Linh Nguyen

*DRAFT_Gender Dysphoria and Autism

Let's discuss the notion of gender

Does gender simply refer to the binary sexes - male and female? 

I am posing this question because of a section in chapter 5 of Bianca Toeps’s book “but you don’t look autistic at all” that caught my attention. In the section titled “.....”, Bianca places an interesting observation based on herself and other autistic individuals in her circle, that a large number of autistic people “identify as pansexual or asexual, or feel like they don’t quite fit into the standard gender roles society dictates”. 

Truthfully, I have only recently been exposed to individuals who identify outside of the binary sexes. Coming from a rather traditional Asian family, I grew up with a lack of awareness towards the many different ways in which individuals can identify as. Up until I moved to Amsterdam roughly more than two years ago, I was skeptical of the whole idea of transgenderism - for I was wired to question how can someone not identify with their assigned at birth sex. 

This is a shortcoming that I gladly admit to. And I’m quite certain that I was not alone in my old way of thinking. Social norms have far-long honed in us that there is a strict binary notion of gender, of male and female. This traditional way of thinking sets the standard gender roles, which hinders us from being able to see past them. 

But what if you are not affected by the social norms and values? 

In the same section, Bianca notes that autistic people don’t necessarily share the same limitations, norms, Hence, she infers perhaps that is why autistic people have a freer view of gender for they are not bound by social constructs.

According to research done by Reubs Walsh (an autistic transgender researcher) and her team on how autistic adults perceive gender identity differences, the Dutch national percentage of individuals who identify as nonbinary or transgender is less than 4%. Meanwhile, 15% of autistic people who are in the Netherlands Autism Register identify as such. This is a remarkably high percentage of autistic people identifying outside of the binary notion of sexuality. 

There is a significant body of research on this topic, yet there are divergent explanations for this correlation. For example, Walsh hypothesizes that “people with autism care less about people’s perception and adhering to the norm” - meaning that autistic people are not affected by social constructs, hence allowing them to be freer with their interpretation of gender. Kristensen and Broome in their 2016 research which recruited UK autistic adults through the internet found similar results as Walsh and her colleagues did. However, Kristensen and Broome explain this correlation by using the Empathysing-Systemizing (E-S) theory proposed by Simon Baron-Cohen. They state that autistic people perceive the binary notion of gender as an imperfect system due to their systemizing approach to a range of cognitive tasks. This indicates that the drive to systemize leads autistic people to question the strict notion of male and female and to seek out alternative models of gender, therefore allowing them to see outside of the binary restriction. 

As of the moment, I lean towards Walsh’s explanation for this correlation. As an autistic who identify as transgender, Walsh has a unique position to comment on this trend. And I feel that it is better to take the explantation from somebody who has the first-hand experience. Also, perhaps I favor Walsh’s explanation because I find the E-S theory problematic. Nonetheless, this correlation is fascinating and should be taken into consideration and be aware of. Plus, our social constructs are constantly changing, so there is a thing or two for us to learn from autistic individuals and be more open about our interpretation of gender. 


Further reading list: