BY SARAH CAVAR ’20
A 2016 study in “Transgender Health” revealed that gender variance was almost eight times more prevalent in young autistic subjects than their allistic (non-autistic) counterparts. This has led to scientific inquiry into a neurobiological link between gender dysphoria — as it’s known in the DSM-V, the latest psychiatric diagnostic manual published by the American Psychiatric Association — and autism spectrum disorders.
There is plenty of speculation as to why autism and gender nonconformity so often co-occur. A study published in Volume 3 of “LGBT Health” attributes it to a shared biological marker between autism and gender dysphoria, believing that the origin of each can be traced back to brain similarities. One Slate magazine contributor speculated that autistic people are potentially “less concerned with social norms and [thus] less likely to bow to social pressures that keep other trans people from coming out.”
I am a transgender person who received an adult autism diagnosis in early 2017. I have both a personal and political — is there a difference? — investment in the depathologization of all psychosocial differences. This includes traits of what’s known as “autism,” “gender dysphoria” and all other experiences seen as abnormal by medicine. However, trans people who advocate for the removal of gender dysphoria from the DSM-V frequently ignore those whose experiences will remain pathologized even after its removal. They exclude people diagnosed with a wide variety of “mental disorders,” autism included, as they cry, “we’re just trans, not crazy!”
At the same time, the face of the autism we are encouraged to accept remains cisgender and heterosexual (and male, white and upper-class). Comparatively, the otherwise-privileged autistic figure is far easier to accept than the autistic figure who does not conform to social norms. If you are allistic, think about your own possible reaction to a child who is not only autistic but also behaving and dressing in a way that unsettles gender and sexual norms. Are you more inclined to believe that their gender nonconformity is a result of their autism diagnosis? If you plan to be a doctor or psychiatrist, think: how would an autism diagnosis affect the services you provide to a transgender client?
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Jeremiah Dickerson states in the online medical journal “Pediatric News” that it is difficult “to parse out the cause of social impairments in an [autistic] individual who also may have other phenomena that influence interpersonal functioning.” Included among these phenomena were ADHD, anxiety and gender dysphoria. Regardless of one’s stance on the relationship between autism and transness, they share heavy cultural and social stigmas due to their perceived “abnormality.”
The emerging connection between autism and gender nonconformity is tinged with a collective fear of people and groups who defy social norms. This is especially true for people who defy these norms in multiple ways at once. But this connection is also a source of possibility and creativity. Linguistically, the gender-creativity of the autistic community appears in recently-coined terms such as “autigender” (a gender acknowledging the ways it has been informed by the user’s experience as an autistic person). There is also the more politically oriented term “neuroqueer,” whose definitions are as diverse as its users. One understanding of this identity is “being neurodivergent and actively choosing to embody and express one’s neurodivergence (or refusing to suppress one’s embodiment and expression of neurodivergence) in ways that ‘queer’ one’s performance of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, occupation, and/or other aspects of one’s identity” according to autistic author Nick Walker.
Medical and psychiatric professionals frequently view the mental and social differences caused by autism as a “problem” in need of fixing. Dickerson refers to signs of autism as “red flags” and encourages the pursuit of “evidence-based interventions … to help minimize other co-occurring pathology” in autistic people.
This mindset has saturated mainstream views of autism, fueled in large part by Autism Speaks (AS), an organization which celebrates and promotes “World Autism Month” every April. Before 2016, a central part of the organization’s stated mission was to find a “cure” for autism, which, according to CBS News, they viewed as a “global health crisis.” This approach drew heavy criticism from autistic people, as well as their allies and associated advocacy groups. AS no longer uses the word “cure” in their mission statement. However, they still aim to “[advance] research into causes and better interventions for autism spectrum disorder” according to their website. They also remain involved with organizations such as the Autism Treatment Network, which still uses the language of “treatment” and “[medical] intervention” when discussing autistic children.
The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) launched “Autism Acceptance Month” to counter AS’s push for “awareness” of the existence of autism. Unlike AS, ASAN aims to “promot[e] acceptance and inclusion and chang[e] the dialogue about autism from fear, pity and tragedy to support, acceptance and empowerment,” as stated on their website.
In ASAN’s message we see echoes of LGBTQ+ appeals for support and inclusion against a culture of homophobia and transphobia. In particular, growing transgender advocacy against the pathologization of trans identity (that is, the inclusion of gender dysphoria in the DSM-V) resembles trends in the Neurodiversity Movement, which promotes the message that differences in the way one processes and interacts with the world are examples of neurological diversity.
As trans and gender nonconforming people, our bodies and minds are incredibly diverse. The social connection between gender nonconformity and autism can provide something more than fear-mongering article fodder about these “co-occurring conditions.” It’s the opportunity for a loving alliance between marginalized communities, both of which have a personal and political incentive to disrupt social norms to build solidarity in the face of a transphobic, ableist world.