Autism

Autism and Gender Self-Concept

Autistic individuals implicitly identified with fewer gendered traits.

Posted Jul 10, 2020

This post was authored in collaboration with Chiara Terzo, a research fellow at the Italian Institute of Technology, Center for Translational Neurophysiology of Speech and Communication.

Social skills are fundamental abilities to interact with others successfully. They include understanding social situations and dynamics (e.g., rules when communicating with others), other’s people mental states (i.e., their emotions and thoughts), and verbal and non-verbal communication (e.g., speech, gesture, facial expressions, and body language). Imagine, for example, sitting on a table at a restaurant together with your best friend when suddenly she starts crying. Her ex-boyfriend just entered the room with his new partner. You immediately understand the situation and try to comfort her. You don’t need to put much effort into inferring that your best friend is upset and needs to be comforted. You just process the social scenario and react consequently.

A neurodevelopmental condition characterized by the lack of social skills and difficulties in social interaction and communication is Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD; APA, 2013). Specifically, since toddlerhood, autistic individuals show impairments in (1) social orienting, (2) joint attention, and (3) attention to the distress of others (Dawson et al., 2004). For example, if we consider the previous described social scenario, an autistic person may not notice the ex-partner of your best friend passing by (social orienting failure) or your friend’s gaze when she desperately looks you in the eyes to capture your attention (joint attention deficit), as well as understanding why she burst into tears when her ex-boyfriend entered the room with his new partner (lack of attention to the distress of others). These abilities can be placed into the bigger framework of mind-reading processes, which allow us to infer other people’s mental states and act properly in the social context. In ASD, this lack of appropriate understanding and responsiveness to social stimuli predicts the level of functioning in daily life, compromising every-day learning opportunities. 

Interestingly, now new research suggests that the diminished general tendency to identify with, or represent the perspective of others, in ASD may also be associated with an implicit (unconscious) weaker gender self-concept, i.e., the ability to define our own gender identity based on attributes and roles that are stereotypically related to our biological sex.

In this study, published in the Journal Autism and Developmental Disorders, Kallitsounaki and Williams (2020) investigated how implicit gender self-concept measured by means of an Implicit Association Test (IAT) varied according to the number of ASD traits manifested by individuals from the general population. To this end, authors used a modified version of the IAT, in which participants sorted words belonging to four categories: self (e.g., I, me), other (e.g., they, them), feminine (e.g., gentle, warm) and masculine (e.g., strong, forceful). Results revealed that ASD traits were associated negatively with implicit gender self-concept. Specifically, people with higher autistic traits implicitly identified themselves with less strong masculine and feminine attributes than individuals with lower ASD traits. These results were observed in both males and females.

According to the authors, these findings suggest that ASD individuals have a different internalization of the attributes and roles stereotypically defined in our society than neurotypical individuals. In other words, given that ASD is characterized by difficulties in understanding and representing others’ perspectives, Kallitsounaki and Williams say “it could be that gender-related attitudes are not internalized and incorporated into the self-concept of children with ASD in the same manner, or to the same depth, as among neurotypical children”.

These findings, Kallitsounaki and Williams conclude, “could provide an explanation for the high co-occurrence of gender identity difficulties in ASD”. Indeed, several studies reported that ASD individuals than neurotypical individuals are more likely to show gender identity difficulties, expressed by cross-gender stereotyped interests and behaviors, and desire to be the opposite gender and atypical gender identities (Bejerot & Eriksson, 2014; de Vries et al., 2010; George & Stokes, 2018; Janssen et al., 2016; May et al., 2017; Strang et al., 2014; van der Miesen et al., 2018).

References

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American Journal of Psychiatry.

Bejerot, S., & Eriksson, J. M. (2014). Sexuality and gender role in autism spectrum disorder: A case control study. PLoS ONE.

Dawson, G., Toth, K., Abbott, R., Osterling, J., Munson, J., Estes, A., & Liaw, J. (2004). Early Social Attention Impairments in Autism: Social Orienting, Joint Attention, and Attention to Distress. Developmental Psychology, 40(2), 271–283.

de Vries, A. L., Noens, I. L., Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., van Berckelaer-Onnes, I. A., & Doreleijers, T. A. (2010). Autism spectrum disorders in gender dysphoric children and adolescents. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40(8), 930-936.

George, R., & Stokes, M. A. (2018). Gender identity and sexual orientation in autism spectrum disorder. Autism.

Janssen, A., Huang, H., & Duncan, C. (2016). Gender variance among youth with autism spectrum disorders: A retrospective chart review. Transgender Health.

Kallitsounaki, A., & Williams, D. (2020). A relation between autism traits and gender self-concept: evidence from explicit and implicit measures. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

May, T., Pang, K., & Williams, K. J. (2017). Gender variance in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder from the National Database for Autism Research. International Journal of Transgenderism.

Strang, J. F., Kenworthy, L., Dominska, A., Sokolof, J., Kenealy, L. E., Berl, M., … Luong-Tran, C. (2014). Increased gender variance in autism spectrum disorders and attention defcit hyperactivity disorder. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

van der Miesen, A. I., Hurley, H., Bal, A. M., & de Vries, A. L. (2018). Prevalence of the wish to be of the opposite gender in adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder. Archives of Sexual Behavior.