Tag Archives: Autism

Trans, autistic and celebrating difference

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.

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Trans kids won’t be okay until non-binary is accepted

Another article published in Beyond the Binary:

Transgender children have been in the news spotlight recently, with unhelpful and misleading “debate” and sensationalised headlines. The impact this will have had on trans children and their families is considerable.

As a therapist who has mainly worked with children and young people, and a trans trainer for schools and colleges, all children’s welfare is very important to me. Because of their isolation and marginalisation, trans kids are particularly vulnerable to bullying, abuse, and poor mental health outcomes. We need to discuss trans kids, and the discussion needs to be well-informed. Read more

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Hidden disability and its losses

When I look at the way disabled people are being persecuted to their deaths in my own exceptionally wealthy country, I wonder if disability is getting left out of our discussions on social justice. When we reel off our well rehearsed lists of intersecting oppressions, disability is often missing. This has led me to reflect on the impact of my own disability, and how much I discount it (and hide it).

Here’s my list, which feels pretty scary to put out there – ME/CFS, depression, autism, ADD, attachment disorder, PTSD, dissociation. Some of these have been medically diagnosed, and some realised through non-diagnostic psychological therapy. I may disagree with the construction of some of these labels, I certainly oppose any label with “disorder” in it, but I still feel their weight.

Photo0475I often spend time reflecting how lucky I am. I think it’s important, reflecting on privilege, being aware of your advantages. I grew up middle class, well educated. I was white. But home was not remotely safe, and school was where I was bullied for being different – traumatised, aspie/ADD, trans, and poorer, more neglected and scruffier than the other kids in my posh school.

Life continued with its benefits and losses. Family trauma led to me leaving home at 17 and becoming homeless, living on the breadline well into my 20s and becoming dependent on substances to cope. My good education meant that I was eventually able to get myself to university as a mature student, where I learned a lot and had access to free therapy. My poor health meant I was unable to complete the degree, and to this day (nearly 2 decades later) have never earned enough to start paying back my student loans. But having been to university still broadened my horizons.

I have ended up with a complicated relationship with privilege, where I have often discounted my own struggles because there are always people much worse off. I’m sort-of posh and sort-of university educated, but my mental and physical health has weighed pretty heavily in counterbalance to those privileges. It has created a wealth gap that we all just take for granted. We expect disabled people to have to struggle financially.

Hidden disability is ignored and dismissed and often I’ve struggled to get people to believe it’s there. Because it is inextricably bound up with trauma, it’s also too easy for people to say it’s “all in the mind”. Well, some of it really is neurological, but saying “all in the mind” makes it sound like a choice, and then people don’t have to take it into account. People are often quick to assume you’re shirking or lazy or melodramatic or manipulative, because they simply cannot see the pain or difficulty you’re having, and they require a proof that does not exist.

It doesn’t help that like most army brats, I was raised to be a brave little soldier, and showing my vulnerability is no easy task.

I have rarely been able to work full time, or managed to continue in employment without chunks of time off to recuperate. I’m in one of those off-times just now. Being on the cusp of disability, I’ve been able to claim sickness benefits for short periods, but always under duress to get back on my feet. The walking wounded, I always feel thankful for how relatively unscathed I am, but at the same time sometimes I just want someone to let me ride on the stretcher for a bit.

The underlying problem, I am beginning to realise, is that our current culture trains us to see ourselves, and our problems, in competition with each other. Some folks take the “my problem is bigger” approach: “Why should I care about your broken ankle when I have a broken leg?” “I bet it’s not broken really, it’s just twisted” . . . “and anyway, mine was a really, really bad break”. But as a counsellor, I actually see far more of the flipside of this – people discounting even the most horrendous of their own problems because there is always, inevitably, somebody worse off. This is what I tend to be guilty of. In doing this, people are often avoiding the discomfort of being vulnerable. It’s called not dealing with your own shit, and it isn’t as virtuous as it appears. But it’s entirely understandable – we believe somehow we can make a bargain with our minds to minimise our pain through a process of denial, as if “positivity” is all about pretending.

[Image: quotation reading "That quote, 'the only disability in life is a bad attitude', the reason that's bullshit is ... No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille. Stella Young on how 'inspiration porn' gets it wrong"

So, here’s the thing. I am a very lucky person, and I know that. I grew up with enough to eat, with the enormous benefit of being white. With praise for my “masculine” qualities, with intelligence, and the ability to articulate myself, and the benefit of a good education. I am disabled but I am also brimming with able privilege compared to many.

But I increasingly suspect that in order to live in a compassionate world, we need to learn to give due consideration to every stubbed toe – we should learn to stop measuring other’s distress against our own and be able to wholeheartedly empathise with how it feels to suffer migraines and bad backs and brain fog and depression and eczema and IBS and asthma and ingrown toenails and griefs and traumas both large and small. I will support you to grieve for your broken iPhone and not compare that to my lost family, because no two problems are ever comparable, and all feelings matter. Being able to tune in to each others differing experiences is never wasted.

I am slowly learning not to dismiss my own pain and trauma in the face of the overwhelming suffering and oppression I see around me. It makes me a more compassionate person when I learn to offer myself that same compassion. Lately, my physical health and depression have been so bad there have been lots of days when I have wondered if I can carry on working or even functioning. There are days when I have cried out for a carer, knowing full well there really is nobody out there better off who can swoop down and lift my burden off me. I tell myself I have to be strong, but the reality is being strong is exactly what gets us into this pickle.

We are none of us strong, we are all of us vulnerable, and often there are difficulties we don’t see in the faces of those who we set up as “the lucky ones”. I will continue to own my privilege, as we all must, but I also need to learn to own my vulnerabilities, and I am increasingly realising the importance of that. Compassion is not a commodity, it isn’t in short supply, or more valuable if we ration it. Capitalist, austerity-based models of caring do not fit our hearts. We can afford to be as generous as we possibly can be towards our own, and each other’s, suffering.