Redefining the Narrative: Autism, Gender Identity, and the Fight for Understanding

I am sick and tired of my autism being used as a scapegoat.

Autism Progress Pride Flag.

I am sick and tired of my autism being used as a scapegoat.

The modern antivaxxer panic was sparked by the disgraced Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study implying vaccinations caused autism in children. One of the origins of the ongoing natural health craze blames Bernard Rimland who claimed, with minimal evidence, that various chemicals and “toxins” in food could cause autism. So-called autism support organizations like Autism Speaks have faulted autistic children for ruining families.

Now autism is being used to discredit the LGBTQ+ movement, particularly transgender people like myself.

Doing a web search for “autism and transgender” will not bring benevolent results. Some will sure seem kind, dripping with saccharine paternalism instructing parents and caregivers to guide autistic kids through social norms they “obviously” cannot comprehend. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), such as the notorious JK Rowling, claim to support “autistic girls” by protecting them from thinking they’re trans. Christian support pages believe that autistic people are “spiritually vulnerable” to queer temptations and offer prayer.

A familiar fearmongering is found in many anti-trans legislation that target gender-affirming healthcare throughout last year. In June, Ohio mandated that transgender children and, later, adults as well, should be screened for mental health issues like autism on the presumption it “may be influencing the minor individual’s gender-related condition.” Georgia’s gender-affirming care ban for minors that went into effect that July noted the co-occurrence of gender dysphoria with mental and developmental conditions, “including autism spectrum disorder.” Missouri’s attorney general issued an emergency rule in April stating it was “unfair, deceptive, or otherwise unlawful” to provide gender-affirming care to anyone, adults or minors, without first determining “whether the patient has autism.”

I’ve faced this personally myself twice.

First, when I came out as asexual to my parents, they dismissed my sexuality as “an autism thing” that I would outgrow. A decade later, I’m still asexual. After being outed, I was sent articles musing on why my autism may be making me think I was transgender rather than accept that I was trans and autistic.

That’s the end goal of this rhetoric — to deny the existence of autistic transgender people and, ultimately, trans people all together. If an autistic person identifies as queer, they’re wrong. If someone identifies as trans, they probably have autism, and thus are wrong.

An initial impulse may be to deny a connection, but studies have shown that there is some link between autism and gender dysphoria. Autistic people are more likely to be transgender or gender-nonconforming. Gender-diverse folk are more likely to present with autistic traits than the general population. The numbers vary a lot depending on the study, so I can’t quote just one. Nonetheless, the replication suggests a strong correlation.

This isn’t a bad thing. It’s simply a fact. There isn’t enough data to confirm why this correlation exists, but that hasn’t stopped people from inciting alarm bells about it.

Autism research has an ableism problem. Throughout history, autistic people had been analyzed by neurotypical scrutiny for their perceived deficits, that everything we do is “wrong.” Suggestions to “fix” them were often abusive. Applied Behavior Analysis aka ABA therapy, considered the gold star of early intervention treatment for autistic kids, utilizes the same principles as conversion therapy — to break down the autistic or queer person and rebuild them as neurotypical or cis/straight. ABA and conversion therapy survivors can attest for how traumatizing this is. Many states have banned conversion therapy, but ABA theory is still routinely prescribed for young autistic children.

Renowned psychologist Dr. Tony Attwood brandishes his reputation as an autism expert to amplify transphobia. He has described our internal experiences as “fractured” to invalidate our identities and believes symptoms of other conditions such as “an eating disorder or depression or gender dysphoria” are really autism. Attwood entices the anti-trans lobby as one of few scientists parroting Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) as legitimate.

Autism’s poor reputation in the medical field — and society at large — has come to the point where autistic trans folk advise each other to not disclose an autism diagnosis when pursing gender-affirming care in case providers deny them treatment. This is not an unfounded fear. Kayden Clarke was an autistic trans man who was denied hormone replacement therapy (HRT) until his autism was “cured,” which is impossible. Autism cannot be cured. In 2016, Clarke was shot by police responding to a suicide distress call.

I was diagnosed when I was two-years-old, so I don’t have the option to hide my diagnosis from doctors. I’m twenty-three now and doctors still talk to my parents about my own health issues. Sometimes, they won’t even look at me.

