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…

From the first systematic study of autism and gender dysphoria, published in 2010¹, to the 2016 metastudy of 25 research articles about gender dysphoria on the autism spectrum², a strong correlation holds between being autistic and being transgender or gender non-conforming. The recent metastudy found that roughly a tenth of those examined at gender clinics have been diagnosed or are diagnosable as autistic. This prevalence is over ten times what is found in the general population.

An interesting side note about the metastudy is that autism was found in an equal number of gender variant individuals who had been designated female at birth as those who had been designated male at birth. This parity is striking when one considers that people who present as male are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism as people who present as female. Observed from the opposite direction–that is, examining young autistics for signs of gender variance–found a seven-fold increase of gender variance among autistics when compared to the general population³.

What could be behind the clear connection between autism and gender variance? Researchers attempting to answer that intersected question come up nearly as empty-handed as those who try to answer questions about the possible causes of autism or gender variance. Research into both autism and divergent gender identity or expression is still in its infancy and the quest for answers is limited to informed speculation at this point.

As a gender variant autistic myself, my speculations–informed by autism and gender research–are as likely to be on target as anyone else’s. Upon contemplating the topic, I find the most likely factors include: a correlation without a direct causation, biological/genetic link, an autistic social understanding, a neurologically-mediated difference in approaching the world, and a widened acceptance and self-acceptance resulting from the struggle to cope with being autistic in a disabling world.

If any of these hypotheses hold true, it is likely that the reality behind the strong correlation between autism and gender variance arises from some combination of these factors. It is also likely that the heterogenous nature of both autism and gender identity and expression point to an equally heterogeneity in the causes of the intersection of autism and gender variance.

Correlation Without Causation

Maybe there is some third factor that hasn’t been identified yet. Being Autistic could correlate with this third factor for some reason and gender variance could also correlate with the third factor but for some other reason. If this is what is behind the strong correlation we see between autism and gender variance I suspect it will take many more years of research to uncover the third factor.

A Biological and/or Genetic Link

While the autistic genome is still being studied, with new data regularly unveiled, no cohesive or overarching genetic understanding of autism has yet prevailed but twin studies indicate a strong genetic component. Similarly, geneticists have no solid answers about gender variance but a twin study showed a strong genetic component to transsexuality. Little is known about autistic genetics and even less about gender variant genetics so the great swaths of unknowns leave plenty of room for discovery of a potential genetic link or, again, a third factor that connects the genetics of autism and gender variance.

An Autistic Social Understanding

In an interview, John Strang, a pediatric neuropsychologist who works with gender variant children, suggests that autistic children have an easier time recognizing gender variance in themselves due to a social perspective that includes less focus on status, reputation, authority, social norms, and opinions of others. The tendency of autistics to be bullied, ostracized, or otherwise live “outside the box” socially is likely to inform an approach to social constructs like gender and gender roles that allows autistics to view gender as something open to exploration rather than a set-in-stone given.

A Neurologically-Mediated Approach to Life

Autistics exhibit tremendous curiosity and adaptive learning (although, as Kelley points out, these traits are often pathologized as perseveration and obsession) Curiosity and questioning easily lead one to question gender roles and examine one’s own gender perceptions. Adaptive learning lead easily to gender experimentation as well as an impromptu “fieldwork,” a sort of autoethnographic study of gender. Under such systematic scrutiny, one’s own gender variance stands out.

Widened Self-Acceptance

Finally, successfully navigating the emotional intensity of an autistic life lived in a world designed for neurotypical comfort prepares a person to more quickly and easily accept other marginalized aspects of one’s identity. An autistic life is training ground for accepting and embracing gender variance and vice versa.

In a study of Deaf adolescents, researchers defined “identity” as an “intersection of the individual and society” and went on to describe adolescence as a time of identity formation. Developing a Deaf identity required coming to an understanding about the Deaf adolescent’s place in the world, forced by their difference. Hearing people, the authors note, do not struggle with the same identity formation issues. Similarly, the marginalized nature of the lived autistic experience forces autistic adolescents to consider their place in a neurotypical world; something those who are not neurodivergent are not required to grapple with.

Exercises in identity formation in one area naturally lead to engaging with identity issues in other life arenas including gender and sexuality. Self-acceptance and practice in identity formation seems not to fully explain the correlation between autism and gender variance, however, since no studies show a similar correlation between Deafness and gender variance or queer sexuality. This cannot be taken as a lack of evidence, however, merely as a lack of studies of Deaf gender and sexuality issues.

In conclusion, autism is a multivariate state of being, as is gender variance. The correlation between the two is undeniable. The complex interplay of factors that explains this correlation remains to be discovered, but some combination of genetics, autistic social and cognitive patterns, and a greater tendency toward self-acceptance appears to be the most likely causal explanation for the correlation if autism and gender variance are, indeed, causally connected beyond simple correlation. Such a strong correlation, however, would appear to go beyond the realm of mere coincidence. Autism and gender variance are connected; the true nature of that connection remains to be discovered.

References

1 De vries AL, Noens IL, Cohen-kettenis PT, Van berckelaer-onnes IA, Doreleijers TA. Autism spectrum disorders in gender dysphoric children and adolescents. J Autism Dev Disord. 2010;40(8):930-6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20094764
2 Van der miesen AI, Hurley H, De vries AL. Gender dysphoria and autism spectrum disorder: A narrative review. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2016;28(1):70-80. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26753812
3 Strang JF, Kenworthy L, Dominska A, et al. Increased gender variance in autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Arch Sex Behav. 2014;43(8):1525-33. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24619651
4 Hallmayer J, Cleveland S, Torres A, et al. Genetic heritability and shared environmental factors among twin pairs with autism. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(11):1095-102. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21727249
5 Diamond, M. Transsexuality among twins: Identity concordance, transition, rearing, and orientation. Int J Transgenderism. 2013;14(1):24-38. http://www.hawaii.edu/PCSS/biblio/articles/2010to2014/2013-transsexuality.html
6 Rudacille, D. Living between genders. Spectrum. https://spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/living-between-genders/ April 13, 2016. Accessed July 30, 2016.
7 Kelley, L. The pathologization of interest and curiosity. Thirty Days of Autism. https://30daysofautism.wordpress.com/2015/05/21/the-pathologization-of-interest-and-curiosity/ May 21, 2015. Accessed July 30, 2016.
8 Brice PJ, Strauss G. Deaf adolescents in a hearing world: a review of factors affecting psychosocial adaptation. Adolesc Health Med Ther. 2016;7:67-76. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4847601/

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4 thoughts on “Autism and Gender Variance: Is There a Cause for the Correlation?

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  4. My son and I both have Asperger’s. While we do not have gender variances (that we’ve identified), we do have sexual identity differences. I am heteroflexible, and I have long said that I don’t know what he is and am not willing to make the decision for him, but whatever he is, it’s not hetero-typical.

    I think that for us, the cause of our variance is a combination of social understanding, neurologically-mediated approach to life, and greater self-acceptance. We both have a tendency to question every rule, and if we can’t make it fit our patterns, we toss it out. This gives us an ability to form our opinions of others and ourselves based on what we consider more objective qualities, rather than subjective. Neither of us support different physical requirements based on gender, but rather on general size, shape, and health, for example. And once we’ve categorized a quality, and so long as we are following the rules that fit our patterns, we both agree that we should be happy with the result.

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