With Autism Awareness Month just around the corner in April, I thought it might be time to examine the relationship between neurodiversity and gender identity.
Many people find the burgeoning array of identity terms currently available to be overwhelming. Some dismiss identity words out of hand, not seeing a reason for so many labels and terms. However, having words to describe one’s experiences–one’s self–allows one to connect with kindred spirits. When we can create a framework of words to describe ourselves, we can understand ourselves.
Finding words to articulate my own identity has been a process. Sexuality was actually the easiest. At 13, I looked around and realized everyone was cute. I came out as bisexual, was told it was a phase, and 30 years later still use the word, although ‘queer’ fits most snugly now. But there were other words I would need. I felt like there was a difference between myself and most of the people I had come in contact with. I was (and am) an odd duck. Gender was a part I played with varying degrees of success. When the word “nonbinary” became part of the popular vernacular, it began to resonate with my lifelong experience. Late in life diagnoses of autism and ADHD gave me two more words, and answers I had never known existed. The way I could never fit in for very long, the way I could never take social conventions for granted, the way I often felt like I didn’t understand what was going on…it all clicked with the word ‘autism.’ Here was an explanation that was not my fault, and a descriptor of why I was the way I was.
Autism is a lens through which I see the world. Assumptions and conventions are difficult for me to accept if they do not make sense to me. Example: grass isn’t the best ground cover, makes no sense as a crop, is basically an invasive species. I cannot accept the concept of lawns, but my grumbling about them makes me look like some sort of eco-Don Quixote, wasting my words on windmills. In the same way, I could not accept compulsory heterosexuality, heteronormativity, or gender conformity, despite it growing all around me, and despite it being taught as the default. Autism deeply informed the way I interacted with these concepts. Whenever I tried to mask my feelings and perform my assigned gender, I felt tired and stressed. I neglected my authentic self to the point of burnout.
Autism affects the senses, the perception of being touched, looked at, spoken to. For me, this means a gentle caress might be extremely unpleasant, and a firmer touch might be delightful. Autism is there in communication, in the kinds of conversations I need to have before getting close to someone. Or the way I will ‘infodump’ on the people I like the most. Or the way I cannot be touched at all sometimes (and it has nothing to do with my sweetie). Autism defines many parameters of how I can be a sexual or romantic partner.
Autism is an integral component of my queerness, with regard to both gender and sexuality (as well as politics, which is yet another kettle of fish). So, it came as no real surprise, but was tremendously validating to learn that many other neurodivergent people (autistic, with ADHD, etc.) felt the same way and had created identity terms to capture the idea. In the last decades, the internet has enabled people from subgroups to find each other, and for trans and gender-nonconforming autistic people, this has resulted in a rich subculture with its own array of terms.
Neurogenders are used by neurodivergent people to describe the way their experience of gender is inseparable from their neurodivergence. They fall implicitly under the nonbinary umbrella, although that may not reflect everyone’s experience with neurogender. This category includes autgender/autigender/autismgender. These terms emerged from conversations on the Tumblr platform, where autistic community members first used ‘autismgender’ to acknowledge “autism as part or whole of gender identity; a gender that can only be understood in context of being autistic.” Other examples of neurogenders are bordergender (borderline personality disorder) and skhizeingender (schizophrenia). Gendervague is another term that loosely resembles the idea of neurogender and comes from the autistic community, but could reasonably apply to other members of the neurodivergent community. As Lydia X. Z. Brown, a prominent queer autistic activist puts it, “Someone who is gendervague cannot separate their gender identity from their neurodivergence – being autistic doesn’t cause my gender identity, but it is inextricably related to how I understand and experience gender.”
The interconnectedness between gender and sexual orientation and neurodivergence that is felt so keenly by so many autistic trans and gender-nonconforming people is beginning to be reflected in research on both populations. Autistic people are more likely to be trans or gender-nonconforming than the non-autistic population (although most autistic people are probably still cisgender). Trans and gender-nonconforming people are more likely to be autistic than the cisgender population (although most trans and gender-nonconforming people are probably not autistic). The relationship seems strongest in those identifying as nonbinary or genderqueer. Among binary trans people, it seems stronger in trans men than in trans women. It is unclear what all this means, exactly. It could simply be that autistic people are less willing/able to stay in the closet or have a different path to developing their gender identity. Some researchers have looked into a possible biological cause to both autism and gender dysphoria, but there is no compelling evidence for this link.
Perhaps autism simply makes it harder to meet society’s expectations of gender, as it does so many other expectations. Maybe because I am already an outsider, I just have fewer qualms about admitting yet another way I don’t fit in.