The Intersection of Autism and Gender

The Intersection of Autism and Gender

A suggestion by Renee Salas in a recent conversation started me thinking about how my Autism and Gender Dysphoria affect each other. It seems obvious that they will interact because both have strong neurological dimensions. In fact there does appear to be a correlation between Autism and GD in female-to-male transsexuals; however I could not find any studies investigating Autism in male-to-female transsexuals.

The primary study appears to be one published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2011. One of the researchers was the well-known Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen and it is therefore not surprising that this research focused on the “Extreme Male Brain” theory. None of which helps explain Autism in female-to-male transsexuals: I can’t reconcile my own experience with this theory because GD in FtM transsexuals has been linked to prenatal exposure to estrogen, and brain structures that exhibit sexual dimorphism show similarities to cis women rather than cis men.

In the absence of any scientific evidence, all I can do is relate my own experience.

#1 Female Presentation of Autism

I remember the first time I read an article about how Autism presents differently in women because I was struck by how much of it matched my own experience. I guess it makes sense because I am a woman even though I was raised as male.

My Autism is well-masked in many situations because I have learned to mimic behaviors I observe in others. This extends to copying mannerisms, phrases and speech patterns. I am also typically a social person but I’m not one to initiate things. I rely on having one or two “gateway” friends to get me started in social situations, but I also have trouble making and maintaining friendships.

I was a hyperlexic child, learning to read before the age of two and spending many hours alone immersed in books, mostly fiction but also factual books related to my interests. At school I was always the quiet, shy one: well-behaved and academically gifted.

On top of growing up in the 70s and 80s when Autism was much less recognized, like many Autistic women of my generation there was little that indicated to anybody that I was anything more than painfully shy. Most of us were good enough at pretending to be like others that we didn’t attract attention.

#2 Gender Query

I remember being unaware of gender until I hit puberty. Of course I knew that there were girls and boys, and that girls dressed one way and played netball while boys dressed differently and played football. But that was the extent of my knowledge: I was hopelessly naive.

With puberty I became aware that my body was changing, and it affected me badly. I felt confused and conflicted: I liked the fact that it meant I fit in better with the boys at school, but didn’t like that I was a boy. I didn’t want to be, I didn’t feel like I was one of the boys, but I didn’t know that there was any such thing as Gender Dysphoria. I didn’t realize that there was another option. And I would almost certainly have been too afraid to speak about it if I had known: I used to be too self-conscious to even say the word “sex” in front of my parents.

When I was growing up there were no visible alternatives to the cis-hetero picture of gender and sexuality. I didn’t even know what “gay” meant until I was in my mid-teens: it was just an insult used by boys at school. So I had no vocabulary, no concepts to describe how I felt. Nobody to relate to. No role models with whom I could identify. Just this feeling that I was not right. And any attempt to express myself in private felt shameful.

#3 Being Different

I have always felt different to the people around me, known that I was not like them. This is a common feeling in Autism and for me has the added dimension of knowing that my body is “wrong”. I know now: it has taken a long time for me to identify why I felt the way I did.

Passing takes on extra significance for an autistic woman trying to fit in as a neurotypical man. I have been on the receiving end of homophobic bullying from time to time because of failing to act in an “appropriately” masculine way. The problem has always been that my behavior has never fitted the stereotype of masculinity. Oh, I played rugby at school but could never exhibit the aggression that the coaches wanted. I’ve always been quiet and passive, afraid of confrontation despite my physical size.

Since I discovered I am Autistic I have been less concerned with always fitting in, hiding my natural traits by aping those around me. I’ve accepted that it’s how I am; this has proved to be less stressful for me, less tiring, and I have felt happier about myself.

This openness about being myself contributed to my decision to out myself as a trans woman. Yes, I still feel different — that goes with the Autistic territory — but I’m more confident since transitioning. I no longer worry about having to “act male”: I go to work in my male shirt but I have painted nails and occasional mascara or lipstick. Whatever makes me feel good. I have fewer inhibitions about expressing how I feel. I am happy to be different, and I have been accepted for who I am.

#4 Depression

It’s no surprise I’m prone to depression since it is strongly associated with GD and is also common in Autistic people. It is something I have lived with for most of my life, causing a couple of breakdowns along the way. I am now on medication (Citalopram) and it helps but does not prevent me feeling down at times. What it does do is allow me to function, to get up in the morning and do a day’s work.

