Editor’s note: This article contains mentions of gender-exclusionary beliefs, ABA therapy, and queer conversion therapy; however, we believe the tone and triumph of this article will be healing and affirming more than it is triggering.
1 in 58 Americans are diagnosed as autistic (though there is an epidemic of misdiagnosed and undiagnosed autistics, especially for those assigned female at birth). 2% of high school students are transgender or non-binary (at least the ones who are out), meaning they don’t identify with the sex assigned to them at birth, instead they identify as the other gender or beyond the male-female binary altogether.
There has been consistent overlap between gender creativity and autism. Yet autistic gender-questioning and trans people, especially youth, are purported not to know their gender identity. There has even been a new hyper-pathologizing term on the part of various trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) for trans youth who come out as teenagers or young adults: “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” with autistics being portrayed as the “trans agenda’s” most vulnerable targets.
I am an LGBTQ, self-identified “genderfuck” autistic parent of a trans son on the spectrum, and I reject this notion. As an autistic activist, I am a full believer in the notion that autistic voices, even autistics whose communications aren’t always understandable, matter, and especially when speaking on their own identity, gender or otherwise.
I grew up with extremely conservative, ultra-religious parents. I was undiagnosed my whole life, despite my mother being a professional therapist for kids with autism.
I struggled hardcore in middle and high school. In college, however, I thought I had discovered my tribe – the LGBT community. I discovered my bisexual identity and began dating a woman. I felt freed to live an authentic life. The reason I was struggling wasn’t that anything was wrong with me, I was just a queerdo, a gaybie, a homosexual penguin, among the many other queer petnames I adopted.
I decided to come out to my mom, and she enrolled me in a (slightly less aggressive) conversion program disguised as a “child sexual health center.” It was more subtle conversion therapy as opposed to direct.
It focused more on the “underlying psychopathology” behind my bisexuality and extensive talk of heterosexual sex to dissuade me from queerness than trying to abuse me into being straight. The same questions were asked over and over, such as “You know you are a girl, right?” and “What draws you to this homosexual lifestyle?”
During my time in conversion therapy, I was given multiple mental health and neurological diagnoses– ADHD, anxiety, depression, borderline personality, body dysmorphia, “gender identity disorder” due to my nonconformity gender-wise, OCD, sensory integration disorder, and social anxiety.
I would soon lose all these labels and get my ASD diagnosis; however, autism was never even considered at the time. I survived the rest of college and graduate school concealing both my identity and my diagnoses.
Then I became a parent. I got married, and did not tell my husband that I was bi. My first (neurotypical) child, assigned male at birth, came out as agender, and I began revealing my own identity . Bi-curious, I called myself, sexually strange, not fully ready to embrace my queerness but ready to own up to how I was a little bit not-straight.
Then my second child (then known to us as our daughter.) was diagnosed as autistic. [Note: Any references which use “daughter” only reflect what we believed at the time, not the notion that our son’s gender changed when we realized who he truly was.]
I panicked when he got his diagnosis and rushed into the ABA and interventions. Therapy was every second of the day, and we were so focused on turning their brain into a battlefield that we forgot to take time to just let our kid be a kid. We made autism our “project” for a while, and shamed our child for “harmless” traits like hyperfixations, over-explaining, stimming, social differences, etc.
I became willfully ignorant about the spectrum for a long time. I believed many dangerous anti-autistic myths, such as “special interests need to be discouraged,” “stimming is attention-seeking” (partly because I didn’t want to recognize my own stims), “echolalia serves no purpose,” “Autistic girls are obsessed with puberty and autistic boys are obsessed with trains.” All these myths were fed to me by my daughter’s (now trans son) ABA therapist.
After a while, I discovered the Neurodiversity movement in all its complexity. I began cherishing my kid for who they were, rather than seeking out ways to make them fit my expectations. In reality, I completely related to the way he saw the world, but I was just going along with the medical professionals.
