Autism and Gender
How autistic identity became subsumed by gender ideology.
A storm has been brewing for some years now; online and more so in autistic groups; shifts in attitudes and priorities have seen the neurodiversity movement fully embrace ‘gender ideology’. The reasons for this are many and complex, but suffice to say, the way this relationship has formed, has serious ramifications for everyone involved, no matter which side of the debate they’re on and which lead to an ultimatum; an ‘are you for us or against us’ scenario.
What appears to be happening (and has been for a number of years now), is certain autistic people, nearly always women, who have resolutely refused to go along with the tenets of gender identity ideology, are being ruthlessly and aggressively ejected from the support groups they were once an integral part of. I have witnessed how, one by one, groups have absorbed the language and concepts of gender ideology, to the extent that being ‘gender-diverse’is now more highly prized than being ‘neuro-diverse’.
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How did this happen? How is it that the autistic community, or at least ‘neurodiverse people’ have embraced the notion of personal feelings of identity being incongruent with their body, seemingly more than any other community? What elements and characteristics make for an overlapping and co-occurring state of mind? I hope to answer these questions and shed light on why there seems to have been such a fusion between these two movements. I will do this by breaking down the specific issues I believe have been instrumental in drawing in autistic people.
As I have discussed in a previous post, autistic people are very much affected by the way their synapses can’t filter out the sensory world around them, often leading to them being overwhelmed by the onslaught of sounds, sights, smells and touch. The reaction to this sensory cacophony tends to shape autistic behaviour in their bid to cope with it all. Clothes might be tugged at or resisted while being dressed, labels might need cutting off to prevent them itching their necks and tight fitting or loose flowing clothes may be sought to minimise any irritation. In many cases, the sensory experience is just that…a sensory experience. However, ‘gender practitioners’ ignore this sign and view clothing preferences as a ‘gender message’ only.
Take, for example, Diane Ehrensaft, a contemporary developmental and clinical psychologist working with gender dysphoric children. She states that behaviour can be a form of ‘gendered communication’. In a video posted to YouTube entitled, ‘How to Tell if Babies are Transgender’, she can be seen explaining how she interpreted the behaviour of a pre-verbal female toddler as communicating a “gender message” suggesting she was not a girl, but in fact a ‘boy':
“There is a video of [her] as a toddler, tearing barrettes [hair clips] out of her hair and throwing them on the ground and sobbing. That’s a ‘gender message’… Sometimes kids, between the age of one and two, with beginning language, will say, “I boy”. So, you look for these kinds of actions, like tearing a skirt off.”
Autistic people frequently experience hyper-sensory issues. They also frequently bypass or ignore the gendered expectations of the societies they live in (in and of itself not a bad thing at all). However, by following Ehrensaft’s pattern of thinking, could it be that autism is being missed in favour of ‘gendered communication’? What is evident, is the colourful and sensorial world of clothing is being utilised by ideologues to fuel gender stereotypes and encourage people to imagine that if they like pink, dresses, wearing their hair long, or playing with Barbie dolls, they must therefore be a ‘girl’.
“I loved Barbie dolls.” - Juno Dawson
Despite Ehrensaft’s narrow-minded notion of ‘gendered communication’, there are some within the autistic community who identify the sensory issue as being a major part of both their autistic and ‘gender identities’. But the distinction between what is sensory and what is ‘gendered’ is blurred and it isn’t uncommon now to see autistic people who also claim a gender identity (or , talking liberally about their autistic, sensory sensitivities and ‘gender-diversity’ in a way which makes it impossible to separate them.
For example, in a recent webinar hosted by ‘Ausome’, on autism, sex and gender, autistic trainer Kate Munday made a number of statements about this, saying:
I know a lot of autistic people who struggle with having long hair, so it might be that you had exceedingly short hair, which wouldn’t necessarily stereotypically go with the gender expression you’re going for, or you get misgendered because of that.
The way that your brain works and your body-mind is, in this world…you can’t separate that; from how you feel and how you are about your gender and your gender expression and your gender identity.
Someone might chest-bind if they would prefer to have a chest that was more gender-neutral or masculine-leaning - basically it’s like a hardcore vest that squashes all your stuff down and makes you appear flatter - but there’s a lot of sensory input with that, as you can imagine.
As can be seen, there is an acknowledgement of the sensory issues at play, but it’s integrated into the language of gender ideology by the use of phrases such as, ‘masculine-leaning’ and ‘gender-neutral’. The overlap relating to sensory/gender issues is acknowledged, but no attempt is made to separate them; in fact, the combination is positively embraced.
Autistic people have a propensity to think systemically, so concepts with clearly defined parameters and, rules and systems are preferable and act as an antidote to unpredictability, something which greatly distresses autistics. The world of gender (ideology) and the way it relentlessly categorises every possible identity, assigning them with flags and neatly packaged descriptions is therefore attractive to autistics with regard to understanding one’s own sense of self. Paradoxically, the systemic way in which each identity is pinned down, is presented as a ‘liberation’ from gender norms; of being free of other peoples’ rigid expectations of you. But I can’t help feeling that in this sense - to paraphrase Orwell - ‘slavery is freedom’.
