When I first met my girlfriend, it took us less than 30 minutes to realise that both of us were autistic, and this is something that I find happens frequently when meeting other people in the trans community. But why? Is there some sort of connection between being trans and being autistic?
Yes and no. While there is no causation between being trans and being autistic, studies have shown that gender-nonconforming individuals are much more likely to have autism than their cis peers. A compilation of five different unrelated studies covering a total of over 640,000 people found that 5% of the cisgender people in the study have autism whereas 24% of the gender-diverse people do.
That is a massive gap, leaving no question that there is a correlation between the two. So what is it about autism that makes it so much more likely for that person to be gender nonconforming?
Many allistic people (those who don’t have autism) are under the impression that autistic people are extremely rigid and can only do things in one specific way when that isn’t true. In fact, it is common for the autistic community to make fun of the way we are able to adapt to a wide variety of changing situations whereas allistic people struggle to do so. By the stereotype allistic people give us, it would make sense for us to be the opposite of who we are, to conform to the rigidity of gender, but instead we play with the different aspects of it.
Autism activist Lydia X. Z. Brown describes this intersectionality as being because ‘we can’t make heads or tails of the widespread assumption that everyone fits into neat categories of men and women and the nonsensical characteristics expected or assumed of womanhood or manhood.’
Much of the autistic experience is being forced into boxes and made to conform in ways that just don’t work for us to the point that there is a term that many (but not all) trans-autistic people identify with; gender vague. This is used to describe specifically nonbinary neurodivergent people, people who realise that their autism is a lens that they view their gender through. They realise that their gender is intersectional with their autism and enjoy the fact that those two things fit together.
Unfortunately, studies showing the correlation between autism and being gender nonconforming is something that has negatively impacted both the trans and autistic communities. For all of history, both trans and autistic people have been treated as though we are mentally ill, that there is something wrong with us that needs to be fixed. This makes it easy for those who run conversion camps or other such gender identity programmes and clinics to suggest that being transgender is simply a symptom of autism and not a genuine identity. Some doctors, such as Dr Kenneth Zucker, are already claiming that gender-nonconforming autistics are simply autistic people with a fixation on gender.
These ideas even directly affect trans people from getting the care that their allistic trans peers are freely given. Many states still require trans people to get letters and other documentation from a variety of medical providers proving that they are ‘really’ trans. Having an autism diagnosis leads many providers to believe that their clients are not genuinely trans and thus refuse or delay providing the paperwork needed to start the transition process.
On top of the conversion and other gender therapies, many trans people are forced to endure, many autistic people are forced into therapy that negatively impacts their health, such as ABA (applied behaviour analysis).
Introduced in the 70s, this form of therapy is focused on pushing autistic people to act in very specific ways according to what is considered acceptable to the allistic community. It doesn’t matter if eye contact makes you uncomfortable, ABA is going to force you to maintain it for at least five seconds every time whether you like it or not.
There is also mass misinformation as to what autism actually is. Some people think it was created by vaccines while others think it’s a disease. But if you’re part of the autistic community or are close to someone autistic, then you would know that it’s nothing. Just like being trans is nothing. It’s not anything destroying my life, it’s just who I am.
People who are cis or allistic are always under the impression that being trans or autistic is the worst thing that could happen to you, and that no one would want to be that way. And, yes, there are downsides to it, but everyone has downsides to every aspect of their life. Being trans and autistic enhances my life in many ways and is something I really enjoy being a part of my identity. My autism is why I’m such a good writer and being trans is why I’m the person I am. Exploring and accepting both those aspects of my life has led me to be a much happier person, someone who I actually like being.
I don’t want to be cis and I don’t want to be neurotypical. I understand how that’s difficult for some people to understand, but all they really need to know is that I’m happier than I’ve ever been and, when it comes down to it, isn’t that what’s really important?
As we move forward in time, we will continue to evolve to understand what we truly have to do versus want to do. Most people don’t realize that most have-tos can be turned into want-tos. So let people play with their gender. Let them be autistic. It’s who we are, it’s who we’ve always been, and it’s who we’ll always be.
Spencer Fantastic is a life coach and occupational therapy assistant specialising in mental health.
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