There’s a lot said about the co-occurrence of transness and autism, but I am struggling to find an article that does not slip into unhelpful speculation about how autism might “cause” transness. The latest article I read is good for the most part, but still falls in to speculation about cause along with other tropes and inaccuracies, particularly about non-binary people, that I found unhelpful.
I wanted to write a little about my own personal journey to embracing the simple fact that a lot of people are both trans and autistic, including me.
Human variances often co-occur
Let’s start by laying out a simple fact. We know, from research, that there are a whole bunch of divergent traits that cluster together in the population – non-heterosexuality, left-handedness, genius, synaesthesia, certain tissue disorders such as EDS, gender variance, certain physical appearances, dyslexia, adhd, sensitivity, autism, etc.
So, “different” people tend to be different in lots of ways. Break some of the above “things” down a bit more, and we see that they are in fact clusters of other traits that come together, like Seurat’s dots, to make a certain kind of picture – and that actually, when you start looking at these individual traits, you discover that no two geniuses, and no two autistic people, have quite the same formula of traits, even though the overall effects can have something in common. Genius isn’t a “thing” and neither is autism, nor transness – these are all many threads of experience woven together to create overall effects that are broadly similar but often diverge in the detail.
Which differences do we see as “pathological”?
How we respond to these traits is interesting in itself. A hundred years ago, left-handedness was seen as unacceptable. In my (left-handed) grandmother’s time, children were forced to write with their right hand. In my (also left-handed) mother’s time, left-handedness was still disapproved of, but reluctantly allowed. Now, I hope, prejudice against left-handed people has all but vanished, though the vestiges of it remain in language in words like sinister.
Suppose the stigma was still around today, in our society that loves to pin things down with “hard answers”. Would the co-occurrence of left-handedness and autism start people down a track of “maybe autistic people just don’t feel able to conform the way neurotypicals do, and that’s why they write with their left hands”. Would the inevitable bullying that any person who is different gets, and the resultant anxiety and stress, lead people to see left-handedness as a symptom of mental health problems or abuse, rather than understanding stigma and bullying due to being different as the cause of any mental health problems or abusive treatment?
Society decides which traits are a “problem” and which are an asset. Nobody is going to diagnose somebody with “genius disorder” and raise funding for a cure. Thus Alan Turing was celebrated for his genius, treated (relatively) neutrally for his left-handedness, isolated for his (probable) autism, and driven to suicide as a result of horrific criminal and medical interventions for being gay.
Nature or nurture?
I’m guessing most people, looking at the list above, will have some traits they prefer to think of as more “biological” and some which they would prefer to think of as less so, but we are all, as Cordelia Fine says, the result of a ““sheer exhilarating tangle of a continuous interaction among genes, brain and environment.”
What matters, is that trans people are more likely to be autistic, and autistic people are more likely to be trans. Not why this happens, unless you want to see human variation as disease, and look to cure it. This non-affirmative, pathology approach is what leads to tragedy, as in the case of trans and autistic Kayden Clarke. If both/all aspects of Kayden’s identity had been affirmed and accepted, he might still be here.
Besides, what dullness and lack of creativity would ensue if some humans did not exist outside the boxes the world expects, and thus teach people to expand their horizons and frontiers? If we try to iron out differences society sees as problematic, what other treasures might be erased in the process?
As somebody who instinctively picked up a lot of male socialisation, but fumbled with female socialisation, I reject the idea that my gender identity is caused by my autism in a “you are poor at reading social cues, therefore you didn’t learn how to be a girl” way. If I was so bad at picking up cues, how did I take to male-socialised behaviours like a duck to water?
Then there’s “your thinking is rigid – you’ve decided because you liked boy things you must be a boy”. I hear this a lot – that the autistic mind is deluded, unable to cope with nuance. But my autistic mind is just a fountain of nuance – I am open to so many possibilities, so sensitive to detail that yes, I can get overwhelmed and lost, and it has taken me a half a lifetime and a lot of therapy to find my own edges amid a sea of information and cultural story about gender.
That I must be socially labelled and legally categorised according to the shape of my genitals is a rigidity I cannot live with. To me, it’s an idea that becomes increasingly bizarre and arbitrary the more times I think about it. If my autism helps me more easily defy these arbitrary rules, why then it is an asset.
Conformity vs divergence
I think in our increasingly individualistic society, it’s important to understand that human beings have evolved to cooperate with one another, and that this is generally a positive thing about humans. But I like to think of human difference as an important balance to our tendency to conform. Cooperation can put a person on the moon, but people are also too good at going along with things that are not in the best interests of anyone – this is how we can end up voting for fascists, or arbitrarily colour coding our children.
We need to both go along with each other, but also put our feet down and say no. It’s a delicate balance between our immense capacity to work together for the greater good and our equally immense capacity to form a mindless mob that can be led into all kinds of nastiness.
People who smell colours, kick the ball with a different foot, experience gender differently, and focus in on all kinds of human experience in a drastically different way to the norm, are able to offer up different possibilities, remind us our experience is not monolithic, introduce the element of uncertainty that we require to balance progress that can take us to the moon but also over cliffs.
Combating the shame
The process of coming to terms with being both autistic and trans has led me to at times fall into a pit of shame. “Why can’t I just be like everyone else, why do I have to make it awkward for people?” is a constant theme, as I find myself presenting a challenge for everyone I meet that makes our interactions at times not fun for anyone. I feel shame that I can’t perform woman, or small talk, or gratitude for being allowed to exist, but instead speak my mind, tell people how I really feel, and who I really am.
In the worst moments, I consider it would be better for everyone if I did not exist – the road would be smoother. But the road to where? Where is the human race going, that it cannot take people like me with it? Where is the LG community heading, that it hasn’t got room on the bus for people who don’t conform to an assimilationist idea of monogamous, neurotypical, gender conforming respectability?
I feel like an inconvenience, but maybe I am the grit that forms the pearl. Maybe I am the grey cloud that waters the dry earth. Maybe people like me are meant to be here and have our value and our place.
Maybe we could be celebrated, instead of being constantly, relentlessly pushed aside.