Gender and Autism

It would be hard to think of an area where society has taught us the ‘right’ way more than gender. Many of us have grown up thinking of gender as a binary concept – male and female. But we know now that gender identity is a spectrum, and also that autistic people are more likely to identify in a gender diverse way. In fact, according to a 2020 study, people who don’t identify as the sex they were assigned to at birth are 3 to 6 times more likely to be autistic.

“The neurodiversity paradigm shift, encompassing all neuro types as being of equal benefit to society, raises questions that need further attention. What are we doing to prevent the need for masking? How are we protecting autistic girls and women from severe mental ill health?
The gender and subsequent policy divide have only served to push the gap between us further apart. We must refocus on the bigger picture and
broader dilemma, the intersectionality debate. This highlights issues of powerlessness, pathology, providenceand other problems which are causing inner despair. Already females (however gender diverse) have struggled over centuries with such labels as hysterical, emotional, the fairer sex, and so on, then as practitioner eyes were opened to the reality of autism not being exclusively male, the issue for policy and appropriate resources for all, is hitting home.
Like autism, gender is also a spectrum of difference. Learning to be at home with difference, diversity and gender disparity while finding common ground can only profit the autistic individual, the family and society at large. Focussing upon quality of life in autism, uniting gender under the equality banner, remitting gender dysphoria and building mental fitness in the autistic and autism community create an intersection, not as a crossroad of indecision but more a roundabout that exits each in the direction of prosperity.”

Dr Wenn Lawson, Psychologist, autism researcher and author.


Autistic young people are more likely to identify as LGBTQIA+ than their neurotypical peers, and this puts them into a double minority, with double the chance of ‘minority stress’. Some of this stress can be alleviated by acceptance and support, whatever their gender identity or sexuality. How much you support and advocate for
them needs to be led by them, but the importance of a simple acceptance of their identity can’t be overestimated.

LGBTQIA+ a term used to encompass lots of different gender identities – see here for a complete explanation

A Personal Perspective about Identity

“There is an obvious possible correlation from my experience and it is one that simply comes down to: as an Autistic person, I am myself.
This may sound oblique, but when one considers the social hoops and niceties we are all expected to learn, my world has been filled with stark contradictions that clearly make sense to many neurotypical friends and family members. For example, we are told from a young age to tell the truth, oh but not that truth as it’s rude. Add a thousand more of those and it’s no surprise that my internal truth, my sexuality, was just simple and was mine; was me.
My identity, initially as a young woman who was attracted to men and women, but more so women, was just who I was. I tried to put on that different skin that might make me more palatable to others but it just never worked. Instead, I held on to an internal acceptance within a world that was full of such nonsensical – to me – hate and bigotry. This presented a double bind in that not only was I clearly quite different to my peers, but I was also deemed a deviant by many, who made their mind up because of who I loved rather than who I was.
Add to this that I was called ‘aggressive’, because I spoke the truth or because I stood up to any injustice no matter what the consequences, you get a cocktail of truly feeling like you have been born on the wrong planet. Whilst it may be a generalisation, girls tend to internalise such things. It is not that the world is wrong for being so judgemental and appearing to have no ability to rationalise in the way you can, it is because you are wrong inherently. And herein can lie the beginning of a life of self-hate.
It can also form something that is so easy to feel is your safety net, even if it means you are far more open to bullying and others’ hate or lack of understanding. It could also be that it feels like it is a ‘more acceptable’ way of being different. I appreciate that this seems to contradict what I’ve just said, but there are young people who can stick their stake in the ground in relation to their LGBTQIA+ identity more than being autistic, dependent on how they feel they may be received or indeed how comfortable they are internally with either. Whether this is or isn’t the case, is almost irrelevant, the issue is that there is even an issue.

Honest and Open Communication

We need to therefore support honest and open communication (or not, as some young people may not wish to directly engage) when it’s sought and not induce any form of shame. Have honest conversations with yourself about why certain things matter to you and actually – do they really matter? Try to not use cliches such as ‘I just worry about how others will treat you,’ or ‘are you sure, we all go through phases.’ Just have a think, do you really think that anyone would place themselves in such a vulnerable position (at least in the current climate) on a whim? And are you worried about how others will treat them or is it because you are uncomfortable or embarrassed? Do people go through phases? Of course, every single person does but you don’t tell someone to not ever be in a relationship because they’re likely to get hurt as how would any of us ever learn?
Support, genuine support and an ability to shift your own perspective and understanding if necessary, is key. Your relationships with these young people will be all the better for it in the long run, but more importantly you will be actively telling them that who they are, fundamentally, is just who they should be; themselves. Both autistic and LGBTQIA+ pupils are at proven increased risk of bullying in schools, so that’s something senior leadership teams should carefully monitor. Social relationships may already be difficult to navigate for autistic young people, and starting a new romantic relationship is always tricky – adding an additional layer of intersectionality makes it all harder to navigate without understanding support. “

Claire Farmer, Co-Chair of Trustees at Autistic Girls Network, local government SEND advisor and former Headteacher.

How parents and/or schools can help

  • Questioning your identity can be lonely – be there for them in a non-judgemental way.
  • Let them know there’s no rush. They don’t have to get it right straight away, and they don’t have to be like everyone else, including
    other LGBTQIA+ young people they know. But please don’t imply that you don’t believe them or that they don’t know what they are talking about. It’s likely they will have researched and thought long and hard about this before bringing it up with you.
  • Try to find an online or face to face group for them if they are up for it – meeting other young people who understand will be important.
  • If therapy is needed, make sure the therapist understands the intersectionality of autism and LGBTQIA+.
  • Listen to the young person when they talk about finding their sexuality or gender identity with your full attention. At this moment, it’s the most important thing in the world for them.
  • Respect their wishes if they want to use new pronouns or a new name. Explain that you might sometimes make a mistake because your brain will naturally use the old pronouns/name for a while, but that you will try to get it right as quickly as possible. And ask friends and family to do the same if that’s what the young person wishes.

What is gender dysphoria?

Some of the gender diverse group of people above will feel there is such a difference between the gender identity they were assigned at birth and their real gender identity that it causes much emotional pain and distress. This is gender dysphoria, and it’s these group of people who may seek gender-related medical care (if they do, make sure their care is autism-adapted). The dysphoria can be physical (related to gender-specific parts of the body) or social (related to how people perceive their gender). Risk of suicide or institutionalisation is worrying in the case of autistic trans people. Research by Murphy et al (2020) suggests not only that autistic people are more likely to be trans but that trans autistic people suffer higher levels of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. It is vital, therefore, that access to diagnosis and to mental health support is improved for autistic trans people. As for all the difficulties we mention in this paper, young people in care can be especially unsupported. Outcomes for autistic children and young people in care are “significantly poorer” (Parsons et al, 2018) than outcomes for autistic children and young people not in care, and poorer also than for other children with SEND in care. Statistics show that 3% of children and young people in care have an autism diagnosis but the actual figure is likely to be higher due to diagnosis delays and lack of referrals (Parsons et al, 2018), so the percentage of autistic children in care is higher than in the general population. Authorities responsible for these ‘looked-after’ children and young people have a responsibility to recognise and support both their autism and their gender identities when they have no families advocating for them.

How can you help?

It’s very challenging for a child or young person to reveal that they don’t feel they have been identified as the right gender. They will have struggled a lot internally before they got to the point where they decided to tell you. No matter your initial views, the best thing you can do for
them at that time (and every other time) is to tell them that you support them, and (for parents) that you love them no matter what. If it’s something that you have difficulty coming to terms with, make sure the young person knows that’s no reflection on them.

They need a rock – be that rock for them.