The Problem With Tethering Gender Dysphoria and Autism

Comorbidity is defined as two chronic diseases or conditions that occur simultaneously in one person. There is some evidence out there prompting many scientists and clinicians to label autism and gender dysphoria as comorbidities, but the potential of a relationship is murky.

The biological relationship between gender dysphoria and autism is not well understood. And there’s a possibility that tying gender dysphoria to autism could lead to discrimination.

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Gender Dysphoria Plus Autism

In recent years, our understanding, diagnoses, and terminology of both gender dysphoria and autism have evolved.

Gender Dysphoria

Previously referred to as transsexualism or gender-identity disorder, gender dysphoria is the most recent terminology referring to a condition where a person feels distressed secondary to a perceived incongruence between assigned gender and experienced gender. Sometimes, people with gender dysphoria wish to be another gender and often take steps to satisfy this desire.

For instance, a person with gender dysphoria who was assigned the male gender at birth may feel distressed with this assignment because it feels wrong and instead desires to be a woman.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes conditions with a wide range of symptoms, skills, and disabilities which affect socialization, behavior, and independence. People with ASD often display repetitive behaviors and limited interests and can have difficulty in social situations, at school, and at work.

According to the CDC, one in 44 children has ASD.

Comorbidity of AD and Gender Dysphoria

A few small studies have been done attempting to quantify the association between ASD and gender dysphoria.

  • In 2010, de Vries and colleagues reported that 7.8% of children and adolescents diagnosed with gender dysphoria were also diagnosed with ASD.
  • In 2014, Pasterski and colleagues found that 5.5% of adults with gender dysphoria also had symptoms suggestive of ASD.

Hypotheses Connecting Autism and Gender Dysphoria

Several hypotheses have been proposed to causally link autism to gender dysphoria, but there is no consensus regarding a clear link or a reason for a link.

Let’s look at some of these hypotheses:

  1. According to the extreme male brain theory, women are wired to think in more empathetic terms; whereas, men are more systematic in their thinking. According to this hypothesis, high levels of testosterone (a male hormone) in the womb results in an extreme male brain or male pattern of thought, which leads to both autism and gender dysphoria. This hypothesis only potentially applies to females who develop ASD and gender dysphoria.
  2. Difficulty with social interactions has also been used to explain the development of gender dysphoria in children with autism. For instance, a boy with autism who is bullied by other boys might come to dislike other boys and identify with girls.
  3. People with autism have difficulty communicating with others. This deficit may contribute to others missing social cues about assigned gender which might increase the chance of developing gender dysphoria. In other words, because other people don’t pick up on cues of a child’s assigned gender, then the child isn’t treated in a fashion concordant with this assigned sex and may, therefore, be more likely to go on to develop gender dysphoria.
  4. Gender dysphoria could be a manifestation of autism, and autistic-like traits could drive gender dysphoria. For instance, a child with a male-assigned gender and autism may become preoccupied with female clothes, toys, and activities. In fact, this apparent gender dysphoria may not be gender dysphoria at all but rather OCD.
  5. Children with autism can demonstrate rigidity with respect to gender differences. They may have a hard time reconciling the difference between their assigned and experienced or desired gender. This increase in distress could possibly exacerbate gender dysphoria and make it harder for them to manage these feelings.
  6. Confusion in the development of gender identity or an altered pattern of gender identity development might contribute to gender dysphoria in children who have ASD.
  7. Deficits in imagination and empathy, which are common in people with autism, may make it hard for people with autism to recognize that they belong to a certain gender group.

Treatment Implications

The treatment or lack of treatment of gender dysphoria is fraught with the potential for unintended and irreversible consequences.

Even though there is as of yet neither formal consensus opinion nor formal clinical guidelines on how to treat gender dysphoria in those with autism, in 2016, researchers published an initial set of clinical guidelines in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology based on the input of various experts.

Here are some of the recommendations:

  • When there is no clinician skilled in both autism and gender diagnoses, the co-occurrence of gender dysphoria and autism should be diagnosed by a clinical team consisting of both gender and autism specialists. Furthermore, it will probably take more time to diagnose and treat the co-occurrence of these conditions. It’s best not to rush into diagnoses and treatments and think things through among a group of specialists.
  • The treatment of gender dysphoria and autism often overlap. After undergoing treatment for autism, an adolescent may attain better insight, flexible thinking and communication skills that aid in understanding gender. Gender-related needs should be assessed on a continuous basis. Limited insight into gender may make it difficult for a person with autism to conceive the long-term effects of their decisions. Adolescents should be given time to understand their gender concerns and understand their own needs and desires.
  • Adolescents and their parents should receive psycho-education and counseling regarding the co-occurrence of autism and gender dysphoria.
  • No consensus on medical treatment could be drawn. Consenting to treatment may be difficult for adolescents with autism and gender dysphoria because children may have difficulty understanding the long-term risks and irreversible effects of certain gender interventions. The clinician should develop a specialized consenting plan with risks and benefits presented in a concrete, step-wise and accessible manner. Puberty suppression using hormones is a good option for adolescents who consent because it’s reversible. Whereas even if they’re discontinued, cross-sex hormones may have more permanent effects. Other researchers recommend waiting to administer cross-sex hormones and to perform surgical treatment until adulthood when gender identity is clearer.

