Autistic Girls : Gender’s silent frontier

autistic girls
Jane Galloway at age 16

A guest post by Jane Galloway

Jane Galloway is an Autistic woman with ADHD. Like so many autistic females, she was only diagnosed in her 40’s, after a lifetime struggling to understand why she felt so ‘other’. She is a passionate advocate for autistic women and girls and supports families like hers in her local area, and writes about autism in her spare time. We are very grateful to Jane for writing of her experience and for her informed view of the reasons for the exponential rise in the number of autistic girls being referred to Tavistock GIDS.

(Note: We recognise that autistic boys are also at risk and we receive more and more enquiries from parents of boys on the spectrum. Parents of ASD/OCD/ADHD boys, please see this post)

Autistic Girls : Gender’s Silent Frontier

Jane Galloway

A new conversation is starting to emerge around the whole issue of transgender children and young people. A new question: What about Autism?

We know from research released by the Tavistock & Portman GIDS, that since 2011 there has been a phenomenal rise in young people accessing their services, and the group that has increased exponentially across this period, is adolescent girls. We also know that that 48% of all referrees to the Tavistock, have autistic traits, with 35% of them displaying moderate to severe traits.

If this was any other issue that had such stratospheric increases in referral numbers and that potentially led to a lifelong, life-changing medicalised pathway for children; if there was any other connective factor affecting nearly 50% of all children referred to a particular service, there would be huge national interest and attendant press coverage. In fact, there is actually hardly any interest and even less research into why this is happening. It is unclear whether this is because to question gender is hugely discouraged, or because autism is seen as an irrelevance, of no particular import. This would make a certain sense in a world where many higher functioning autistic people insist that it is a difference rather than a disability. But it also begs the question: is this because this is overwhelmingly affecting girls?

There is some research that acknowledges that there is a link, but nothing that explores why. And it is the why that is so incredibly important, in making sure that anyone who goes on a medicalised pathway is doing so because they are genuinely dysphoric and that all other diffential diagnoses have been ruled out first. We know from the whistleblowers that emerged from the Tavistock recently, that clinicians observed young people coming to the clinic from all over the country, and repeating the same words and phrases, as if learned by rote.  

Polly Carmichael, Director of Tavistock GIDS, speaking at the Westminster Social Policy Forum ‘Next steps for Trans equality’ conference in July 2018, admitted that they know that young people are spending time online and looking up symptoms and signs of dysphoria. She said “It’s not exceptionally difficult for young people to fulfil the diagnosis, in the sense they can go online and see what it is”. In that environment, it is essential to understand whether gender non-conforming girls at the Tavistock are there for the right reasons.

I must admit to having a very personal interest in all of this; I was diagnosed this year as Autistic.

I am an autistic women who grew up as an autistic girl, I just wasn’t aware of it. At 13 I had my first suicidal thoughts, which persisted on and off, until I was in my late twenties. I had no idea why I felt so disconnected from the world. I felt as though there was another planet that I was supposed to be on; that this one was just too small, too impossible, too wrong. Nothing made sense and I longed for something or somewhere else, where I could exist in a way that made sense. I couldn’t understand why everyone around me seemed to know exactly what to do.

How to talk, how to think, how they just seemed to know how to operate in the world, when I had no idea at all.

All I did was hide in my room, listen to music, lie down on my bed and rock from side to side. It allowed me a space to escape, decompress and to practice every conversation, argument, scenario, trying out different endings. I still do it now.

I was obsessed with music. I developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of every band, song, genre. As I hit my late teens, I hung out with the boys in school who were in bands, because they ‘got’ me, or at least didn’t care so much that I was so damn weird all the time. I felt so completely ‘other’; I hated myself, I hated my body and I didn’t know why. I genuinely felt that I belonged nowhere.

If my school had told me, or taught me, that I might have a different identity, a reason why I felt so utterly different to everyone else, a way of making sense of some of the pain and utter self-loathing and suicidality that I felt, I would have grabbed at it with both hands.

