Photo of man in spectrum logo alongside quote

 

Dr Wenn Lawson, an autistic lecturer, psychologist, researcher, advocate and writer has been committed to sharing his professional and personal knowledge for 25 years. He has written and contributed to over 20 books and authored many academic papers.

Ahead of Dr Lawson’s talk at our autism, gender and sexuality conference, he talks to us about how to support autistic people experiencing gender dysphoria.

What was your journey to diagnosis like?

My journey to autism diagnosis was fraught with confusion, misdiagnosis (intellectual disability and schizophrenia), depression and lots of misunderstandings of my behaviour. Finding medical professionals who understood what was happening to me was elusive. I spent twenty five years in and out of mental health facilities and was on anti-psychotic medications and SSRIs for anxiety and depression for years. I was over 40 years old when I finally had an appropriate assessment for autism.

Gender dysphoria (GD) in autism is only starting to become understood. What would you say is key to understanding GD in autistic people?

Understanding gender dysphoria (GD) in autistic people doesn’t necessarily have only one answer. But if we don’t take GD seriously, many people in the autistic population will be living with discomfort, confusion of self-identity, poor mental health, difficulties of focus at school and at work, incredible struggles feeling like they have to fit into traditional gender roles or a total disregard for social norms and expectations so that suicidality seems like their only option.

The key message here is one of “listen and act or the opportunity for that person to live a connected and meaningful life might be totally and permanently lost.”

What are the specific difficulties of being an autistic person experiencing GD?

Specific difficulties for autistic GD individuals will vary. These include societal judgement. For example, a 6ft bearded male with a deep voice seeing no reason that they can’t walk down the high street in a dress or feeling no need to medically or socially transition because they know they are female, or an individual longing to socially and medically transition into the appearance and outer shell of the gender they know themselves to be but don’t have family or financial support, or so many other hurdles to get over, such as not coping with medical invasive tests due to sensory discomforts. So, there are environmental, social, personal, family, religious, physical and financial challenges, let alone finding an accepting community.

Do you agree with recent research that suggests GD may be more prevalent in the autistic population?

It does seem likely, for many reasons, that GD is more common in autistic people. When you consider our honesty, our preference for truth and fairness, then gender identity is likely to be more fluid and less binary. Why do we need to fit into a mode of social expectation if we truly don’t believe this is who we are? The non-autistic world is governed by social and traditional expectations, but we may not notice these or fail to see them as important. This frees us up to connect more readily with our true gender.

How can autistic people best be supported in exploring their gender identity?

Each person is different. It depends upon their personality, sensory sensitivities, family and educational disposition, financial and personal access to services. Firstly, autistic people need to be listened to, heard and then appropriate accommodations made for us. This might mean doing nothing apart from listen, watch and observe to build a fuller understanding of the bigger picture. For instance, is this an obsession with the other gender, a sensory discomfort/like, a phase or interest, or are they telling us this is who they are? Or it might be utterly paramount to act more quickly. For example, some young people need puberty blockers to give them time to process issues related to GD. This time factor of delaying puberty actually gives everyone time to explore options. If a young person is on the way to puberty, and they are telling you they are transgender, then joining a gender clinic or being placed in a specialist setting to gain access to appropriate support is essential. Once a young person’s voice changes and they are getting taller and sprouting a beard, it’s very difficult to undo. For young trans boys, having to go through menstruation and grow breasts can be an absolute nightmare.

Listening to the individual, working together, acceptance and becoming informed, joining specialist provision and following expert advice, taking things one step at a time and so on, are all ways to support the unveiling of gender identity for those who question their gender.

What key advice would you give to professionals when supporting autistic people experiencing GD or exploring their gender identity?

Advice for professionals would include making sure they are well informed on the topic and the issues regarding autism and gender dysphoria. Being autistic has a different impact upon this scenario and we may need different handling to the typical population. The whole process of gender discovery can mean the need to give information in autism friendly format.

For example, I was unaware of some of the challenges I would need to face when I transitioned. No-one explained the sensory and emotional process to me, only the mechanical one. I think this was because even if the general social and medical transition process is explained, it’s put in the format of details relevant for the non-autistic population. For example, I didn’t know that with a penis and standing to pee, I would literally be in the line of scent for noticing the fragrance of urine. It was helpful to know that urine smells less strong if I drink more water. There are many other detailed issues for different individuals at different stages of exploration. Professionals need to be ahead of the game!

Why do you think it’s important to share your story about your personal experience of GD?

I think it’s important to share my personal story because having autistic role models lets others know some of what it might be like for them. I wished I had had people to read about, to talk to and share with who might have understood me and would have been available to connect with. I learnt so much from YouTube videos of the transgender experience. But, the danger is if we don’t go through appropriate channels then we may be opening up our youth to wrong and misleading information. We need to counter ignorance and myth with reality and honesty in ways that increase support and make a difference.

How is autism perceived in Australia?

I think Australia is highly aware of autism, especially through all the TV and media that is out there today. But, awareness and action are different things. We speak too easily of inclusion without really understanding that real inclusion means accommodating an individual with all the right means to enable them to become all they can be. This can’t happen with traditional teaching because this doesn’t suit the learning styles of autistic people. Once Australia catches on to what inclusion really means, it will tell a different story. We are closer than ever, but still not close enough.

What’s the one thing you want people to take away from your talk at our conference?

The one thing I’d like people to take away from my talk is that gender is a spectrum, just like autism. This is not a linear line that goes from male to female.

Gender is a spectrum that incorporates many differences of experience, not just binary ones.

A spectrum that houses differences from: I’m not any gender, I’m me; to I’m male at the moment; to I’m female today; to I’m male; to I’m female; to I was born with a female or male looking body but my brain is the opposite or my brain is both or my brain isn’t set that way. This is the evolving reality of gender. So, please listen and work with us, step by step. I need you to hear me and help me sift through this confusion. Walk with me, not behind or in front of me, just with me.

 

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Join Dr Wenn Lawson and other expert speakers at our Autism, Gender and Sexuality conference this May.

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