Autism and Gender Variance: Is There a Cause for the Correlation?

This is a guest post on a subject very close to my own heart that I commissioned from Sparrow Rose Jones via this Fiverr gig. Sparrow is well-known as the author of the blog Unstrange Mind and the book No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind, which I am taking the opportunity here to recommend to anybody who has yet to encounter them.

Regular readers will know I hardly ever publish guest posts or reblog, but I made one of my few exceptions (my blog, my rules) because I have long valued Sparrow’s writing on subjects that I care deeply about and wanted very much to take the opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on the intersection of autism and gender. And now, over to Sparrow…

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A Song For Europe

To the tune of American Pie:

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how
This country used to make me smile
And I knew that in the EU
My dream of peace might just come true
And maybe we’d be happy for a while.

But referendum made me shiver
With every paper they’d deliver
Bad news on the front page
I couldn’t believe the rage.

I just remember that I cried
When I read about the exit tide
Something touched me deep inside
The day the UK died.
So

Bye, bye, all you European guys
They have wrecked it, we’ve got Brexit, ‘cos they swallowed the lies
And them Eton boys who told the biggest pork pies
Singin’ we’re all right, we’ve got old school ties
We’re all right, we’ve got old school ties

Did you hear the tales they told
And do you believe you’ve got control
If that Farage tells you so?
Do you believe migration’s bad?
Are Ukip not just raving mad?
Johnson got stabbed in the back by Gove.

Well I know you wanted Boris in
‘Cause I saw you share that post of him
You repeated his bullshit
Three fifty million, wasn’t it?

I was a voice of reason for Remain
Listenin’ as the experts said again and again
You’d flush the country down the drain
The day you voted Leave.
I started singin’,

Bye, bye, all you European guys
They have wrecked it, we’ve got Brexit, ‘cos they swallowed the lies
Forty eight percent will not just close up our eyes
Singin’ never gonna let EU die,
Never gonna let EU die.

Breaking the Impasse

The referendum was a disaster. There, I’ve said it. I’m not talking about the result. I mean the whole ill-conceived exercise. And its outcome: the uncertainty we now find ourselves in the middle of is not doing anybody any good, inside the UK or out.

Nobody appears to have a plan for exiting the EU: if they did we’d have started the process already. I believe the problem is that if you ask a hundred people what they want the future relationship between the UK and the rest of the world to look like you’ll get dozens of different answers.

The one big positive of the referendum has been to expose the immense dissatisfaction across the country with the current state of affairs. But just as people had many different reasons for choosing how they voted, so there are many different causes for that dissatisfaction.

I’m all for leaving, if by leaving you mean the huge inequalities between the rich and the poor, the increasing squeeze we feel on our ability to simply carry on with our day to day lives, the way that politicians in Westminster feel more and more remote from the realities of life in the UK, the way so many people feel their needs are ignored.

All these things and more came out in the vote to leave. Against them were a fear of the unknown, of some calamity in the event of such a big change. But also a feeling among many remain voters that their situation was bearable and that the ideals for which the EU was founded have deep meaning and significance.

By making it a stark choice between in or out the referendum completely ignored the fact that many on both sides share common concerns about pressures on public services like the NHS, on schools, on housing, on jobs. For me these are more important issues than whether or not the UK remains in the EU. But they are not being addressed. Both sides in the referendum used them to score points but since the result was called nobody has put forward any plan to improve the state of things.

I think it’s time for a revolution. A revolution in the way we as a country approach the issues directly affecting us, the people, right now. Our democracy is broken. We don’t feel our representatives in parliament really represent us: we vote for them every four or five years and after that we go back to being ignored and told what to do.

The current system lacks feedback; it lacks the input from the people at the bottom, the electorate, about what we need. Not what a political party thought we wanted and promised years ago in order to get our vote, but what we want and need today.

I propose putting together a representative group of people from across the country. All ages, all political leanings, all levels of education. Selected by lot, like a big jury. Give them full access to all the information, all the experts, and let them decide between them what needs to change and how to go about it. We trust juries a lot more than politicians, and that is how juries work.

They won’t be experts themselves, at least not when they start. But they will represent us with all our hopes and fears. They will be us. I’d certainly trust them to work for the benefit of the people of this country. More so than the politicians. I’m sure that between them they could work out a set of priorities and a new direction for the country. One that a clear majority of people could get behind and support.

