On Two Spectrums: Autism and Queerness

August 9, 2017 in inQueery

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There is plenty of overlap in those who are queer and those who are on the autism spectrum. This is especially true for those who identify as trans. There is a distinct subculture within the community of those who have autism. When you look at the demographics, it’s not surprising that there would be. Research shows that among gender dysphoric youth, there is a 7.8 percent prevalence of autism. For comparison, the prevalence of autism among the general population is around 1.1 percent.

Autism’s relationship with gender diversity has a lot to do with how autism has been gendered for much of its history. For decades, autism has been perceived as a predominately, if not exclusively, male condition. This has resulted in women being underdiagnosed. It is only recently that this trend has started to shift. While this change has ensured many cisgender women are now being diagnosed, framing autism in strictly male/female terms has still largely excluded trans and genderqueer people from the conversation.

Researchers have tried to explain the link between autism and queerness, and specifically the link with transness. Some believe that children with autism form a “fixation” with their gender identity. People on the spectrum often have obsessions with particular topics, classically with things like cars or dinosaurs.  According to these scientists, those who identify as gender-diverse have formed a similar obsession with gender.  Some speculate that the connection is due to biology, speculating that both gender development and autism are influenced by differences in the levels of the hormone androgen that a fetal brain is exposed to. Finally, some think that because those on the spectrum tend not to care about social maxims, including the performative aspects of gender, they are more likely to have a gender identity other than their assigned biological sex.

Most people in the intersection of the communities dislike these speculations, not just because it makes the common mistake of confusing correlation with causation, but because it doesn’t take much for people to jump from “your gender identity is linked to your autism” to “your gender identity is therefore invalid.”  People have had their identity dismissed by professionals who assume that it is merely a symptom of autism.  The most likely explanation for the convergence of gender-diversity and autism is simply that those on the spectrum are used to being outcasts for their atypical expressions and behavior, and this status makes it easier for them to realize that they do not conform to typical gender expression norms.

From the other direction, people who are on the autism spectrum and queer often feel like their neurodivergence is dumped on by the LGBTQIA community.  This especially true for those who are trans: the common refrain of “Being transgender isn’t a mental illness, so there’s nothing wrong with us!” carries the implication that there is something wrong with those who have mental disorders (including autism) and that those who have one should be subject to coercive treatment, paternalistic care models, and social stigma as broken or unstable.  In one notable case, a trans man, Kayden Clarke, was denied hormone treatment until his autism was “cured,” something anyone who knows anything about autism should know is simply impossible.

Autism and the LGBTQIA community have considerable overlap. Yet those who are part of the intersection feel caught between two worlds. The community needs to be more welcoming to their autistic members. The unique needs of those on the spectrum need to be recognized, like difficulties with social interaction and figurative or non-concrete communication.  Marginalizing language shouldn’t be used. Intersectionality should be the name of the game.



Kern Wallace is a Visiting Writer at InQueery.