While it is often noted that autistic people are less pervious to social pressure and norms, gender ideology appears to have granted them an easier way forward with regards to being subjected to such pressures. So, rather than a girl who feels no affinity with anything feminine and whom has an intense dislike of femininity per se, she can ‘identify as’ the masculine opposite and call herself a boy, believing she actually is a boy, even. much easier to follow (gender) stereotypical path of being a ‘boy’ in boyish clothing and short hair, than the path of most resistance of remaining a girl whom no doubt will be despised for rejecting wholesale, the patriarchal view of what girls are supposed to look like (ornamental and ‘pretty’). Such a decision is probably seen to be a logical response to a potentially stressful problem.
An aspect of autism which is usually overlooked, is the strong sense of morality; not necessarily a problem in and of itself. Some who maintain a fixed, moral stance on one issue and pursue it with gusto, can become strong and courageous figures spearheading a movement for (positive) change, for example, Greta Thunberg has inspired many in her pursuit of fighting climate change. However, the flip side of this can lead to any perception of an injustice or grievance resulting in one doggedly seeking to redress it, by any means possible, even if the perception is misplaced.
The (moral) outrage brought on by grievances can at best, come across as an intense ‘righteous anger’, but at worst, spill over into threats and intimidating rhetoric, possibly even direct action. Enter the constant and malevolent presence of social media and its many users, always ready to provide ‘fuel for the fire’…
Understanding other people and their intentions/meaning
Difficulties understanding other people’s thinking or points of view, opens up a potential vulnerability to being exploited. For autistic people to recognise they are being appealed to for questionable purposes, it is essential they have some level of understanding of people’s motives. Since this is a major difficulty specific to many autistic people, it leaves them vulnerable to ideological capture, especially when some issues appeal to their sense of justice and unfairness. This then creates a dangerous situation where their resoluteness and rigidity in thinking leaves them unmoved by other points of view and anything exterior to their ideology is readily dismissed. But the flip side of this can mean their own views become fortified by influential groups and communities online which legitimise and support them, potentially leading them to become polarised and radicalised.
For example…social media is full of people demonstrating hyperbolic rhetoric against those who accept of the material reality of sex and who want to protect ‘sex’ as a clear biological category. Such views are somehow equated with Nazi-ism and genocide. Few of us would disagree that those who propagate Nazi-like ideas, should be challenged and stopped. However, a good number of people confidently assert that Nazis should be punched and attacked. Equally, women who want to protect their rights are often labelled 'Nazis’ and ‘fascists’. Therefore, it’s not such a leap to suggest that autistic people are being put in a position to act with their conscience and go all out to attack any perceived ‘Nazis’.
Black & white thinking
This can be a major issue for some autistic people, exacerbated by highly emotional responses to daily occurrences which are often traumatic for them. Why are things so traumatic? I can’t say why for sure. Some of the research points to neurology, while there may well be other social and environmental factors involved. The rigidity of being of on one side or the other may be more comforting in that having a definite outcome/consequence makes things predictable. As mentioned earlier, when events are unpredictable, life can become very distressing for autistic people and so, comfort can be found in having concrete thinking about concepts that are notoriously unstable. Maybe this is why there is a need to ‘pin everything down’ with labels and titles according to tidy descriptions. Akin to systemic thinking - the distinctions between one thing and the next bring comfort and make life easier to manage, rather than the messy, unpredictable mush that life can often be.
Autistic people are classic non-conformers. Impervious to most social pressures, they have their preferences and styles and they stick to them. However, whereas previously this would have seen many autistic people subjected to bullying and pressure to conform to certain normative standards, there have been many changes in recent years which have somewhat changed things. The first change, is the wider acceptance, awareness and understanding of autism. The second, is the advent of gender ideology, in which the notion of being gender non-conforming has been subverted, so that now, if a male has a preference for wearing ‘feminine’ clothes and behaving in a way which seems ‘feminised’, he is therefore seen by some as being ‘female; embodying a ‘femaleness’ and therefore is a ‘female’, which paradoxically seems to be…very gender conforming. This paradox seems lost on gender ideologues, who genuinely believe that wearing skirts, lipstick and high heels makes someone a woman. However, the desire to have a concrete idea of what constitutes a ‘woman’, ie skirts, lipstick and high heels etc makes it easier for those males who want to be validated as a ‘female’. They no longer have to feel ‘wrong’ or ‘incongruent’. If they wear skirts etc…it means they are female. ‘Everything in its right place’.
Online - Social Media
The behemoth that is the internet and the ‘global community’ has been both beauty and the beast for autistic people. On the one hand, it’s been a ‘godsend’ for those who struggle with face to face socialising and groups in real life, because having a text-based relationship with others is more manageable and comfortable for many autistic people; at least for those whose literacy levels allow. Since the explosion of social media, online communities and advocacy groups have grown massively and have enabled autistic voices to find kindred spirits, leading to a blossoming of self-advocacy organisations who, in turn, have led the charge for better acceptance of autistic people.