It’s an idea that is being used (in similar form) in Ireland today to work on constitutional issues. It could work here too. And it would give people a real voice, not only to decide on issues but also to decide what issues are important. Out political system is failing us. Let’s do things differently going forward. Let’s make our democracy more direct. Let’s involve the people directly. And we’ll have a chance to make things better for all of us and not just the 1%, the elite, the rich.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Last Thursday 17 million people in the UK voted to, well, what exactly did they vote for? Not what they were promised, that’s becoming increasingly clear.

The referendum asked a deceptively simple question: should the UK remain in the EU or leave. I say “deceptively” because it was an attempt to put an exceedingly complex issue into yes/no terms.

I’m sure a lot of people, like me, saw the question as one between the known quantity that was remaining in the EU and a leap in the dark. Equally, many suffering under the results of years of austerity felt that any change, any hope was better than keeping things as they were.

I woke up on Friday morning to the result and immediately suffered a huge attack of anxiety because it was clear that my stable little world had fallen down and we were in uncharted territory. I don’t handle change well and this has been change on a massive scale.

At a time when the country needs clear leadership more than ever the politicians are running around like headless chickens. The Prime Minister, by resigning, has become little more than a figurehead while the two factions of the Conservative party fight between themselves for supremacy.

The tensions in the Labour party between Jeremy Corbyn with the support of grass-roots members and unions, and his MPs, many of whom oppose his leadership, have decimated the effectiveness of the opposition.

The country’s economy has been severely weakened with stock markets and the pound falling. The Chancellor, George Osborne, announced this morning that taxes will have to rise and spending will be cut. Not only is austerity here to stay for a long while, it’s going to get worse.

And with key figures from the victorious Leave campaign retracting their pre-referendum claims and promises, Boris Johnson talking about effectively remaining in Europe on similar terms to what we have today, I find myself wondering what it was all for.

The country has been weakened and it will take years to recover. Deep divisions in society have been exposed and the wounds remain open. Although a majority voted to leave there were almost as many who voted the opposite way: it really is a split right down the middle of the country.

Parliament is a representative democracy, but how can they represent such polar opposites? Politics is often a balancing act but right now they have one foot either side of a chasm that is widening.

Things must be resolved quickly to end the uncertainty. That means compromise; there’s not the time to build consensus. The country needs leadership, somebody to establish its direction, but nobody today wants to be the one to make that move from which there might be no going back.

The referendum was an ill-considered response to a problem that had nothing to do with the EU: divisions in the Conservative party. It’s resulted in the country being dragged into a situation that nobody wants: we’re standing on the edge of a cliff and the ground is crumbling under our feet. We either launch ourselves forward or step back, but that needs a leader to make the call. We don’t have that right now.

I want to see some honesty from the politicians. I want to know whether they have any idea what to do, where to take the country. Because all the signs at present are that they do not have a clue.

I believe that if they do not know how to achieve the goals they promised when campaigning to leave then they should abandon the attempt and return to where we were before this mess. Start over. Ask people the right questions. Listen to their concerns about poverty, loss of services, the erosion of community, the increasing disconnection between the average person and the governors in Westminster.

People are angry and with good reason. Angry people look for someone or something to blame and this was manipulated by referendum campaigners who offered a series of scapegoats: immigration, EU bureaucracy. Slogans like “Take back control” and “Stronger in” appeal on an emotional level, deliberately, so that people do not question what they really mean.

Televised “debates” that were just Britain’s Got Talent contests to put on the best performance. Never mind what they said, who said it in the most convincing tone? The end result: a hideously complicated issue reduced to soundbites.

It took me days of research to begin to understand the issues, and even after that what I came away with was mostly the feeling that international relations and the economics of nation states are almost beyond human understanding. I have little confidence in my ability to make an informed decision, which convinced me that it was better to let things continue as they stood.

Is that even an option now that the referendum result was to leave? Do we have to continue to head out into the unknown, given that the first few steps have resulted in serious negative consequences? We’ve had a little taste of the dish in front of us and it’s unpleasant. Do we have to clean our plate, or can we send it back and order something new?

We know where we stand and it’s on the brink. The question is where do we go from here?

Post Nationalism

I’ll say this for social media: national boundaries are feeling increasingly irrelevant.

The people I have connections to through Facebook in particular (but also Twitter) fall into roughly three groups. There are people I’ve met socially in the flesh, people I’ve worked with and, most of all, people with whom I share an aspect of my identity as an autistic trans woman.