The simple fact is that I feel my body is too masculine. It does not match the way I see myself as a woman and this causes me distress. Sometimes I can look in the mirror and the face looking back at me is me, but most of the time I see a man’s face and this upsets me. One aspect of my Autism is that I focus on facial features in isolation. I look at my eyes or mouth and they are fine. But then I pay attention to the shadow of beard on my cheeks, upper lip, chin, and neck — no matter how close I shave — and it looks male. Yes, I could conceal it with makeup, but I’d still know it was there.

#5 Acceptance

One thing I have found among so many Autistic people is an open-mindedness and willingness to accept people’s differences. I believe this derives in a large part from spending our lives feeling like outsiders. It gives us an insight and understanding of how it feels to be excluded, taunted, abused just for not fitting in.

This extends beyond autism to include all manner of differences including gender and sexuality. Not only have I found it easy to accept myself for who I am, but I have received a lot of support and acceptance from other Autistic people online. This helps so much.

lbd_xmas13#6 In Summary

To round this off I’ll summarize some key points:

  • I am an Autistic trans woman. My Autistic symptoms are more similar to the typical presentation in women than in men.
  • I am not a stereotypical woman. I’m not butch or femme. I still wear jeans most days; they’re just cut a bit different from the ones I used to wear, but I also wear skirts and dresses when I feel like it. I don’t have to exaggerate my behavior, I don’t have to conform to anybody else’s expectations, I’m not acting a role: I’m just being myself. I’m different, I’m an individual and I’m OK with that.
  • I’m not OK with some of my masculine physical characteristics and this contributes in a big way to my bouts of depression.
  • I don’t have a “male” brain: being a trans woman is demonstration of that. (So much for the Extreme Male Brain theory of Autism!)
  • I believe that being Autistic has helped me come to terms with GD much more easily than would have been the case if I were neurotypical because I don’t have all that mental baggage that tells people how they ought to be.
Righteous Anger

Righteous Anger

There is a time and place for reasoned debate, for putting a point across politely but firmly. Such as when your meal at a restaurant isn’t what you ordered, or when you’re comparing favorite bands with a friend. Situations that really don’t affect your life very much: maybe a temporary disappointment at most.

But there are other times, other places, where the stakes are higher.

A matter of life or death.

There are many hate groups. They target individuals and groups that they perceive as different, as lesser people — sometimes not even people at all. They will spread disinformation, try to sow doubt and fear to stir up feelings against their targets. Ignorance breeds fear, which can lead to hatred and persecution. The purpose of these hate groups is simple: to drive out or eradicate their targets.

Who do they target? It might be you, your family, people like you, friends, neighbors, people a couple of blocks over, people in the next town, state, country. Where do you draw the line and say that somebody is no longer your concern? At what point do their differences make them undeserving of your support and compassion?

If you are the target of persecution, injustice, hate, are you going to respond calmly? Some might. I probably would. At first. But when that doesn’t work, what then? You have two choices: run away or stand and fight.

If somebody else is the target, what then? Do you walk on by, leaving them to their fate? What if it was a woman walking along the street and getting hassled by some guy? What if she was your daughter? Well, she is somebody’s daughter. Probably somebody a lot like you.

Does the thought of this happening to somebody close to you anger you? I know it angers me.

Those people on the receiving end of persecution: they’re a lot like you and me. They can try to run away or they can try to fight. If they run the haters win. If they fight the haters are likely to win: like most bullies they pick on the weak.

But if you and I stand with them… If we bring our friends… If we harness our righteous anger and direct it at the oppressors…

All of us standing together become strong. Stronger than those who would destroy others.

Be angry! Be passionate! Fight for what is right. Stand up against those who would harm the innocent and helpless. Because if you don’t, who will? And when your turn comes, who will stand by you?

Those people who are being targeted right now by various hate groups bent on their destruction are your brothers and sisters, your fellow people. And like these Muslims in Pakistan who banded together to protect Christians while they prayed, you can show that being fellow human beings gives a connexion that transcends any difference.

You can always recognize hate speech. Whenever a group is being singled out, portrayed as different to the speaker, as less than the speaker, that is hate speech. Whenever a group is denied a voice so you only hear one side, that is hate speech.

And when members of that group express their anger, instead of ignoring them or telling them to be quiet, think about why they feel angry. How they are being treated to provoke such a reaction. And listen to their voices. Understand them. And stand with them.

