As gender is a social concept, meaning it has been created by society to “categorize” people, it can be very difficult for people on the autistic spectrum to understand and use it. It has been observed that there is a higher rate of struggles with gender among autistic people. By struggle, I mean not identifying with the gender you have been assigned at birth.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects a large amount of people all over the world, regardless of their origin, sex, age (as it is a life-long condition). One of the characteristics of autism is a lack or struggle of understanding social cues. This is why gender can be even more problematic for autistic people, as it is impossible to grasp for their brain.
From a very young age, I always struggled with gender, as I could wear anything “male” or “female” and feel good in it. I was supposed to wear pink and dresses with flowers because of what society expected, but anything felt right to me. When I discovered the LGBT+ community, I realized I could have a different gender. It then varied from genderfluid (a person who doesn’t identify as having a fixed gender), to transgender man (a person that has a different gender to what they were assigned at birth, here, male), to non-binary (a person that identifies as neither man nor woman), and more, but I felt like nothing really was me. Now, I identify as agender, as it is the closest to what I feel, which is identifying to none gender.
This article is mainly to raise awareness of the struggles with gender when you have autism, and tell my peers that it is okay if you don’t understand. And that no one can tell you that you have to look a certain way.
Here are some tips to help you in your search for yourself:
(some are for everyone struggling with gender, not only autistic people)
Try different types of clothing, make-up, hairstyles, and see what suits you the best.
Look at the definitions of different genders and see which you feel more comfortable with. (You may find less-known genders that would suit you.)
Ask other people about how they perceive their gender, they may help you.
Remember, no one can tell you who you are.
Also, I recently discovered autigender.
Autigender is a gender that was specially created for autistic people who struggle with identifying as one or other gender (or who don’t care, or don’t understand). The definition is for someone whose autism “affects” their perception of gender. I don’t really like this definition, as it feels as if autism is a problem that prevents us from understanding it. In fact, it is more that society wants us to have a gender defined that is problematic.
You can also identify as autigender, even if it is less known, it is a good representation of how many of us feel!
I hope this can help you.
If you need help, you can always contact a helpline. You may find the numbers for your country on the internet. In Switzerland, the number is 147. In France, it is 3114. Both are free. Overall, most of the countries possess a free helpline number. And if you are in immediate danger you can call the urgencies number.
Did you know that, on average, ADHD is diagnosed in three times as many boys than girls? This is despite the fact that there is no conclusive evidence that ADHD is less frequent in female than male demographics, only that its presentation tends to be different. Often, girls and people who are AFAB (assigned female at birth) present with greater inattentive symptoms, internalized hyperactivity, and less externally disruptive symptoms. They tend to develop anxiety and people-pleasing coping mechanisms to mask their ADHD symptoms, and their struggles get missed or mistaken. Even professionals fail to spot ADHD in women, girls, and other AFAB people, simply because most information and early research only pertains to young boys with the hyperactive type. My own ADHD went unnamed, but not unnoticed, throughout my childhood and most of my adolescent years.
Even still, I know I am one of the lucky ones: once it came, my diagnosis was quick and easy. I lucked out on a psychiatrist who believed me and supported me. I had waited years for a moment when someone would finally look at me and tell me “you have ADHD,” but the moment itself never actually came. After taking an in-depth patient history, giving me treatment for some other problems, and discussing the nature of my symptoms, I was simply prescribed medication. Weeks later I still questioned if I had actually been diagnosed. It’s silly, but it’s something that is so common for those of us with ADHD who are used to our experiences being dismissed. We always question ourselves because that is what the world has been doing to us our whole lives. Yet, as time went on, I realized that the diagnosis was real, valid, legitimate, and something that will influence the rest of my life - possibly as an obstacle at times, but also majorly for the better.
Before my appointments with this psychologist, I had already been struggling. Between gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, stress, tense family relationships, disordered eating, frequent panic attacks and sensory overload meltdowns, and recurrent anxiety and depression, my mental health was... a boiling hot mess. But because I was somehow still excelling in my structured activities, no one thought that I could possibly have a neurological developmental disorder. And for a long time, neither did I. They did not dismiss the idea of it, more that it simply never came up. Why should it have? So, I started therapy, which I stayed in on and off for almost four years. It helped me get through the stressful four years that were my hectic high school life with undiagnosed ADHD, but nothing from therapy seemed to make any lasting difference for my mental health or general wellbeing. Despite doing well, I was still struggling.