As it was, I hung out with the goths and the heavy metal boys and the alternative indie kids. I displayed my self -hatred with black hair dye, piercings, Doc Martens and burying my face with eyeliner. You could do that in the 1980’s. You could scream at the world through youth culture and music.

Nowadays kids don’t have that option. We now live in a world driven by capitalism and neoliberalism, where each individual is a canvas onto which corporations project their wares, ready to be sold. The extension of advertising to children (where previously this was understood to have ethical implications) has turned them into a generation of consumers.

Youth culture has been captured by this trend and has repackaged rebellion and sold it to young people as a product to be selected. Young people who feel disaffected now have no safe avenue through which to psychologically separate and experiment with their identity.

Instead we have a toxic mess where individual identity is held aloft as more important than society. So, if you are young and lost among this landscape, what do you do? You grab at the first thing that comes along that helps you make sense of your world.

Feeling utterly lost and disenfranchised, I spent decades launching myself at everything that crossed my path and thinking ‘This! This is who I am!’ until it wasn’t any more, and all the same feelings came flooding back (because they had only been temporarily buried) and I was forced to move on to the next thing, in my search for a sense of self.

Because it turned out that I was neurodiverse.  Autistic with ADHD. But it took until my 40s to discover that. If I had been told as an adolescent that the reason I felt so permanently ‘other’ was because I might be Trans, or non-binary, then yes, I absolutely would have grabbed that too, and thrown myself in without looking. And embraced the new community that would have made me feel less lonely, less other, less damn weird.  Less like a freak, and more like a girl that belonged somewhere.

The only reason I didn’t, was because it simply wasn’t presented as a viable option to the average teenager in the 1980’s. It was pre the 2004 GRA, pre the mainstream idea of children identifying away from their sex, and before the expanded Stonewall Trans Umbrella, at a time when the number of transsexuals was a steady 5,000 or so.

And by the time I realised that I wasn’t trans at all, it would have been too late. You see, adolescents by definition, have very little filter, no long term outlook, and a gigantic desire to have their desires indulged right now; not because they are spoilt, but because impulse control and delayed gratification are far off distant concepts when you are a teenager. And intentionally so, because our brains can’t mature all in one go, and so it happens gradually and these are parts of the brain that develop later, in our twenties.

So yes, I would have decided I was trans if it had been an option.

The thing is, I genuinely didn’t feel female, I didn’t feel male, I had no internal sense of gender at all (back in the 1980’s this was so self-evidently normal, that it wasn’t even a ‘thing’ and the music scene was all the better for it. The likes of Marilyn, Boy George, and Annie Lennox all rocked androgyny and no-one questioned their sex) but now, in 2019, this entirely pedestrian feeling of not identifying with, or feeling, male or female, has been pathologised beyond belief, to the point where singer Sam Smith, the latest of a notable line of celebrities embracing trans identities, has been lauded by the media for his bravery in announcing he is non-binary and feels like he has a fabulous woman inside him.

(To give context to this, Budweiser UK released an advert on Twitter this year, stating support for the asexual and demi-sexual community. When the world has become so inward looking, that Budweiser are calling for ‘Cis-Allies’ to support those oppressed souls who won’t shag someone unless they actually like them, it’s probably time to step back, stop and actually have a look at what is being asked of us).

Meanwhile, back in 1986, I was stuck, with no internal sense of gender, no coherent feeling of being male or female but a crashing feeling of suicidality. If I had been told that this *meant* something, and I belonged somewhere because of it, I’d have grabbed at it with both hands. If it meant taking medication, no matter the side effects, even better, because with my damaged sense of the world, medication meant that whatever I was experiencing was real.

I would know that the cacophony in my head was so important, so relevant, that a doctor somewhere had given me something to take to make it all better. It would give it meaning and leave no room for doubt; there was something wrong with me. It would have provided a sense of validation for my internal torment, and dare I say it, to my adolescent mind, a certain glamour. (‘I’m on drugs. This is serious’).

