Christian Wilton-King has worked in the special needs field for nearly two decades. He’s an experienced trainer, autism specialist teacher and advanced practitioner. Christian believes wholeheartedly in inclusive practice for all and is especially passionate about creating a more inclusive world for autistic people.
Christian became concerned that children and young people who “didn’t fit in” were being encouraged to see themselves as transgender, and after some comments he made in a private Facebook group were reported to the Education Workforce Committee (EWC) he found himself facing a disciplinary panel. Christian was given a reprimand and subsequently felt that he could not continue with teaching if he was unable to safeguard his students without fear of being reported or sacked for his views. Read more about Christian’s story here.
We are very grateful to Christian for writing this post for us, based on his long experience as an autism specialist teacher.
The Neurodiversity Movement’s Toxic Relationship with Trans Rights Activism
A guest post by Christian Wilton-King
“Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they [sic] experience the world around them.”
National Autistic Society, UK
The Neurodiversity movement has been steadily growing since its inception in the late nineteen-nineties, its aim being to change public perception of autism from disabling condition (see the National Autistic Society definition above) to neurological variant; a different but valid way of being, requiring societal acceptance and accommodation rather than treatment and cure.
I am an autism specialist teacher with nearly twenty years’ experience of supporting and educating children and adults with special educational needs, so I was intrigued when I found out about the neurodiversity movement. I get on particularly well with autistic learners and autistic friends possibly because their atypical, outside-the-box ways of thinking chime with my own, slightly atypical personality. This made it easy for me to support a political movement pushing for the recognition, understanding and acceptance due to autistic people. I joined and eventually became admin to autism support and education groups on Facebook.
It is well-documented that autistic people often experience sensory overload in social situations, faced with the veritable cacophony of neurotypical people’s personalities, unpredictable responses and behaviour. As author Steve Silberman puts it in his 2015 bestseller NeuroTribes:
“By autistic standards, the “normal” brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail and routine. Thus people on the spectrum experience the neurotypical world as relentlessly unpredictable and chaotic, perpetually turned up too loud, and full of people who have little respect for personal space.”
This ‘too loudness’ can cause social anxiety and make it difficult for autistic people to participate in public life; however, in recent years, online autistic communities have exploded in number as social media technology bypasses many of the challenges associated with socialising face-to-face. Behind a computer or phone screen, with easy blocking functions, anything which causes anxiety can be avoided. Dedicated online spaces have become a haven for autistic people who want to socialise with other like-minded individuals and organise politically.
Activism in the neurodiversity movement emphasises the importance of ‘lived experience’ and being allowed to be one’s ‘authentic self’. These tenets also happen to be centred by the trans rights movement, which gathered pace around the same time, the ideological beliefs of which have been fully and unquestioningly accepted by autistic online communities. This may be due in part to the higher prevalence of gender non-conforming, lesbian, gay and bisexual autistic people, which, according to a 2016 study, is between 15 – 35%.
It is commonly understood that autistic people can have a difficult relationship with language, preferring precise, descriptive wording to metaphor, which can be confusing when unfamiliar; however, while fixed meanings might be central to the worldview of some autistic people, for the neurodiversity activist, playing with language and creating neologisms can be a powerful way to reclaim agency and assert their autistic identities in a world which wilfully misunderstands them and tries to make them fit, like the proverbial square pegs, into a world which does not work for them. The creation of new terminology and codes of behaviour are tactics also employed by trans rights activism to push its agenda, along with prioritisation of identity politics and the right to self-determination. These similarities may have something to do with the fact that both movements were conceived and proliferated in virtual spaces rather than ‘in real life’.
In the 1950s, developmental psychologist Reuven Feuerstein was working with children with Down’s Syndrome. His innovative cognitive learning techniques enabled Down’s children to make greater educational progress than people at the time believed possible. This educational attainment helped them to fit better into mainstream society. He went further, however, believing their families should also consider plastic surgeries which would lessen the facial features characteristic to Down’s children so that others would “lose their prejudices and low expectations of Down’s children’s abilities”. Feuerstein’s ‘active-modification approach’ criticised parents’ “passive acceptance” of their child’s genetic, physical or intellectual disabilities and their belief that society should accommodate Down’s people’s differences.
