Abstract / summary: Clinical impressions suggest a significant overlap of Autistic and transgender / non-binary identities. Most of this work focuses on prevalence rates and the perspectives of non-Autistic cisgender professionals and parent / carers, leaving the narratives of trans Autistic people overlooked. This study aimed to share trans Autistic narratives to contribute to knowledge around our lived experiences, as well as creating recommendations for future research in this area. This study represents findings from interviews with thirteen transgender and / or non-binary Autistic people (ages 20 to 50). Of interest was the way participant’s expressed their intersecting identities through narrative methods and what recommendations they would make for future research on transgender Autistic experiences. Participants spoke about a variety of life experiences including mental health issues, making and maintaining relationships, future aspirations and experiences with employment. Participants also gave recommendations for future work, including diversifying participant pools by ethnicity, age, physical disability and gender identity, as well as participatory approaches which include gender divergent Autistic people at all levels of study.
I have come out of the non-binary closet (see my coming out story here) , and I am so relieved: I am me, finally, entirely, me. When people refer to me as they/ them it makes me feel so euphoric, so seen and comfortable in my Queer embodiment.
It hasn’t been easy coming out, and I know I will be doing it for the rest of my life, which is quite overwhelming but also exciting (see my piece on navigating gender journeys). Other trans and non-binary people have been amazing with my pronoun change. The cis people in my life are finding it more difficult, many are clueless about how often they use my pronouns incorrectly in conversation. Most people outside of the gender divergent community don’t understand the profound power of pronouns, they were given theirs at birth and they fit them, so much so they’ve don’t have to question them. My assigned pronouns don’t fit me and I find it so difficult and uncomfortable when people still use them.
Despite this discomfort, I often do not correct people, or I go for a more subtle approach – the same way I role model appropriate language for the under 5s I work with – I mirror back the sentence with the proper pronouns. I’m not sure if taking a subtle approach is due to my discomfort around conflict or my inability to guess someone’s reaction and how I should respond to them. I have no social script for this situation – I’ve never had to constantly explain and validate my identity and change people’s language to fit it. And now I must do this for being both Autistic and non-binary.
The lack of dysphoria over the use of incorrect pronouns makes me feel like an imposter, like I am not trans non-binary. I sit with this feeling every time I am misgendered, every time I don’t stand up for myself and correct people.
I feel like a fraud, I feel like I should look more androgynous, and I wish my sensory differences could deal with more agender-style clothing. Then I remember that being gender divergent isn’t all sadness and shame. It’s expressing myself in the way I want and feel comfortable, it’s referring to myself in ways that make sense to me: it’s enjoying my Queer existence.
How I feel about my pronouns and my social transition may change – it may get worse; it may get better – either way I’m out and I have more space to explore my gender until everything fits. There is no one way to be non-binary, or trans, or gender divergent. Questioning, confusion and flux are all part of transgender journeys. I don’t have to be 100% sure of who I am all the time, and I don’t have to stick up for myself every time someone misgenders me – sometimes it’s not safe and sometimes I don’t have the spoons.
This doesn’t make me any less trans, any less non-binary or agender. There’s no wrong way to be trans. If I identify as trans then that is exactly who I am. This may not be the same tomorrow, or next year but it is my truth right now and that’s all that matters.
I have always felt misplaced, misunderstood and confused. When I realised in my mid-twenties that I was Autistic things started to make more sense to me, but it wasn’t the whole story. After my diagnosis and all the ‘a-ha’ moments which came with it, I could finally get down to the business of sorting out my gender and sexuality.
There has always been a butch quality to me, even from a young age. New people often mistook me for male, especially with my short hair, baggy shirts and skater jeans. The activities I enjoyed the most were considered boys activities; wrestling, horror films, scouts, den building and skating. I always hung around with boys, we spoke the same language and we liked the same things.
