Originally written for the Huffington Post Blog.
There has recently been a lot of media attention on the connection between being transgender and being autistic. The focus of much of this attention is Dr Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist whose gender clinic was closed down in 2015 for practising reparative therapy on children – behavioural therapy with the aim of ‘training’ children not to be transgender. He has been outspoken about his views that children with gender dysphoria are often autistic, and the implication that this somehow means they are not truly transgender.
Blaming trans identities on autism like this is directly harmful in many ways. Not just to autistic transgender people, but to other autistic people, other trans people, and to those who are neither.
It hurts autistic people
To blame trans identities on autism is to say that autistic people cannot understand or be aware of their own gender. If an autistic person cannot know they are trans, how can they know they aren’t? How can they know anything about themselves?
When a person’s gender is doubted because they are autistic, this paves the way for removing autistic people’s agency in all kinds of other ways. If we can’t know this central aspect of our identity, we surely can’t know how we feel, what we like, or who we are. In short, it implies that we are not truly people, and that our existence, experiences, and identities are for other people to define. This is just another facet of dehumanising autistic people, and gender is certainly not the only area in which this happens.
It hurts transgender people
In itself, the very urge to find a ‘reason’ that someone is transgender is a result of believing that being transgender is a problem, and that it would always be better not to be. The fact that clinicians like Zucker are focused on why someone is transgender, instead of focusing on what kind of help they need and how to best provide it, demonstrates clearly the belief that it is fundamentally bad to be transgender.
Not only that, but the belief that it’s even theoretically possible for anyone besides the individual in question to know what someone’s gender is. That’s just not how gender works! No-one really understand what gender is, or what it means, or where it comes from. The only thing we know for sure is that it’s internal, subjective, and personal. You can’t prove or test someone else’s gender any more than you can prove or test their favourite colour. The idea that it can be tested is constantly used to invalidate trans people. Our genders are doubted or disbelieved if we fail to adequately ‘prove’ ourselves to everyone else – if we express too many or too few gender stereotypes, if we are too old or too young, if we claim to be nonbinary or our description of our identity is too complicated or confusing.
It hurts autistic transgender people
When Zucker and others like him talk about autistic trans people, it is entirely with the implication that a person cannot be both. If a child goes to a gender clinic for dysphoria and is found to be autistic, the assumption is that they therefore must not be transgender. Their entire experience of gender is blamed on autism and brushed off as an arbitrary ‘fixation’.
Perhaps less common but equally damaging is when problems related to autism are blamed on the fact someone is transgender, rather than vice versa. If a transgender person seeks support or assessment for autism, any autistic trait they point out may be brushed off as a result of being transgender. The assumption people make in these cases is again that it’s impossible for someone who is transgender to also be autistic.
But autistic transgender people do exist. I am right here, existing – so are many of my friends. And if anecdotal evidence isn’t good enough, there is increasing research showing a correlation between being transgender and autistic among children and adults.
We don’t just exist, we exist disproportionately. And we’re not going anywhere. Autistic transgender people’s needs are unique, perhaps complex, perhaps poorly-understood. But the solution to the ‘problem’ of autistic transgender people is not to deny our existence, it’s to accept and learn about it.
It hurts everyone else
Much of the concern over autistic and transgender people – particularly children – seems to be rooted in worries for people who are not those things, but falsely believe that they are. If a child becomes mistakenly convinced that they are transgender, that they will be forced into life-altering hormones and surgeries. Or if a non-autistic person believes they are autistic, that they will be permanently labelled and coddled with no hope of change.
But those things are only a risk if the people around them are enforcing strict binaries and preventing harmless self-exploration. If a child mentions not feeling like their birth-assigned gender, and the next day they are put under the knife for permanent and risky surgery – yes, of course that would be bad. If a child mentions not feeling like their birth-assigned gender, and the next day they are forced into behavioural modification therapy to stop them from expressing those feelings – that is bad too.
Those two approaches are not the only options, though. The best option is to allow someone to explore their feelings, support them in gaining self-understanding, and accept their identity whatever it turns out to be. It is not complicated, and it’s only scary if you are still holding onto the belief that being either autistic or transgender – or, perish the thought, both – is a terrible thing to be. Which it’s not. I am, along with countless others like me, living proof of that.