Apologies to those in the first two groups, but with a few notable exceptions it is the last group with whom I feel the greatest affinity. The people who know what it means to be autistic or to be trans without me needing to explain myself.

The thing about these overlapping groups of autistics and trans folk is that they include people from a number of countries and ethnicities but that does not form the basis of the community.

Through interacting with and getting to know these people it has become abundantly clear that what we have in common has nothing to do with nationality: we are able to make common cause within a culture that owes nothing to geographic boundaries.

In many respects I see something similar in my work environment. I work for a subsidiary of a US-owned company. The development department that I’m a part of has teams located in the US, UK, Finland and Poland. I’ve had meetings where every participant was in a different physical location.

Whether you agree with it or not, globalization is a fact. It’s here now and with the world becoming ever more connected it’s only going to become more and more widespread. Barriers are coming down. First information and money, then goods and finally people moving more and more freely across the world.

The EU for all its flaws is, I think, a good example of this. The opening up and integration of most of the continent is a prime reason why there has not been any armed conflict between its member states–even the thought of a Europe-wide war has become almost unthinkable. It’s something that transcends nations, a reason to work together. It’s provided stability and shown that the EU as a whole is much stronger than any of its individual constituents.

That stability is facing a serious threat this week as the UK holds a referendum on its continued membership of the EU. Petty nationalistic interests are on the rise, threatening to not just rock the boat but overturn it. They’d leave us all adrift in uncharted waters. It’s telling that people like Putin who would benefit from weakening the EU favor the UK’s withdrawal from the union, while people like Obama and every EU leader have spoken in support of retaining the status quo.

Everyday Aspergers – Interview With Sam Craft

Earlier today I interviewed autistic writer and artist Samantha Craft whose recently completed book, Everyday Aspergers, brings together her reflections and experiences of life on the Autism Spectrum.

Alex Forshaw To begin, your book grew from your blog posts on Everyday Asperger’s. What first inspired you to write about autism?

Samantha Craft My middle son, who is now 17, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was 5 years of age. I’d learned a lot about Asperger’s through him and literature. When I started a second Masters Degree (which I didn’t finish) in Counseling, I was required to seek out a therapist as part of course work expectation. I asked the therapist I found if she thought I might have ASD. She was adamant that she thought so. From there, I had an abundance of emotions about the ideas of me being autistic, and needed a place to process what was going on inside my head.

AF I’m guessing that you suspected you had ASD based on what you saw in your son? Similarities between the two of you?

SC I’d always felt out of sorts, different from my peers and even from adults. I’d sought out answers for years from people in authority, such as therapists, priests, psychologists, teachers, and so forth. I didn’t know why I was the way I was. I didn’t connect the dots that I had Asperger’s when my son was diagnosed because very little was known then and what was shared was very stereotypical and didn’t make sense to me, such as: no empathy, no imagination, no creativity, etc. It took me a long time to connect the dots between my son and myself. He manifested his autistic traits differently as he was a child and a male and in a very stable home. In comparing our childhoods, there were a lot of environmental factors that influenced how I behaved. Similarities, now, are numerous and profound. Especially our need for time alone, limited expectation on others, keen interest in creative writing, deep philosophical thinking and discussion, ability to think outside of the box, and confusion over certain societal hierarchies and cultural standards. But these are not common things you find in an ordinary text book or article on ASD. These are things you find in real autistics leading real lives.

AF You mention the stereotypical nature of much of the literature about autism, and that it is removed from everyday life. Can you give me some examples where your book covers topics that you’d have found most helpful at that stage in your life?

SC Yes, and let me point out first, please, that I would add the word “falsehoods” or “false” to those stereotypes. I have corresponded with many people who are on the autism spectrum or believe themselves to be, and they are for the majority, let’s say 95%, extremely empathetic, kind, compassionate, passionate, insightful, and highly creative and imaginative. These stereotypes are largely based on the observation of autistics—largely on how others who don’t have autism think about autistics and not on the real voices of autistic people.

AF That’s a very good point.

