Missing Puzzle Pieces
Being diagnosed autistic helped me understand what pieces were missing from my personal narrative.
In 2010, I apparently gave “informed consent” to start taking cross-sex hormones. However, in 2017, I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (along with a few other diagnoses).
After a lot of soul-searching, I started to realize how my autistic traits played into my adoption of a transgender identity. Now I wonder how it can be possible to give “informed” consent when I was never screened for something that can play such a huge factor in how someone experiences the world and develops.
I’ve spoken before about being bullied as a child. When I was introduced to the idea of being transgender, I thought I had uncovered the reason that everyone excluded me — why I felt different and everyone else seemed to know it. “Oh,” I thought. “I was different because I was trans, and everyone seemed to pick up on it.” That wasn’t quite it. It was that I was autistic and everyone picked up on it.
I believed that kids were seeing “masculine” traits in a girl and were bullying me for that reason; in reality, they were seeing traits of a neurodevelopmental disability and were bullying me for those reasons. I spoke out of turn and interrupted; I was blunt; I was a bit of a know-it-all; I was bossy because I liked things a specific way; and I was emotionally reactive. So when I was bullied, I had a larger-than-average reaction — crying and becoming extremely frustrated, which is amusing to children who bully, so it only reinforced their desire to harass me.
I did have stereotypically “masculine” traits as a child. I liked what I liked and didn’t have any desire to be different to “fit in.” My favourite animals were dogs, so I crawled around pretending to be a dog when I was younger. I liked climbing trees and getting dirty. I participated in sports and track events.
I felt like I was out of place and “different,” especially after I lost the girl friends that I did have. But even though I knew girls who were like I was, when I was introduced to the concept of being trans, I clung to that idea as the “reason” I felt different. I figured that none of the girls liked me because I didn’t act like a girl; none of the boys liked me because I didn’t look like a boy. That made sense to me at the time.
But at that time, I had no idea I could be autistic. I had no idea that autistic girls had girlhoods exactly like mine.
Clothing played a big part in “discovering” my gender identity. I marveled over the fact that, when I started buying clothes from the men’s section, I suddenly enjoyed shopping. This was another thing that reinforced my conclusion that I must actually be male — these feelings of “right-ness”.
After I was diagnosed with autism and my paradigm shifted, this took on a new meaning for me as well. What bothered me about women’s clothes was not that they were “women’s” clothes, but that a lot of women’s clothing is designed in a way that aggravates my tactile sensitivity.
Women’s clothing is often tight-fitting when I prefer loose and flowy. It often has extra seams which bother me. There are also many different types of fabric, and I only like a very small range of soft, flat fabrics.
Men’s clothing has much less range (which is kind of unfortunate for men who want more fashionable options). But most pairs of men’s jeans, for example, don’t really hug curves the way women’s clothing tends to do. They’re more boxy and leave more space.
At the beginning of me testing boundaries with clothing, my mom asked why I couldn’t just buy the same style of clothing I liked in the men’s section from the women’s section. In her mind, the women’s clothing fit me better, but to me, they were just literally uncomfortable. I guess that frustration with what feels like an arbitrary boundary of what I can or can’t wear is an autistic trait, too.
The frustration with having to wear uncomfortable bras played into this, as well.
(Today I shop in both sections.)
One other sensory difference that I want to mention is something called “interoception.” Interoception refers to a person’s sense of what is going on inside of their own body — this can relate to personal feelings, own temperature, feeling hungry or thirsty, having to use the washroom, and being sexually aroused. Many people with neurodevelopmental disabilities have difficulty with interoception.
With all sensory differences in autistic people, the difference can go to either end of the extreme. In terms of arousal, for example, someone could be hypersexual (feeling aroused very frequently) or they could be hyposexual (very rarely feeling aroused).
