of see that and have that experience in that way. 

Kit: Yeah. I mean, I, if, if I can, if I can add sort of a bit about my own experiences in terms of that, like, I also, as an autistic person find going to, you know, all sorts of society events really, really appealing. But there is, you know, there is the, constant element of, oh, will I have enough spoons to do this? And, and will I even be able to incorporate this into a routine? Because routine is just such a good thing. I also have anxiety to go along with my autism.

Sometimes the prospect of going to something that, you know, will be like, you know, you're going to have a good time, but you have got your own brain and your own body to think of and sometimes they just do not, they do not mesh with, with going to socials like every week. And I guess that's why it's good to have, you know, societies that do that do consider accommodations for the places they're going to in their socials. And, there's also like online socials, you know, that happen 

Beck: Options are great. Even if making those decisions then can be difficult afterwards, having options is great because oftentimes it isn't even really a decision that you end up having to make. Because one of the options is just completely off limits to you anyway. So, it's like, you're not really having to make the decision as much as a, well, one of those works for me and the other one, there's no way in hell that could happen.

Gwenyth: You have any resources or creators that you would recommend to our listeners

Beck: In terms of resources I’m always asked to give people resources to explain being nonbinary, and I'm not gonna lie, I can't really do it justice because the experiences are so vast, because being nonbinary is such a wide category with a wide number of experiences that any single resource that I could point you to is not going to fit a whole load of nonbinary people's experiences. If anyone's particularly interested to hear my take and my personal experience, then I have a blog on the Leonard Cheshire website. If you want to know someone's particular view, and they have said that they'll be willing to talk to you about it, ask them, ask them what their pronouns are, ask them like how they would prefer to be referred, ask them whether they would want to discuss their gender identity with you.
I personally don't really engage with, much autistic media on social media or anything. So, I’m sensitive to like how representations can be not very positive that I tend to just disengage with it.

Kit: Well as someone who spends way too much time on social media, I have, I mean, I've sent Gwen a kind of full list of accounts on Instagram who are both autistic and queer in some way or another. I mean the, you know, the autisticats, you know, they're on, they're on Twitter and on Instagram and every one of their posts, is a banger. It's great. I mean, there's the hashtag ‘actually autistic’. Like if you type that into pretty much any social media, you will see like, a wealth of like posts of actually autistic people talking about their experiences. And oftentimes they are very queer as well, you know? And I mean, you know exercise, self-care, when on social media- that's a piece of advice I will have for you. But you often won't have to, when you're on a tag that is, you know, maintained is not the right word, but you know, used by disabled people who are talking about themselves.

Gwenyth: Thank you both for coming and talking to me today. I've really appreciated hearing about your experiences and, I hope you had a good time as well. 

Beck: Yeah, it's been great. Thank you very much. And thanks for chatting with me, Kit. 

Kit: Oh yeah. Thank you. Thank you to Beck and thank you also Gwen.

Beck: Thank you Gwen.

All: Bye

Gwenyth: Thoughts and opinions expressed in today's episode are the thoughts of the individuals involved. We will endeavour to share a post with links to the resources and key public figures that Kit has mentioned in this episode, should you be interested. 

If you have any thoughts relating to what we discussed today, feel free to get in touch. You can do this by emailing us on disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org, or you can DM us on Instagram or Twitter @LeonardCheshire. My thanks go to Claire Farrell for setting up this interview.  I'd also like to thank our wonderful volunteer editor, Sally Raper and Rob Withers for the initial edit. This has been the Disability Download. I have been Gwenyth Withers. 

Please check out our other episodes. For more queer content, check out our November episode, At the Intersection: fantasy fiction with Ennis Rook Bashe. If you have a guest in mind that you think we should interview, tag them on social, tag us and let us know, you could also email us. Thank you so much for listening and have a wonderful rest of your day.