Editor’s note: This article references trans and questioning/non-binary individuals as “female” when discussing the “sloppy science” referenced in the title. The gendering in the research is from parents and those who conducted the “research,” and not from The Aspergian. Please be advised that this article contains information referencing biases and phobia against trans and nonbinary adolescents.
Recently, the term “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD) has been cropping up frequently in both the trans and autistic communities, and I think that it is crucial to address it.
Advocates of ROGD define it as a mental illness in which biological girls who have always appeared to their parents to conform to traditional gender norms suddenly appear to be taking on unconventional gender identities. Parents have seen this happen in clusters of adolescents and teens and chalk it up to a form of peer pressure. Some particularly zealous voices are trying to tie ROGD to an autism diagnosis.
The core issue, however, is that ROGD is sloppy science and has not been conclusively proven to exist at all. If the push for ROGD to be accepted by troubled parents as pathology is taken at face value, it will seriously traumatize many autistic and trans youths in our communities.
ROGD came onto the scene in 2016, thanks to a survey by Lisa Littman, MD, M.PH for her study published by Brown University in 2018. The research was so widely criticized that Dr. Littman was forced to revise it in 2019, and I have linked the revised “Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria” here for readers who are interested: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0202330.
The problem is that during 2018, the damage by Dr. Littman’s piece had already been done. Parents of adolescent girls who did not want to see their daughters as part of the trans community had latched onto ROGD. Psychologists such as well known “AspienGirl” author Tania Marshall also latched onto it and connected it to the autistic community, trying to spin it as a trait of high-functioning autistic women. Parents desperate not to be raising autistic trans daughters quickly latched onto this.
But there are critical flaws in ROGD research. Giving something a fancy scientific name and calling it a mental illness should not pass for scientific validity.
Before I was an autistic self-advocate and a social worker, I was a college student receiving her BA in Sociology from Hanover College, one of the finest private colleges in the United States. Dr. Crone, my published sociology professor, used to tell us endlessly of the importance of evaluating all scientific research vigorously before accepting the findings. Dr. Crone, this analysis of the ROGD farce is dedicated to you.
I am going to list some of the logical and scientific fallacies of ROGD and then explain them more clearly:
1. The correlation of the two variables of autism and LGBTQ+ identity does NOT equal causation. There could be a third confounding variable.
This is one of the most insidious approaches that researchers use to manipulate uninformed readers. They use a correlation or connection between two variables to imply that one causes the other. But this is sloppy science. There is often a third variable that links the two.
I will give you an example often used by sociologists: You should be afraid of ice cream because an increase in ice cream sales can be correlated with an increase in serial killings! Gasp!
This is a classic example of a third variable spoiler. In this case, the third variable is… summertime. Summertime has been shown to be linked to an increase in both ice cream sales and serial murders. But without that third variable, ice cream can look pretty sinister.
The point is that even if autistic people are shown to have unconventional gender identities more frequently, the correlation does not prove a causation. We could be missing a piece of this puzzle, and likely are. But correlations are great for raising fear in desperate people — and for capitalizing on that fear by creating a market around it.
2. Correlation does not imply the DIRECTION of causation even if causation does exist. It is impossible to know which variable caused the other.
This point calls the entire premise of ROGD into question. The research claims that if young women [men] tend to find their trans identities in peer clusters, then it must be the peers that are causing the supposed change in gender identity. But this assumes that the peers are the causation variable.
What if it is the other way around? What if subtle cues given off by a trans adolescent’s peers are drawing her to them because she senses kindred spirits? What if these girls are finding each other as they more publicly come to terms with their gender identity?
This theory is an equally plausible cause of the peer correlation. I know that when I was struggling to accept myself as a bisexual, I found myself drawn to the LGBTQ+ community, and I wasn’t sure why. I must have sensed that these people would be able to help me.
Never allow a researcher to imply causational direction unless proper studies have been done.
3. The “distress” aspect of ROGD could be a symptom of emotional (and sometimes other types of) abuse from one’s family or society around the chosen gender identity, not the gender identity itself. If this is truly the case, should ROGD even be VIEWED as a mental illness or a phenomenon internal to the autistic person?
What is said to set “gender dysphoria” in general apart from healthy trans identity is the distress caused to the individual, but I have been critical of this logic for a long time. When the distress is caused by mistreatment by family or society, how does this make the gender identity itself pathological?
I will rephrase this in terms of race to make my argument plain. Let’s say Black family lives in a small racist town in the United States where the Klu Klux Klan has risen, and the family can not afford to move. There are weekly displays of blatant racist aggression on their lawn, and they are becoming increasingly frightened and depressed. Would this render their RACE a mental illness?
Clearly, we could all agree that the family’s race is not what is causing the suffering. It is a hostile living environment. I am assuming, given the fact that the parents in this study were so quick to label their children with ROGD, that their home environment is, if not outright hostile, at least unaccepting of their child’s gender exploration. This could just as easily explain the child’s “distress” as ROGD.
4. Parent reporting through a questionnaire and third-party observations as the sole sources of ROGD research makes for an inherently unreliable study.
Some simple behavioral phenomenons can be easily researched through third-party doctor or parent observation. For example, “Is a child more likely to go for the same toy in a pink box or in a blue box?” can be easily observed. The child picks a box, and the observer makes a tick.
Complex identity issues that involve behavior and internal working absolutely DO NOT lend themselves to solely observation analysis, however. Even a parent or therapist CAN NOT get into a child’s head! They can only observe the child’s behavior. And they can do THAT only when the child is in view.
ROGD basically assumes that changes in a girl’s gender identity rapidly onset because the PARENT noticed behavior changes only at adolescence. But this does not tell the full story of a child’s journey. The child could have been wrestling with their identity for years.
Okay, smarty pants, you may say, then why would the parent see the changes in behavior only in adolescence? Honestly, that’s an easy one. Adolescence is the normal time for child exploration and rebellion against one’s parents.
Children are very perceptive and tend to learn from a very young age what pleases a parent and what does not. A daughter of a more conservative parent likely caught on quite quickly that her parent smiled more often and bragged on her more when she wore dresses and acted like a “little girl” according to gender norms.
As a child enters adolescence, they are more likely to find like-minded peers and seek out peer approval rather than approval from the parents. This would empower them to rebel against social gender constructs by joining the LGBTQ+ community and exploring gender identity with a decreased fear of parental rejection.
This is all obvious due to basic child development theory.
So no, a conservative parent’s documentation of adolescent rebellion in the direction of gender identity as proof of a fast-onset mental illness is not valid or reliable.
Frankly, I find the very concept laughable!
5. Autism is viewed as a neurodevelopmental disability, but this does not render everything correlated with autism a disorder!
Ah, the last refuge of sloppy science, which feels emboldened to characterize autism without the input of autistics anyway: If we can not sell ROGD as a mental illness on its own merits, let’s correlate it with autism and use it to imply a co-morbid mental illness! After all, ADHD and OCD are correlated with autism! This could work!
I am going to call shenanigans on this and label it as fear-mongering and pandering to the wallets of conservative parents. After all, eidetic memory is correlated with autism and is not a mental illness. Math, art, music, and tech savviness are correlated with autism and are not mental illnesses. Left-handedness is correlated with autism. Not a mental illness.
This takes me back full circle to serial murder and ice cream! Correlation alone is never a smoking gun for anything!
I will simply close by advising people to be wary of people, even real medical professionals, who use sloppy science to fearmonger. Do your own research. Read studies carefully to see if they actually prove what they claim to prove!