It wouldn’t have been real though. The feelings were real, but It would have been ASD and ADHD; all the stuff in my brain that I didn’t know about yet, because back in the 1980’s, far too many neurodiverse girls weren’t diagnosed.

But we know now that we can be and are neurodiverse and we know that at the moment, these girls are vastly over-represented at GIDS. And no one is saying ‘slow down’.

We are letting this happen because it is easier than asking difficult questions. But these girls need us to speak out and say ‘I felt like that too, and it’s okay. Maybe it’s Autism. Or maybe you’re a Lesbian. Maybe that’s why you feel different; hate puberty, hate girlhood. It’s complicated isn’t it? But it’s okay’.

We need to be the grown-ups again because these girls, who are lonely and lost and frightened, need to know that we’re in charge and that we know what we are doing. That they can rely on us to act only on robust research and keep them safe, while they work out who they are.

They need to know that as they grow and experiment and change, and flirt with identity as the main driver of rebellion among teenage girls at the moment, that we are wise enough to tell the difference between a child genuinely crippled with dysphoria (of which there may be a very small number), and the girls who are making a youthful attempt to separate from their parents, through the medium of identity.

The price that is being paid by these girls though, is too high. The increasing number of detransitioner voices that are emerging in droves in the UK and US, such as the Pique Resiliance Project, and Charlie Evans, should give us pause. Because while we are told by lobby groups that detransitioners are irrelevant, as they were never really trans in the first place, they certainly felt something strongly enough to take Testosterone and have a double mastectomy and those are things from which you can never come back.

And if those autistic and/or Lesbian girls made a mistake, you can bet that some of the current cohort of girls going through this now, are making a mistake too. And if it is not trans, then what? All of this needs careful thought and consideration but we are told that this is not possible. We are told that this makes us bigots.

James Caspian at Bath Spa University attempted to base a research project on his work with the trans community, as he was interested in tracking the pathways of the increasing number of trans people he was counselling, who were detransitioning.  But the research was blocked by the university as too controversial. A great pity, as I suspect the research could have told us something we badly need to know.

In the meantime, there is no robust research investigating the link between ASD and gender ID issues. This movement has escalated so quickly, and managed regulatory capture across all of the organisations and public services in the UK, including schools, the NHS, the Police, and even government, with such unchallenged success, that there simply hasn’t been time to do any research.

So we are flying blind and the autistic girls who are reliant on us to act based on what we know to be true, as opposed to what we are being told to believe, are being held aloft in front of us, like canaries in a coal mine. They represent an experiment in a new social justice movement that is moving so fast, that we’ve hardly had time to catch our breath and see what is actually happening.

But to sound a word of warning, sometimes when things move too fast, things get missed.

We have no way of knowing whether the autistic brain processes ideas about masculinity and femininity (the social roles attached to the two sexes) differently and how that might impact on their understanding of themselves. Respected Autistic advocate and author Alis Rowe, writes eloquently and compassionately about autistic girls and gender on her blog, but acknowledges, from her own experience, that not all girls who identify as boys will turn out to be trans.

There is also a false equivalence with LGB culture in the current narrative, driven by the lingering shame of Section 28, that states that anyone asking questions, is part of a long shadow of historic bigotry. However, experimenting with or accepting a sexual orientation other than heterosexual, does not involve making medical decisions with lifelong irreversible side effects, including sterility, mastectomies, loss of sexual function and inability to orgasm without extreme pain, due to the atrophying of the uterus.

The trans movement has always been driven by men, either gay or autogynaephile, with a small cohort of gender dysphoric boys. The sudden influx of girls has come recently, alongside a rise in the diagnosis of autism in females and a societal shift in access to online porn. This is profoundly affecting the expectation boys have of girls and informing a type of masochistic, violent, sex education which girls are, understandably, rejecting wholesale. The sudden meteoric rise in girls identifying away from their natal sex, with no previous indications, but after an intense period of time spent online or watching youtube videos of transitioning teens, has been named Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) and the research bears out the link with autistic girls.

