The Neurodiversity Movement’s Toxic Relationship with Trans Rights Activism

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%.[1] 

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.[2][3]

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[4], 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’[5].  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[6], this starts to look worryingly like backdoor eugenics.







This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. E.Evans

    Really important article. I am in parent groups for autistic children and many parents see the high number of autistic children in the Tavistock or generally gender questioning as a positive relationship. i.e if you are autistic you are most likely going to be non-binary or trans. It is so frustrating as a parent in these groups when my posts get deleted by questioning this and suggesting watchful waiting. Autistic girls can have massive sensory issue with hair, both mine do so now have short hair, but parents on the groups I’m in take this to mean their child is trans. It is hair! Tony Attwood (leading expert on girls and autism) has stated that being transgender will not ‘cure’ autism. Autism doesn’t have a cure nor does it need one. Just because an autistic girl is happier since changing her gender expression (clothes and hair) to a more masculine expression (for comfort and to reduce sensory overload) should not mean they should be labelled trans.

  2. Actually ACTUALLY autistic

    I have Asperger syndrome, ADHD, a variety of other conditions, and am disabled by them. I have never had a job, left school at 16, and am entirely dependent upon my mother as my carer. I am also due to receive 10 hours of support a week from a support worker (this stopped during lockdown). The neurodiversity movement is disgusting in itself. The only people who benefit from being told that autism is a “valid difference” are those who are not disabled. The support groups I attend are filled with self-diagnosers, and people with husbands, careers, children, and university degrees, who look entirely non-autistic (but justify this by going on and on about “masking”, which they seemingly do perfectly at all times. Try not being able to “mask” in the first place!), who were diagnosed by a local professional with a mission to diagnose as many women as possible to address the gender balance.. This is not bitterness that they have achieved more than me: please understand that the majority of people with autism are disabled, and it is statistically only a tiny minority who can live independently, and have successful careers. Most autistic people are unemployed, but those who aren’t tend to have low-skilled, low paid jobs, and change jobs frequently. The people being centred and celebrated in support groups, in the neurodiversity movement, and in celebrity “role models” like Chris Packham, are the absolute LEAST affected by their supposed conditions, then preaching from their ivory towers about how it’s not a disability. This affects people like me because any time I actually try to seek support for my conditions, I’m treated as if I’m just “being hard on (my)self” and just need o “think of the positives”. THERE ARE NO POSITIVES TO MY AUTISM OR ADHD. It has ruined my life and stopped me doing everything I have ever wanted. Even just living normally as an adult. BECAUSE I’M DISABLED. I have severely impaired executive function. Neurodiversity makes people think I’m lazy, not disabled, and just need to try harder and utilise all my supposed special abilities. It has destroyed public sympathy for those who are actually disabled, because they now think we don’t need any help. People like me who actually need support are being sidelined in support groups by the bleating and frivolous complaints of the exceptionally highly-abled. I do not give a shite what is “normal” or “masking” or “valid”, I just want to be able to function and live as an adult. Not a permanent child. The neurodiversity movement is akin to the trans movement in the way it tries to turn reality on it’s head. Instead of saying “what makes a female, anyway? Who says it’s silly things like vaginas!”, the neurodiversity movement says “who cares if you cannot read facial expressions of other human beings and everybody looks neutral all of the time? Who cares if you cannot hold a conversation? Who cares if you can’t tell what the right thing to say is? Who defines normal communication anyway?” “All of your suffering is due to society not accommodating your totally valid way of communicating”. Let alone the more disabling aspects of the condition like the impaired executive function. They don’t even address those. Instead, they make up horrific and untrue stereotypes such as autistic people being super-organised, and detail orientated. Yeah, no. Not true for the vast majority of us. Especially not for the huge number of us who also have ADHD. I am so disorganised that I can’t even function enough to structure my day or carry out basic self-care tasks. And I am oblivious and don’t notice or remember anything. It makes me feel like a double failure: as a functioning human adult, and as an autistic who is supposed to have all these “positive” stereotypical traits. Anyway, back to the gender thing, I have noticed a big correlation between the extremely highly-abled and/or self-diagnosed, and being pro-gender ideology. All of the autistic/Asperger people I know (my friends) who don’t believe in gender nonsense are the actually disabled people, like me.

    1. Actually ACTUALLY autistic

      I want to add that I would LOVE a cure for my autism. So do most of my friends who are DISABLED. I hate less disabled, and fully non-autistic people like the author speaking for me on this.

      1. Actually ACTUALLY autistic

        Oh, and ABA can be very beneficial for the severely disabled, non-verbal autistic people. Some of these people need 24/7 supervision, can’t talk, need to wear helmets to not injure themselves etc. ABA attempts to teach them basic things like not running out into the road. According to neurodiversity, these poor people are not disabled just “different and totally valid” and they are only disabled because society doesn’t give them reasonable adjustments. The highly-abled crusading against ABA cannot even begin to imagine the lives and care needs of learning disabled, non-verbal autistics.
        I really hope all of my comments are approved, sorry I sent them in three lots. Also, I have just complained about an AGP who is a new member at my support group and is already taking over and agressively forcing everyone to agree with him and his self-beliefs. I am asserting myself based on the legalities that were affirmed in the Maya Forstater case, that its illegal to discriminate against non-belief in gender stuff.

