Gender roles are by nature a construct of societal norms and opinions. These roles have change throughout history based on new beliefs, the needs of a community, empowerment and equality, or the absence of understanding or adherence to those roles. They are generally accepted or practiced by the majority as those who don’t follow the typical roles can face harsh criticism or feel ostracized or rejected, but what exactly are gender roles and how do they effect those on the spectrum who don’t typically understand or follow social norms?
Gender unlike its biological counterpart, sex, is the expression of masculinity, femininity, neither, or both through actions, dress, socialization, interests, etc. It sometimes aligns with biological sex i.e. male genitals equals a masculine gender role, however, that isn’t always the case for a number of reasons. Some people are born with both male and female anatomical parts but may chose to express only one gender. Other people are born with one specific sex but may feel more comfortable expressing the typical gender appearance of the opposite sex. Additionally, some people may have one physical sex and express several traits or no traits associated with the two standard expressions of gender commonly referred to as the gender binary. There have been terms created to better express where on the gender “spectrum” a person may fall such as Cis-gender (sex and gender match), gender-fluid (sex and gender are completely separate), agender (someone who feels neither traditional gender, if any, fits their person), androgynous (those who may express both traditional genders simultaneously), or third gender (those who want to avoid the labels and expressions of the typical gender binary of male/female all together). Obviously this is a very short and condensed list which in reality is much longer and constantly evolving as humans begin to move forward out of traditional, historical roles. If you are interested in gender studies or want more information, I suggest reading, A Guide to Gender by Sam Killermann or checking out the “Genderbread Person” chart.
Why is it important to understand gender when it comes to people on the Autism spectrum? First, there have been clinical studies conducted that showed a higher rate of Autism among those who also experienced a Gender Identity Disorder (GID).* Second, clinicians, parents, and people on the spectrum need answers to questions like: is the co-morbidity of ASD and a GID due to how the brain is wired, or is it because the social aspects of gender roles and/or the formation of those gender roles is different in people with ASD from either lack of social understanding or Theory of Mind processes?* Autism is a fairly new concept in the grand scheme of things, therefore, the studies surrounding Autism and the co-morbid disorders are really just beginning, and they are not understood well enough to be tested in a scientific or clinical type environment at the rate that other mental health diagnoses are. I believe that because gender roles are not necessarily considered polite dinner conversation that they aren’t being discussed as openly as they should be. People equate gender expressions outside the traditional gender binary as being unorthodox and uncomfortable because it goes against the norms that are widely accepted and generally have been throughout most of history. While this subject may mean discomfort and petulance it doesn’t mean we can avoid discussing one aspect of Autism which effects the mental, physical, and social well-being of many of those on the spectrum especially vulnerable adolescents and older children.
Some people with Autism may experience gender confusion or be concerned with gender dysphoria, but that doesn’t mean everyone with ASD will. One of the clinical studies in particular noted that while many young children started out with interests particularly associated with the opposite gender, they eventually grew out of those interests and fell into more traditional gender roles. Others had interests after puberty, but those interests weren’t specifically associated with a gender identity disorder. Few, however, did have diagnosable GID and ASD together. In a previous blog, I wrote about the obsession-like interests which are one of the many traits associated with Autism. We don’t usually choose which subjects or objects are going to trigger such strong interests. It may be due to positive sensory input, challenging intellectual requirements, certain movements, or particular skill requirements that a person has. I will use myself as an example–I grew up playing in the mud and driving toy trucks through the dirt of our backyard. My mother did her best to keep me in cute outfits and raise a well-mannered lady, but much to her chagrin perhaps, my interests were always less than lady-like. Other girls may love dolls, or they may love frogs. Boys may like sports, or they may have an interest in purses. This isn’t necessarily Autism-specific, however, while neurotypical children might pick up on the subtle body language cues by adults who don’t approve of their choice in interests or are corrected, those with Autism may mimic those they feel safe with or look up to for their interests and not realize the gender association of those interests aren’t socially accepted. I believe that many of the cross-gendered interests come about because of associations between people and objects and feelings of safety or security. For example, a young boy diagnosed with ASD might have an interest in purses and scarves because he feels safe with his mother who always has her purse with her and the scarves provide a constant pressure and warmth that is appealing. The boy doesn’t understand the negative body language of people who disapprove of his choices, and he may not see the problem liking things that give him positive feedback which aren’t harmful. The same is true of my interests. The tactile feedback from lace, tulle, and other textures commonly found in little girls’ clothing was a huge negative for me, but cotton and softer materials which are common with boy’s t-shirts and pants weren’t triggering. Dolls weren’t interesting because they required a certain type of imaginative play that I didn’t understand, but trucks were practical and could haul dirt and didn’t require role playing. I never recall at that age worrying that other girls might find it odd that I didn’t like dolls, however, as I got older I remember finding new interests because I also developed an awareness of the social consequences of having non-conforming interests.
