The core characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) include difficulties with social and communication skills as well as having specific restricted or repetitive behaviors. These autism traits are present in many areas of daily life including how one experiences gender identity. Historically, it was questioned whether people with autism could develop a gender identity. But studies now show that that they can and do experience gender identity, except in the rare circumstance in which the person is not cognitively able to understand gender in terms of whether they and others are male, female, or another gender.
Another term used in the DSM-5 (the classification of mental disorders – which also identifies autism spectrum disorder) is known as gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is when someone experiences discomfort with the sex they were assigned at birth, and they identify with another gender instead. They have a strong desire to be a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. Like autism, gender dysphoria is becoming more common. This is likely due to greater awareness, greater acceptance, along with other social and psychological factors.
Some research suggests there could be a link between autism and gender dysphoria, meaning that people with autism spectrum disorder might be more likely to experience gender dysphoria than people of the general population. There is minimal evidence for why this is the case, which suggests that more research is needed in this area.
People with autism often feel socially out-of-place. This might play a role in how they experience gender identity, as well. For instance, people with autism who are born and assigned a female gender might not identify with the way females are expected to behave, think, and look according to society’s expectations and pressures. This might be one factor that influences them to question their gender. This could lead to identifying with another gender, such as transgender or nonbinary.
People with autism are more likely to experience atypical gender identity as compared to non-autistic people. Research shows that people who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth are anywhere from three to six times as likely to have autism spectrum disorder as compared to cisgender people – those who do identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Gender-diverse people are also found to have more traits and symptoms of autism than cisgender people. The term ‘gender-diverse’ refers to people whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. This includes people who identify as transgender, nonbinary, or gender-queer.
In summary, compared to neurotypical people, people with autism spectrum disorder are more likely to be gender diverse and gender diverse people are more likely to have traits of autism.
Some research has explored the relationship between autism and gender identity. For instance, a study found that about 5 percent of the cisgender people in the research study had autism while 24 percent of the gender-diverse people had autism.
As mentioned, gender diverse people are more likely than cisgender people to experience autistic traits. For instance, gender diverse people are more likely to experience sensory difficulties. They might be hypersensitive to certain sensory input. This could be when a person gets overwhelmed by certain noises or when they are extremely uncomfortable by certain textures or if they don’t like being in crowds. On the other hand, they might be hyposensitive which is when they seek out sensory input. This could be when a person finds comfort using a weighted blanket or experiencing deep pressure.
Individuals with autism are thought to be less influenced by societal expectations as compared to non-autistic people in some ways. Particularly, they might not conform to gender roles and stereotypes or typical social behaviors. This can make it more difficult for them to fit in socially. This also plays a role in how people with autism tend to be different from others and how they tend to follow their own path in a way. Because of this, it is likely that people with autism are more apt to be open to and to pursue non-traditional gender identities and sexual orientations. Many people on the autism spectrum tend to go against typical binary social expectations.
The autistic community has more variability in sexual orientation as compared to the general population. Sexual orientation, which refers to whom a person is attracted to, varies in the autistic community just as it does in the general population; however, people with autism are more likely to experience non-heterosexual sexual orientations. They are more likely to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or demisexual. They are more likely to be attracted to a person for who they are rather than to a person having the opposite gender. This doesn’t mean that people with autism aren’t heterosexual. They certainly can be. It just means that people with autism tend to be more likely to have non-heterosexual sexual orientations than those in the general population.
This also relates to their own gender identity. As mentioned earlier, gender identity refers to how a person thinks about their own gender. Those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth which is typically based on external genitalia are called cisgender. People with autism might be less likely to follow traditional gender roles and expectations and may be more likely to explore the possibility that they don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. They are then more likely to identify as non-binary or transgender as compared to the general population of people who are more likely to align their beliefs, behaviors, and perspectives with typical societal messages about who they are and who they should be which includes being cisgender.
Anna I.R. Van Der Miesen, Hannah Hurley & Annelou L.C. De Vries (2016) Gender dysphoria and autism spectrum disorder: A narrative review, International Review of Psychiatry, 28:1, 70-80, DOI: 10.3109/09540261.2015.1111199
Dattaro, L. (2020). Largest Study to Date Confirms Overlap Between Autism and Gender Diversity. Retrieved April 23, 2023 from https://doi.org/10.53053/WNHC6713