This post was inspired by the ongoing activism in the Autistic community against the hate speech of Autism Speaks, their tactics of portraying Autism as a disease to be feared and eradicated. But what I wrote applies everywhere there is hatred and fear. Please make the effort to reach out to those who are the targets of such hatred. Understand them. Support them. Be for what is right by standing and fighting against wrong.

Thank you.

Being #posAutive: Supporting All Friends of Autistic People

Being #posAutive: Supporting All Friends of Autistic People

EDITED to include ischemgeek‘s words (underlined below) which explained things more clearly and succinctly than my own.

EDITED to improve the focus of this post on my main point by removing the direct reference to a tweet by JRE.

During yesterday’s #boycottAutismSpeaks Twitterbomb I read a tweet that criticized the action for being against a target. Now, I support the criticism and boycott of Autism Speaks for a number of reasons which I explained in my previous post. But it started me thinking about the many individuals and organizations who work hard in support of Autistic people by providing information and assistance, and what a positive force they are.

My idea is to have a day where we shout out about all the great work these people do on our behalf. A “Thanks for being allies/thanks for speaking out/thanks for your voice/these are people you should be reading” thing.

I realize I’m not going to be able to put something together without help, so I’m asking. If you want to help me put together an event to celebrate all the many people who work to improve the lives of Autistic people then please get in touch.

Together I hope we can broadcast our message loud enough to drown out the likes of Autism Speaks. Who’s with me?

I Support #BoycottAutismSpeaks

I Support #BoycottAutismSpeaks

Autism Speaks is a high profile US charity. Their website describes their mission as “funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families”. So why do I have a problem with them? Allow me to explain…

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What Does Being Trans Mean?

What Does Being Trans Mean?

Gender dysphoria (GD) is not something that most people know much, if anything, about. All they have to go on is what they have seen on TV or read in newspapers and, while there are some positive exceptions, most of the mainstream media still treats GD and transsexual people in a sensationalist way — as a modern-day freak show.

This means that there are plenty of misconceptions and myths regarding people who choose to change gender. I’m going to try to tackle some of these. I’m writing from my own experience as a trans woman — a Male-to-Female (MtF) transsexual.

#1 You’re a man who wants to be a woman.

No, I’m not. I’m a woman and I’ve always been a woman. I was labelled as male at birth based on physical characteristics and raised as male, but that is not relevant. I know that I am a woman in the same way as I know I have two arms, two legs and so on: it is an integral part of my sense of self.

#2 You’re a woman trapped in a man’s body.

No. This is my body which means it’s a woman’s body. The problem for me is that it doesn’t match my self-image because of certain physical characteristics such as excessive facial and body hair, under-developed breasts, and a male-sounding voice. In other words, my problem is that I’m a woman who looks and sounds like a man.

#3 Questions about genitalia.

This one is, I’m sure, familiar to all trans* people. You’re talking to somebody about being trans* and they ask about what’s between your legs as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to throw into conversation. Guess what? The majority of trans people do not feel that it is anybody else’s business, with the exception of their partner and/or doctor. Just like the majority of cis (non-trans) people: who’d have thought it?

For the record, I will usually answer direct questions from people I know if I feel that they are interested in learning more about what it means to be transsexual. This is because I believe it is important to educate people so that they can develop informed opinions.

#4 Have you had “the operation”?

This is really a form of #3 above, but it’s so common I thought I’d deal with it all on its own. “The operation”, known as sexual reassignment surgery in case you were wondering, seems to have a prominence in people’s minds because it is concerned with intimate, private parts of one’s body. Parts which are not routinely discussed or seen publicly. It’s another way of asking whether I have a penis or a vagina.

Well, you’re not going to see it either way so you’ll just have to guess. Like you would for anybody else you meet unless you end up becoming intimate with them. So, chances of you and me getting it on? About zero: I’m married and faithful. Which means I won’t be showing you mine and I don’t want to see yours either!

#5 How does your wife handle it?

A lot of relationships break down when one partner comes out as trans*. Whether justified or not, there may be feelings of betrayal, anger, even disgust: there are people who pay lip service to acceptance but won’t accept it when it involves them directly. I’m not judging this as right or wrong: that’s a matter for the people involved. But I do need to raise awareness that coming out can mean that a trans* person’s life falls apart.