When we became older teenagers everything got more complicated, most of the boys began fancying girls and I did too. I didn’t feel the same way about girls as I did boys – I liked them, I fancied them, but they also confused and horrified me. We had the same bodies but none of the same mannerisms, we very rarely liked the same thing – I didn’t want to talk about make up and boys and they didn’t want to skate or go to heavy metal gigs.
Everyone kept telling me I was a girl, but I also liked girls – so was I gay? I liked boys too, but they were mostly my friends. Everyone seemed to be unavailable to me romantically – they were just too confusing and contradictory, and I couldn’t keep up with their inconsistencies.
I spent so many years trying to untangle my sexuality without realising that my gender needed more exploring too.
I was seen as a girl, but it wasn’t how I felt.
When I started my Undergraduate degree in my late twenties, I never knew that it was going to help with my queer awakening! My dissertation focused on how to support gender non-conforming Autistic children in schools and youth work, as many of the children I support at work are trans and/or non-binary and Autistic. This sparked an interest in my current MRes studies – collecting trans and/or non-binary Autistic narratives. I have spoken to some amazing people, poured over so many books, articles and online pieces and they have all resonated with me. My research has helped me understand my gender and unpack a lot of internalised biphobia which I didn’t realise I had been carrying all these years.
My continued self-understanding can only benefit from me coming out, fully, loudly, proudly, unapologetically. I need to come out so I can understand and appreciate myself more, and so I can become a better role model for my child and the children I work with (many of whom wave their queer flags proudly!).
So, now I am ‘out’ I suppose it boils down to how I want to socially transition. As I write this I have maybe a foot out of the closet, but I want to be fully outside of it. I know this is a lifelong journey which starts with a first step but what am I expecting to change for me? What do I want and need?
I want to go by they/them pronouns. Most people I interact with online refer to me with these pronouns and they just feel nice and warm, like I’ve finally come home.
Changing to someone’s new pronouns is easy once you get in the swing of it (example: I like Katie they are fun to be around – their laugh is infectious). I know it’ll take time, as I’ve been known by different pronouns for 31 years now. Even when I talk about myself in the third person I sometimes get it wrong!
I don’t want to be referred to as a woman/lady/girl – these words don’t describe me; they never have, and they likely never will. These words have been like the itchiest and most uncomfortable jumper being forced onto me, especially in the last few years. It’s no individual person’s fault, it’s just the way our society has been built. Apart from that, everything stays the same – I am still a mum, auntie, sister, Mrs., daughter: I am non-binary, bisexual and bloody exhausted, but I’m still Katie.
Making our own maps to understanding and self-acceptance
by Katie Munday
Academia and wider society often perceives us Autistic people as being ‘black and white thinkers’, suggesting that we think in restricted and binary fashions. We are often (wrongly) understood as being male, cisgender and heterosexual, or genderless beings with no passion, love or sexuality to speak of.
Yet here we are making up a disproportionate percentage of the LGBTQ+ community!
Far from restricted in our thinking, many of us are incredibly nuanced in our understanding of sexuality and gender and feel very at home in queer fluidity. We don’t see ourselves and our experiences reflected in the mainstream, so we create our own queer landscapes.
Many of us understand and enjoy the journey of gender and sexuality, even when tumultuous, as we know they are a lifelong expedition. On these journeys sometimes we know the way, sometimes we get lost and sometimes we go in several different directions at once.
Our journeys and transitions are valid and beautiful and allow us to live out our queerness every day. Through map sharing we make queerness more comfortable and accessible to our neurokin, showing others that it is legitimate to have one foot in the cishet camp and one in the queer camp–and that there is an ability to move quite quickly and easily between the two. Exploring these landscapes, we know that we can be aromantic and asexual, but that we are those on our own terms. Far from black and white thinkers we are the few who will ultimately change the state of systemic queerphobia bringing with us a more colourful way of being.
I was sixteen when I first concluded that I was bi (thanks, Winona Ryder). I was open about this with my best friend, and my boyfriend at the time, but I was too embarrassed to discuss it with my family or wider social circle.
