What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a term that describes how an individual can experience a variety of identities. Autism was not always considered an identity included in intersectionality, but this has changed massively. Through the work of autistic advocates and neurodivergent-led initiatives such as Neuro Pride, our community is gradually moving from the clinical definition of Autism to a more identity-based autistic experience. Being autistic might form a major part of your identity. Race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender are all different areas which may also form a variety of identities for you. For example, you may identify as being autistic but you may also identify as being a member of the black community and the LGBTQ+ community. Having these different identities means that you will experience the world different to other people. It is important to have a good understanding of your own identity and be proud of what makes you you.
Autism and LGBTQ+
In recent years it appears that a large portion of the Autistic community also identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. One of the reasons for this frequent co-occurrence may be that autistic people are less tied to societal expectation and are more open and honest about expressing who they are. As our society progresses we have become more understanding of minority groups like the LGBTQ+ community and the stigma surrounding this community is gradually reducing. Today it is great to see that children are becoming much more open and accepting of their peers who are slightly different regardless of whether that is related to a condition they might be diagnosed with, such as being autistic or their race or sexuality.
How can I support those who identify as autistic as well identifying as transgender?
Having the right supports available can have a life-changing effect on people. People might not need professional therapy to feel supported. Often having the full support of your friends and family is all that an individual needs to feel confident in their identity. If a child or teenager is understood and listened to in the right way with understanding and kindness it has the potential to make a huge difference in their lives. Being open, accepting and supporting those who identify with minority groups is the best way that you can support them. As a parent it can be scary at first if your child identifies as transgender. Unfortunately, autistic transgender people can often face barriers because of their autism in having their identification as transgender taken seriously. It is very important that you do not tell someone who is autistic that their identification as transgender is “a phase” or “just their autism”. Parents want what’s best for their children and want them to be happy. It can be worrying that your child will not be accepting in society if they identify as part of a minority group such as being transgender. The best thing you can do for your child is to let them know that they are accepted and loved for who they are. Sometime professionals might worry that they are not qualified to support those who identify as autistic and transgender. They may feel as though while they understand how to support autistic people, that the additional identification is outside of their professional competencies. But like all professional support, the most important factors are listening to people, respecting what they’re saying and linking them in with the right people who might know more about these issues.
As a parent, what should I do if my child expresses to me that they are transgender?
The first thing you want to do if your child confides in you that they are transgender is keep the communication open. You do not want your child to feel ashamed or embarrassed that they have chosen to come to you for support. Act calmly and express a calm interest. Thank them for trusting you. If you feel like you don’t know much about the transgender community maybe you could ask them to recommend sources of information and express interest in learning more. Remember, gender is fluid. It is not static. So things can change. Your child might change their identification. Just be open, accepting and ensure your child knows that you will love and support them no matter what. If you are finding this news difficult, take some time for yourself to process the information and begin to do some research to help you come to terms with it. The most important thing that you can do is at all times let your child know that you will love and accept them, and will always love and accept them, for who they are, irrespective of what gender they are.
August of this year saw the publication of a study confirming transgender and gender-diverse people are more likely to be autistic or neurodivergent. Confirming previous work on the subject, a team consisting of researchers such as Meng-Chuan Lai, and Elizabeth Weir conducted the study on a far larger scale. While we’ve previously spoken about autism and how it relates to gender and sexuality, we did it through a largely cisnormative lense. We spoke with Dr. Varun Warrier, a postdoctoral researcher working in the field of genetics about the results of this study.
How exactly did you come to work on the study?
I’m interested in genetics and how it relates to wellbeing in autistic people. I’m interested in other aspects of wellbeing and gender identity is one aspect that contributes to that. We have an interest in sex and gender differences in autism in our lab. We were aware of studies that reported that autistic individuals are more likely to be transgender and gender diverse than people without diagnosis. We noticed these previous studies were based on small sample sizes and we weren’t sure how robust these findings were. We eventually got access to enough data to address this and other questions.
The data sets that weren’t collected with the explicit aim of addressing this question. They are what is called a convenient sampling frame, in other words while the data wasn’t originally gathered to examine this connection, it was already available. With things like gender identity and occupation there’s a risk that someone will recognise they were part of the study. Therefore the data is only shared with other researchers and is otherwise kept confidential.
You mentioned in the study that other co-morbid neurodiverse conditions featured among trans and gender-diverse participants.
Yes, there’s a lot that needs to be done on co-occurring conditions in trans people and that was one of the questions we were interested in. We know from other studies other conditions such as schizophrenia then emerge. The team then asked if this is specific to autism or is this something we see along the neurodiversity spectrum. We noticed that while there is an elevated number of transgender and gender diverse people across several neurodiverse conditions, the rate at which it’s elevated is much higher with autism. So it’s not something that’s just explained by co-occurring conditions like depression and anxiety.