I am hyposexual — enough that I identified as asexual for quite a few years. The majority of my feeling “attracted” to people was more of an aesthetic attraction than a sexual one. I was rarely aroused when engaging in sexual activities; in fact, I didn’t really feel anything except discomfort. Most times I dissociated and then cried afterwards.
When I identified as trans, I believed that the reason I was so uncomfortable during sex was because I was “in the wrong body.” The reasoning went something like, “Of course, I’m uncomfortable; my partners are treating me like a girl when I’m not a girl!”
Today I believe it’s a combination of being autistic (which I believe contributes to both my low libido and an inability to recognize of when I am aroused in the first place) and internalized homophobia. It wasn’t necessarily that I was turned off because I was being treated like a girl; it was because I wasn’t turned on by men.
Autistic people (and other neurodivergent people) are prone to rumination. Sometimes that rumination has positive outcomes, and sometimes negative. Autistic people often have what have been dubbed “special interests.” When something interests us, we need to know absolutely everything about that thing until we have exhausted all of the knowledge there is to be gleaned. Sometimes those interests can last years.
Gender and transitioning became a special interest for me.
For years, it was everything. I joined trans support groups in person. I spent all of my time on Tumblr talking to other trans people. I watched videos of trans men doing one-month, two-month, three-month updates. I was obsessed with the changes that testosterone did on their bodies. I made my own videos when I started taking hormones. I took pictures at regular intervals and compared the changes. I could name all of the “good” surgeons who were doing top surgery. I blogged about my transition process. I wrote response pieces to articles I disagreed with.
In other words, I went the whole nine yards.
I heard it said quite a few times that most people don’t think about their gender obsessively the way trans people do. In reality, though, anyone who is prone to rumination (autistic, ADHD, OCD, etc.) can think about anything obsessively. If you’re also prone to dissociation (and again, many neurodivergent people are), you’ve got a good recipe for gender dysphoria. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that autism and ADHD are overrepresented among gender dysphoric individuals.
There are a few other things that aren’t necessarily backed by strong evidence but are just patterns I’ve noticed among autistic people.
Many of us use escapism as a means of coping with difficult situations. The extreme end of this is a sort of desire to just erase everything we’ve done so far and start over with a clean state. When we’re on hard times, we want to delete all of our social media and create new accounts. We want to move out of our current cities and start fresh somewhere new. We tend to glorify the idea of being able to “reinvent” ourselves. Starting over with a new name and a new identity is very tempting.
Another is that we can be very gullible. We can fall into conspiracy theories very easily. We can have a black-and-white perception of the world (e.g., “well, if I don’t feel comfortable being a girl, I must be a boy”) with little nuance. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that if one thing is bad, the opposite thing must be good, without thinking about the pros and cons of both. We might believe it is possibly to literally “change sex” with no problem… and we don’t stop to think about how everyone else in the world might perceive us.
Finally, so many of us feel alienated from the rest of society. Upon identifying as transgender, there’s a whole community that opens its arms to us and welcomes us in. It’s a form of instantaneous belonging. The unfortunate part, though, is that being part of the community comes with a whole lot of rules, and if you don’t follow the rules, you’re ostracized. (Ask any of the trans people who dare to speak against the mainstream narrative.) In a way, though, those clear-cut rules offer a kind of safety to autistic people. It’s a steep learning curve at first, but once you’ve learned all of the rules, you belong as long as you follow them.
The relationship between being autistic and identifying as transgender, for me, was very complex. There are probably more pieces to of puzzle that I just can’t think of right now.
I wasn’t diagnosed until years after I was prescribed hormones, but I know there are many young autistic people now who have been diagnosed prior to coming into a trans identity.
Ultimately, I feel that I was wronged by not being offered the opportunity to discuss the intersection with a professional. It took me a long time to understand it all for myself — and I’m in my 30s. I can’t imagine my younger self having that kind of self-awareness without a bit of guidance.
I think that everyone should have access to this kind of exploratory therapy before making irreversible changes to their body.