However, the truth did come out during a sixth form residential trip to the Lake District, over a boozy game of truth or dare. I was a naïve, socially-awkward, bullied, undiagnosed autistic teenager, desperate for validation and acceptance, constantly trying to prove I wasn’t “square” like the bullies called me. Also, finding girls attractive always seemed so normal to me, so I had hoped that among the reactions from other kids would be some nonchalant “so what, me too” or something. Instead, all I got was a barrage of intrusive questions. When it dawned on me that I had over-shared, I got anxious, had a meltdown, fled the scene and eventually phoned my boyfriend in tears (from the playground swings on the chalet site).
In the days following the school trip, the gossip was all around the school. Another friend, from a very religious family, was hostile towards me, because I had gone camping with her the previous year without telling her about my sexuality (I didn’t fancy her anyway).
Things got better at university, in this respect anyway, because I met some like-minded friends through the LGBT society.
That was in the mid-90s. I hope, I believe, that teenagers today are more open-minded and accepting.
Sometimes people don’t come out LGBTQIA+ because they don’t have an accepting environment, not because they are ashamed or not brave enough.
Friends, families, colleagues, teachers, managers and other allies can help provide a safe, supportive environment where it feels OK to come out.
The overlap of Autistic and LGBTQIA+ identities is a growing topic of conversation especially for those of us who occupy both spaces, and there are lots of us! We are all at differing points in our neurodivergent and queer journeys, some of us are clear of who we are, some of us are confused, some of us are more fluid and embrace the confusion, some of us are out and some of us aren’t.
So, what does it feel like to be living in two closets as a teenager?
The teenage years are difficult for all of us, growing bodies, raging hormones, different expectations; no longer being a child but not yet an adult. These years, often referred to as “the best of our lives” (!?), can be even more turbulent when you are both autistic and queer.
We spend so much of our teenage years confused by the seemingly illogical and irrational behaviours of others and perhaps even more so by our own changing behaviours! Most of us struggle with feeling like we don’t fit in and many of us are relentlessly bullied for being different.
Some of us as teenagers are unaware that we are autistic and may feel that our differences are due to being strange, lazy, useless, stupid–and all of us have heard those awful words at some point in our lives. No matter what we try, we don’t fit in. The rules keep changing and we are left adrift trying desperately to work out what is going on.
Even for those who have formal diagnosis teenage years can be just as awful–the names, the isolation, the weird looks–and this can come from school staff and parents as well as from our peers!
Some of us try to hide our behaviours and needs, adapting to others. This is usual for everyone in their teenage years but is scary and invalidating nonetheless: through this assimilation we lose a vital and beautiful part of our identities. We do this so we can make friends, feel belonging or simply so that we can go through school with the least amount of trauma possible.
A lot of the time this behaviour is called masking, but I think in relation to school especially that it makes more sense to call it ‘shielding’. We are emotionally and physically shielding ourselves from the awful remarks, bullying and abuse which reinforces the idea that we are strange and unlovable.
Unfortunately, acceptance isn’t always found within our families or with other people in our lives who are meant to support us. This can make us shield all day at school and then all evening and weekend at home.
Then add the confusion of gender and sexual divergence!
It is a mess for any teenager to understand their feelings towards their body, mind, and heart and that of others. When friendships are already difficult and exhausting, adding romantic and sexual attraction (or realising you don’t experience these) can make this even more bewildering. Being LGBTQIA+ has rules of its own, how do I flirt with someone who has the same body as me? Do I treat this gender the same as the other genders? How do I know a boy fancies me? Goodness knows this is confusing enough for heterosexual neurotypical teens let alone the rest of us!
Some of us also struggle with understanding our gender, or lack of gender, and there aren’t always words to express our feelings. Add this with alexithymia, an inability to articulate or understand our own feelings, and we are in for one rocky ride!
No wonder so many of us sit in these two closets for so long.
