I was late for lunch. At the time, I was juggling a teaching position with my work as public engagement fellow and running a journal; I’d made an appointment to meet a new graduate student assistant—but time got away from me. I was out of breath by the time I arrived, head still spinning with the effort of code-switching from one role to the next. It would take a few minutes to pull myself together, but the student was already there. I sat down, attempted some small talk (badly), rearranged my jacket on the chair four or five times. When I got myself in order, we commenced our discussion of the journal as we waited on sandwiches.
“I want to ask you something,” she said. “How do you keep all your personas straight? I mean, how do you keep from losing yourself, being autistic and all?”
“I am not autistic,” I corrected. She put down her lunch.
“But you are. Just like me.”
She meant no offense. But I felt outed, vulnerable. I’d worked most of my life to present as “normal” and even believed it myself on good days. I couldn’t accept her casual diagnosis. It would take a coming-out journey (my second) to help me arrive at a place of acceptance.
I do not (yet) have an official diagnosis for autism. This is by design. I was born in the late 1970s in the midst of a family crisis. My mother rescued us both from my biological father and keep me hidden away at my grandparents’ house for fear he might violate her restraining order. I developed unusual behaviors. I could walk and talk in full sentences by the age of eight months. As a toddler I put thought bubbles above my crayon drawings with pictographs for meaning. I loved words. I memorized stories, poems, songs. My grandmother considered me “gifted.” But in addition to these traits, I could scarcely be handled or touched. I could not be taken into enclosed or noisy spaces; I bit and scratched other toddlers. I understand now that I suffer easily from sensory overload—I can get physically ill simply walking into a junk shop. Back then, I was just “being weird,” and it was thought best if we kept it to ourselves.
In school, I had to adapt. It was hard going. I excelled in every subject and failed miserably (and embarrassingly) at social cues. But to my young mind, that was just part of growing up, and I wasn’t as good at it as other people. Don’t be weird, I told myself. Don’t be weird.
I’m weird. I memorize lists of normative behaviors (introduce yourself, make eye contact, ask about the family, don’t make those weird noises, don’t tic in front of people, wear the right face for the job), but I never quite get it all right. Even so, I still did not think I was autistic. Being told I must be, by someone who was also autistic, distressed and shocked me. All of my associations for neurodivergence came with baggage.
I may never forgive Rain Man. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond, the autistic elder brother of Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) shows him unable to communicate effectively, prone to public meltdowns, and—because the doctor deems him “unable to make his own decisions” or function in society—ultimately in need of institutionalization. The film never provides Raymond’s point of view—only the perspectives of those around him, who are entrusted to make his decisions for him. I was horrified by the movie. It frightened me. I understood very clearly that there were accepted norms, and that you could be locked away for violating them.
I knew I wasn’t like other people. But I had also internalized the idea that this was “fixable,” that I was curable. Adaptive behavior is recommended to parents of autistic kids today: help your child fit in socially, they say, as though autism were something to be schooled out of you by proper training. Masking may be a means of hiding who you are to prevent being outed (or harassed), but it comes with consequences, including anxiety, exhaustion—and loss of identity. And that, at least in part, was the question put to me by the graduate student when I arrived late to lunch: How do I present all these faces without losing my authenticity? It frightened me that I didn’t have an answer.
In my early attempts to adapt, I used other human beings as look-books. I copied expressions, ways of being in the world, how to perform emotion so I could be better understood. I learned to see social interactions as a play; I can handle any genre—so long as I have the script and know the dress code. Trouble happens when there is no script, or someone changes it halfway through. I spent harrowing lunch hours driving home in traffic because I’d worn the wrong self for the day’s activities. I can feel physically sick if I misread the type of attire expected for an occasion. It has been mistaken in me for vanity, but I’m not dressing to impress others so much as putting on the part required. It came natural to me to play both male and female parts; I excelled in almost any costume. I didn’t know who I was without them.
I left my job in 2018. It should have been liberating; I’d just embarked on a freelance career and had a book contract. Working from home meant nothing to dress for, and without a specific role, I felt anxious and adrift. Similar experiences played out for people around the world in 2020 with pandemic lockdowns; I was an early adopter. I flipped from my work wardrobe of power suit-skirts and heels to men’s jeans and T-shirts—but I felt between selves. Maybe there was a reason for that, my therapist suggested. Did I feel like a different gender from the one I was assigned? It wasn’t a solution, but it was at least the right kind of question.
My body has always been a vehicle for the transportation and translation of ideas, and all the scattered performances were what I collectively called “myself.” The specific bits of my body didn’t really enter into the equation all that much. Many trans people experience terrible dysphoria over aspects of their bodies and seek to change them; some experience none and some fall between. For me, my gender felt wholly outside of, rather than a reflection of, myself. Extrinsic. I had mainly constructed it from other external cues.
