Life Between Two Spectrums: Autism, Gender Queerness, And Why It Shouldn’t Be Ignored7 min read

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 lionsfish, 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.)

View at Medium.com

7 Comments

  1. Yep, the planet would be better of without *dis­gusted* humans

  2. hi — your bit about being autis­ro­mantic really res­onated with me. do you have any … resources or some­thing about it? thank you!
    (p.s., as an autistic trans man, your sup­port of your son is really great to hear 🙂 )

  3. “Autistic girls are obsessed with puberty”?

    Where did this … person … get off?

    And lots of people do talk about auti­gender, M.

    So why not auti­sexual and autiro­mantic?

    “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. ”

    And really? no-one would miss us if we were extinct? We’re that awful a species?

  4. Hey, I know you! You’re writing for The Aspergian now? That’s so cool! You’ve really bloomed into some­thing amazing, and I’m so happy for you. 🙂

  5. For men, to exist in any per­sonal lib­erty at all + not crushed into the destruc­tive toxic-masculine per­sona that a sen­si­tive autistic like me can’t even sus­tain, we need to be allowed to denounce our oppres­sion + by the cul­ture of calling all men who break toxic mas­culinity gay. To do this, asser­tion of straight iden­tity is impor­tant to the argu­ment, + is not anti-gay. This means it’s not anti-gay to denounce get­ting wrongly assumed gay when you are straight, + to say that mat­ters.
    For men who grew up before the still very recent explo­sion of vocab­u­lary around gender, in our school­days queer was a second word for gay. Oppressive male peers from that era seeking to score a vic­tory, are not going to care that the gender rev­o­lu­tion has changed the word queer’s meaning. Among them it still has its old meaning. That makes it matter to the argu­ment, not to be iden­ti­fied as queer. But where then is your lib­er­a­tion from mas­culinity, if you start fearing branding as queer for every lib­er­ated choice you make?
    So it’s a dis­aster, an aid to oppres­sors, that the scene is trying to define all gender-variance/expansiveness as queer. Tell the scene to watch that, in the regard ethics for iden­tity lan­guage.

  6. For men, to exist in any per­sonal lib­erty at all + not crushed into the destruc­tive toxic-masculine per­sona that a sen­si­tive autistic like me can’t even sus­tain, we need to be allowed to denounce our oppres­sion + by the cul­ture of calling all men who break toxic mas­culinity gay. To do this, asser­tion of straight iden­tity is impor­tant to the argu­ment, + is not anti-gay. This means it’s not anti-gay to denounce get­ting wrongly assumed gay when you are straight, + to say that mat­ters.

    For men who grew up before the still very recent explo­sion of vocab­u­lary around gender, in our school­days queer was a second word for gay. Oppressive male peers from that era seeking to score a vic­tory, are not going to care that the gender rev­o­lu­tion has changed the word queer’s meaning. Among them it still has its old meaning. That makes it matter to the argu­ment, not to be iden­ti­fied as queer. But where then is your lib­er­a­tion from mas­culinity, if you start fearing branding as queer for every lib­er­ated choice you make?

    So it’s a dis­aster, an aid to oppres­sors, that the scene is trying to define all gender-variance/expansiveness as queer. Tell the scene to watch that, in the regard ethics for iden­tity lan­guage.

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