The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transautistic?

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Photo illustration by Alexander Ho

In another story I read in May and stored in my bookmarks, the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published a study led by Simon Baron-Cohen (the cousin of actor Sacha Baron-Cohen) found that female-to-male transgender people have more autistic traits than heterosexual men or women, and also more than male-to-female transgender people. The news magazine Time picked up the story, and is the featured link in this post.

In fact, female-to-male transgender people outscored all but those with Asperger’s diagnoses on the Autism Spectrum Quotient, a scale developed by Baron-Cohen himself.

The study may fit with a theory Baron-Cohen has on people with autism exhibiting an “extreme male” brain, whose style of thinking favors “systemizing,” focusing on predictable patterns found in area like mathematics and mechanical devices (including the devices I’m using to write this post). This contrasts with “empathizing,” or understanding the emotions of others.

The difference is notable because Baron-Cohen and his colleagues recently discovered that giving testosterone to women decreased their ability to empathize, especially with women whose bodies were exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero. However, because transmen in the study had already changed gender, the study could not reveal if autistic traits were a result of increased hormones or if they led the desire to change gender in the first place. What Baron-Cohen did say is understanding these kinds of connections can lead to better care for people with both conditions.

I must admit I know very few transgender people, having met one at a social justice retreat I attended four years ago in college, so I cannot speak personally on this subject. Maia Szalavitz was in charge of writing the story, mostly summarizing what was found in the study, but included some quotes from Baron-Cohen and a co-author who identifies as a transwoman. This isn’t your “usual” study reporting a rise in autism rates or even an indiscriminate cause; gender identity itself isn’t understood well with most of the population comfortable in their original bodies, not necessarily thinking about emotional challenges endured by those who don’t subscribe to their original gender. We’ve heard of tomboys, but there is a difference between “playing with the boys” and considering a transition to one.

Szalavitz doesn’t stray too far off the typical route journalists take when reporting studies, as finding sources willing to speak about the story would be rare given the subject matter. However, a curiosity exists on how other transmen would respond to the study. Baron-Cohen is among the most respected autism researchers, although Americans are more likely to recognize his thespian cousin (both Baron-Cohens are British). Simon’s theories haven’t been heavily debunked, nor has he been involved in controversy over his research methods, so studies he authors carry noticeable weight for journalists. Even if other transmen had never heard of Simon Baron-Cohen, getting a few quotes would be beneficial regardless of their opinion. Those who agree with his findings would presents reporters a story to help relate the material to readers, and those who disagree would highlight the complicated area of gender identity.

Now, this doesn’t mean females on the autism spectrum will automatically wish to become males. Even women exposed to more testosterone aren’t confined to a linear path of transforming to men. Szavalitz simply reveals another element with much exploration to be done through the reporting of Simon Baron-Cohen’s study. Future coverage is difficult to predict with the social stigma faced by the GLBT community combined with the mystery of the autism spectrum, other than a reinforcement of the non-linear nature of gender identity and mental disability.

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