I am married to a cisgendered and heterosexual (cis/het) man, and so most people assume I am a cis/het woman. I had neither expressed nor denied it; I just hadn’t considered the question. I have always had traits largely considered “masculine,” and my sexuality is pretty fluid, too. Mark intrigued and interested me; I fell in love with him for that, not because he was a man. So, I had to ask myself: was I just performing as cis/het?
For me, gender was something to be worn and used, a means of interacting with the world; I didn’t know how to see it as an identity in and of itself. Jude Ellison S. Doyle wrote recently in an article titled “Divergent: The Emerging Research on the Connection between Trans Identities and Neurodivergence”: “It wasn’t possible to transition as long as I thought of myself as defective.… It was all so exhausting I could barely leave the house.” I identified with that sentiment. I had been trying to choose a single new gender (and to do it right), but was still only expressing a part of who I am. In my search to understand what my identity meant to me, rather than how I packaged it for other people, I realized I am gender-fluid: nonbinary but containing multitudes. In that new freedom, I found myself returning to that otherpossibility. I had come out as gender fluid; could I also come out as autistic?
In August of 2020, the authors of the largest study to date on the overlap of autism and gender diversity announced their findings: about 25 percent of gender-diverse people have autism (compared to about 5 percent of cisgender people), leading them to suggest transgender and gender-diverse adults were between three and six times more likely to be diagnosed as autistic.* As Doyle puts it, “’Autistic’ is one of the most trans things you can be.” So why isn’t this connection more well-known?
One point, remarked on by Doyle and also by Eric Garcia in his new book We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, is that autism is underdiagnosed along gendered lines. Cisgender men are identified as autistic more frequently, and at a much younger age, than either cisgender women or gender-diverse people. Even the autistic stereotypes are masculinized; an “extreme male brain” theory posits that autistic people process the world through a “male” lens. In truth, there are no significant differences between male and female brains—but, as Garcia points out, some autistic behaviors are seen as “female behaviors.” It is more likely, then, that a boy who behaves neuro-atypically will be recognized and diagnosed. If parents, teachers and therapists are seeing symptoms along a binary of gender, they’re going to miss people, and among gender-nonconformists, it’s a significant percentage.
For many, an acceptance of autism diagnosis leads to a questioning of gender normative rules and an embrace of gender diversity. Garcia quotes Charlie Garcia-Spiegel, a presenter at Autspace, a conference on, for, and by neurodivergent people: “We [autistic people] can see a lot of the social rules around gender are bullshit, basically.” It suggests that the 25 percent of autistics identifying as trans have been freed to do so by their autism. For me, this occurred in reverse. Questioning how I felt about my gender(s) gave me license to look at the other performed behaviors I’d learned to cultivate. It’s also made me realize how much I have been impacted by social expectations, and how hard I had worked to meet them over the years.
As Eryn Star, an autistic and transmasculine writer and advocate emphasizes, trans people encounter prejudice, violence and denial of access to health care and other services. Some people claim they are illegitimate and want to prohibit them from living authentic lives. At the same time, people with autism are frequently rendered as incapable of making decisions for themselves about their sexuality. This increasingly public disdain and discrimination against trans and autistic people has surprising champions, including author J. K. Rowling, who suggested that autistic trans people assigned female at birth (AFAB) were being pressured to transition. (The autistic community responded with the hashtag #WeAreNotConfused.) “I have faced,” says Star, “the denial of my queerness because I am disabled.” Living authentically as both trans and neuro-atypical means confronting what I had always feared: if you cannot ape normativity, you may be denied your autonomy.
For years, I feared acknowledging my autism because I had absorbed the prejudice surrounding disability. Autistic people (as Garcia’s book title emphasizes) are not broken. Autism is disabling because we live in a world built for and by neurotypical people. Acknowledging my autism is not an admission of weakness; it’s a statement about myself as a self.
For Star, rediscovering their body as an autistic person no longer repressed by social pressure led to discoveries about their gender as transmasculine nonbinary. For comedian Hannah Gadsby, the late diagnosis autism led her to “be kinder to myself” and “not always to take the responsibility.” Both early and late diagnosis with autism offers a window into understanding our own identities. I’ve learned that I have a right to ask for and expect accommodation. Neurotypicals think they are meeting us halfway because they don’t realize we’ve already come miles and miles just to get here. I am neurodivergent. I can be forgiven for missing cues and instead be honored for how much work goes into social interactions, all the time.
So much of this—perhaps all of this—comes down to acceptance, accommodation and justice. After a lifetime of trying to perfect myself, I’m finally living in my own authenticity: autistic, gender-fluid, unique. I’m still in the play. But if I don’t have a script, I can write my own, or I can cut the scene and draw the curtain. No matter how we identify, trans, neurodivergent, neuroqueer, we have a right to be—just as we are.
*Editor’s Note (11/12/21): This sentence was edited after posting to better clarify the study’s finding.