SC It is hard to think of my book in “topics” as I don’t generally write that way. My blog was largely inspired by how I was feeling during that day, and what I felt needed to come out of me in order that I might be able to breathe. Typically I began writing my posts without knowing what I would say or even truly how I was feeling. The writing was my way of getting out my thoughts and ideas. Interestingly, at least a thousand people have written to me to say that I have read their minds. When in actuality, I tend to think they all jump in my head and I have to spill out what’s going on in there. Like a Jungian Collective Unconscious of Aspies swimming in my head. But back to your question, the whole book works as a whole. I cannot separate it into parts of most useful or least. For me, it depends on the given day, how I might be feeling, how I might have been triggered. It’s 150 posts ranging vastly in subject matter. Mostly, for me, it is about community and connecting. For others to be able to see their self in me and for me to continue to see myself in them. For others to know we are in this life and this journey together.

AF I find it interesting that the way you describe your writing sounds a lot like the way I write myself, with the act of writing itself being the catalyst that teases the thoughts into some kind of shape.

You say you see your book working as a whole, and that it is about others seeing themselves in what you have written about your own life and experiences. I know that my big “Aha!” moment was on reading some posts on a blog and realizing that the author could have been talking about my own life.

SC Yes, what you said; that’s it exactly. The act of writing itself is a catalyst. I often just type what I hear in my head. I can hear a still, calm peaceful voice whispering the words to type. It’s a very healing process. I am glad you had that Aha moment. I actually use that phrase “Aha!” in my book a couple times, at least. It’s amazing when we find a collective that understands us and sees us, especially after many of us have felt either entirely too visible in a way in which we were misrepresenting our own selves or misinterpreted by others, or entirely invisible, with thoughts of being isolated and misunderstood.

AF My own experience tells me what other autistic readers can get from your book, but how do people who are not on the spectrum respond, and what can they gain from reading it?

SC I like to say, or rather giggle when I say, “Most of my best friends are neurotypical.” And that’s the truth. I have been fortunate to know some very kind people in my life, especially in the field of teaching. I tend to keep my friends for life, if they’ll have me. Since I have some friends that are not autistic some read my writings. A few I sent my completed manuscript to. And their feedback has been that they feel a lot of what I feel. The primary difference being that I tend to experience life “turned up” or on heightened degree—I mean everything about life, from my thoughts, ideas, emotions, theories, and so forth. So, for the people reading my works that perhaps are not autistic, I would say I write in a way that is accepting of all my self, all my emotions and experiences, and in a manner that invites others to look at their own self and heart. In that, the book could easily be called “Everyday Human,” not just “Everyday Aspergers.” This is not to say that autism isn’t challenging, because clearly being autistic is very hard at times, but it is to say that I, as an autistic, have much in common with others that might not be neurodiverse. Also, interestingly enough, there have been quite a few folks, including some relatives, who ended up discovering they were likely autistic from reading my works, having not ever given it thought before or even known enough to give it thought.

I would add, too, that there are of course other major differences between my non-autistic friends and me, including the constant voice in my head monitoring social interactions, sensory challenges with all my senses, difficulty processing my emotions until time has passed, much stimming, high anxiety, and I could likely list 100 other things as well. Still, there is enough of me that is essentially human in the book that speaks to the human experience.

AF I love that response. Yes, I think it can be very easy sometimes to become so immersed in autistic culture that we forget we have more in common with neurotypical people than we realize. Though our differences, being autistic, are significant enough to affect how we experience life, we are all human and that should count for more than our differences.

Before I wrap this up, I’d like to say that one blog post of yours that I will always remember was your list of Asperger’s traits for women and girls. I particularly enjoyed the way you didn’t just present a checklist of attributes, but instead gave in-depth descriptions of living with those traits. I find your approach very accessible because it’s much easier to draw parallels with my own life when reading how it feels and the effects it has day-to-day.

SC I am pleased to hear you appreciated the Ten Traits post. That is the post that brought 1000s of us (meaning those of us who are autistic and those who support an autistic loved one) together. I recently did a YouTube reciting that post because after four years and with the coming of the book, I wished to put my tone and inflection to the words, to bring it even more life. Thank you for the kind words about my approach. I try to release all expectations, and thoughts of future, when I write. I write to write. I have a faith. I hesitate to say strong, as it wavers, that is uniquely mine and that I don’t ever intend to push on anyone, but this faith, my connectedness to source, helps me to write in a form that feels free of judgment, strong opinions, or want of anything. There is a definite freedom in my writing that others have reported, and I believe, allows for a person to be as they are without expectation of change.

AF Speaking of autism in females, do you think that we need stronger focus on how it affects women and girls differently?

