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John Strang

Neuro- and gender-diverse teens find their voices

John Strang

“These autistic young people spoke a lot about their gender and gender needs and their descriptions of gender dysphoria were deeply emotional. One of the common characteristics of autism is reduced communication of feelings, yet many of these young people were very clear about the anguish that gender dysphoria caused for them and also their need for gender-related interventions,” says John Strang, Psy.D., director of the Gender and Autism Program at Children’s National Health System and study lead.

“They Thought It Was An Obsession” is the title of a qualitative study from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, that provides an unprecedented glimpse into the development, thoughts, perceptions, feelings and needs of this poorly understood but significant subgroup of transgender and gender minority teens.

The title is an accurate reflection of the study’s analysis, which finds that the accounts of gender dysphoria in autistic transgender youth parallel those of transgender young people without autism. These findings stand in contrast to previous studies asserting the idea that gender dysphoria in autistic youth is driven primarily by superficial autism-related interests.

“These autistic young people spoke a lot about their gender and gender needs and their descriptions of gender dysphoria were deeply emotional. One of the common characteristics of autism is reduced communication of feelings, yet many of these young people were very clear about the anguish that gender dysphoria caused for them and also their need for gender-related interventions,” says John Strang, Psy.D., director of the Gender and Autism Program at Children’s National Health System and study lead.

Additionally, the autistic characteristics of these young people – which may reduce their concern for social conventions – often lead them to express their gender in individual and sometimes surprising ways.

“A transgender autistic young woman may wear a full beard and understand her gender identity as something completely separate from her appearance,” says Dr. Strang. “The cooccurrence of gender identity-diversity and autism may reveal something of the deeper nature of gender when the overlay of social gender expectations is reduced.”

The study followed 22 autistic transgender teens over nearly two years. It is the first study of its kind to track and follow up with this many youth with the cooccurrence over a significant period of time. The authors believe the report can serve as a guide for how clinicians, peers and families can better support and understand teens who are both neurodiverse and gender diverse.

The study’s methodology is also novel, as it features the inclusion of a slate of autistic gender-diverse coanalysts and coauthors who partnered in the interpretation of the youth provided data.

The coauthor group also included a retransitioned (previously transgender) self-advocate coanalyst to help provide context regarding the experiences and trajectories of the few study participants who moved away from transgender identity during the study’s duration.

Reid Caplan of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an autistic transgender self-advocate and one of the study’s coauthors noted, “Too often in medical literature, the overlap between autistic and transgender identities is described in a way that pathologizes both of these communities. As an autistic transgender young adult, I feel privileged to be a coauthor of research that puts the voices of autistic and gender-diverse youth at the forefront. By giving these youth control over their own narratives, this study exemplifies a key value of the self-advocate community: Nothing about us, without us!”

Transgender adolescents on the autism spectrum, and the first clinical guidelines for care

Evidence indicates a link between transgenderism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). John Strang, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist in the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Health System, has dedicated his career to learning more about this co-occurrence and led a group of experts who recently released the first clinical guidelines for the care of transgender adolescents with ASD.

Through a comprehensive international search procedure, the research team, led by Dr. Strang, identified 22 experts in the care of transgender youth with autism. The expert group from around the world worked together for one year to create guidelines, putting processes in place to avoid interpersonal influence or bias.

The findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, outline the first initial clinical guidelines for treating transgender adolescents with ASD.

With overall 89.6 percent consensus achieved among the identified experts, key recommendations include the importance of assessing for ASD among transgender youth, and assessing for gender concerns among youth on the autism spectrum.

More study findings and recommendations

The study also indicates that gender-related medical treatments, including cross-sex hormone therapy, are appropriate for some youth with ASD, but emphasizes the importance of providing more extended time and supports in many cases to allow an adolescent with autism to explore a range of options regarding gender.

The guidelines emphasize that for many transgender youth with autism, parents must play a more active role. “Teens on the autism spectrum often struggle understanding how others perceive them,” Dr. Strang said. “Our study found that many transgender youth on the autism spectrum require specific coaching and supports in how to achieve their gender-related needs regarding gender presentation.”

Several risks for transgender adolescents with autism were emphasized in the study, including around physical safety and obtaining employment. “Trans youth are at increased risk for bullying, persecution, and violence in the community, and those on the autism spectrum are at even higher risk, as they often struggle to read social cues and recognize potentially dangerous social situations,” Dr. Strang said.

The importance of this study

The study group did not achieve consensus around specific guidelines for when an adolescent is appropriate for commencing medical gender treatments (e.g., cross-sex hormones). A majority (about 90 percent) of the expert participants elected to identify themselves as co-authors of the study, including many well-known clinicians across the United States as well as clinicians from The Netherlands.

“Until now, care for individuals with autism and gender concerns has been a matter of individual clinician judgment. This study has allowed for dialogue and discernment between the world’s experts in this field to establish the first recommendations for care,” Dr. Strang said.

Dr. Strang is currently working on a follow-up study to more directly capture the voices and experiences of youth with this co-occurrence, as key stakeholders and collaborators in the research.