My husband, who I felt was the only one who understood me, began seeking an adult diagnosis. That was when I came out to him. For all those years, he didn’t know I was bi, but I felt I owed him honesty back. I had already come out as demisexual, meaning I need to establish an emotional connection before sex, but this time I decided to reveal my true self.
I quickly dispelled all the myths before he had a chance to react: bisexuals aren’t more likely to cheat, we’re not greedy, etc. He was fully accepting. I put “bisexual” in my social media bios, trying to forget about the damage of conversion therapy.
Later I went through the adult diagnosis process (a separate and complicated story). It was a bumpy road, and I’m grateful to say I made it out alive.
My then-daughter, whose first eloquent communications at age 8 (via Alternative and Augmentative Communication) were “I not girl, I boy,” came out as a trans boy shortly after.
I denied it for a while, even jumping on the TERF bandwagon and believing in “rapid onset gender dysphoria.” The difference between my older child’s coming-out and this was I somehow trusted her judgment less because she was on the spectrum. I myself was a gender-expansive autistic woman, I reasoned, and if trans was around when I was a kid, I would be on the waiting lists for transition surgery and later detransition.
After a while, when he became withdrawn and depressed from having to live as a female, I began allowing him to transition. Once he began transition, his world changed. He instantly became much happier and started doing better academically as well. He was a new person– an affirmed male, and an affirmed human.
It is still hard for him to live within two spectrums – autistic and trans. Sometimes his trans identity is dismissed because he’s “just autistic,” and his autistic identity dismissed as just a manifestation of gender dysphoria. However, he remains a proud advocate for all his communities and embraces his queer self.
I attend pride parades with him, waving the pink-white-and-blue trans flag while dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” And our journey has shown that for trans kids, as the motto of our gender clinic says, acceptance is protection.
For me, living between the labels of bisexuality, gender-fuckery, and autism is easier, because of my cisgender privilege. I may be what some may call “butch” or “tomboyish,” but I was assigned female at birth and am pretty sure I’m comfortable in that gender identity.
I’ve never really faced oppression from anyone else besides my mother and my former conversion therapists when it comes to my outward gendered expression. As for sexuality, I’m experimenting with not only bisexual but terms like grey-asexual, demisexual, heteroflexible, pansexual, queer, omnisexual, and even autisromantic: I’m attracted to those of similar neurologies and can relate best to fellow autistics.
I realized that all people, autistics included, know who they are. We all have a solid gender identity regardless of neurotribe (with the exception of gender fluid and gender questioning people). By the age of 3–4 years old, children are able to identify themselves as members of one sex or another, or non-binary, though the realization process for that identity might take longer.
However, all identities should be respected.
If autistic children who have transitioned later decide to return to their birth sex, that transition should be supported as well. However, detransition is often caused by social factors such as transphobia and family relationships, which are barriers that should be worked through, if not removed completely, before a retransition is made.
To the parents of gender queer, trans, and gender non-conforming Autistikids: I encourage you to support them unconditionally, embrace transition or nonconformity, and help find sensory-friendly accommodations when they reach the age of medical transition, if applicable.
My own son is starting puberty blockers in January, with numbing cream during injections due to his hypersensitivity to pain. Understand that as liberating as transitioning can be, transitions/change in general are hard for autistics, and while their sense of identity has not changed, their social circumstances have (arguably the most difficult type of change for the average autistic teen/kid).
(Also, please don’t listen to the TERFs).
To gender queer, trans, and gender non-conforming autistic teens and adults: never give up the fight to be who you are. There will be battles, but all your identities are valid. You are a worthy person who deserves to be on this earth.
The connection between gender diversity and spectrum-hood is one that shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed. Autistic trans people are as capable of self-advocacy and knowing their gender as allistic trans people, and every gender identity is valid.
As a closing to this piece, I must present you with one final idea: Trans identity exists across the planet – in lions, fish, and other naturally-occurring species. Autistic traits exist in cats, dogs, etc. and they are accepted in society. However, transphobia – and ableism– only exist in one species: the human.
(Seriously, if humans went extinct, NOBODY would miss us. We’re a pretty twisted species.)