Lydia X. Z. Brown identifies as non-binary and is also autistic.
For Brown — who uses gender neutral pronouns — the link between the two is inextricable.
‘Being autistic means that I don’t have an intuitive understanding of neurotypical people’s social conventions — including their concepts of gender,’ they told Gay Star News. ‘What I have learned about gender throughout my life has never really applied to me because it didn’t match my experiences or internal understanding of myself.’
They then added: ‘So my understanding of my own gender, or genderlessness, is deeply connected to being autistic.’
And Brown is not alone.
A new study found transgender and non-binary individuals are significantly more likely to have autism or display autistic traits than the wider population.
Dr Steven Stagg of Anglia Ruskin University, England, published the unique study in the European Psychiatry journal in the September issue.
The study of 177 people found 14% of transgender and/or non-binary people had an autism diagnosis, while a further 28% displayed autistic traits.
This compares to just 4% of the general population.
Stagg said: ‘We found that a significant proportion of the transgender and non-binary group either had a diagnosis of autism or displayed autistic traits, including a difficulty in empathising and an over reliance on systematic, rule-based reasoning.
‘People with autism are also more likely to seek unequivocal answers to the complex issues surrounding gender identity.
‘Our study suggests it is important that gender identity clinics screen patients for autism spectrum disorders and adapt their consultation process and therapy accordingly,’ Stagg said.
What does this mean?
Lydia X. Z. Brown said many people who are both neurodivergent and trans or non-binary ‘noticed the high correlation’ years ago.
‘This study is consistent with research published in the last several years indicating that autistic people have a higher likelihood of being transgender than would be expected from the general population,’ they said.
UK trans charity Mermaids welcomes the new research.
‘It’s too soon to come to any definite conclusions on the apparent disproportionate link between gender identity issues and autism,’ a spokesperson told Gay Star News. ‘We’ve supported transgender kids and young people for 25 years and we wonder whether autistic people are simply more likely to say they’re transgender, when other children and teenagers find it much more difficult.
‘Any parent of an autistic child will know how fearless they can be.’
The spokesperson then added: ‘We would welcome any new research into this important issue.’
Morénike Giwa Onaiwu is the Co-Executive Director for the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network.
She believes this new study is a ‘mixed bag’ and offers both ‘credible’ and ‘disturbing’ or sometimes ‘dangerous’ implications.
‘There are several aspects that do seem credible,’ Onaiwu told GSN. ‘Particularly the correlation between diverse gender identity and exhibiting characteristics that are consistent with being on the autism spectrum.
‘Anecdotally within the Autistic community, it is widely known and accepted that the prevalence of individuals whose experiences of gender doesn’t fit into society’s rigid binary system is high.
‘There is also existing research that supports this that has been published over at least the last five years. This includes a study from the Netherlands published just last year,’ she said.
But Onaiwu said one ‘glaring issue’ with the study is the idea that autistic people ‘lack empathy’.
‘Research has repeatedly debunked this theory,’ Onaiwu said. ‘It is not that autistic people lack empathy overall (in fact, research indicates that autistic people actually have greater “affective” empathy than others), but that we appear to differ in presentation of “cognitive” empathy (which should not be alarming given that social communication differences are hallmarks and part of the diagnostic criteria of autism).’
Instruments in this study lacked the ability to distinguish between these important components, she said.
Onaiwu then added: ‘There’s a huge potential that this could go awry and become a weapon that denies people’s agency with regard to their gender identity.’
AWN is concerned that ‘autism has been and might continue to be used as a means to deny access to critical resources that could aid in transitioning.’
Onaiwu continued: ‘We are already viewed as “impaired”. So how much of a stretch would it be for providers, parents, insurance companies to refute someone’s assertion of gender by saying: “You’re not really non-binary (or transgender, etc), you just think you are because you’re autistic and you don’t understand gender.”
‘It has happened, and it is happening. We are extremely opposed to this, and it is a major worry,’ she said.
Brown agreed: ‘Many autistic people face barriers to gender confirmation treatments of all kinds because of the false belief that autistic people are incapable of making decisions or understanding our authentic selves.’
We need to make sure autistic people have proper access to trans-affirming spaces, as well as dismantle ableism in autistic communities, Brown said.
Gay Star News reached out to Dr Steven Stagg for further comment.
Dr Steven Stagg responded to AWN’s criticisms of his study.
‘I think the comment misses the point of the research,’ he told Gay Star News via email. ‘The participants identified as non-binary and transgender, and these groups scored lower on a measure of empathy when compared to a cisgender group.
‘We did not analyze individuals with autism as a separate group.
‘One point I was trying to explore in the discussion is the idea of out-of-kilter identities. So these would be individuals growing up in a world that is not responding to their felt identity.
‘In these cases, empathic responses may need to be replaced by a systematic, rule-based way of responding to others. If a child feels their assigned gender identity to be wrong, then their emotional needs may not be reflected in the responses of others. In this case, the child may need to develop a more rational way of working out the behaviour of other people.
‘I agree with Onaiwu’s point, and I think it is possible that individuals with autism are over empathetic at the affective level.
‘My personal take is that individuals are generally better at knowing them themselves and their capabilities than scientists are,’ he said.