As the mother of teenagers, I also know, from conversations I have with them, that there is a culture among autistic girls that has completely normalised all of this. In playgrounds and over lunch, they are talking about mastectomies and puberty blockers, not as a way of dealing with dysphoria, but as a practical solution to the troubling process of going through puberty; something that is exponentially harder for autistic children than for neurotypicals, as they find any kind of transition or change very hard to process.

I am also aware, as an adult, that they have very little understanding of the long-term impact that either of these actions would have on their bodies, or their still developing sense of self. Or even that hating their bodies and themselves are dreadful feelings, but actually entirely normal for adolescent girls.

With such a huge number of autistic girls identifying as trans, whether that be as a boy or as non-binary (a feeling that they identify as neither male or female, although they will biologically be female or in rare cases, intersex) we have to ask questions about why this is.

Growing up in a culture soaked by internet porn, in which women are expected to conform to highly sexualised, performative femininity, young girls are often facing impossible beauty standards. They are seeing a world of toxic gender roles that speak neither for nor to them and for young lesbians, and autistic girls the temptation to reject it outright, is overwhelming. Add in the differentiated theory of mind and social understanding of girls who are autistic, and many of them will assume ‘Because I am not this, I must therefore be that’.

We know that schools cannot afford to cascade down robust training in SEN/Autism across all staff, but statistically, each class now, will have at least one ASC pupil in it. Factor in the nationwide lack of differentiated knowledge around autistic girls, and we have a crisis waiting to happen in terms of how gender variance within autism is supported. None of the schools guidance that I have looked at, whether it be from Stonewall, Gendered Intelligence, or the much used Allsorts Youth Project, makes any reference to autistic girls as the group that are overwhelmingly affected by this.

The recently leaked draft transgender schools guidance from EHRC doesn’t mention autistic girls either. None of the guidance offers advice about differentiating between an autistic or neurotypical child identifying as trans, beyond stating that they may need to have transition options explained to them more clearly.

There is nothing in any of the guides to advise teachers about supporting a child with competing protected characteristics under the Equality Act. For an ASC girl, she would be covered under Sex, Disability and Gender Reassignment but there is no guidance around how to navigate these often competing needs and rights. Is this ableism, or the refusal to acknowledge that each protected characteristic of the EA2010 isn’t an individual protected box? That many children will present in a Venn diagram of characteristics and it is this, among other things that, is so sorely missing from schools guidance or indeed, any other kind of guidance around transitioning children.

If the medical community is slow to action research into why these girls are identifying this way, the schools guidance provided by the organisations mentioned simply refuse to acknowledge them as a group at all.

In January 2017, the National Association of Head Teachers launched new research into autistic girls, but this has not yet filtered down to classroom level. ASD girls are not being given the space to find out who they are, and many of them are yet to be diagnosed. Some will be on the pathway, but many more will be struggling, as I did, with no idea that they are autistic at all.

New research from Sweden also indicates that autistic females have a risk of suicide that is ten times than than neurotypical females. Our girls with ASD/GID deserve robust levels of support before they reach that point.

We must invest in robust research and investigate thoroughly and impartially, why this sudden, unprecedented rise in girls identifying away from girlhood and womanhood has happened. How much is due to the autistic brain? How much is down to cultural and emotional issues and how much, if any, is down to genuine feelings of dysphoria around one’s sexed body?

Given that the most obvious differential diagnosis for sex dysphoria is trauma and sexual abuse, it is vital that on that basis alone, we call for a slowing down of pathways for children and young people, and invest in resources to allow psychologists and therapists the space and time to engage in genuine psychological exploration with the young referees.The recently expanded Memorandum of Understanding inhibits this, on the basis that all exploratory therapy is equivalent to conversion therapy.