But there is hope, safe spaces for young people and adults who are both Autistic and Queer are emerging. Online there are groups and forums where we can ask for help and advice or just share interests with people with similar life journeys. There are face-to-face groups too and information and resources which cater to our access needs. There are even quiet and sensory spaces for Autistic people at a lot of UK Pride events (see No Pride without Disability Pride).
Spaces are opening for us as we are being more readily understood and accepted. The world is slowly getting better.
If you are struggling with being Autistic and Queer, know that there are others out there like you and there is acceptance, love and belonging to be had. And these people and spaces get easier to access as you gain more independence, as you question and understand yourself better.
And sometimes, it isn’t safe to come out of the closet and that’s okay too. You and your identity are just as valid. We see you and you are loved.
I am aware that I write about better acceptance and safe places for us from a place of privilege and that this is not improving for everyone across the World but hopefully together, through living our beautiful, and sometimes scary truth, we can get to that World quicker.
Throughout the month of June parties and events are happening up and down the country celebrating all things queer. Last year saw the start of mass online Pride events, making them more accessible to disabled people and those with mental illness.
Many of these events gave people the ability to partake from home allowing them to access queer spaces in ways that better suit their needs. Online events were smaller and quieter and did not revolve around the usual loud partying and drinking. They also allowed people to engage with as much or as little as they wanted all from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Being online also allowed for the use of alternative text, screen readers and interpretive software, possibly making last year the most accessible of all Pride months.
Most Pride events this year shall again be online, hopefully improving on the accessibility efforts of last year. But what about Pride in 2022?
Well, London Pride has already improved its accessibility in past years. There is a quieter segment of the parade to help those of us with sensory issues and for those with service dogs. There are also viewing stages for wheelchair users and those who have issues seeing or engaging from a crowd. Other provisions include roaming BSL interpreters and accessible toilets. Similar services are present at other Pride parades and events, both big and small.
Why is accessibility so important?
Simply put, everyone should be able to engage in Pride in a safe and meaningful way. Disability access is especially important as there are an estimated 5 million LGBTQIA+ disabled people across the globe. We are a MASSIVE part of Pride, and our needs and interests should be considered.
Neurogenders–genders which are understood to be entwined with diverse neurologies–are beginning to be recognised, transformed, and adopted by those across neurological spectrums. These neurogenders include (but are not limited to): autigender, bordergender, cloudgender, foggender, genderanxious, gendermute, posigender, systemfluid, and vaguegender. These genders are often understood as reciprocally determinant of different neurologies including borderline personality, ADHD, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression.
Although these genders can support self-understanding, they are not reflective of every neurodiverse person. Indeed, these genders are contentious across different neurological communities, being both championed and challenged in equal measures.
So, what about autigender?
Neurodiverse Tumblr users first coined autigender in 2014, defining it as a gender which can only be understood in the context of being autistic. This definition suggests that some people’s gender experience and knowledge is influenced by or attached to their being autistic.
Autigender can be understood as a definitive gender or as a way for some autistic people to explore and understand their gender expression and identity. Autigender can be used as an explanation for gender, a standalone gender or used alongside other genders, for example, someone could be autigender, trans masculine and bi-gender. Autigender is not inherently queer but may make sense for autistic people who tend to be more diverse in their genders (please see my previous post: Gender Creativity and the Spectrum).
Definitions of autigender are now being used by respondents to census’ across the world. In the 2016 Nonbinary/Genderqueer Survey, one of the respondents called their gender identity ‘autisgender’ whilst another described theirs as ‘autistic’. Similar answers were seen in the 2019 Worldwide Gender Census, with 66 of the respondents calling their gender identity autigender, autgender, autistic, or autiqueer. Several of these survey respondents explained that their being autistic had a significant effect on their understanding of gender. Numbers of autigender identities were higher still in the 2020 Gender census, which saw 92 respondents identify as ‘autism gender’ or ‘autigender’.
Neurogenders, including autigender, have allowed some neurodiverse people to understand their gender through their own distinct neurology, making the double rainbow all the more brighter.
“I wept because I was re-experiencing the enthusiasm of my childhood; I was once again a child, and nothing in the world could cause me harm.”
Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage
My childhood was, I’m told, a happy one, but I do not remember the happy times, and maybe that speaks for itself. I remember feeling “odd”. Hiding under tables, and being shouted at for it, which made me crawl even further under the table, wriggling as if to worm myself into the carpet where I could live undisturbed by people who I didn’t understand, but understood enough to know I wasn’t well liked.
I had friends. But friendships can be turbulent, and for an undiagnosed autistic, they can be down right painful. I was obsessed with play-pretend, and liked to be the one to throw water in the garden on a hot summer day, but the second someone threw water back I would be screaming and in pain, emotionally and physically. Later on, the physical pain had a name. Sensory sensitivities. One uncomfortable thing would send me into a meltdown; something that I didn’t know how to cope with.
My parents knew something was painful to me. I was incredibly quiet, always taking things out on myself. But I had learnt from school, that if you externalise this pain, this discomfort, you get shouted at and given a detention. It was incredibly hard. Finally, at age 14, after one prior ‘inconclusive’ assessment, I was diagnosed with Autism in a Psychiatric Hospital.
I was horrified to find that so many of the young teenagers that I met in hospital were autistic, late-diagnosed, and completely overwhelmed at everything that life had to offer. We had been given poor support, poor education, and as a result became unhealthy autistics.
There was a point in my life where I thought ‘hey, this is just how it is for autistics! Anxiety and depression are part of the bundle! I have to cope with being constantly overwhelmed, being misdiagnosed and misunderstood!’
I honestly had never considered it possible to be a healthy autistic. I had never even thought about what it might look like.
But at age 19, I am so glad to be able to say I am finally becoming the healthy autistic I couldn’t have imagined. I am working through my trauma with a therapist who understands how my brain works, and am tweaking my medications to best suit my symptoms. I am not as anxious (something I never thought would happen, having been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a few years ago), and am, more importantly, still here!
A few final words: Your life path can change. It hurts, but it doesn’t make you less likely to succeed.
If past-trauma is controlling your life, looming over you daily, please reach out. Know it is okay to find life traumatic. Your trauma is valid, and there is hope!
For more information on what a healthy autistic could look like:
Betty rapped at my window early afternoon, all curls and flyaways, and said with some excitement that the strawberry picking fields were open. I was in the middle of homework, but she hopped inside as I unlocked the window–my room is on the bottom floor, around the back of the house, looking over the garden–and she had freshly shaven legs and was wearing these little pale purple Mary Janes, with a chunky button. Betty is our neighbour’s daughter, same age as me. Ma keeps saying we should bunk together for college, but I… Well. She has no idea what she is talking about. Me and girls get along, yeah. Maybe a little too well. She wouldn’t like that. I was only wearin’ my loose summer dungarees and a shirt, but we looked the part together. I just… needed to ask. Needed to know. My stomach cramped as she started closing the textbooks on my desk, carefully keeping all my page markings uncreased.
“C’mon, Shirley, it’s a beautiful day. You can’t stay cooped up all afternoon, come to the field with me! Ma and Pa are making devilled eggs, we can have some when we get back. And strawberries! Please say you’ll come!”
I thought of Betty sucking strawberry juice off a perfectly manicured thumb, and I found myself nodding and putting on my brogues. I was shrugging on a jacket when Betty tssked and said, “Come on now, it’s hot as hell. You can’t hide forever.”
And then she swung her legs over the windowsill and she stood, blonde hair shining gold in the sun, eyes squinted and lashes full. I don’t know how long I stood there, looking, with her looking back, but eventually I slid out of my window and we were both out there.
God, it was hot. Sweat was prickling on my back as we pushed the gate at the end of the garden closed and turned left along a country lane. The field was only a few minutes away, but for some reason I hadn’t been since I was a kid, when Ma liked to show me off as a beautiful dark-haired beauty and not some dyke-loner. The word in my head almost made me flinch, but then Betty pointed to a bird soaring through the sky, and we made gentle conversation about how great it must be to fly wherever you wanted. And just like that, I felt better.
