Autism and neurodiversity

Neurodiversity refers to the idea that people are naturally diverse learners and the way they communicate and experience the world differs. Such differences are an expression of the variations of the human brain. Neurodiversity encompasses conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism (the medical name for autism is Autism Spectrum Disorder). Despite the medical language, being neurodiverse is not a medical condition, or a mental health issue, but some neurodiverse people might need support to help them with certain things.

The exact relationship between autism and gender diversity is not known and researchers do not think there is a link between the two (Turban & Schalkwyk, 2018).

In our interviews, we talked to four parents whose trans or gender diverse children were also neurodiverse. In addition, one mother we spoke to shared her experiences of having a younger trans daughter and an older autistic daughter. In this section, you can find out what they said about their experiences.

Josie talks about her daughter’s neurodiversity and how she feels the Gender Identity Development Service sometimes expects young neurodiverse people to do something that they can’t do.

In our interviews, many parents and carers were aware of the link between gender diversity and autism. Many agreed that because of this link, the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) needs to take into account the varied needs of young people who are both trans and autistic. Some parents worried this was not being done sufficiently. Oonagh observed that she ‘heard lots of different things’ that ‘if the childs got autism, for example and theyre in the service, they seem to get treated differently to say, somebody thats not got any mental health problems or autism or anything.’ She stressed that the service needs to believe young people when they say they are trans, regardless of their family history, mental health history, or neurodiversity. Oonagh worried that when her adopted daughter is seen by GIDS for the first time, the service may look for a cause of her being trans in her past experiences, rather than accepting that she is.

One mother we talked to felt strongly that her daughter’s neurodiversity worked against her daughter in her dealings with the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS). She also thought that the format of the GIDS appointments and activities, where the young person is expected to talk about their feelings, something, with which autistic people might struggle with, was not well suited to neurodiverse people. For example, she described how her daughter was encouraged ‘to join their [GIDS] young peoples group, Now shes neuro atypical, she doesnt like to chat. She doesnt want to talk about gender anyway. So she didnt want to do that. They were really putting pressure on her to do it.’

Find out more about people’s experiences with the Gender Identity Development Service.

The relationship between neurodiversity and gender diversity can be difficult to understand for parents. While there is no proven causal relationship between being trans and autistic, one father felt that his child’s autism was central to how they felt about their gender. He emphasised: ‘We knew there was a degree of autism, So, she tells us this [that she is trans] and trying to piece together the bits of the journey …there was a GP visit, I flagged up the autism issue within the GP visit, cos I’d done a little bit of reading when this [gender identity] first came to the fore that the link between gender dysphoria in autism was very pronounced and well documented. So the only thing I thought, hang on, let’s just understand what’s going on. Let’s get the big picture.’ Other parents we spoke to described how knowing their child was autistic helped them understand them and the difficulties they experienced better. This was the case for E and D, whose adult trans son was diagnosed with autism.

E and D talk about their trans son’s autism and how getting the diagnosis helped them make sense of things.

In some circumstances, having an autistic sibling can present challenges to the young trans or gender diverse person. Oonagh whose older daughter is autistic and younger daughter is trans, spoke about how the family is trying to be as open about her younger daughter’s gender identity as possible. She shared that her trans daughter worries she might be outed by her older sister, who ‘says it as it is’.

Oonagh talks about the relationship between her daughters.

Find out more about what the people we spoke to shared about siblings’ and family members’ responses to their child’s gender identity.

You might also be interested to read about parents’ experiences of having a child who has autism.

Being an advocate for their child

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