Puberty is the pivotal moment for most gender-related issues. Besides being a major life cycle stage, this age is generally when boys and girls begin to move on from sharing innocent friendships to separating into groups of like-gendered peers due to the development of attractions and romantic relationships. The teens who don’t transition along that social time line get left behind or become ostracized from their peers. Puberty also brings on physical changes which were less apparent before. Young bodies are fairly androgynous, but puberty may bring about physical changes which aren’t positive for those with feelings of gender dysphoria. Additionally, kids diagnosed with ASD may begin to understand some social norms or may be getting to an age where they begin to develop their identities in relation to their peers rather than just their individual selves. All these reasons may be relational to the clinical study’s findings that most children grow out of or solidify their gender-related issues during this stage of development.
Adulthood, while not as brutal as the teenage transition, isn’t particularly easy either. Gender non-conforming people often face the same feelings of rejection or harassment by their adult peers, co-workers, or acquaintances, but while most on the Autism spectrum won’t struggle with a gender identity disorder there are going to be some who do whether they understand the social norms or not. Whether the way someone expresses their gender can be diagnosed with a diagnostician’s manual or not, those of us who dress and act a certain way out of comfort rather than what is generally accepted will face varied degrees of contempt. Adults, however, unlike children are often held to a higher level of understanding of the neurotypical norms and are judged by their ability to follow them. For example, I understand there are certain differences between men and women’s clothing, however, I can’t tolerate women’s styles for a number of sensory reasons. I see the obvious differences between men and women’s hobbies and skill sets, however, I find certain male dominated skills practical and female dominated hobbies lacking in intellectual stimulation. It doesn’t mean I find all women’s hobbies boring or all men’s hobbies worth practicing, but there seems to be an unspoken rule that women who practice tire rotations are somehow less feminine or men who like to garden are less masculine.
The idea that I am somehow less valuable as a person because my biological parts do not match 100% to my gender expressions is curious and slightly disturbing but not shocking. Being different in general than the majority of the neurotypical population or even being a starkly different neurotypical in a neurotypical population is reason to be ostracized, but it is particularly disheartening when people on the spectrum are being harassed or unnecessarily punished or corrected for having interests or expressing themselves in ways that don’t line up with the social norm. Our choices which make up who we are and how we look might be because our personalities aren’t the same as our physical body parts or because we have an aversion to the sensory input of a particular style, or because our practical and straightforward nature allows us to believe we can purchase what is comfortable and convenient rather than what is trendy without consequences socially. Children especially are taught at an early age to enjoy the stereotypically gendered hobbies and fashions that match their sex, but what if teaching them to act in accordance with their bodies is actually harming their development? What if by trying to change them to be social acceptable, they are actually losing a way to feel safe or cope with sensory overload or stimulate in a positive way? In order to find out the definitive answers to some of these questions we first need to have the discussion, and hopefully that allows us to learn more about the intricacies of Autism and its co-morbid partners.**Works cited in this blog are from two scholarly articles related to Autism Spectrum Disorders and Gender Identity Disorders if you’d like to read them in full.
De Vries, A.L.C., Noens, I.L.J., Cohen-Kettenis, P.T. et al. J Autism Dev Disord (2010) 40: 930. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-0935-9