Recent studies are shedding more light on what was previously an under researched condition: Gender dysphoria among individuals with ASD. Children and adults who experience gender dysphoria — a feeling of extreme distress resulting from a mismatch between a person’s inner gender identity and outer gender presentation (1) — are three to six times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than a person who identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth. (2) Individuals with autism are also more likely than people without ASD to identify as transgender, gender fluid, or gender non-conforming.(3)
These statistics have serious implications for the health and happiness of people with autism spectrum disorder who experience gender dysphoria. Parents of children with ASD know firsthand the struggles of advocating for their children, as well as teaching their children to self-advocate. This struggle is greatly increased when a parent is now faced with caring for a child with ASD who has a different gender identity than the one assigned at birth. This requires a whole new set of advocacy skills. Many parents have also wondered if their child’s gender identity difference might be part of their autism diagnosis.(4) The truth is that the reason behind the correlation between gender dysphoria and autism isn’t yet clear. However, continued research is helping families to make better advocacy choices and receive better care for their children.
What Does the Research into Autism and Gender Identity Show?
Studies linking gender diversity and autism spectrum disorder date back to the 1990s.(4) Today, up to 10% of children who visit gender clinics are said to meet the criteria for an ASD diagnosis.(4) An even greater percentage, around 20%, are said to have issues with social skills and other traits connected to autism.(4) Many of these individuals have never been formally diagnosed with ASD.(4)
The Importance of Continued Research Into ASD and Gender Identity
Questions surrounding the reasons behind this high percentage remain and further research is undoubtedly needed. However, in the meantime, researchers are hoping that these studies, some of which are the largest of their kind,(2) will allow children with ASD who have gender dysphoria to access the same level of medical care and professional understanding as someone without autism is able to access. Some people with autism have reported seeking hormone blockers or other medical treatments for their gender identity only to be denied such treatments due to their autism. When a person identifies with a different gender than they were assigned at birth, and they aren’t able to access the services they need to make that gender a reality in their life, there can be devastating consequences. In July of 2020, it was reported that over half of transgender or non-binary teenagers considered suicide within the past year.(5)
People with autism spectrum disorder are especially vulnerable to feelings of suicide and depression relating to their gender identity differences. This population of people already struggles with the communication and social skills that are necessary to help them advocate for themselves and their identities. They also may not know how to express their gender identities. They may have difficulty understanding certain societal expectations and constructs, such as feminine versus masculine clothing.(6) As such, it is extremely important for these individuals to receive gender support from trained professionals. Clinicians must understand that autism and gender diversity can and do co-exist.(6)
Screening tools to identify people with autism who may also have gender dysphoria have been suggested. For example, researcher and Washington, D.C pediatric neuropsychologist John Strang is planning to release a position paper within the next six months that will include guidelines, treatment supports, and best practices for individuals with co-occurring autism and gender dysphoria.(4)
Resources Available at NeuroBehavioral Associates
At NeuroBehavioral Associates, our highly experienced and skilled staff provides comprehensive assessments, services, and supports to children and adults with known or suspected learning, attention, and neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorder.
NeuroBehavioral Associates remains open during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are providing in-office, low-contact assessments, as well as telehealth services. Call 410-772-7155 or email us today to schedule an appointment.
- Mayo Clinic. (2019, December 6). Gender dysphoria – Symptoms and causes. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gender-dysphoria/symptoms-causes/syc-20475255
- Dattaro, L. (2020, September 14). Largest study to date confirms overlap between autism and gender diversity. Spectrum | Autism Research News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/largest-study-to-date-confirms-overlap-between-autism-and-gender-diversity/?utm_source=Spectrum+Newsletters&utm_campaign=3322f81517-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_09_17_06_05&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_529db1161f-3322f81517-168819058
- Hess, P. (2020, October 13). Spectrum | Autism Research News & Opinion. Spectrum | Autism Research News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/
- Rudacille, D. (2020, August 5). Living between genders. Spectrum | Autism Research News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/living-between-genders/?utm_source=Spectrum+Newsletters&utm_campaign=3322f81517-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_09_17_06_05&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_529db1161f-3322f81517-168819058
- Assuncao, M. (2020, July 15). More than half of transgender, nonbinary youth in U.S. ‘seriously considered’ suicide in past 12 months: study. NY Daily News. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ny-transgender-non-binary-lgbtq-youth-suicide-trevor-project-survey-20200715-qz4wut4mwzdglfpzesc6akltky-story.html
- Dattaro, L. (2020b, September 17). Gender and sexuality in autism, explained. Spectrum | Autism Research News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/gender-and-sexuality-in-autism-explained/?utm_source=Spectrum+Newsletters&utm_campaign=3322f81517-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_09_17_06_05&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_529db1161f-3322f81517-168819058