Michelle Smith, 21, was understandably nervous when her mom found the BDSM restraints she had hidden under her bed.
"I was afraid you’d find those," Smith said, hiding her face in shame. "I thought you’d noticed them before and just ignored them."
"'Them' what?" Mom responded as she glanced around the room at the collectible anime action figures and other nerdy memorabilia that adorned the shelves. "It’s just a strap to a suitcase."
There's always a strange tension between parents and children when it comes to sexuality. But in this particular instance, mom's naïveté was compounded by the fact that Michelle is legally blind and has autism — and she was about to leave for a kink party with her then-boyfriend.
Blindness and autism can obviously cause some complications, especially in terms of work and school. But what about sex and romance?
Humans are sexual creatures, and neither blindness and autism should change that. Still, Smith had some difficulty when she first began to explore her sexuality — not because of her disabilities but because of other people's perceptions of her disabilities.
"When I first got into this lifestyle, I was convinced that no one would want to play with 'some blind chick,'" she says. "There were people online who said things like, 'Oh, you have autism, that means you can’t consent.' And it’s like, excuse me? Who are you to say that?"
When Smith finally found a safe kink community, she laid down the ground rules: They weren't allowed to ask about her disabilities, unless they had specific questions about what she could or could not do or see.
BDSM and other kinds of sex play involve power and authority — two things that don’t often get bestowed on people with disabilities, at least consensually.
Smith might enjoy being submissive in a sexual way, for example. But that's different from when people see her with a cane out on the street and treat her like a child. That is condescending and unwanted, while her sex life is liberating and cathartic and — above all — consensual.
"When you’ve already had to acknowledge the fact that you’re a little bit unusual, finding out that you’re unusual in a sexual way, you just kind of shrug and say 'that figures!'" she says with a laugh.
In her experience, there's a lot of overlap between autism, kink, and nerd/geek communities. She also finds a similar empowerment from cosplay — dressing up like her favorite characters from anime or video games for conventions with like-minded fans. Again, it offers her a sense of control; she's accepted and appreciated for the same passions that make her "different" in the eyes of others.
Since she began to embrace her kinks and quirks, Smith has had several relationships, lived on her own, and continued to pursue her career, just like any other able-sighted or neurotypical person might.
That doesn't mean everything is simple or easy, of course. Both her autism and blindness still affect her life in certain ways, and sometimes even work together to a disadvantage. "Sometimes with autism I get really interested in something, and then I’m frustrated with my blindness when I can’t do it," she says. (This can be particularly hard to balance with her love of video games, where her sight problems prevent her from enjoying certain games that aren't calibrated for people with low vision.)
In the meantime, she's still striving toward her dream job of being a full-time voice actor for cartoon work. She's making industry connections through friends in Los Angeles and building a reel and resume through making original animated projects with friends. It's not an easy path for anyone to follow — but there's no reason that her autism or blindness should get in the way either.
By sharing the story of her passions and perseverance, Smith hopes to break down stigmas around disability, neurodiversity, and sexuality.
"Autism is a disability of the people who don’t have autism more than it is for the people who do," she says. "It’s a disability of perception. Neurotypical folks, a lot of times they don’t give us a chance, and I think that’s where a lot of the problems come from."
She also shared a story from a recent screening of "Best and Most Beautiful Things," a documentary film that chronicles her journey over several years. After the movie, an older woman confessed that the movie — and Smith herself — had made her rethink the way that she treats her own granddaughter.
"I don't know if her granddaughter is queer or kinky or has crazy-colored hair, is a nerd, is blind, has autism, any of the above, all of the above, none of the above," Smith says. "But that girl who I have no idea about, who probably has at least a couple things in common with me, is now not worrying about the way her grandma looks at her. So that makes me happy."
And that's the crux of Smith's mission in life. She doesn’t want to change the way she is or the world that she lives in; she just wants to help others understand it, with all its kinks and quirks.