Being Trans and Autistic Is Weird and Common

Almost every trans woman I know is either autistic or makes me wonder if they are. My AutDar is well-tuned enough that I trust it over most other criteria available to me, and it pings almost all of them. Some evidence suggests that gender dysphoria is much more common among autistic people than in the general population, so this is likely not merely anecdote. Those studies need a lot of cleanup to actually mean something (not least to get asshole charlatan Simon Baron-Cohen’s name off of them). Either way, whether we’re more abundant than expected or not, this combination makes our experiences rather…unusual.

Being an autistic child means the humans around us are endlessly confusing. They’re loud, they smell, and they oppose as “defiance” and malacrianza any attempt to assert control over one’s environment that they didn’t invisibly preapprove. You’re regularly swept up for hugs and kisses and photographs and doctor’s appointments and extracurriculars you had no hand in choosing, with people you don’t know, in rooms that make it hard to process which bits of the light and noise and old perfume are the ones you need to respond to right now and which ones are background. You’re heaped heavy with rules and commands about what objects not to touch, which rooms to avoid, which clothes to leave for special occasions and which ones are for day-to-day. In between all of that, what’s another name, another handful of rules? Memorizing “I’m a boy” and “these are boy clothes” and “these are girl toys” isn’t any different from memorizing “these are winter boots” and “we hug Grandma when she arrives, no matter what her arrival interrupts” and “if you tell mom you have this kind of pain, you’ll get a long, confusing talk and then she won’t give you anything to help, so save time and don’t tell her.” They’re all information, taken from the outside and synthesized and re-integrated over and over as new info arrives.

You avoid eye contact, and you don’t know why. The associative parts of your mind give you a mastery of figurative language that boggles your teachers, even as you take their instructions literally and face the resulting “mistakes” with blank confusion. Your vocabulary is advanced, your interests ahead of your age. Even this early, you like writing better than talking, and you learn from childhood that keeping secrets is a fun and easy way to not have to talk to people. Your interests hold you so hard that people usually had to touch or shake you to get you to disengage, and you react angrily to the interruption. Routines, patterns, and rituals help you make sense of the world, and you hate when they’re violated.

You keep on being weird. Sooner rather than later, the adults around you figure out that your weirdness isn’t just “being a kid,” but you fall through the diagnostic cracks anyway. No one connects your quirks to your overly flexible joints or to your recurring headaches and stomach pains. Maybe they don’t think you’re autistic because you talk too much when you’re excited, or because you rapidly matured from a destructive whirlwind of a toddler to an impossibly well-mannered and adult-like child, or because of some other laughable gap between the diagnostic criteria and the lived reality of autistic women. When you were smaller, you might have been terrified of transgressing gender lines or determinedly fascinated by them, but in your elementary years most of your friends were girls and nothing seemed odd about it. Around the same time you noticed yourself becoming attracted to some of those girls, you received a different set of social pressures, declaring that it was not just practical but desirable for boys and men to be patient with and competent at stereotypically feminine tasks. Maybe you rejected that idea and took up exaggerated, muscular masculinity to prove your own manliness to yourself and others, maybe you cautiously embraced it and received the peculiar dividend of continued, enhanced camaraderie with the women in your life, but either way, it was an important, formative message. It didn’t do what you wanted, though.

If you’d had the words for it, then, maybe you could have said something. If you’d known what a trans person is and what it means to be one, you might have seen yourself in her, had a flash of familiarity and recognition and realization that you, too, could be her, asked the people in your life to help make that happen. You weren’t all the way there, yet, but you were close enough that that nudge could have worked, and could have saved you so much trouble. But they made sure that possibility was far enough from your mind to keep it from ever occurring to you. They weren’t really around for anyone else, either, but you weren’t the type to determinedly shout at your parents “I’m a girl!” over their equally determined insistence otherwise. You and that person were both born into a senseless world, but she arrived with a demand to force that alien world into shape, and you arrived with a healthy self-preservation instinct and the desire to understand it. It would take you a lot longer to figure out that something did have to change, and that something was how other people see you.

The biggest, burliest you couldn’t get away from “girly” things or from how poorly the mold of masculinity fit. They expected you to be hard-edged and emotionally stunted, cruel and brusque, and you couldn’t do that. Your sense of fairness didn’t let you climb any social ladder by hurting other people, least of all the women toward whom you felt, not just attraction, not just ethics, but kinship. The softer you fared little better. The women around you grew to trust you, confide in you, let down their guards around you. They feared you so little that you might have gotten to see some of them unclothed, and had them admire the restraint you showed in not behaving then “like a man.” You didn’t know it yet, but they thought of you as “one of the girls,” and for all that they loved you for it, it would leave you always incomplete. If you pressed on any of those friendships, testing them for romantic or sexual possibilities, they recoiled, horrified that you were apparently not the kind of gay they thought you were, themselves failing to process the inchoate creature that feels like a woman but looks like a man. You felt deceptive, then, and cowardly. Your intimacy became lonely. You became withdrawn, even within these close, hug-filled friendships, knowing that they depended critically on that part of you never showing again, soon learning also that other women would hold that closeness against you as though the friends who had already rebuffed your advances could threaten their hold on you.

