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Clinicians and transgender autistic youth create support model

girl talking to doctor

Young people with the co-occurrence of autism and gender diversity and their families partner with clinical researchers to understand care needs and how care providers can meet those needs.

The first ever set of specific recommendations to support transgender autistic young people was co-created by these youth and their families working hand-in-hand with clinical experts. The resulting model offers clinicians a set of concrete ways to provide this unique population the support they need.

The recommendations, A Clinical Program for Transgender and Gender-Diverse Neurodiverse/Autistic Adolescents Developed through Community-Based Participatory Design, were published by the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology on May 4, 2020.

“The idea of patients helping to co-design their own care isn’t new, but including the perspectives of autistic youth in their own care is quite new,” says John Strang, Psy.D., who directs the Gender and Autism Program within the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Hospital.

He continues, “And for the many youth who are both transgender and autistic, including their voices and perspectives in their clinical care is critical. Without their input, there is a great risk for misunderstanding their needs – and for marginalization.”

“This was an important process in which to participate, and will hopefully help those — autistic people, trans people, and autistic trans people alike — who often only see themselves represented by cisgender, neurotypical researchers and providers. It is a relief to be a part of creating something like this,” adds Marisa Alexa McCool, a co-researcher who is an autistic transgender woman.

The new publication builds on previously published broad clinical guidelines for providers, now integrating the perspectives of autistic transgender individuals themselves. The program includes specific approaches for supporting young people in their diverse needs, and identifies three key components central to this care:

  1. Helping autistic, gender-diverse young people build community together, which they need and often want, in contrast to clichés about lack of desire for social contact in autism. Many autistic transgender young people prior to entering clinical care have never met another person who is transgender and autistic. The connections that they built with one another through this new clinical care model were critical in helping them develop a positive sense of identity and to know that they are not alone in this world.
  2. Introducing the youth to a broad spectrum of gender diverse and/or neurodiverse role models helps make possibilities for their future more concrete, and builds a sense of hopefulness and pride. Abstract concepts such as gender or future gender can be particularly challenging for autistic youth. The new care model addresses this by providing these youth opportunities to meet and interact with a range of living role models who represent various gender identities as well as neurodiversity experiences. “Being able to see and hear about the diverse journeys of adults who have already navigated gender and/or autism-related diversity has been helpful in making the various options more tangible for gender diverse autistic youth,” says Dr. Strang. “The chance to meet role models with different gender-related experiences – transgender, cisgender, exploring – has helped autistic gender diverse youth to better figure out what is most true for them and what they need from us.”
  3. Supporting the gender expression needs of autistic transgender youth through gender style coaching. Because of autism-related sensory sensitivities and problems with planning and social understanding, autistic transgender young people often have difficulty achieving their desired gender transition. Gender-style coaching can help autistic youth reach their gender-related goals in ways that accommodate and support the young person’s autism-related challenges.

The perspectives included in the new clinical program were from a range of ages and backgrounds, as well as across multiple points in time to make sure that as youths’ own views evolved, their evolving needs were captured as well.

The authors created a specific clinical guide to complement the publication, which is available on the Children’s National website.

“We’re so happy to have been able to partner with self-advocates from the autistic transgender and gender diverse communities, youth who are living this experience, and their families, to co-create a community-driven model that can be used for kids seeking guidance and support,” says Dr. Strang.

“We hear over and over again that what parents and care providers really need are concrete tools to support young people with co-occurring autism and gender diversity, so that’s what we sought to do here,” he concludes. “It’s exciting because, for the first time, we have some simple tools to support these kids. And this is critical, because although the co-occurrence of autism and gender diversity has been of great interest to researchers, nearly all studies to date have focused on how many transgender youth are autistic, instead of how to help and support this poorly understood group.”

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.