Demystifying Autistic Gender

Search online to learn about Autistic gender and you’ll find a range of allistic (nonautistic) articles stating that the link between autism and gender “diversity” and “dysphoria” are “not so clear.” Researchers apparently “do not yet understand why” there’s a strong correlation between autism and gender variance, or why some studies have found that Autists have higher rates of gender variance and “dysphoria” than the neuromajority.

An important message about being happy with your own gender identity - concept of gender fluidity or non-binary identity

Some of these articles incorrectly conflate gender variance and dysphoria and miss the reality that gender “dysphoria” is a result of parents and doctors making decisions about someone’s identity before that person is old enough to determine who they are.

Part of the confusion stems from viewing gender as a biological fact. Gender is a neuromajority social construct, an everchanging collection of cultural beliefs related to biological sex; it’s an unnatural concept created from neurotypical cultural norms.1 Gender identity refers to a person’s perception of their gender. Gender is not binary: woman or man. Neither is biological sex.

The expectations society places on a person based on that person’s perceived biological sex are cultural, not logical. Most parents and doctors give infants gender identities that “align” with their perceived sex, and many determine a baby’s gender before that baby is born. Infants grow. Many learn that gender is merely a social construct that they have not internalized the way their parents and doctors intended. This is especially true of Autistic people.

Much of the confusion about Autistic gender also results from viewing autism as a medical condition, some kind of “disorder.” Autism is a natural neurological variance: a neurotype – a cognitive style attuned to logical reasoning.2 Autism, unlike gender, is a biological fact.

Logical thinking is a key difference between Autistic and neurotypical minds. That Autistic minds are logical spaces explains so much: why Autists think and speak literally and in details, why high intelligence is common in our population, why we follow routines, seek truth, justice, and turn many our interests into specializations.

Logical thinking is why small talk and other aspects of neurotypicality don’t make sense to us – why many of us don’t identify with the gender doctors and parents assigned us as infants.

Autists often don’t notice social constructs, and if we internalize them we tend to internalize them in “unexpected” ways that don’t align with mainstream views. Many of us see ourselves as gender agnostic. Many more have no attachment to our physical bodies, due to alexithymia and interoception variances.

Neurotypical culture is, conversely, concerned with physical appearance, and most neuromajority people attach their identities to their physical appearances, constructing their “selves” to align with how their bodies (should) look in relation to mainstream views.

Presenting towards society’s gender expectations (heteronormativity) rewards people and sometimes the reward is that you simply aren’t mistreated. An Autist’s adherence to gender binaries is often a form of masking or camouflaging their Autistic selves to “blend in,” appearing neurotypical, to avoid persecution.

Autists are not as mysterious as society claims we are.3 Neurotypicals simply lack insight into our culture, like we lack intuitive insight into neurotypical culture, as stated by the double empathy problem (Milton, 2012). We do understand a lot more about neurotypical norms than neurotypicals understand about us – we’ve done this necessary work to try to understand those we share a world with. Yet we’re pathologized, stigmatized, spoken over and for, mistreated, murdered. Marginalized. Even, or especially, when we ask people to include and accept us.

We accept that mainstream society has accepted man/woman identities for so long, yet allistics pathologize us for living within our own culture. Autism means experiencing life in your own space at your own time. We own ourselves. We also own our culture. People internalize their culture. Society pathologizes ours.

One aspect of Autistic culture that is public is autigender. Autigender means a person’s gender identity is influenced by their Autistic mind. Though not every Autist identifies as autigender, the term illustrates why Autists are more likely than their neurotypical peers to identify with atypical gender variances – Autistic minds do not accept illogical concepts and thus make sense of them in unique ways, unless they reject these concepts altogether.

I’m an Autist who lives true to my neurotype. Living this way promotes joy and self-acceptance and helps me avoid Autistic burnout. A common route to Autistic burnout is attempting to embody neuromajority culture. I’ve found that I can avoid burnout by seeing myself through as logical lens: as a raceless, genderless, asexual human who lives and thinks Autistically, kinetically (ADHD), and through images and language – I think through words in part because my mind is dyscalulic: without numbers.

The prevalence of Autistic people who accept atypical sexual and gender identities is not pathological or “abnormal;” it simply represents the increasing prevalence of Autistic people who have rejected the labels society imposes on them. Likely because they accept themselves or are in the process of doing so.

Gender exploration usually means a person is seeking self-acceptance. If you want to support the Autists in your life through their gender exploration, a neurodiversity-affirming approach will validate them and help you maintain a trusting relationship.

People like to discuss what Autists supposedly can and cannot do. Not enough people ask Autists what we want or do not want to do. Neurodiversity-affirming allies respect bodily autonomy, allow us to do what we wish with our minds and bodies. Instead of judging someone’s choice to identify authentically, honor their choice, and believe them when they tell you who they are.

You can support gender variances by validating names, pronouns, and other language choices. Resist any urges to use a person’s deadname, misgender them, or otherwise change someone into someone they are not. Release expectations if you want to connect with someone, and assume each person is an expert in their experience. Instead of trying to make someone fit your idea of what a human should be, find out who each individual is and how that person identifies, no matter their neurotype or gender identity.

A neurodiversity-affirming approach to gender means that neurominorities determine their own individual definitions of gender. I believe that were over seven billion genders as everyone has their own gender – I see this when people who are comfortable with their gender identities express their gender uniquely. Authentically. Authenticity can’t be wrong.

What’s wrong is to pathologize someone because they fall outside cultural norms. Authenticity deserves celebration, for learning to accept yourself as neuro- and gender-variant is an accomplishment in this neuronormative, heteronormative society. Neurodiversity, the diversity of human minds, is about all of us, all humans. Diversity promotes stability. Stable environments help us all.

Bernard Grant is a writer, editor, and neurodiversity advocate (www.linkedin.com/company/writerly-nourishment). Learn more at their websites BernardGrant.com, WriterlyNourishment.com, LinkedIn, or send an email to BernardGrnt@gmail.com.

Footnotes

  1. In a Neurodiversity Studies essay titled Language games used to construct autism as pathology, Nick Chown (2020) argues that the “failure of neurotypical society to appreciate that societal language games are, by definition, neurotypical language games has adverse consequences for Autistic people because of the inevitability of cultural biases favoring neurotypicality” (p. 27). For similar reasons, it’s helpful to label aspects of neurotypical culture as such and aspects of Autistic culture as such. Otherwise, we’ll never understand the infinite variety of differences between neurotypes. And when we label neurotypical thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors as “human,” we encourage society to see neurodivergent people who don’t practice neurotypicality as pathologies, rather than humans.
  2. If you don’t believe Autistic minds are logical, keep in mind that Autists who try to embody neurotypical culture appear not to have logical minds when they enter Autistic burnout; they lose skills, and miss out on the opportunity to trust and improve their logical reasoning skills. Also honestly ask yourself if you understand logic or Autistic minds.
  3. Our sensemaking “social” lives have been public and online for decades.

References

Chown, N. Language games used to construct autism as pathology. In: Rosqvist HB, Chown N, Stenning A, editors. Neurodiversity Studies: A New Critical Paradigm. London: Routledge; 2020 Jun. Chapter 7. PMID: 33724753.

Milton, D. E. M. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: The ‘double empathy problem.’ Disability & Society, 27(6), 883–887. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008

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