        1. Christian Wilton-King

          Hi there. I agree with you completely that within autistic groups, there are issues with the notion that autism is simply a ‘difference’ or ‘neurological variant’. I feel that from some, that can be the case, but equally, for many others, their autism can be very disabling. I recall American psychologist, Judy Endow, writing about the false dichotomy of how autism is often divided by people into being either a difference or a disability. She reasonably talks about the idea of it being very much both for some people.

          Nevertheless, I have felt a growing sense of unease in recent times about how those autistics who are able to manage their autism to cope with everyday life, tend to dominate the narrative and proclaim themselves as the ‘voice’ for all autistics. They do so, on the basis that they are better placed than non-autistic people to speak on behalf of severely autistic people. I feel this is problematic, as people are complex and numerous in their beliefs, attitudes and characters. Excluding them from having an opinion or say on matters which don’t appear to directly impact on them feels a little tribal and unnecessarily divisive. Certainly, they don’t mind someone like say, Steve Silberman, speaking up on autistic matters, do they? It all feels a bit like, ‘you can speak because we agree with you, but they can STFU because we don’t agree with you’.

          On the issue of ABA – I disliked ABA from the moment I learned about it. because I believe it opens autistic people up to abuse. I’ve never liked the way that someone has control of the narrative and the power to say, this is what is normal and how people should behave. I feel it teaches people to do what others want for rewards in return, which is how this transgender movement have been operating. I feel there are other ways to help autistic people to learn and do things they’d like to/need to do, without setting up a crude reward system.

          Finally, I really didn’t intend to put my piece forward in an attempt to ‘speak’ for autistic people and I’m sorry it came across like that. In my work, I have always sought to try and amplify the autistic voice, no matter how hard it is for autistic people to communicate.

      2. I hate being autistic!

        You and me both. I’d give anything to be rid of my autism and the problems it creates for me. I do not support the neurodiversity movement, it does more harm than good. I’m also sick of being told that I only hate my condition because I’m “traumatised” and that it is “internalised ableism.” I hate it because it has ruined my life by disabling me! No one would dare to say this for any other condition, so why is autism seen differently? I hate that people try to silence my lived experience because I hate being autistic.

    2. Fellow Autistic

      I agree with you, not on everything – but the majority of what you’re saying.

      I have also been diagnosed with both Aspergers syndrome and ADHD, and these two disabilities make my life a living hell.
      I’m two years behind in school despite being considered intellectually gifted. I don’t see much of a future for myself. Therapy doesn’t work – I’ve seen countless of counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and psychiatric doctors, my first one at age 10 – and medication only keeps me from killing myself.

      I have attempted to join support groups and forums for other autistic girls and women, only to find that the majority of people (I say people, because some are trans-identified males) on there are self-diagnosed, or actively pursuing a diagnosis, and in some cases even complaining about not receiving a diagnosis of autism after an evaluation/assessment has taken place. So many of these people refuse to believe that they “only” have social anxiety disorder even when doctors and other professionals say so, and talk on and on about how they’re constantly masking (the only autistic people I’ve met – and mind you I go to a special-ED school where autistic students are in the majority – who even begin to be able to mask have mild ASD as well as above average intelligence), and neurotypes and female phenotypes. Sure, there are some differences between females and males on the autism spectrum, but we all have something in common – our autistic traits are disabling. And it’s true that some people with autism may not get diagnosed until later in life, but if you have autism it should be near impossible to make it through college/university, find a partner and a stable job without any support.
      I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 16, but my life had already fallen apart by the age of 13.
      And my autism is mild. I am a high-functioning autistic person, yet I didn’t even make it to high school before I broke down.

      (As a side note: I’ve even come across some people who claim that you don’t have to meet the diagnostic criteria for ASD to be autistic.
      They’re absolutely bonkers.)

      I wish I didn’t have Aspergers, or ADHD, or any of the other 4 psychiatric diagnoses I’ve been given over the years.
      I’m not “neurodiverse”, I suffer from neurodevelopmental disabilities.

    3. Julia M

      This is one of the best comments I’ve read about these issues. I hope you know how articulate you are.

  3. Dick+Heasman

    Wonderful, passionate and sincere comments from aAa, who obviously knows what it’s like from the inside.
    Totally convincing defence of ABA.
    I wish with all my heart that you find the cure you long for.

  4. AWSm

    The last two words of this article, backdoor eugenics, are spot on. Much has been written about the horrors of World War II and the tactics used by Hitler and his henchmen to ‘cleans’ people considered inferior. While the intention of ‘writing it all down’ was to ensure society ‘never forgot’, it is also a ‘how to manual’ for those with similar evil intentions.

    1. Dick Heasman

      Genuine question here – is autism heritable?