For ASD girls, lack of robust support and an intense desire to ‘fit in’, leave them vulnerable to online communities, ready to affirm their identity, or worse, expose them to online doctors and unscrupulous overseas pharmacies, who are all too eager encourage them to buy hormone blockers or cross sex hormones. With their differentiated theory of mind, they may therefore, find themselves entering territory from which they cannot return.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Critical Theo

    Perhaps this kind of advice has something to do with the parroting of key phrases:

    “In order to pass this part, you must demonstrate
    that you experience significant gender dysphoria, and live “full time”. They will
    judge the way you present, and ask questions about your childhood experiences
    of gender dysphoria. Make sure you tell them how you have always known you
    were a girl/woman and how awful it makes you feel that you are going through
    an androgenic puberty. (Seriously it doesn’t matter how you actually feel, just tell
    them this)”

  2. Tony Turner

    A very thought provoking argument, which should give those concerned with trans gender issues reasons to reconsider but, if previous experience is anything to go by, will not. It is as if a whole new trans gender industry has grown from virtually nothing, in a very short space of time,and that this juggernaut is too powerful to be slowed down let alone stopped.

  3. Cat Francis

    This is a powerful and fascinating article- thank you Jane.
    What worries me most is the gagging of public discourse on this. And what mystifies me is the silence from the left wing media (think Guardian) on what would normally be a vigorous point of view. It is as though they are waiting to see which way it will go and whose ideological position to take.

  4. Delia Morris

    I have just shared this on FB and had to make it friends only because of the abuse Transgender Trend comes in for online…I am the mother of a son with autism, naturally I have a big interest in issues concerning autism, and I feel I cannot even place an article about this topic on FB without being abused…yet I am the mother of a person with autism who has every right to be concerned.

  5. D Harding

    This is the article that I have been waiting for. Thank you for putting in words all that I thought to be true.

  6. Jo

    This trend is very concerning.They need to be adressing children Autism first & formost not encourage to them m take extreme measures that harm them in the long run.These chidren are being used as guinea pigs.l tjink it is child abuse.

  7. Kathleen

    I have wondered if my adult daughter (non-binary boy?) has aspergers, like her father. I know it shows up differently in females but I don’t know what the hallmarks are. She may also have borderline personality disorder traits, and now has estranged from me after her father paid for her top surgery and she started testosterone. It’s like watching a slow moving train wreck only from the perspective of what she puts on social media.

  8. A L

    You may support neurodiversity, but never forget that there are autistics who are very disabled, who have serious health problems. I know that it’s a spectrum, but I feel like the disability is romanticized too much.

  9. Elizabeth

    A compassionate and thoughtful clarion call for equally measured research. I often wonder in this world of ours why two different ( and sometimes opposing) ideas cannot be held at once. It seems reasonable to question adolescent impulsivity whilst still supporting the very real and poignant experience of gender dysphoria for others AND understanding that these lines can blur. It is a complex issue , but certainly not one that should be censured into representing only one narrative. To do this is to ultimately be inhumane and hypocritical. It also denies the rich and often turbulent journey towards personal identity. How disturbing it is that in this world we now live in, those who hold fast to the notion of human beauty and complexity such as this author, are seen as courageous and even wreckless. Just 20 years ago this complex compassion was the mantra of progressive change. Now such compassion ( not able to fit neatly into a tweet or similar sales pitch) is antagonistically eliminated. We are all in for some very stormy weather and autistic young women are the canaries in the coal mine.

  10. Caroline Guimel

    I too have a daughter who ‘came out’ as trans and suicidal two years ago. She used to be bullied at school for not fitting in and her dad is autistic. However I have noticed that her knowledge of gender dysphoria is very sparse and her judgement, as on previous occasions, is strikingly superficial. I did everything to keep her going. Eventually I realised that things didn’t add up at all and I’m incredibly grateful people share my doubts. I am myself on the autistic spectrum and gender non conforming and one thing I have come to realise is that I don’t particularly wish to make the latter public, it’s just too embarrassing. Blanchard and a few others seem right is their description of transgender phenomena and honestly it’s not something you want to go around and brag about.

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