Trans and Autistic: supporting gender diverse Autistic students

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Living at the intersection of trans and Autistic identities is a unique and insightful experience, however many of us who occupy this space have difficulty in gaining support within educational settings.

Many of us find it difficult to find teaching staff who are both knowledgeable about, and affirming to, Autistic and transgender experiences. Those who are more knowledgeable and accepting, need to ensure that they take a holistic approach which develops the many aspects of their students, not just solely focusing on matters relating to gender and neurology.

This short list is a quick resource (each point shall be explored in more detail below):

  • Create environments in which all students are valued
  • Give children and young people the vocabulary to express themselves
  • Trans and neuro-affirming practice including accessibility in classrooms, gender neutral toilets, name and pronouns changes, LGBTQIA+ sessions in relationship and sex education classes and disability sessions in personal and social education lessons
  • Setting wide acceptance – celebrate neurodiversity days, disability Pride, LGBTQIA+ Pride. Also reflect on trans day of visibility, trans day of mourning and disability day of morning
  • Check your own ableism and transphobia and any other bigotry you may be carrying – consciously or subconsciously
  • Seek out training and advice from trans Autistic people (that can be me by the way!)
  • Learn from the people you teach – they know themselves better than anyone does!
  • Remember that if trans Autistic students are not supported they can experience very real harm.

It is vital that educational professionals understand, support and advocate the value of human diversity within their student body and within wider society. This is especially vital when supporting young people who hold several marginalised identities, as they may need more focused support in developing self-esteem and agency.

Educational professionals are often the first adults brought into the child’s social network, therefore the extent to which they support their needs and interests can be influential throughout the young person’s lifespan. Negative experiences within educational settings, for example, can cause transgender autistic youth to respond to their unmet needs through self-injurious and harmful behaviours. These behaviours can become part of negative self-prophesying, in which children feel that no one accepts or values them. Appropriate and empathetic support that challenges such beliefs, can save these young people from absenteeism, mental health issues and in the most extreme cases suicide ideation and attempt). Undergoing such distress can be especially intense for neurodivergent young people who experience differences in managing their emotions and behaviours). These risks further illustrate the importance for educational professionals and settings to support and value transgender Autistic students.

Despite typical understandings of adolescence as a time of immense turmoil it is often a period of increased creative social and emotional development where identities are practiced and refined. Practitioners should remember that young people’s ambiguous sense of themselves as uniquely neurological, gendered persons is not a consequence of them still learning who they are; it is who they are. Indeed, for some young people, gender identity and expression can fluctuate throughout their lifetime, not just through adolescence.

These young people may hold more fluid or flexible ideas about their gender, which can often be difficult for others to understand, especially when combined with Autistic differences. Therefore, it is important that educational professionals listen to what the student is saying both in their words and their behaviours, reassuring them that their feelings are natural and valid. Practitioners must listen without judgement as these are often complex emotions to understand and express and can be exacerbated by social and communication differences. As Laura, an autistic transgender woman reflects (in her book: Uncomfortable Labels: My Life as a Gay Autistic Trans Woman*):

“Looking back at my childhood being a boy never quite felt right in a way I struggled to really articulate until far later in my life. I was aware from the time I started school that something was different between me and my male peers, but I was also aware that I didn’t really fit in with any of my peers due to my sensory and social differences.”

Laura suggests that she did not have the vocabulary to express her emotions about being assigned male at birth. For Laura, there were difficulties in understanding and recognising a difference between her autistic and gender ‘struggles.’ She assumed for many years that her feelings about her gender where just another ‘oddity’, one that she believed she shared with others who just knew how to hide it better. Laura was not diagnosed as Autistic until she was eighteen, meaning she did not receive early help which may have supported her social, emotional and educational development. Laura also came out as transgender in the same year, this meant that she had already begun puberty and therefore the opportunity for medical care which could have made her transition less traumatic were unavailable to her.

Laura’s example illustrates the importance of an accepting school culture in which everyone feels they can explore their differences. These cultures create open discourses on different genders, sexualities and neurologies, giving young people the vocabulary to express their identities at an earlier age.  Starting these discussions in childhood and adolescence may allow young people to become more confident and accepting of themselves and others. These open, non-judgmental discussions support the social and emotional development of all students, as they are given the opportunity to understand more diverse perspectives and experiences.

When supporting gender divergent Autistic students, it is important that professionals also listen to and reflect on their own values and those held by the setting they work in. When educators hold fixed ideas about autism and gender they deny alternative ways of being which can impact on those they teach. Often teachers are found to reinforce traditional cultural ideology, usually based upon ideas of gender as static and binary. Viewing gender in this way suggests that the sex assigned at birth is the person’s ‘true’ gender; these beliefs are not reflective of gender divergent students.

Even when transgender students are validated, they are often still frequently considered in terms of being either trans-female or trans-male, with more fluid experiences such as genderqueer and bi-gender identities being completely disregarded. Students who are transgender and Autistic are often categorised into restrictive and ineffective labels which often mis-gender and isolate these individuals within their educational setting.  The history of autism as a perceived male-specific neurotype does affects the support of Autistic students who are not male. Educators often work within frameworks which are inherently erasive to female and transgender experiences of neurodiversity.