Here in the UK – and even more so in the US – Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) is one of the most popular methods used to teach autistic learners. Developed from the work of behaviourist and contemporary of Feuerstein, B.F. Skinner, along with a number of others, the ABA method of suppressing natural autistic behaviour in favour of ‘normal’ behaviour is the neurodiversity movement’s Kryptonite – the antithesis of autistic acceptance. Despite efforts to make ABA less punitive and more ‘person-focused’ in recent years (early techniques involved physical chastisement), there remains a question of who decides what behaviour is ‘normal’ and who it is designed to benefit. There remains an intense reaction to the use of ABA for autistic children and recent efforts have been made to collect stories from autistic adults who once were made to co-operate with ABA programs that were supposedly designed to ‘help’ them but instead, traumatised them.
The idea that autistic children should ‘be less autistic’ in order to fit into mainstream society is as barbaric to the neurodiversity movement as Feuerstein’s active-modification approach seems to most of us now. To my mind, this exposes a peculiar cognitive dissonance within the neurodiversity community. How can they, for example, lend their support to organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union who tweet, “trans children are perfect as they are” despite knowing that ‘affirmative care’ for gender dysphoric children puts them on a medical pathway to cross-sex hormones, double mastectomies, genital surgery, hysterectomies and the serious side-effects of off-label medicines, the long-term effects of which are unknown.
Diane Ehrensaft is a contemporary developmental and clinical psychologist working with gender dysphoric children. She states all behaviour is a form of ‘gendered communication’. In a video posted to Youtube entitled, ‘How to Tell if Babies are Transgender’, she explains how she interpreted signs that a pre-verbal female toddler was ‘communicating’ she was not in fact a girl, but a boy:
“There is a video of [her] as a toddler, tearing barrettes [hair clips] out of her hair and throwing them on the ground and sobbing. That’s a ‘gender message’… Sometimes kids, between the age of one and two, with beginning language, will say, “I boy”. So, you look for these kinds of actions, like tearing a skirt off.”
Autistic people frequently experience hyper-sensory issues, they also frequently miss or ignore the gendered expectations of the societies they live in. They may intensely dislike the feel of certain textures or have very strong preferences for certain garments, regardless of whether or not they are deemed ‘appropriate’. In Ehrensaft’s world, is it any wonder children with either a diagnosis of autism or who have autistic traits make up nearly half of all referrals to the Tavistock, the UK’s largest Gender Identity Clinic and even higher proportions in others?
I have observed for the last four or five years the Trans Rights and Neurodiversity movements become ever more enmeshed, their demands becoming so confused that some autistic activists even refer to themselves as ‘autigender’. While the autistic community’s apparent sympathy towards people who do not conform to rigid gender stereotypes is understandable, there is a growing – some might say puritanical – tendency to ex-communicate those wary of full acceptance of mantras such as the ubiquitous ‘transwomen are women’ or who simply don’t recognise this as a common cause. I have seen woman after woman ejected unceremoniously (and a few men too) from autistic support groups for not centring the trans experience, such as questioning the importance of pronouns and neo pronouns. By adopting this ‘zero tolerance’ approach to transgressors of the new etiquette, many autism groups appear to prioritise gender identity over autism itself.
Newly politicised autistic communities still face many barriers to acceptance and equality. Funnily enough, some of these even come from well-funded trans rights lobbying groups, such as the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) which has strongly hinted in its literature that gender ‘transition’ may even act as a ‘cure’ for autism.
Herein lies the serious and untenable paradox eating away at the heart of the neurodiversity movement; on the one hand declaring a common cause with the trans rights movement, which advocates the use of medicines and surgeries to ‘affirm’ transgender identities and supports the pseudoscientific notion that female brains can reside in male bodies and vice versa, while on the other decrying attempts to find a cure for autism and force autistic people to look and behave like neurotypical people.
Evidence is mounting that the relationship between the Trans Rights and Neurodiversity movements, which maybe initially seemed simpatico, benefits the former at the expense of the latter. Autistic women, especially lesbians, are being pushed out of their support networks. Autistic children whose behaviour does not fit gender stereotypes are being pathologized and medicalised.
This is a nettle the Neurodiversity movement is going to have to grasp and soon. When disproportionate numbers of autistic people – children, even – are being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the ‘treatment’ for which can lead to infertility, this starts to look worryingly like backdoor eugenics.