The Nonexistent Link between Autism and Gender Dysphoria

Two observations can be true and yet unrelated

Amethysta Herrick
Amethysta Herrick
Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump - still from Inside Edition video on YouTube

A recent article in the Daily Mail claims a biological link between autism and gender dysphoria. I provided comments to the author of the article, describing gender dysphoria as a normal and frequent event during human development. But the impact of social pressure on autistic individuals is less, and gender nonconforming behavior is more likely in people who disregard social norms.

Other experts begrudgingly acknowledged the role of social environment in gender. However, the high coincidence of autism characteristics with gender nonconforming behavior led researchers to postulate both autism and gender dysphoria are caused by exposure to greater concentrations of sex hormones in utero.

There is a difference, however, between the transgender or gender nonconforming experience and exhibiting gender nonconforming behavior. While gender nonconforming behavior may initially lead to gender dysphoria in a social environment, the two are not the same.

A social environment uses gender dysphoria as a tool to reinforce its social norms. When we experience gender dysphoria, it is because our origin of identity expresses itself in a way the social environment rejects. In order to feel right, whole, authentic - we must combat the trauma caused by the social norm first.

But as humans with at least the appearance of free will, we may behave in ways not dictated by trauma, or - for that matter - dictated by anything other than our whims.

Human behavior in the social environment

Gender nonconforming behavior contradicts current social norms. A social environment creates and perpetuates social norms - including gender roles - by accepting or rejecting the behavior of its members.

In this way, social norms are social constructs, contextual to the social environment. The flexibility of a social construct allows a norm to evolve over time and place, as evidenced by presentation and behavior considered highly masculine in pre-Revolution France, yet considered highly feminine in the modern United States.

Gender nonconforming behavior may be intentional or innocent. In the 1970s, David Bowie was famous for his "gender-bending" portrayal of Ziggy Stardust. In the 1980s, "guyliner" and long, teased, Aqua Net hairstyles found popularity in hair bands Poison and Motley Crüe.

In context of its social environment, the behavior above was intentional gender nonconforming behavior - the intent was to stand out. When the fashion inevitably grew tiresome, the behavior was discontinued.

Innocent gender nonconforming behavior, on the other hand, derives from being unaware of gender roles or social norms. Examples include tourists wearing Western fashions in the Middle East or short skirts in parts of Asia.

As children grow up in a social environment, they learn social norms and gender roles by testing them. Stereotypical examples include boys trying on dresses or applying makeup, girls playing football or fighting, among others.

The children involved perform the behavior not to contradict social norms, but to investigate them - they are unaware of limits until they receive a negative response from the social environment.

Innocent gender nonconforming behavior is part of normal human development. What occurs next illuminates the impact of the social environment.

Social constructs in practice

As we engage with our social environment, we "try on" many presentations and behaviors that appear interesting to our origin of identity. Our self-expression initiates a negotiation with the social environment - is the expression acceptable within social norms? When the social environment accepts our self-expression, the presentation and behavior is reinforced for all members.

However, when the social environment rejects our attempt at self-expression, we feel discomfort in the form of gender dysphoria. We also face a choice.

The pain of gender dysphoria may be mitigated by changing our behavior. That is, we may reject our attempt at self-expression and accept the social norm. Gender dysphoria disappears because we place greater importance on the social norm than our attempt at self-expression.

But the pain of gender dysphoria may also be mitigated temporarily by conforming to social norms while not accepting them. The initial acute bout of gender dysphoria becomes chronic gender dysphoria as we place greater importance on self-expression while experiencing the dissonance of conforming to the social norm.

Those who accept being corrected by the social environment are not transgender or gender nonconforming. Those who experience chronic gender dysphoria are properly named transgender or gender nonconforming (although I find both terms misleading).

Autism vs. the gender nonconforming experience

What happens if we contradict a social norm innocently, but do not experience discomfort when the social environment responds to correct us? Our behavior is not driven by rebellion or seeking attention. Perhaps we simply have no cognizance of social norms. We cannot conform because we do not sense the social environment attempting to correct us...or we simply don't give a damn when it does.

Autism is frequently characterized by a lack of empathy and difficulty with reciprocal social communication. Autistic people frequently do not sense the correction a social environment applies to their self-expression.

Transgender and gender nonconforming people, on the other hand, sense our rejection of self-expression by the social environment keenly. We feel chronic discomfort at being corrected against our will constantly.

There is a distinction between gender nonconforming behavior and gender dysphoria. The two may be related phenomena, but they are different phenomena.

Gender nonconforming behavior may exist without gender dysphoria. But chronic gender dysphoria cannot exist without the gnawing desire to exhibit gender nonconforming behavior. That is, of the set of human gender nonconforming behavior, only a subset is driven by gender dysphoria.

Transgender life is a conscious, willing, purposeful choice to reject social norms and safety to live in full authenticity as the person we know we are. Many gender nonconforming people - possibly most - are closeted by rigid standards from the social environment. They must choose not to exhibit gender nonconforming behavior as a matter of safety.

But make no mistake, if we can present and behave as the person we know we are, we will. It is the only method of relieving gender dysphoria.

Not everything needs to be a pathology

Exhibiting gender nonconforming behavior is different from experiencing gender dysphoria. Psychology - fueled by allopathic medicine's drive to treat pathology - must characterize both gender nonconforming behavior and gender dysphoria as abnormal. Unless and until a patient is diagnosed with a pathology, no treatment can be administered - at least, not if insurance is expected to cover it.

By accepting the human experience as a series of pathologies, we are blinded to the common and typical human experience of gender by an attitude that hamstrings attempts to discuss it.

But gender dysphoria is not a disorder. Gender nonconforming behavior is not a pathology. And gender nonconforming behavior is not necessarily driven by gender dysphoria or part of a transgender experience.

Finally, autism is not comorbid with gender dysphoria, but rather coincidental with gender nonconforming behavior - for the same reasons autism is recognized as a neurodevelopmental disorder in the first place.

There is no inherent link between autism and the transgender or gender nonconforming experience. Instead, as we transgender people are forced to explore our identity outside social norms, autistic people are free to explore their identity in innocence of social pressure.

I dream of a day when societies recognize social norms are never objective, unalterable truths. Instead, social norms are only behavior that was expedient, common, and frequent for the people who came before, but may not suit society today.


Amethysta Herrick

Ami is a transgender woman dedicated to exploring identity and gender. She is Editor-in-Chief of Purplepaw Publications, LLC.

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