Gender is tricky – it is reliant on the complex interweaving of cultural and social factors, including race, class and disability – for many Autistic people this means our gender is inextricable from our neurology (see Autigender: is autism and gender entwined?).
Gender norms are influenced by culturally specific expectations, attitudes and norms, modelled to us through social conditioning. These norms are typically innately understood and followed by most individuals; however, differences in social communication means many of us Autistic people misunderstand or disengage with gender role socialisation.
Some of us struggle with navigating gender norms, including understanding subtext and body language. We can find it overwhelming, or we can simply be disinterested in ideals created by neurotypical cisgender people. Living outside of these restrictive social frameworks explaining the ‘right’ way to do gender, allows us to understand its expansiveness; giving us the confidence to dress, communicate and interact with others in ways which fit our individual needs and interests.
Many of us are less inclined to understand ourselves and others in fixed terms perhaps due to the recognition that ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are empty signifiers. This understanding allows us to acknowledge feelings beyond traditional gender categories, actively enabling us to create unique gender expressions and identities. Consequently, our gender and neurodivergence allows us to live and perform gender differently, often imbuing both feminine and masculine qualities.
Sensory processing differences can also influence our gender expression, as we may find some clothing textures and styles incredibly uncomfortable or painful to wear. I often opt for clothes which are made of loose-fitting linen as I am usually very hot and do not like clothes clinging to me. Choosing clothes which better suit our needs may mean we wear clothes considered to be ‘outside’ of gender norms. Many of us also feel intense pain or discomfort when our hair is brushed or cut, this may mean that we have longer hair, regardless of our assigned sex. I struggle with executive function and have short hair so that I can better maintain it. Also, some perfumes and colognes can give me migraines, so I often avoid them altogether.
Arguably, us Autistic folk have greater gender literacy than our neurotypical peers, as we mature outside of typical gender development and socialisation. Many of us are disinterested in the interaction and validation of peers and follow our own interests which may not ‘match’ our assigned sex. We engage in our own unique gender journeys which suit our own individual needs, not the social needs of others.
Personally, normative ideas of binary gender has always been a strange concept which does not reflect how I feel about myself or how I relate to others. It has always lacked meaning to me. I am doing gender the Autistic way and that is just as valid or right as any other way.