On the other however, the democratisation of autism advocacy and support groups via the power of the internet has brought with it a slew of additional challenges and threats to community harmony. For example, akin to how many apps such as Tik Tok have no age verification tools, autistic groups also have no way of knowing who is autistic and without becoming drawn into a lengthy argument about the pros and cons of gatekeeping and identification etc…such circumstances amplify the issue of people placing themselves in areas which are not intended for them.
In the autism arena, there are many groups; some are very strict about being autistic-only and others more open to ‘allies’, both of which are suitable for whoever needs them. Difficulties occur, when differences of opinion emerge. At this stage, there is no real change from your average group, where differences of opinion cause spats and fallouts and admins have to intervene. Interestingly, autistic groups appear to be managed more efficiently than non-autistic led groups. But when the notion of gender identity rears its ugly head, all hell breaks loose. For many of the reasons discussed above, feelings run high, people are ‘triggered’ and the fall out is often spectacular.
Pushing aside gender…there is one issue which strikes into the heart of everything: identity. Just like the gender ideologues who prize their personal identity and autonomy over everything else, autistic people too, have a strong need to fight for their autistic self to be accepted, acknowledged, validated. Autistic people have had a real struggle over the last few decades, to get the world to accept and include them. Being a child, who is constantly told to stop stimmingor to not behave in certain ways, ways which are central to their autistic identity, facing a relentless demands to be “normal”, to socialise and make eye contact etc…daily life can be traumatising. So, when a group comes along and claims they are marginalised, for very similar re
asons such as being forced to be someone other than themselves and having to conform to societal 'norms’, it’s easy to see why the two groups might feel a kinship with each other, more so when it seems the number of autistic people being L, G or B is higher than in the average population.
The autistic world is not so different to (as they call it…) the ‘allistic’ world. Arguments arise, differences exist between groups, sexism, racism and bigotry still occur, very much like anywhere else. However, in some ways, these differences can be more pronounced and the boundaries between groups are more defined and nuance is lost in autistic groups. Indeed, the ‘community’ tends to forcefully assert its voice as being the voice for autistics. As is the problem with identity politics, a battle often ensues over which people get to speak for which groups and within some autistic circles it is ferociously asserted that non-autistic people do not get to just speak over autistics about issues pertaining to them. This sensitive area, as ever, becomes muddied when the topic involves autistic people who do not speak and whose autism is such, they engage with the world in ways many non-autistics struggle to understand or tolerate. For example, who understands a severely autistic child more? Is it his/her parent? Or is it an autistic advocate? How does an advocate who doesn’t know that child at all, offer anything better than the child’s parent - normally its mother - in terms of care and understanding?
As various groups grapple with such questions, the rise of the ‘autism mom’ symbolises this challenge. The idea her identity as a mother is shaped by her life being dominated by the ongoing and comprehensive care for a severely autistic child, is not an unreasonable one. Some autistic figures however, pour scorn on the women who speak and care for their child, suggesting that they behave as if their child is a blight on their lives and that they are a heavy burden. I have seen some intensely abusive comments by autistics made towards women who have dared to open up and express their exhaustion for being the sole carer to their severely autistic child. I have no doubt that there will be some parents out there, who are deplorable and not suited to caring for their autistic child. But I have seen many instances of mothers being subjected to the most abhorrent comments, undeservingly and in the most sexist manner.
What does this have to do with the issue of gender? The example here demonstrates how, when ‘identity’ becomes the central focus of a person and a group, it does so at the expense of individuals. As mentioned before, when differences emerge, so do the classic tropes of sexism and racism etc. In fact, ageism in particular, makes a special appearance. Each generation brings with it an attitude which pushes against its elders. That, in and of itself, is perfectly normal and predictable. What is less predictable, is the way the internet and (gender) identity politics have pumped this ever repeating historical problem up to explosive proportions in a short space of time.
The gender movement (if it can be called that) is out of control. Lost in its own sense of self-importance, its refusal to listen to an older, more experienced and wiser generation; it has subsumed the autistic community, causing many to be unable to separate the two identities and to merge them (look up ‘autigender’). What happens next is crucial for autistic people, as now it seems there is no room for disagreement in autistic circles where gender is concerned. Unless you toe the party line, you are out. You may even be not considered autistic by your peers. The split has happened, the chasm has opened. Gender ideology has successfully prised apart a community and left a whole group of autistics back where they were before, alienated and completely marginalised. Something which was not a problem before, has, in a very short space of time, quite possibly become an insurmountable problem.
‘Gender diversity’ as a phrase appears to have been adopted by the ‘trans’ movement as a way to describe people who they claim, challenge gender norms. In a literal sense, I have no problem with the phrase, chiefly because people have always been diverse in the way they express gender. Where I differ, is I do not agree that gender overrides our sex when it comes to categorisation. If say, a male wants to appear feminine and behave more like a typical female, that (gender diversity) is one thing; but to claim it makes him a female and that everyone else should fall in line and label him as such, is objectionable and erroneous.
Short for ‘stimulation’. The act of stimming, ie hand flapping, rocking, spinning etc, is a self-regulatory action which autistic people often do when they are feeling anxious or pressured. Although, sometimes, they stim, simply because they like it and it makes them happy.