One of the interesting early findings of our customer survey is the relatively high number of respondents that do not identify as male or female. In fact, 3% of everyone that responded identify as gender diverse (compared to 0.05% of the general population), and 23% of everyone younger than 24 (compared to 3%). This is in line with most of the recent research about Autism and gender diversity – there is a much higher occurrence of gender diversity in the Neurodiverse community.
The best data available on this is the results of a survey of 160 000 readers of Autism Parenting Magazine (APM). When asked “Is your child struggling with their gender identity?” 5.7% of respondents answered “Yes”. So, it does seem gender dysphoria is higher in the autistic community than in the general population.
Survey respondents who selected “Yes” were posed a series of further questions. 50% said that gender confusion started to present itself when their child was age 10 or older, 33.3% said signs appeared when their child was under five years old, and the remaining 16.7% selected age five to 10 years.
APM’s final question was: “Do you know other families with autistic children experiencing gender dysphoria?” A significant 34.8% said yes—suggesting gender dysphoria in the autism community could be even higher than the survey suggests.
What is gender identity?
According to the UK National Autistic Society, how someone feels about their gender is known as gender identity. Some people identify as the sex they were assigned with at birth, others don’t. Some people may be assigned male at birth, but identify as female. Some may be assigned female but identify as male, or people may identify as neither female nor male. Some people may feel both male and female at different times. We all express our gender in different ways, for example in how we dress and act.
People may experience discomfort or distress when their assigned sex is different from the gender they identify with – this is known as gender dysphoria (GD). Even though there is evidence to show that autistic people may be more likely than other people to have gender dysphoria, there is little evidence about the reasons why. More research is needed to understand this link and it is also required to develop and test assessment tools, support and treatment for autistic people experiencing gender dysphoria.
In the 2016 study, “Gender dysphoria and autism spectrum disorder: A narrative review “ in the International Review of Psychiatry , some theories on the reason for the link between autism and gender dysphoria are explored:
1. Non-Conforming to Gender Expectations
People with autism often feel socially out-of-place. This might play a role in how they experience gender identity, as well. For instance, people with autism who are born and assigned a female gender might not identify with the way females are expected to behave, think, and look according to society’s expectations and pressures. This might be one factor that influences them to question their gender. This could lead to identifying with another gender, such as transgender or nonbinary.
2. Individuality and Autism
Individuals with autism are thought to be less influenced by societal expectations as compared to non-autistic people in some ways. Particularly, they might not conform to gender roles and stereotypes or typical social behaviours. This can make it more difficult for them to fit in socially. This also plays a role in how people with autism tend to be different from others and how they tend to follow their own path in a way. Because of this, it is likely that people with autism are more apt to be open to and to pursue non-traditional gender identities and sexual orientations. Many people on the autism spectrum tend to go against typical binary social expectations.
3. Sexual Orientation and Autism
According to the study, the autistic community also has more variability in sexual orientation as compared to the general population. Sexual orientation, which refers to whom a person is attracted to, varies in the autistic community just as it does in the general population; however, people with autism are more likely to experience non-heterosexual sexual orientations. They are more likely to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or demisexual. They are more likely to be attracted to a person for who they are rather than to a person having the opposite gender. This doesn’t mean that people with autism aren’t heterosexual. They certainly can be. It just means that people with autism tend to be more likely to have non-heterosexual sexual orientations than those in the general population.
Autism Parenting Magazine
As part of the Autism Parenting Magazine survey results, two contrasting views on this are explored.
According to Dr Carole Lieberman, “There is a growing interest in autism and gender identity because of the efforts of progressives to change all children’s gender identity. Many schools have been infiltrated to try to convince all kids to turn against the gender they were born with and become non-binary, trans, and so on.”
“They now have seized upon autistic children because they feel that children with autism are more easily swayed. Indeed, some children with autism are people-pleasers and, therefore, much more vulnerable to the propaganda that these progressives are spreading.”
Autistic people are naturally more nuanced
In contrast to Dr Lieberman’s opinion, Sharon O’Connor, an autistic psychotherapist who specializes in neurodiversity, believes autistic people are naturally more nuanced than their neurotypical peers.
“Autism influences so many aspects of our being. It affects not only how we perceive and interact with the world around us, but also how we understand and express our own identities. As autistic voices become more prominent, the common threads of our individual experiences become clearer and easier to connect. We see now that there is a large overlap between the autistic and LGBTQ+ communities,” she explains.
“We might think of autism as a different type of operating system (similar to Mac or PC), and wired into that operating system seems to be the capacity for a different type of perception and understanding of gender. Autistic folks may be more likely to perceive their gender as more nuanced than simply male or female. Some may consider themselves non-binary, genderfluid, or genderless.”
Autigender: a new word for autistic gender identity
O’Connor adds that having a different relationship to gender and sexual orientation is quite common to the autistic experience. So much so that the word “autigender” was created to describe people who feel their gender identity is inextricably linked with, and influenced by, their autism.
“Some folks in the autistic community may also feel less influenced by the expected ‘norms’ of neurotypical culture, so variations in gender identity might be more openly expressed,” she adds.
How do we manage this?
On the one hand, it has become fashionable for clinicians to simply accept a child's statement that they have a different gender identity, some even encourage it (In the US it is common to even hide this from the parents). I find it strange that every aspect of a child's identity would be explored and analyzed in therapy, but this statement simply accepted. Surely, the fact that they are autistic should be a reason to explore this? I was taught that you must always ask "Why?" 5 times to get the real answer. Then you can analyze the causes.
Conversely, does it really matter what they identify as? Our kids' lives are already so difficult and they struggle so much to fit in, we just want them to be happy. As long as there is no medical intervention to make it permanent, should we not allow them to go on their own unique journey? Isn't that what we always say about all other aspects of their autistic lives?
If you ask ten different parents their opinion on this subject, you'll probably get ten different answers. But, as parents of autistic children, and some of us autistic adults ourselves, we should be informed and prepared. Below I've added some references that you can use to learn more about the link between autism and gender diversity.