      1. Narinda Sunyata

        Yes Dirk, absolutely. My daughter was diagnosed at 6 and her mother and I realised that the latters difficulties in life were very autistic soon after. We had to wait a few years until the local Neurological dept was staffed by those able to diagnose women competently but it was then straightforward. Both her parents seem fairly obviously autistic too, and in fact my family show a lot of traits on both sides and quite broadly in the extended family. This is very common in parents groups I am in, and there is increasing evidence to back it up including some genetic detail pointing to the areas on DNA involved.

  5. Anne W

    When I was very young, I hated anything ‘girly’. I was sometimes forced to wear clips and ribbons in my hair (that was too short for anything other than a tiny ponytail) at gymnastics displays as I was part of a club. It made me feel so uncomfortable. I wore trousers, climbed trees, rode my bike and played football and loved being mistaken for a boy.

    I would contend that these things are all a really normal part of development. It turned out that I was autistic but that wasn’t diagnosed until I was 40. It also turned out that I was bisexual but I didn’t figure that out until my 20s.

    I don’t have any issues with my sex now. I still have short hair and wear trousers. I don’t have a gender identity. I just happen to be a woman and I dress and behave how I want.

    It scares me that girls are being encouraged to question their gender identity instead of questioning the stereotypes that tell them that girls are meant to like this, wear that and look a certain way. It’s the stereotypes that are the problem. I certainly grew up with a lot of internalised misogyny. Is it any wonder that some girls want to identify out of womanhood when we see how prevalent sexual harassment is in schools? As a society, we need to do so much more to safeguard children and allow them to explore who they are before they make life changing decisions to change their bodies that they might one day regret.

  6. Narinda Sunyata

    Further, as dad of a trans-autistic child I can see the point in this article , but it doesn’t seem to be an issue in reality. The comment regarding a cure for autism I suspect is just the result of a tendency to publicise those ideas by certain big charities seeking funds and a spokesperson for a trans group with the minimal understanding of autism that is the norm in society sadly. All I can say from personal experience is that my daughters mental health has improved greatly since revealing she was trans to us and socially transitioning. It’s probably relevant that both her mother and I could be described as somewhat androgynous in certain ways- for example her mother is very attracted to actually being her male heroes despite being extremely female in dress and character too. That’s resulted in buying some strikingly “male” clothes of late in which to stride across hills alone. I can well believe there is a genetic element there too as it was certainly not transferred by any parenting style or attitudes.

  7. Christian Wilton-King

    Very. There is increasing evidence to show that autism runs through families, from generation to generation.

  8. Robbie Spence

    I appreciate the comments by the person named Actually ACTUALLY autistic.

  9. Kitty M

    Fantastic article. It is clear that teens with autism are being caught up in the social contagion of adolescent gender dysphoria. Parents are seeing it with their own eyes. With their anxiety and other mental health issues, and their concrete “black and white” thinking style, they are just so vulnerable to this. Given that people with autism (even those with very high IQs) lag several years (at least) behind their peers in their emotional maturity, it is doubly concerning that they can access medical transition as young adults without parental input, when they may not have the maturity to make lifechanging medical decisions.

  10. A L

    Every time I see a gender dysphoric person be diagnosed as autistic, it always appears to be a very mild case. It always appears to be a case of a person “being shy” and “not fitting in”. This still doesn’t mean that there aren’t obvious problems. And the fact that many alternatives to the grifter organization Autism Speaks are neurodiversity organizations is harmful. These proponents support intersectionality such as trans rights, and see both trans and autism as “oppression points” to put in one’s Twitter bio. Neurodiversity doesn’t care about the problems of autistics and their families, and dismisses parents as “martyr parents”. They don’t care about how vulnerable mildly autistic people are to being sucked into ideologies. All they care about is diversity.

  11. Neuro Poppins

    Really interesting article! I’m seeing so many similarities within the movements. I’ve been in online autism groups for the last decade and I’m now feeling displaced in them. Over the last 2yrs I’ve broadened the literature I read and have developed gender critical views which are simply not compatible in the Neurodiversity Movement. I’ve felt ostracised from my online communities. I’ve lost friends. All just because I want to TALK about issues affecting autistic ppl, but that is now considered hateful. It’s such a mind blowing experience to go through. I decided to start an autism blog and I talk about gender ideology and Autism amongst other things. I also interview other autistics and ask questions around gender and I’ve published the interviews including gender critical ones to try and help show that not all autistics believe the ideology. I am wanting to do more interviews along these lines as they have been fascinating and have really helped me feel less isolated as a GC autistic female. I’d love to hear from anyone who might be interested in doing an online interview. I hope it’s OK to post this here in the comments? Apologies if it’s not. You can find my blog by searching my name Neuro Poppins. I’m not a professional of any kind, I’m just a random person who felt the need to express myself since it’s not allowed in the online spaces, so I’ve created my own space!

    1. Transgender Trend

      Yes it’s fine, thank you for telling us about your autism blog!

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