SC In answer to your question, you likely know that answer.

I believe a wave has begun of autistic teachers, activists, advocates, authors, artists, professionals, and leaders and with this wave is a secondary wave of neurodiverse supporters who don’t necessarily identify with being autistic. I believe this wave will continue to build and in doing so bring increased awareness to the autism community and the neurodiverse community at large. This wave will bring to light many of our struggles, those of the autistic community, but also of the struggles of living life on this earth. It will bring connection, community, support, and a sense of purpose. It will encourage service and acceptance of differences.

This wave will naturally in its current expose the world to the autistic nature of an autistic individual. I no longer think it is about gender. As the false stereotypical traits are being eradicated by the true voices of autistics and we are seeing whether male, female, or an individual who doesn’t identify with a gender, we are alike in the way we experience autism; and in the same way we are also uniquely individualized.

I do understand what you mean by differently, with aspects to genetics and social expectations, and how girls naturally try to fit in, but in my experience, most of the men I speak with identify almost entirely to my female traits list.

AF Well put. I see this comes back to the principles of accepting differences while celebrating all that we have in common, building communities on those strong foundations. After all we are all stronger together.

Thank you very much for your time.

Everyday Aspergers by Samantha Craft is due to be released in June 2016. Please visit her website Spectrum Suite to find out more about her, her book, and a range of autism-related resources, events and links.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy. Everyone knows what it is, right? It’s that sixth sense, a kind of ESP that picks up the vibes of what somebody else is feeling. Except that telepathy doesn’t exist, and given the lack of Betazoids on Earth there is nobody who can genuinely “hear” emotions broadcast by your brain.

So what is empathy and how does it work? It turns out that it’s based on observation. Minutiae of expression–body language–signal emotions at a subconscious level.

Humans being social animals, we have evolved to be sensitive to these signals from others around us. They provide hints for how we should approach others, how we should adapt our behavior to their moods so that they will be more receptive to our interactions.

But since we cannot actually read the thoughts of another, cannot infallibly know what they are thinking, we rely on projecting what we can observe onto our own psyche. We predict their responses based on what we ourselves would do in their situation.

There’s an elephant in the room of this analysis of empathy: it relies completely on an assumed similarity of thought. To be able to mirror the thought processes and mind state of another person requires a certain degree of equivalence of culture, environment and neurology.

Among the mostly homogeneous communities around the world this works well enough for the majority of people that they take its universal applicability for granted. But that is not the case.

Those of us who have a different neurology, or were raised in different culture, think differently. When we try to imagine another’s thoughts we predict them based on our own minds. We use the knowledge we have gained through our own experiences.

But, when those experiences are sufficiently different from those of the person whose mind we are trying to model we find that the conclusions we reach are different from those that they would arrive at.

The converse is also true: neurotypical people are equally bad at imagining what autistic people (and also people from different cultures) are thinking and feeling.

Empathy is not some magical ability. It is nothing more than considering the question, “What would I do/feel in their situation?” It’s simply a forecast based on what we can see of them.

For accuracy forecasting relies on both knowledge of the initial conditions (what we observe of their situation and mood) and an accurate model of their behavior (how they think). It is this second part that explains the disconnect for autistic people.

We simply do not think in the same way. We respond differently to the same stimuli. And so when we try to imagine their thoughts we imagine them responding as we would. And that is different to how they would respond.

The result is that we are assumed not to have any significant capacity for empathy, for putting ourselves in the place of others. But my view is that the very definition of empathy means the odds are stacked against us even before we begin.

Holding Out For A Hero

It’s really hard to be inspired by people. To find somebody you can look up to as a role model. A hero. Hey, I’m hard to satisfy but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop looking.

What am I looking for in a hero? I need somebody I can relate to. Someone whose life has enough parallels to my own that I can identify with them. And I’ve got to say that as an autistic trans woman that’s a hell of a tall order!

There are people I admire greatly. Lynn Conway and Sophie Wilson are both incredibly talented engineers who are also trans women. But the very fact of their exceptional contributions to electronic engineering and computing sets them too far above anything I could dream of achieving.

It seems everywhere I look my candidates for hero have talents I do not share. Fantastic autistic writers like Sparrow Rose Jones, M Kelter and Michael Monje Jr. Outspoken activists and advocates like Morénike Umoye, Fiona O’Leary and Lydia X. Z. Brown.