A lot of your relationships were unhealthy. You definitely had at least one partner (or person like a partner) who extracted emotional labor from you like a strip-miner and left you exhausted and unfulfilled in turn. You probably had others whose main redeeming quality was the fact that they were there, who pulled you in directions you weren’t sure you wanted to be pulled, who left you or that you left because the true terror of what staying together would mean started to hit you. Between them, you grew odder, more reserved, more cautious, and quieter. You learned to notice someone being kind or friendly with you and then carefully watch them around other people, to see if the treatment you received was yours or just what them being friendly looked like. You were rarely rewarded for the chances you took on drawing any kind of attention to yourself and mostly gave up on the idea, concentrating instead on being ignored. If you were invisible, you were safe. Your clothing was drab, or voluminous, or otherwise designed to make you disappear. Maybe you grew a camouflage beard.

The confusion was real, and it was endless. There wasn’t a single moment, from beginning to end, ongoing, forever, that you weren’t scanning to figure out the social rules that governed this second in case they differed from the second before, or dissociated into a mercifully unaware blur. The pieces didn’t fit together. The messages from outside glared across a chasm at the ones from within, neither knowing what to do with the other. You definitely missed the train that could have taken you past a testosterone-based puberty, and when that happened, the messages from inside stopped making sense, too. The wet, electric cacophony of your own mind found solace only in your special foci, the places where you were always able to put your thoughts and have them be calm, still, and devoted to one problem at a time. But you were lonely, and even as your better judgement learned to tell you not to bother, you kept trying to fill that hole. You didn’t know that the hole would never fill until its edges were reworked.

It took you a long time to put names to the faces. You had a lot to unlearn before the messages you had missed, about what it means to be your kind of woman, could find their proper home. You had a lot of false starts, a lot of recognition that didn’t go far enough, but eventually propelled you to the next stage. You regard the moment you finally understood as comparable to the time that you figured out that people lie and the time you figured out that god isn’t real for their impact they would have on your life thereafter.

All those ladies who recoiled from me? They’re into dudes. It wasn’t (just) a sensory sensitivity making me want to shave all my body hair, or that made it feel good, right, and mandatory to keep it down. It wasn’t nothing that I occasionally felt flashes of terror related to removing my shirt in public, long before I had breasts. It’s not cis for my entire fantasy life to start with the idea of my body being feminized. It’s not cis to have detailed fashion preferences for the women in one’s life, that somehow also feature in that fantasy life. All of those things didn’t make sense before. And that’s over now.

The doors are open, and the estrogenated light streams in. All the you you didn’t even know was you, all the parts of you weighed down for decades in rules that don’t apply and shame you can finally discard, it’s their turn to shine. You’ll find all the hacked-together kludges and scaffolds holding up the edifice of who you thought you had to be can all be trashed, and someone you barely recognize but who feels more you than you ever did will be there, to take the inmost core of you and build around it a new, better, happier you. You’ll realize you’ve been watching how to be a woman with more detail than you are aware of having watched anything, and you’ll be far better at it than you ever thought. The people who knew you will be blown away at how rapidly you moved, after the interminable eons of hand-wringing and the eternity of lies before them.

You didn’t have to become her, though. You just had to wait for her to give up on trying to get your attention by saying your name, and switch to sitting on your desk, grabbing your shoulders, and shaking. But now that you and she have finally met, you’re going to have a lot of fun together. A lot of very, very autistic, very, very lesbian fun.

Headless photo of pre-HRT Alyssa in a red top and black miniskirt, focusing on her legs crossed on the desk in front of her.
Photo from two years pre-HRT, shortly after I started shaving my legs, a bit longer after the onset of regular recreational “cross-dressing.”
Being Trans and Autistic Is Weird and Common

13 thoughts on “Being Trans and Autistic Is Weird and Common

  1. 1

    As an atheist/skeptic who had been coming to terms with being on the spectrum and being gender variant/non-binary in recent years (I was out as queer for decades), I was heartened to find this article shared with me last night. I’m thrilled that there are more and more blog posts, vlogs, journalistic articles and podcasts popping up all over the place about the overlap between the trans umbrella and the autistic spectrum. As recently as 10 months ago, I felt like an isolated freak for having these two differences in the same brain and body, and now I know that we are legion. Alyssa, I’ll be following this blog from now on. 🙂

      1. You’re welcome. The author wrote one of the best books about gender that I have ever read, “The Riddle of Gender”. Apparently she currently writes for too.

