Well, lovelies, this is the final post for Autism Awareness Month, and I’ve saved the most mind-bending for last. I’ve had some difficulty writing this, because the research available is so sparse. This means that a lot of what I’m about to say is necessarily based on anecdotal evidence and my experiences coming into the autistic and trans communities. While I have no problem giving my opinion on any topic, as you no doubt have already noticed, this particular subject is a very prickly one, and I’m aware that those who are neither trans, nor autistic, can very easily misinterpret our reality and use it against us. Nevertheless, the link between autism and gender variance is something that cannot be denied, and needs to be talked about. So here goes…
The link between autism and gender variance has been recognised for over two decades. What studies have been done suggest that up to 10% of people diagnosed with ASD or related conditions show some form of gender variance (see the end of the article for links). Another study estimated that the rate of gender variance in people with ASD and ADHD is about seven times that of people without. Sadly, the research into this issue is limited at best, and faces a lot of problems when it comes to finding accurate data and reaching helpful conclusions. This means that talking about gender variance in autism still relies heavily on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, which a lot of people outside the autism community are very quick to dismiss. There are several reasons for this.
The first is the slowly changing, although still common, belief that gender variance is a problem, and something that should be discouraged. Gender variance is an umbrella term that covers gender identities and gender expressions that don’t conform to binary gender norms; that is, what we consider “normal” masculine or feminine behaviour. This can include transgender people (whether binary or non-binary), people who are cisgender but don’t behave in ways we expect people of their gender to behave, and anything in between. Since we’re now recognising that gender isn’t some stable fact, but something that changes over time and across cultures, “gender variance” is difficult to define. Many children are considered gender variant, when they’re just, well, kids with their own individual tastes and behaviours, and they haven’t yet been taught to conform to particular gender norms. Gender has no meaning to them yet, and they’re just expressing their “natural” inclinations, so is that really gender variant? And when you start trying to define gender itself, the line between what we consider “masculine” and “feminine” is so blurred and subjective that the terms basically have no real meaning. However, there are still many people who believe that a binary division of male and female is “healthy” and “natural” (cough *bullshit* cough) that they will actively force people to conform to these ideals.
The second is that there are a metric shitton of people with ASD who haven’t been “officially” diagnosed due to shitty medical care or simple lack of access to appropriate care, who have self-diagnosed, who have been misdiagnosed with other conditions (such as Borderine Personailty Disorder, a misdiagnosis more common in women and feminine presenting peeps), or who just have no freaking idea that they’re autistic. If you spend any time in the autism community (the part of it with actual autistic people, not the part full of Autism Moms TM bullshitting about how hard their lives are), you quickly realise that there are about as many people without an “official” diagnosis as there are with, and yet we all have autism. Sadly, when it comes to research, those without an official diagnosis are not included. It makes sense from a scientific standpoint, but it renders any research into these issues basically useless.
The third is that autistic people aren’t trusted to know our own minds. What little data I could find when researching for this article relied heavily upon the reporting of parents, rather than the self-reporting of autistic people. This is a problem on so many levels. Parents who think gender variance is bullshit will not report in the same way that parents who support gender variance will. Some parents will not recognise gender variance. Most parents don’t have a full understanding of what gender variance means, and don’t recognise things like non-binary identities at all. And it’s still a cultural norm to dismiss the reality of autistic people as a “symptom” of our “illness” (reminder: autism is not an illness) rather than a genuine aspect of our completely valid reality. Bascially, ableism is a bitch.
All that being true, however, it’s clear that gender variance is more common among autistic people, and probably more common than the current research acknowledges. The next question is: why? And this is where we step into a realm of pure theory, because the truth is, nobody really knows. But as someone who is both autistic and trans, I think I’m one of the people more likely to have an opinion worth a damn than, say, an allistic* cisgender scientist with limited data. And no, that doesn’t mean my perspective will be more subjective than theirs, because even the most ostensibly objective scientist is still viewing their results through the lens of what they consider “normal”. Hang on to your hats, kids, it’s about to get gendery up in here.
There have been many theories posited about why autistic people are more likely to be trans or gender variant, the most popular of which is that, because our brains are wired differently, this creates a biological difference that “causes” us to also be trans. This is total bullshit. Anyone with even a basic understanding of how gender works will be able to tell you that you can’t be hardwired to be trans. Gender isn’t a stable fact, it’s a bunch of social norms that we as a society have lumped together and whacked a label on. It changes over time, and it’s as much about how we relate to other people as it is about what’s going on in our heads. And it’s this second part of gender that gives a clue as to why so many autistic people are also trans.