Now that I have that official diagnosis of ADHD - as well as diagnosis and treatment for Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), which was an underlying cause of much of my recurrent depression and anxiety - I am in therapy again. Though what I discuss and work on in my current sessions is not so different from what I would do before as far as I could remember, the manner in which we would go through things was completely changed. Before, I would simply discuss an experience, and the therapist would connect it to an idea and coping mechanism. The next week, we’d move on. Unfortunately, so had my brain. I couldn’t retain the information long enough to actually incorporate anything useful into my day-to-day life - thanks, ADHD. Now that I am working with a therapist who understands my ADHD, she gets that I may need more support and close working than with her other patients, she is able to work with me and my brain productively. I never realized how much support I could actually get from therapy until I noticed that I was finally able to progress through my sessions while retaining the information I’d learn in the past.
Having a diagnosis, especially for conditions like ADHD, can be a life changing experience. A diagnosis brings along proper treatment, validation, external support, accommodations, and understanding. Though all of these are important, simply knowing you have ADHD - that new understanding of how your mind works - is possibly the most powerful part. Despite the numerous myths and misconceptions about ADHD that plague far too many people, ADHD is one of the most researched conditions in all of medical history! With the internet, so much of that information is accessible right at our fingertips. So learning more about what it really means to have ADHD and how to work with your ADHD brain has never been easier. They say knowing is half the battle: nowhere in my life has this been truer than with my ADHD.
In fact, even years before I finally was able to meet with a psychiatrist, I already embarked on this journey of understanding and working with my ADHD. The main obstacle I faced was not that people didn’t know about ADHD, but that a lot of people think they know what ADHD is so they never do any research about it. In reality, they are actually very misinformed, and at times may spread information that is wrong and harmful. Most of my life I had heard of ADHD, but only thought of it in the case of extremes and stereotypes. As I started researching it, however, I recognized much more of the symptoms in me. I am not so impulsive that I put my life in danger, or so inattentive that I do poorly in school, but the symptoms still affect me from my home life to the way I think. And there is so much more to ADHD than what the name or diagnostic criteria suggest. All of a sudden, looking back on my life, everything seemed to make a whole lot more sense. I’d been given glasses for the first time and I could finally see clearly.
The great thing about a buttload of information about ADHD being online is that there is also a lot of information about different ways to shift my life to work best with my brain. Slowly over the span of two years I began implementing these informal accommodations, and my life started to feel so much easier. Learning about my brain and why I act in certain ways allowed me to make peace with things that, until then, I had felt were only “flaws.” I was more comfortable with myself, and let myself do what I need to manage my attention and energy. I forgave myself for forgetfulness, and started learning how to organize my belongings in a way that works best for me. I flipped back and forth about whether or not I was comfortable saying “I have ADHD” because I had no professional diagnosis, but I was able to learn much more about my brain and how ADHD affects my life. I recognized that even if I didn’t have ADHD, I can still use any tips that help me, and there’s no harm in that. And any sense of self doubt vanished when all the extensive research I had done to increase my understanding of my ADHD brain helped me get my diagnosis.
Every day since that fateful appointment with my psychiatrist, I have been so grateful for my diagnosis. Even though I understood my ADHD brain, the people in my life didn’t necessarily. Post diagnosis, there was an adjustment, and it’s still in progress, but now my parents understand why I don’t seem to learn from my mistakes or their discipline, or how my room can never be organized with everything put away. With medication and proper therapy, as well as the support and understanding of my family, managing the challenges of ADHD has never been easier - in spite of everything going on in the world today. I haven’t taken any formal accommodations yet, but I may when we return to in person learning. And, most importantly, I am still learning about my brain every day. Reading about ADHD and learning how my mind works - how it’s always worked - helps me love myself a bit more and grow a bit every day.
For more information about ADHD, check out the links below!
(Apologies for the U.S. centric list, most of the well established research and resources for ADHD are U.S. based and centered. In fact there is an interesting niche in ADHD research about ADHD in the U.S. vs in other places in the world!)