I dismiss myself as an average wordsmith, an armchair supporter of my own rights, somebody who would tentatively raise her hand but would never be the first to raise her voice.

No, I found my own hero closer to home. There is one person I have known, and known very well, that I continue to look up to and admire. Someone who set an example with her own life to the extent that when faced with a dilemma I can ask myself, “What would she do?”

It’s no big surprise. That person was my mother. Of all the people I have known she was the one I want to emulate. Such generosity and love towards others, and yet with an uncompromising strength at her core. Even at the end of her life, after years of suffering with a brain tumor that left her unable to care for herself at all, she had moments of snappiness but still managed to think of others before herself.

So I do have a hero. I do have someone to look up to. And every time I fall short of her example (which is more often that I’d like to admit) I think about her.

She didn’t give birth to me but I was her child. She loved me unconditionally, always believed in me and supported me. Nothing in her power was too much trouble for her if I needed it. If I was with her I would always be safe. And if I ever need to consider what would be the “right” thing to do I need only think, “What would mum do?”

Edge Cases, or Why Binary Categories Are Broken

People have a habit of putting everything they encounter into categories. It makes language-based communication possible. If I tell you about the tree at the end of the road you can imagine a scene: you know what a tree is, what a road is, and how the two fit in relation to each other. But you don’t imagine the same scene that I have in mind.

When I write about an older man with a deep, resonant voice, do you think of Orson Welles, James Earl Jones, Richard Burton, Morgan Freeman? They all fit the description, the category. Even though the terms I used are pretty vague: what does “older” mean? Older then you? Than me? Over 50? 60? Showing signs of age such as gray hair or lines on his face?

“Older” must be meaningful in this context or else why would I use it? You see, everybody knows what it means, but you’d not be able to find a consensus, a common definition. Where do you draw the line between older and not-older? It’s a simple binary choice after all.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that older means older than me. That’s easy, right? Oh, you want to know how old I am? Well, I’m not old: I’m middle-aged. So maybe someone who’s close to my age shouldn’t be referred to as older. Let’s change the definition of older to mean an age ten or more years greater than mine. Oh, you still want to know my age?

I guess this is more difficult than it first seemed. Welcome to the territory of the edge case, the point at which we cut from one category to another. The problem arises because our category, older, can’t be defined unambiguously. There is no clear boundary between older and not-older.

That’s not to say that older is useless: it works well as a convenient shorthand, a stereotype. It’s just that the degree to which it applies varies. Morgan Freeman is an older man; George Clooney is less so, Ryan Reynolds probably isn’t, and Daniel Radcliffe is almost certainly not.

And yet older seems such a simple concept. As simple as tree or road. Thinking about trees, you know what a tree is, right? As opposed to a shrub or a bush, or some other plant? And a road: it’s not a freeway, or a track. Right? Or not? There’s some overlap: these terms we use casually, that we understand the meaning of very well, nevertheless are fuzzy around the edges.

We learn the meanings through examples, archetypes. A collection of instances that we are told belong to the category. It’s not about definitions such as you find in a dictionary: those are mere simplified descriptions of what most of us mean when we use a word. When you think about trees you don’t give much, if any, thought to the definition: you just know what a tree is.

It’s the same principle when it comes to gender. You learn about men and women as two mutually-exclusive categories, and you’re taught that everybody fits into one or the other. But just as with any other category, gender has edge cases. There is such a range of variation among humans that there is no characteristic, or set of features, that unambiguously assigns a person to either a male or female gender.

Yes, there are physical characteristics that apply to the majority: these are what are used at birth to decide whether to write M or F on a birth certificate. And for most people that’s fine. But there are edge cases. People who don’t have distinct physical gender characteristics, or people who look like they are male (or female), but are actually female (or male) or neither, or both.

These edge cases, intersex and transgender people, are a minority but not an insignificant one: reliable conservative estimates put the number of transgender people at around 1 in 500, meaning that we account for roughly 15 million people around the world. As a comparison, that’s about the same as the number of Jews worldwide, and more than the population of Greece, Belgium or Sweden.

That’s a lot of people for whom the gender categories don’t properly work. These people exist; gender is an invention. Which do you think might be “wrong”? The sad fact is that there are a lot of people who think of gender, male or female, as absolute binary options: each person has to fit one or the other. Reality doesn’t work that way. It’s not neat or convenient.