Autistic people don’t relate to others in the same way allistic people do. It’s a major feature of autism. A lot of people typify this as us “struggling” with social interaction, and yes, a lot of the time it is a struggle. But that’s just because the social norms of communicating are FUCKING WEIRD. None of it makes any sense, and most autistic people are intensely logical, at least after our own fashion. We aren’t able to absorb these weirdnesses the way allistic people are, and have to consciously process every interaction and try and remember every little bit of weirdness every time. There are so many arbitrary rules when it comes to normative communication that trying to figure out a pattern is basically impossible, and if you’re having to process all of these rules consciously every time you interact with someone, you’re going to fuck it up. The problem, from an autistic person’s perspective, isn’t us – we make perfect sense. The problem is the straight up shitfest that is human communication. WHO INVENTED THIS SYSTEM?!
Okay. Moving on.
Part of communication – a really major part of it in the English-speaking West – is gendered, right down to communication styles, which vary drastically across genders – and no, I don’t just mean the words they use. I mean gestures, personal space, facial expressions, the hidden meanings behind words, power plays, displays of empathy and all the rest. Communication is waaaaaaaaaaay more than just language, is basically what I’m trying to say. And since gender is at least 90% communicating with other people – whether through our appearance, our movements, our words, or our relationships – if you relate to people differently, your experience of gender is going to be different. Of course autistic people are going to be more gender variant. We are consciously processing communication styles, instead of unconsciously absorbing them, which means we’re noticing what doesn’t make sense, what suits us and what doesn’t, what’s comfortable and what’s plain pointless. Even those of us who are so bamboozled by social interaction that we can’t process it (and frankly, who can blame you?) are still left in a position where the normal rules just don’t apply, and we’re left making it up as we go along. Obviously we’re going to be more likely to choose a way of relating to the world that suits us, and not what suits the world.
Let me be quite clear. JUST BECAUSE WE CHOSE OUR GENDER EXPRESSION DOESN’T MEAN IT ISN’T REAL. In fact, unlike allistic people who, if they thought about gender more, might actually find they don’t fit the binary as well as they thought, we’re more likely to be expressing the version of ourselves we’re most comfortable with. We don’t “decide” we’re trans on a whim, or because it looked like fun and we’re so divorced from “reality” we don’t understand what it means. We know what trans means, we know what gender means, we know what it means to be trans. And if we say we’re trans we are fucking trans and that’s a real fucking thing. So to people who dismiss autistic experiences as “not real” because we look at the world differently, I say: you are ableist cockwombles, the lot of you. Go stick your head in a toilet.
Of course, not all autistic people are trans. Plenty of us are quite happy settling somewhere within the realm of what society considers cisgender, and that doesn’t actually change everything I just said. It simply means that cisgender autistic people looked at gender norms and decided they more or less fit, and went with it – and that’s fine. Just because gender is a social construct, doesn’t mean it’s always a bad thing. It just means we need to recognise that it won’t suit everyone.
It’s also true that not all trans people are autistic. Gender variance can happen to anyone of any neurotype. You don’t have to be autistic to not fit into gender norms. Trying to claim, as some researchers have done, that being trans is the result of autism and nothing else, is completely ridiculous. Like, laughably ridiculous. It’s actually mind-boggling to consider that there are researchers out there (one in particular is mentioned in the links below) who have looked at the available data, have spent time with trans and autistic people, and have decided: nah, fuck science, I’m gonna be a transphobic dickhead anyway.
That’s not how you science, arseholes.
Now, the theory I’ve outlined above is incredibly basic, and certainly doesn’t cover every aspect of this issue. If I were to go into detail about all the other ways autism can influence your relationship with gender, I’d have to write an academic paper, which would take a couple years of research at least, and this post is already a week late. I will be talking about this issue more in the future, however, because it’s something I feel is important. If you take nothing else away from this, it’s important to understand that trying to find a biological “cause” for being trans is misguided at best, and will only cause harm in the long run. The truth is, you can never expect to find a biological cause for a socially-created phenomena – gender isn’t biological, and therefore, neither is being trans. Searching for a biological cause will, at its worst, lead to unscrupulous scientists “testing for trans”, declaring who is and isn’t allowed to identify as trans, and, in the long run, might lead to people attempting to “cure” something that isn’t a problem in the first place. Just as autistic people are whole, valid people who don’t need curing, so it is with trans people. The problems we face are caused by a world that refuses to understand us, and not by our gender, or our neurotype.
Thanks for joining me this Autism Awareness Month! I hope you learned something new and interesting, or just enjoyed reading a different perspective. I’ll be back every Friday with new topics, which will include more autism-related issues, April or no April.
Take care, lovelies! Cam out.
*allistic: non-autistic. I use this term instead of neurotypical, because not all allistic people are neurotypical.
All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017.