In our ableist world that dehumanizes, mistreats, and infantilizes disabled people, any excuse to deny our bodily autonomy is wielded against us. Transphobes jumped on the connection between autism and queerness to deem the LGBTQ+ community, especially trans people, as mentally ill or confused. They rely on these ableist misconceptions about autism to discredit us. Even some cisgender queer people claim that accepting autistic trans people, or any disabled queer folk, “goes too far” or harms the legitimacy of the LGBTQ+ movement.

However, it is antithetical to any equality movement to allow our fellow oppressed people to continue to be subjugated. Given that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to have a disability than the general population, it would be to throw our own under the bus.

Yes, autism is a disability, but no disability excuses denying someone’s right to self-determination. Every human being deserves their personal autonomy, to decide their own destinies. To exclude autistic trans people is to concede ground to bigots who will and have wielded ableist rhetoric to squash the civil rights of the rest of the LGBTQ+ community and disabled people.

Since the 1990s, the disability rights movement has asserted “nothing about us without us.” Discussions and decisions about the disabled population should include disabled people — not to choose their fate without them out of misguided paternalism. They know their own experiences better than others.

Conservative legislators and parental rights advocates claim these restrictions and controls benefit children. Reality shows the opposite — anti-trans efforts have only worsened mental health for LGBTQ+ youth. Trans youth are dying, whether by suicide or murdered by their peers.

Likewise, autistic people, aware of the stigma against them, contend with either disclosing or withholding their diagnosis. Trying to blend with neurotypical society involves masking their autistic traits and struggling without accommodations. Being open about their autism will direct ableist bullying and isolation their way. It is a lose-lose situation many succumb to. Autistic people are dying, whether by suicide or murdered by their family and caregivers. If they are Black like myself, the risk of police violence and criminal injustice is greater.

The compounding oppressions at this intersection does not favor our lives.

Rather than pathologizing the intersection of autism and transgender identity from a neurotypical view, let autistic trans folk speak for themselves. Listen to queer autistic voices. Let us demonstrate the unique beauty of the autistic transgender experience, to explore and express their autism and gender identity on their terms.

When I first realized I was transgender, I identified as gendervague, a term popularized, though not coined, by nonbinary autistic advocate Lydia X. Z. Brown. In using it, I recognized that my autism affects how I perceive gender, as autism impacts how I perceive everything, but does not cause my gender identity. This is different from neurogender, which acknowledges a connection between one’s gender identity and neurodivergence.

Given the freedom to explore my gender, I moved on from gendervague and found comfort in transmasculinity. I chose a name for myself, my pronouns, and my outward presentation, making it easier to navigate social norms I’ve found daunting and confusing because of my autism. Medical transition further amplified my self-confidence. As my voice deepened from HRT, I became more willing to speak up and advocate for myself. The antithesis of legislation restricting gender-affirming care, treating my gender dysphoria helped me more with the social discrepancies from autism than years of therapy had.

Many autistic trans people are nonbinary or genderqueer — their identities don’t fit the male-female paradigm. While detractors ridicule this as mental illness, this is more evidence against the false dichotomy of gender. Many in the autistic community believe that as autistic people are less attuned to social dynamics, they are more likely to deviate from social norms and recognize queerness in ourselves.

This is a consequence of the neuroqueer identity — to embody neurodiversity and queerness simultaneously. Living at this intersection provides insight for examining neuronormative and cisheteronormative standards for their faults and then to tear them apart. Being proudly neurodiverse and queer subverts cultural norms that tries to fit us in suffocating conformity.

It is imperative to remain intersectional in our advocacy. As the anti-trans lobby brandishes ableism to undergird their transphobia, we must remain firm. We must refuse to allow bigoted rhetoric to divide and conquer us. Disability is not an excuse to wrench our rights from us. To liberate all of us from the injustice of marginalization, we have to work together to uplift all of us — disabled, queer, transgender, autistic. No one stays behind.

Alasdair (he/him) is the digital editor of QBurgh. He is a recent graduate of Chatham University with a BFA and a MA in Creative Writing. He grew up around Pittsburgh and now wishes to become involved with the local LGBTQ+ community. Through his writing, he hopes to represent and advocate for queer people like himself.