Believe me, as a woman myself I’ve tried long and hard to come up with some objective criteria to define womanhood. And for every single characteristic I thought of there are exceptions. It’s not a matter of definitions, it’s a matter of knowing. I have encountered many examples of women in my life and they have shaped my understanding of what a woman is. The same goes for every person who identifies as a woman. It’s an understanding that transcends words. So that is how I know I am a woman.

Changing Your Mind – Thoughts on TMS

Over the past year, and especially since the publication of Switched On by John Elder Robison, there has been a lot of attention around a therapy called TMS (or rTMS–Repetitive Transcranial Stimulation).

It’s something I have deep reservations about but others have written passionately and eloquently on the subject. What I want to consider is why somebody would choose to undergo such a therapy that literally changes their mind.

I’m no stranger to the negative feelings that arise when considering the gap between how I perceive myself and what I see when I look in the mirror: that’s a big factor in my gender dysphoria.

I also know first-hand how it feels to be teased and ridiculed for hand flapping, physical clumsiness, social awkwardness, unusual speech patterns and eclectic interests. I’ve had life-long difficulty making and maintaining interpersonal relationships, and I have times where I feel keenly the lack of people with whom I feel comfortable opening up about my problems and feelings.

I understand the drive to make physical changes to one’s body. After all, I’m in the process of seeking treatment to modify my own body, bringing it into closer alignment with what I see in my mind by erasing or concealing male characteristics and developing female ones.

There are two parts to my gender dysphoria. First there is my need to have other people respond to me as a woman, reinforcing my gender identity. Second there is my need to see my own body physically match the mental image I hold.

So as a trans woman I am actively seeking treatment to make changes to my body. This is in contrast to my feelings about my autism. Both my gender identity and my autistic identity go to the very heart of who I am.

The thing is, although I will happily modify the physical characteristics of my body I wouldn’t consider altering my mind. My neurology is inextricably tied to my identity: I feel that changing my mind would make me into a different person.

There’s a line there. I’ve put a foot over that line a few times, testing the water so to speak. I’ve experienced the effects of drugs that affect the workings of the brain: alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, SSRIs (anti-depressant).

Some of them have positive aspects. For example, alcohol reduces my social anxiety. But there are negatives too: I make poor decisions under the influence of alcohol because it inhibits my self-control and risk-aversion: I’ve gotten myself into some dangerous situations as a result.

Speed (amphetamine) left me unable to concentrate, marijuana was relaxing but caused mild hallucinations and a degree of paranoia. The SSRIs reduced the intensity of my emotions, leaving me feeling numb: in the end I had trouble focusing and engaging with things in my life.

These were all temporary effects: my mind returned to its usual functioning state in time for which I was grateful. You see, I wasn’t myself when under the influence of any of these drugs.

I guess my point is that given the complexity of the human brain and the way its many regions interact it is not possible to adjust one aspect without affecting others. Just as a particular drug affects a small number of electro-chemical interactions in the brain with wider-reaching side-effects, so a therapy like rTMS that alters a small region must cause knock-on changes across the entire organ.

My opinion is that it is not like tuning an engine, a relatively simple system with a limited degree of interconnection and feedback between its components. It’s more like introducing a foreign species into an existing ecosystem. The effects can be slow to manifest, and predictions are error-prone due to the complexity and chaotic nature of the system.

There is no way to know what other effects rTMS would have. It might reduce my social anxiety, but even if that was all it did it would make me respond differently to people I interact with (like alcohol). And if my thoughts and behavior are changed then I’m no longer the same person.

I don’t want to change who I am: I’m comfortable with my identity as an autistic trans woman with all that entails. Changing my body doesn’t affect my personality, my thoughts: I remain me. Changing my mind makes me into somebody else. I would lose the essence of what makes me this particular unique individual, and the thought of that fills me with dread.

This leads me to suppose that for somebody to even contemplate such a thing they must not like who they are. Internalized self-hatred, blaming their neurology for what they see as their failings. It’s like body dysmorphia projected onto the ego, the sense of self. The antithesis of neurodiversity’s principles; an inability or refusal to accept one’s differences.

I see this as a result of thinking colored by the medical model of autism that sees it in terms of pathological deficits, as opposed to the social model which instead looks to society’s failures to provide suitable accommodations and acceptance as the causes of disability.

There’s nothing wrong with my mind: I have no reason to change it. I can’t say the same for the society I live in.