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Response to Attwood Comments on Autism and Gender Dysphoria

Response to Attwood on transition

7 June, 2020

In an interview on ABC Mornings (Radio Melbourne, 4 June, 2020), and in an article published in The Australian (4 June 2020), Tony Attwood launched a campaign calling for research into why a disproportionate number of individuals presenting at gender dysphoria clinics have, what he calls, “characteristics of Autism”.

Reframing Autism, an Autistic-led advocacy and education organisation, would like to draw attention to the misinformation and misunderstanding underpinning Attwood’s claims and to their potential to do great harm to the Autistic community.

Reframing Autism does not debate that a statistically significant cooccurrence of gender dysphoria and Autism exists. We do not deny the need for objective, co-produced research into the size and nature of the overlap between Autism and gender divergent identities. Our concern specifically relates to Attwood’s unevidenced and ultimately irresponsible conjecture.

Although he could not provide robust – or indeed any – evidence to support his claims, Attwood proposed sensationalist theories about why Autistic young people seek gender transition in greater numbers than non-autistics. While insisting that he did not know the reason for this overlap, Attwood asserted a variety of unsubstantiated reasons. He did not once acknowledge that genuine gender dysphoria is the most compelling – and obvious – reason.

Attwood seems convinced that Autistic youths – having experienced prolonged bullying, rejection and loneliness – are desperate for a sense of belonging. He argues that they have a “fragmented sense of self, and self-identity”, which leads them to examine their gender identity. The implication of his argument is that (a) these Autistic youths seek belonging in the trans community, and (b) that their examination of their identity results in mistaken or misled ideas about their gender identity.

But surely, a simpler argument might be made. Rather than having a “fragmented sense of self”, might these Autistic youths have a much more developed sense of self, having had reason to explore their identities to a greater depth than is usual for their same-age peers? The Autistic community would argue that we are generally more aware of our authentic identities than our peers because identity has been more crucial in our journeys. Autistic prevalence in gender clinics can be convincingly argued from the point of view of enhanced self-knowledge, rather than misplaced yearning.

Autistic prevalence in gender clinics can be convincingly argued from the point of view of enhanced self-knowledge, rather than misplaced yearning.

In The Australian article, Attwood implies that Autistic individuals may have gender dysphoria because gender identity has become an area of expertise or “special interest” for them. This argument is nonsensical. Autistic people do develop areas of deep interest, in which they become expert. But to suggest that an Autistic passion would drive an individual to want to transition reveals Attwood’s outdated, reductive, simplistic and cliched understanding of Autistic “special interests”.

Attwood also suggests – again without evidence – that Autistic youths approach transition with the hope that it will “fix” their autism. It is difficult to conceive of a more insulting and offensive charge. This claim undermines the transition process (which is intensive and requires the involvement of numerous medical professionals, parents, and the individual themselves). It assumes an insulting level of incompetence by dismissing the self-knowledge and self-determination of the Autistic youth and their family. It belittles Autism, since crucially many Autistic individuals would choose not to “fix” their Autism. And it fails to consider the dedication and commitment that transition requires.

Attwood has, very simply, misconstrued the causes for the correlation between transition and Autism without regard to research, facts, or the Autistic community, who surely have a right to comment on their own gender experiences.

Reframing Autism calls on Attwood to produce research and evidence for his claims that

  • Autistic individuals seek gender transitions to “fix” their Autism,
  • Autistic transitions fail in greater numbers than non-autistic transitions,
  • having failed to “fix” their Autism, Autistic youth who have transitioned become suicidal, and
  • that Autistic transition is any less valid or justified than non-autistic transition.

At the very least, he might do enough reading to speak about these issues in a respectful and nuanced way. (Gender and sexual identity are entirely separate domains, Tony.)

The Autistic community is acutely aware of our differences. We are acutely aware that our identities – our neurology, our experiences, our ways of being and processing – do not accord with the majority. These are truths we live with every day. Is it so hard to believe, then, that that awareness brings with it a gift of freedom, freedom to explore all the nuances, differences and subtleties of our identities and see a complexity of those identities? Gender included.

Dr Melanie Heyworth

CEO & Founder, Reframing Autism

Dr Heyworth is available for comment via info@reframingautism.com.au.

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