I’m in a lucky minority here because my wife understands and is completely supportive. In fact she had worked it out for herself before I came out to her. It helps a lot that she recognizes I’m still the same person she married but in a different wrapper, so to speak. It helps even more that I’m not hiding anything from her now.

#6 So who’s the man in the relationship?

What makes you think there would be a man in a relationship between two women? Not all partnerships are divided along traditional gender lines. This is also true for many marriages between a man and a woman: how often do people in real life conform to stereotypes?

#7 You’re not a “real” woman.

This is something almost all trans women hear from time to time. So, what exactly is a “real” woman? I’ve yet to encounter a consistent, unambiguous definition. You know, one that isn’t based on assumptions and doesn’t have any exceptions. Until then I’ll take your word on your gender and hope that you’ll take my word on mine. After all, if you can be certain about yours why can’t I be equally certain about mine?

#8 So you’re a ladyboy/shemale?

No, as I said above I’m a woman. Those terms are offensive to most trans women because they imply that we are neither male nor female, rather that we are some kind of curious hybrid.

#9 What do I call you?

My name is Alex or, in full, Alexandra Maureen Forshaw. I’ve not changed my documentation such as driver’s license yet but that is only a legal formality and will happen soon. As for personal pronouns, you should use the ones appropriate for a woman: she/her.

Most trans* people prefer the use of pronouns appropriate for the way they present (the gender they appear to be/are dressed as). It’s generally considered polite to ask if you are unsure.

#10 Why did it take you so long to come out?

As a child before puberty I didn’t really have a concept of gender. As I got older I became aware of my identity but lacked the vocabulary to express how I felt. I experimented clandestinely with wearing female clothing borrowed from my mother’s wardrobe but had been conditioned to regard this as something abnormal and shameful, so I kept it hidden from everybody.

I was terrified of negative reactions from people if they every discovered my secret: rejection, ridicule, even violence. This wasn’t far-fetched: these are the reactions that many trans* people experience, driving some (I have seen figures quoting a rate as high as 30%!) to suicide. In the end it was depression caused by my dislike of my body and the strain of keeping the secret (along with the effect that it had on my marriage) that pushed me into an admission.

#11 How can I find out more?

You can ask me directly: I’m more than happy to answer any questions about my own experiences and (to the best of my ability) about trans* issues in general. Apart from that there are a lot of resources on the internet that are only a couple of clicks away, ranging from healthcare sites (such as the NHS in the UK), through trans* charities and support organizations, to personal blogs.

Being An Example

Being An Example

Normally when people say they’re going to “make an example of” someone they mean to criticize and shame them for crossing some boundary. It’s rare for somebody to be held up as an example for something positive.

But that’s my intention in writing about my own experiences and interacting with people in “real life”: I am open about who and what I am because I want people to look at me and see that I’m not some scary threat to their way of life. To put a human face to the labels of autistic and transsexual. To be seen as a person first so that when these people encounter others they have a little understanding and do not see them as being so very different from themselves.

I’m not pushing myself in anyone’s face: that’s not my style. I live a fairly normal life, I do fairly normal things. I don’t stand up and preach: I just do what I do. Sleep, work, watch TV, read books, blog and tweet. And that is why I see myself as an example: for all my differences — which are what make me a unique individual — I have things in common with pretty much all of the various people I meet. I guess it’s a consequence of being of the same species on the same planet.

Seeing the person rather than just some label — gay, black, Christian, old — requires that there is some level of engagement. Some aspect that includes rather than excludes. Something that shifts the balance from being one of them towards being one of us. It’s easy to fall prey to common prejudices based on media-reinforced stereotypes — the man-hating feminist, the racist white skinhead, the Muslim suicide bomber — and to see anyone who appears to match the description as a living instance of the stereotype. As a threat. As other.

Breaking those habits of thought associated with stereotypes can be done. What it takes is counter-examples: people who take ownership of the labels and associate them with positives. I’m just one person; I don’t claim to represent all autistics or all trans* people. I don’t need to: of the people who know me, many of them accept me for who I am. By accepting me they accept my autism and my gender. I hope that this helps open their minds to others who are autistic or trans*.

That is why I am determined to make an example of myself. To be a living, breathing demonstration that we are people, and not some strange, alien species of freaks which is how some segments of the media still sensationally portray us.