by Anna Cristina with Emma Marsh
Autistic people do a lot of things differently to their non-autistic peers. It is little wonder, then, that Autistic people can experience gender differently. A 2020 study concluded that gender identity and sexuality are more varied among Autistic people than in the general population and Autism is three to six times more common among people who do not identify as their assigned sex.
With such a compelling intersection, it is important we learn how to support Autistic people who identify outside of conventional genders.
Below, The Autistic Realm Australia director and proudly Autistic parent of an Autistic, transgender child, Anna Cristina, shares her practical advice based on her own experience and the shared experience of the community groups she’s been running for more than five years.
“The link between gender diversity and Autism is strong, it’s valid, it’s well evidenced. It’s been researched for over ten years now,” says Anna. “Autistic people do gender differently.”
This is the most foundational thing of all. “Just listen. Do not argue, dismiss or assume that, as a parent, you know better. Your child is the expert in themselves. Listening is the very first thing you can do to show both respect and validation.”
“Remember this isn’t about you; it’s about your child and hearing them tell you something that is absolutely essential to their sense of self. When your child comes to you and discusses this, they are doing the bravest thing they have ever done, and they are terrified that you won’t love them anymore because they’re not what you thought they were,” says Anna.
“As an Autistic child, the chances are that they will have done their research too. This is not a fad or a stage that they’re going through. They know their own truth … They probably have done an absolute deep dive, and they know more about gender than you ever thought was possible. And to them this isn’t news; it’s just news to you.”
There are people who will say it’s an obsession and you should ignore it, or talk to your child about how gender works. Others might refer to it as a made-up disorder called Rapid Gender Dysphoria Disorder. In fact, there is no such thing. “You might not have seen any signs, but your child’s been thinking about this for a long time,” Anna says. “It doesn’t come out of the blue, so you need to believe them. They’ve trusted you enough to come to you and tell you, so they’re hoping for your support, belief and your love.”
Support your child in exploring the right place for them on the gender spectrum. “For some of our young people, it isn’t an absolute rock-solid knowledge … They need to work through it until they come to a place that is right for them,” says Anna. “Also, it’s very common for Autistic people not to be able to really conceptualise until we actually do it.
So, for some young people, they will need to work through being non-binary or socially transitioning from their assigned gender to another. Socially transitioning means things like wearing different clothes, maybe using different names and pronouns, and there’s no harm in allowing your child to experience their identity in this way.”
Let your child know that wherever they go, you will go with them, and reassure them that they can change their gender path at any time. It is very, very rare, but some people do de-transition. “It doesn’t mean they got it wrong, though,” says Anna. “That was their truth at the time.” And, if they do decide to de-transition, then it’s okay. The change is not irreversible. “Your child can’t get this wrong,” says Anna.
“This is them; they may change over time, but it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about being who they
are. And if you follow their lead, you can’t get this wrong either.”
New names, new pronouns, different clothing. When your child comes out to you, those things may seem so irrelevant. Yet, it is those small things that validate their identity. “If an effort isn’t made towards them, we are actually denying our child’s reality,” says Anna.
“Using the pronouns, using a different name, treating them as they need to be treated, is actually protective. It reduces the incidences of suicidal ideation, self-harm, depression and anxiety, because every person needs to be acknowledged for who they are. In fact, all these things together bring down the risk of those mental health issues to almost close to the same sort of rate in the general population. So, they’re not little things at all, they are actually really important.”
As hard as it is, remember that this isn’t your story to tell and you need to be careful, says Anna. “We live in a world that is not very accepting of gender diversity. If you ‘out’ your child by telling their story when it’s not a safe place, you could actually be putting them in harm’s way.” Yet, there are some contexts in which people need to know, for example, schools, doctors and hospital staff. Have a conversation with your child to establish which circumstances you are allowed to disclose their transition without their permission. If, in doubt, remember safety always comes first.
People will pass judgement and you are going to be taken aback by some of the questions you will get from others. “Is he going to have surgery? He’s three. Is he on hormones? None of your business … Just be aware you’re going to be surprised,” Anna says. “I just say breathe and try and be polite if you can.”
Sadly, not every family member will accept your child as they are. Some will be rejected by their broader family members. There are also children who lose their entire families. Try to protect your child from unaccepting people. If you expose your child to family members who do not acknowledge your child for who they are – for example, an aunt who will not use anything but their dead name – “what you’re actually telling your child is, the aunt is allowed to behave any way they want; they’re more important than your child,” says Anna.
“That may not be how you understand it, but that is how your child will understand it,” which leads us to Anna’s final, most important point.
Of course, you love your child unconditionally and all children deserve unconditional love. But for most people, this has never been challenged. However, when your child is telling you who they really are, you may question “Do I love my child regardless? Does it change how I respond to my child? What do I do?” It can be confronting and shocking. “It’s actually a change point in your life, and in the life of the child, and your child is a marvel and a wonder,” says Anna. “Unconditional love is the most important thing any child needs.
And I hope if you’re in this position, you’ll be able to say to your child, like I did, “Who cares? You are you. And I love you for who you are.”
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.