        Then there was this: “Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, LGBT Groups Release Statement on Needs of Trans Autistic People”

        BTW, have you ever gone to the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference? For the last two years, they’ve had workshops for trans people on the spectrum. I went for the first time this past June, and was stunned to see over 50 or 60 attendees, all on the spectrum or at very least neuoratypical, with the full gamut of the biggest trans umbrella gender identities represented. It was delightfully confusing— I didn’t know who was assigned what at birth or how they identified currently much of the time. Its most visible organizer was a trans guy social worker from Toronto.

        I could go on and on. My enthusiasm for talking about this subject is enormous.

  2. 3

    I’ve read this start to finish at least five times, which is a major accomplishment for me considering how intimidated I am to walls of text, and I’ve perused it even more. You’ve managed to provoke emotions in me that I’m not even sure words have been invented for yet. Ragehope? I’ve flirted with the idea of having an Autism Spectrum Disorder in recent years after working with several autistic students. As I began to explore my asexuality and question my gender identity, the idea of being on the spectrum seemed petty. I thought, “Being trans is hella scary; Autism? Yeah, I can do that.” The idea took a backseat though as I went further down the rabbit hole of questioning everything I knew about myself. My trips down memory lane were filled with long spans of time curled up in the shower, thinking about Google searches like “easiest ways to kill yourself.” As the internalized transphobia subsided, and I came to terms with the idea that I was definitely not a dude, the emotional roller coaster was just getting started. Now, several months and a handful of exhausting “Uhhh.. I’m trans” conversations later, my friend sends me a message saying, “Hey, did you see that article on trans women and autism.” And here we are. I feel like I have more pieces to the puzzle that is me. I feel vindicated for all those times I’ve just thought that I’m an awkward duckling and that’s the hand that Joe Pesci dealt. Your musings give me hope, fear, anxiety, excitement, and a whole battery of other emotions that I don’t feel qualified to begin to describe. The appropriate response from you is “Thank you, I’m sorry.” 😉

  3. 4

    Alyssa, if you think it might be useful to you and other people who read this blog post, I have many other links to articles, podcasts and blogs concerning being trans and autistic which I could post here with your OK.

    One significant one is this podcast interview from a few months ago with a LGBT psychiatrist named Dr. Aron Janssen from NYU Langone Hospital here in New York City, who runs a clinic for gender variant/trans kids and their families. In this interview, he talks about the research he’s done and collaborated on about the correlation between gender dysphoria and the autism spectrum. He’s spoken at the Philly Trans Health Conference and at the recent WPATH conference in Amsterdam about this subject— he’s an outstanding trans ally.

    1. 4.1

      Thank you both. Thank you Alyssa for this article. Thank you Alyssa and Larry for your discussion in the comments and the links. As a parent of a gender fluid autistic teen, I’m very grateful for any and all info that can help me be a better, more compassionate and understanding parent (and human being in general).

  4. 6

    So much of this resonates. My childhood gender was “smart”, like Zinnia’s. While I’ve shown clear signs of gender issues from my early 20s, I thought I simply didn’t get gender, gender identity and gender roles because I was neuroatypical or even downright autistic. (I have an ADHD diagnosis by now, inattentive subtype.) I was so close, even essentially came out as trans in public without realizing it, but after considering the issue eventually I decided I wasn’t really trans, for various reasons. Only in the last couple of years that – after falling into a permanent burnout crisis that looks a lot like what (autistic, but also trans) people who are able to pass as “normal” go through once their energy runs out and they realize they can’t uphold the masquerade anymore – the feminization fantasies gradually got out of hand and started to puzzle and bother me. It was only through talking to a trans woman about my most secret feelings and fantasies that I began to understand all the little and big signs of dysphoria, and marveled at how I’d finally found the last missing puzzle piece, and how everything suddenly made sense – and now, in my late 30s, I’m in a double crisis: trans and autistic. And to me, the parallels are uncanny.

  5. 7

    this is… wow. It hits so close to home it feels like my subconscious wrote it. I’ve been bouncing around possibly in the closet for a while, and this has definitely kicked a lot of thoughts in motion. Thankyou for writing this. <3

  6. 8

    Terrifyingly relatable, as an autistic gender-questioning 16 year old born with a male body this really put a lot into perspective. Immensely helpful and uplifting. Whatever I become, or realize I’ve always been, this is a huge milestone on my journey of self discovery. Words can’t express my gratitude 🙂

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