Did the study inquire about experiences in gaining a diagnosis?
Each data sets had different ways of inquiring after someone’s autism diagnosis. I suspect most of our participants had a diagnosis through a clinician, psychologist or even a teacher. Towards the end we checked on of the smaller data sets with the question of whether they suspected undiagnosed autism in themselves and we found again that these individuals are more likely to be transgender and gender diverse. Additionally, we ran our analysis agnostic of diagnosis by measuring for autistic traits, so clinical diagnosis wasn’t necessarily the only factor.
Did you uncover anything about the unique challenges autistic trans people are likely to face.
Because the study was quantitative in nature there wasn’t an opportunity to ask about additionally information such as areas of struggle, interpersonal relationships. It comes as no surprise to anyone who’s worked alongside transgender and autistic people. These findings have been known for a long time. Quality of life, access to clinical care and access to diagnosis. There is a lot of rich literature that does in-depth interviews with autistic and gender-diverse individuals. John Strang put together several interviews to put together guidelines for the rights of autistic and transgender or gender diverse individuals.
One of the things the study has done is solidly state that autistic people are more likely to indicate they are transgender and gender diverse. Just because someone is autistic or reports they are transgender doesn’t invalidate the other. I think that’s important because there are instances where autistic people who want to transition have had their desires questioned by clinicians simply because they are autistic. We hope to send the message that any access to care must consider both gender diversity and autism. They both need to inform each other.
Was transition discussed as part of the study?
No, that would be another piece of data that wasn’t discussed in the quantative study. I’d just also that we’re using the terms transgender and gender-diverse. It’s important to note that not all of these people will need to transition in the sense you mean. I spoke with a non-binary friend and they said the issue for them isn’t transition, but the social mores associated with their assigned gender.
Do you or other member of the team plan to do further work on this issue?
Not me personally. I’m not a gender expert and it needs to be dealt with a great deal of sensitivity. Mei Chuan Lai is someone who works extensively on gender diversity, especially why women a less likely to be diagnosed. Elizabeth Weir is looking at physical health issues in autistic people and she’s looking into sexuality and sex-related issues as part of that. The most important thing, I think, is mental health and distress. I don’t think it’s relevant why there’s an overlap between autism and gender diversity, the question is what we can do with this information.
The immediate need is to see what can be done on a policy, environmental and social level to minimize distress. Are these people more likely to experience suicidal ideation? Do they have appropriate access to healthcare? I personally am not moving further in quantitative research. I think this needs to move beyond research to a policy issue at a government and local level.
What does it ultimately mean to be both trans and autistic?
I don’t think I can even answer that question. I am neither autistic nor trans. Talk to people, listen to the right people. Think of people as human beings with different aspirations, strengths and differences. The only thing I can say with certainty is that being trans and autistic are both extremely heterogenous areas of life. Both transgender and autistic are huge umbrella terms with different people and different experiences. There are some shared experiences but I suspect there are many more unique differences. Ultimately I think we need to acknowledge that there is diversity and one size doesn’t fit all.
Autism and Race
People of any race can be autistic, making it an especially pertinent subject in how we discuss Autism and intersectionality. There is a perception that autism is only seen in white people, which causes challenges in relation to the inclusion, assessment and support for autistic people who are members of other races. Unfortunately, sometimes for members of the black community or from Asian cultures may not be diagnosed as autistic as easily as a member of the white community. Sometimes people of non-white races who are demonstrating classic autism ‘traits’ might be diagnosed with a behavioural difficulty or a mental health difficulty. Autism and race is something that needs to be spoken about more openly. Today there are more and more black autistic advocates speaking about their experiences and hopefully, in the future, there will be more awareness for issues relating to autism and non-white races. Sometimes, other cultures may not have an accurate understanding of Autism which can lead to families not picking up the signs that their child might need additional support. Additionally, if English is not your first language it can make the diagnosis process a little more difficult. However, do remember that the HSE will provide a translator for you during the diagnostic assessment process if necessary.
Autism and the Travelling Community
As a marginalised group, autistic members of the Travelling community might not be diagnosed as easily as those in non-marginalised communities. In Ireland unfortunately the Travelling community culture is not well understood. The Travelling community in Ireland is highly stigmatised and may feel as though they will not be supported in the assessment process for autism or after receiving a diagnosis. Remember that supports are in place for everyone regardless of your membership to any marginalised or minority groups.