Old Tomm owned the field, and he let people in for five dollars each, and then you could pick as many boxes of strawberries as you wanted and it was one dollar per box. It was then I realised I had no money, it was all in a jar in my drawer, and began to turn to Betty and apologise and tell her I’ll be right back, but she pulled out enough money for both of us and took a wicker basket off the stack. “Let’s go, little Sherbert.”
I had rolled my eyes and tried not to scream, “You know my name ain’t Sherbert.”
But if Betty heard me, she didn’t say a thing, and we strolled out into the field and into the rows of strawberries. “Your Ma being alright to you, Sher?” Betty’s eyes were inquisitive, but was there something darker there? I really couldn’t tell.
“Ma is Ma.” I had said, feeling a hand of anxiety scrunch up my guts. “You know how it is.” I added, like I had any clue whatsoever. “I mean—” I backtracked when Betty’s mouth straightened, but then she just picked a strawberry and threw it at me. It bounced off the sleeve of my shirt, and left a perfect little red kiss of juice. “Oops,” Betty said, and then smiled.
“Sorry.” I said. Apologising was something I was particularly good at.
“You don’t need to apologise for nothing. Not to me.” Betty’s voice hardened, but it was still soft. I don’t know how to explain it. Like Betty could get real, real angry, just not… not with me? I had seen her throw a cup of juice in her mama’s face, heard her shouting in the yard. Stomping her feet and making her curls frizz up ‘round her red cheeks.
“Sorry.” I said again, realising I had been weirdly quiet for a few minutes, and then I started laughing and so did she. We kept picking, and the back of my neck throbbed with the beginning of a burn, but I felt fine. Good, even. Around the half an hour mark a light breeze ruffled through the field, and we both let out a sigh of relief and sat down. It felt weirdly…intimate, being hidden by the rows of strawberry plants, just me and her, and our basket of strawberries. I picked at a loose thread and tried not to look at Betty’s legs, stretched out and creamy, and the way her skirt didn’t really cover anything up when she sat down. I was sure I was red as a beet, and maybe Betty realised because she had this wicked light in her eyes, and started to eat a strawberry. It was horrendous, that feeling. Like I would do anything to be that strawberry. To even go close to her mouth. I felt this clamp on my heart, like my chest was being squeezed. I balled my fists and looked at the patch of sky I could see, trying not to cry. Trying not to make a sound.
Ma liked me to be quiet, liked me to study hard and go to Sunday school with Pollyana and Jessica. Liked me to brush my hair and stay home. Liked me to cover up, like my weirdness could spread. My little sister, Patricia, was seventeen, a year younger than me, and she was the complete opposite of everything I was. Where I was messy, she was organized. Where I was weird, she was normal. Ma doted on her constantly, and it wasn’t even painful, because I had learnt to cope. I constantly worked to do better, to be better. But there are just some messes you can’t iron out of yourself. And believe me, I tried.
“Hey, it’s okay,” I looked down from the sky, and for a few seconds I was blinded. Then Betty came into view, and she had scooted closer. Was holding my hand, ever so gently, on the ground next to me. I used to hold hands with everyone. I have always been very affectionate, kissing my friend’s foreheads, holding their hands, brushing their flyaways until I got pushed and called weird and gay and don’t you ever come near me again.
I almost pulled my hand away. Almost. But it felt so pure.
Nothing about this is dirty.
And the realisation shocked me. Shocked me enough to whisper, as if I were alone, as if I were looking into my mirror practicing a never-going-to-happen coming out, “I’m gay, Betty.”
I never expected the mirror to say, “I know, Sherbet.”
I never expected the mirror to say, “Can I kiss you?”
And I never expected to say, yes.
Anwen Ricketts is a bi autistic aspiring-author with a passion for improving mental health treatment in the UK. She loves dogs, camping and making her voice heard.
Her mission is to show the world what a healthy, happy autistic can look like, because it is possible.