Teachers and support staff should remain reflective and curious about the changing needs and interests of those they teach. Some practitioners may still be constrained by notions of binary genders, consciously or unconsciously, encouraging students to conform to the gender stereotypes. This dualistic thinking can be harmful for students who are questioning their gender and can cause undue confusion and frustration for those who do not identify with binary pronouns (she / her and he / him). This can be especially problematic for young people who identify as non-binary as there is no centrally understood image of a non-binary person (as that is really the whole point of being non-binary!). Due to this, non-binary students are often mis-gendered as male or female even if they have an androgynous or ‘neutral’ appearance.  

Ideas of genderfluidity and being agender may be difficult for practitioners to understand, especially if they lack first-hand experience of gender diversity. This lack of knowledge is particularly problematic when professionals perceive children as incapable of making decisions without the help of adults, which can be more prominent for Autistic children and young people. As Laura, and Autistic transgender woman reflects*:

An adult’s assumption that having an autism spectrum condition means you are incapable of proper self-understanding, or that you’re susceptible to being manipulated into believing things about yourself that you did not previously.

Laura suggests that the professionals and other adults in her adolescence believed she was incapable of understanding herself and her gender due to her being Autistic. She was considered as unable to understand, shape or manage her gender identity development. This may have been connected to ideas that Autistic people  are all asexual and therefore agender. Therefore, it is vital that practitioners are trained in and understand the importance of supporting young people’s developing sense of self, as well as celebrating their unique identities.

Giving students agency over their neurotype, gender expressions and identities can improve rates of self-acceptance and self-efficacy. Unfortunately, this sense of agency has been undermined by the often-unmet sex education needs of transgender youth. In the UK, this is due in part to the long-lasting influences of Section 28 which stated that a local authority could not ‘promote’ homosexuality and non-nuclear families.

Section 28 erased all LGBTQ+ experiences within schools, leaving young people with no queer role models and an entirely heterosexual and cisgender curriculum. Despite its eventual repeal in 2003, many schools and professionals are still affected by Section 28, having been denied opportunities for equality and diversity training and inclusive settings in which to work. Many LGBTQIA+ people felt barred from working in education, with many of those still employed within educational settings having to keep their gender and sexual divergence a secret through fear of legal repercussions). Therefore, it is crucial that practitioners ensure that lessons across the curriculum, especially in sex and relationship education (SRE), are accessible and reflective of all students in their setting.

Many Autistic students are also excluded from sex and relationship education, especially if they attend a special educational needs (SEN) school. This may be due to infantilising Autistic adolescence, meaning that schools are overly protective or unsure about how to expose vulnerable young people to sexual and relational information. This information is often judged as inappropriate and unnecessary for such young people, especially those who have more complex needs. Students who attend mainstream education can also be subject to inadequate SRE which does not cover disabled and queer experiences within its curriculum.

Tailoring SRE to the needs of Autistic students can create education programmes which empower Autistic transgender youth to resist cis-sexist pressure and discrimination and develop positive queer identities. Using school-wide initiatives to build awareness and challenge stereotypes, such as celebrating LGBT History Month and including transgender Autistic people in course materials, can bring the whole school community together. However, in their effort to protect and celebrate Autistic transgender youth, professionals need to ensure that they do not create more invisible marginalised categories of gender and neurology. Taking actions to create such school-wide cultures of acceptance allow all students to feel safe and valued within a culture that celebrates differences. Inclusive practice within educational settings ensures that all teachers role model behaviours and values which positively affect the socialisation of all students.

Educational professionals are at different stages in their disability and LGBTQIA+ cultural knowledge; increasing this competency of diversity issues is the ethical responsibility of everyone within the setting. Many practitioners remain unaware of how to support those who are both transgender and Autistic. Inexperience, coupled with a lack of guidelines and policies, means that many professionals are left to rely on their own experiential knowledge and values to frame their practice.  This can expose neuro and gender divergent students to a variety of value-based practice, ranging from support and affirmation to ableism and cissexism.

Teachers who are uncomfortable with diverse identities can leave bullying and harassment unchallenged, showing a compliant resistance to Autistic and transgender experiences. This behaviour is often a form of unconscious and unintentional discrimination which can make educational settings uncomfortable for gender divergent Autistic students. These subtle micro-aggressions often go unopposed by other members of staff or students, some of whom may also be engaging in similar behaviour. Leaving such transphobic and ableist views and jokes unchallenged can also affect the behaviour and beliefs of those who are remarked upon. Experiencing micro-aggressions within school can mean that transgender Autistic students adopt internalised transphobic attitudes and ableism, unconsciously denying themselves the freedom to live authentically. However, if practitioners understand transgender Autistic experiences as transforming the landscape of gender and neurotype possibilities, they can create an empowering learning experience for all students.

Educational experiences can be transformational for trans Autistic students however the  support (or lack of) from educators can change the outcomes for these students. The values and practices of educational staff often effect the social and emotional development of these students. Lack of training, or the use of poor training, sometimes causes disturbing mixed-messages. However, giving these students confidence in their self-expression through open discourses, setting-wide inclusive initiatives and reflective practice, can allow them pride in their divergent gender and neurology. The way to address issues related to cis-sexism and ableism within education is to understand that these issues affect everyone within the setting, so when practitioners advocate for transgender Autistic students they advocate for all students.

*Quotes from Laura Kate Dale’s Uncomfortable Labels: My Life as a Gay Autistic Trans Woman.

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