Cisgenderism

At the 2012 Psychology of Women Section (POWS) conference, Natacha Kennedy delivered a keynote address that makes a strong argument that delineating a causal relationship between autism and gender dysphoria is actually a form of cisgenderism or discrimination.

According to Kennedy, cultural cisgenderism is defined as follows:

  • The systemic erasure and problematizing of trans people
  • The essentializing of gender
  • The gender binary
  • The immutability of gender
  • The external imposition of gender

Cultural cisgenderism enables and empowers the observer to characterize an individual with gender, without the input of the individual.

This process begins at birth when a baby is assigned gender and continues throughout life as others make attributions about a person’s gender. Transgender people are then subjected to diagnosis and treatment to have a new gender externally confirmed and imposed. However, this whole process assumes that gender is binary (either male or female), unchangeable, essential, and not fluid.

Although it is experienced by all of us, cisgenderism isn’t spoken about much in public discourse. It just happens. For example, we automatically attribute the pronouns he and she to others, identify clothing as masculine or feminine and expect others to use the male or female bathroom.

Adolescents with gender dysphoria pick up on this cisgenderism and realize that it’s usually socially unacceptable for them to make nonconforming decisions with respect to gender. Consequently, these adolescents suppress non-gender-conforming decisions for fear of judgment and ridicule.

Cisgenderism Impacts Children With Autism

Because cisgenderism is tacit and not talked about in public discourse, children with autism might not recognize it. Moreover, some kids with autism who recognize cisgenderism may not care. Thus, children with autism may be more likely to make gender-nonconforming decisions that are recognized by others as gender dysphoria.

It’s plausible that gender dysphoria is just as common in children and adolescents both with and without autism. However, those with autism won’t suppress themselves in light of prevailing mores that perpetuate cisgenderism. By not hiding their preferences, children with autism are more likely to be identified as also having gender dysphoria.

In addition to cultural cisgenderism, Kennedy argues that clinicians and researchers also perpetuate cisgenderism by seeing gender as merely binary, unchangeable, and essential. According to the experts, it’s automatically pathological to identify in a gender-nonconforming way. Experts fail to see that gender isn’t merely male or female but rather a spectrum.

Furthermore, experts delegitimize different gender experiences by labeling them as “phases” that will pass.

Bottom Line

Although documented, we still understand little about the co-occurrence of gender dysphoria and autism. Attempts to pinpoint causality between these two things are poorly substantiated. Experts also don’t understand how best to treat these two conditions when they present at the same time.

It’s possible that the frequency of gender dysphoria among children with autism is equal to that of children without autism. However, children without autism will more often suppress the desire to act in a gender-nonconforming way because of society’s gender expectations; whereas, children with autism are sometimes less likely to recognize these expectations or might not care.

Although rarely spoken about, gender is viewed as essential, unchangeable, and binary by all members of society, including experts doing studies and giving treatments. The world is set up for two gender presentations: male and female. We routinely assign gender to others with little thought, and experts pathologize unusual presentations with diagnoses like gender dysphoria. In reality, like sexual orientation, gender is likely fluid and lies on a spectrum.

Society expects that people fit nicely into one of two gender boxes, which is why there are separate male and female bathrooms, changing rooms, sports teams and so forth. It's possible that the distress that trans children feel may stem from the universal expectation that gender is binary. Perhaps, if society better accepted and accommodated the fluidity of gender, then many kids would feel more comfortable and less distressed.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data and statistics on autism spectrum disorder.

  2. de Vries AL, Noens IL, Cohen-Kettenis PT, van Berckelaer-Onnes IA, Doreleijers TA. Autism spectrum disorders in gender dysphoric children and adolescents. J Autism Dev Disord. 2010 Aug;40(8):930-6. doi:10.1007/s10803-010-0935-9

  3. Pasterski V, Gilligan L, Curtis R. Traits of autism spectrum disorders in adults with gender dysphoria. Arch Sex Behav. 2014 Feb;43(2):387-93. doi:10.1007/s10508-013-0154-5

  4. Fortunato A, Giovanardi G, Innocenzi E, Mirabella M, Caviglia G, Lingiardi V, Speranza AM. Is it autism? A critical commentary on the co-occurrence of gender dysphoria and autism spectrum disorder. J Homosex. 2021 Apr 14:1-19. doi:10.1080/00918369.2021.1905385

  5. Shumer DE, Reisner SL, Edwards-Leeper L, Tishelman A. Evaluation of Asperger syndrome in youth presenting to a gender dysphoria clinic. LGBT Health. 2016 Oct;3(5):387-90. doi:10.1089/lgbt.2015.0070

Additional Reading
  • Anna, I.R., et al. Gender dysphoria and autism spectrum disorder: A narrative review. International Review of Psychiatry. 2016; 28(1):70-80.
  • Baron-Cohen, S. The Extreme Male Brain Theory of Autism. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences. 2002; 6(6):248-254.
  • George, R, and Stokes, M. “Gender Is Not on My Agenda!”: Gender Dysphoria and Autism Spectrum Disorder. In: Mazzone, L, and Vitiello, B. Psychiatric Symptoms and Comorbidities in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Switzerland: Springer; 2016.
  • Kennedy, N. Cultural cisgenderism: Consequences of the imperceptible. Psychology of Women Section Review. 2013; 15(2):3-11.
  • Strang, JF, et al. Initial Clinical Guidelines for Co-Occurring Autism Spectrum Disorder and Gender Dysphoria or Incongruence in Adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. 2016; 1-11.