The Link Between Gender Fluidity and Women with Autism

Why women with autism may reject and redefine stereotypical notions of gender.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

Many of the autistic women I work with reject stereotypical gendered roles, a finding backed up by research. The issues that women with autism experience with regard to gender range from a loss of identity when attempting to identify with roles such as “wife” or “girlfriend”1 to experiencing gender dysphoria (not identifying with assigned-at-birth gender).2 People with autism are also more likely than the general population to reject a binary gender identity.3 Below are some possible reasons for why this might be the case.

ronniechua, 123rf
Source: ronniechua, 123rf

Not fitting in with groups of women.

Annabelle told me that she didn’t feel like other women when she was in a group of women, which led her to feel “not like a woman... I was very confused for a while. I just don’t get on with groups of women; I felt utterly different, unable to show any interest in the types of conversations that take place in a group of women. I felt so different, I started to question my gender.” This experience of being unable to fit into a group of women—partly due to communication difficulties and making sense of underlying social complexities—is a common one for women with autism, even if they can relate to women on a one-to-one basis. 

Rejection of social norms.

One suggestion is that people with autism are more ready to reject social “norms,” including stereotypical gendered norms. Some women, however, feel considerable pressure to conform to stereotypical gendered roles—even when doing so causes them difficulty.4 

Embracing neurodiversity.

For some people, an embracement of their neurodiversity—and a more open perspective to various forms of experience and identity—may also lead to an embracement of a non-binary gendered perspective. Samantha Hack, who identifies as “transfeminine,” describes how, prior to discovering she was autistic, thought that “there was a binary spectrum of gender, [from] point Man to point Woman.” However, an embracement of neurodiversity led to an appreciation that “coming to terms with being autistic meant coming to terms with being different, in a way I had never considered… [and] led to a flood of new information, which in turn led to re-examining my gender.”5 

Feeling different from people generally.

Marie told me, “There was a time when I just didn’t feel like a woman. I couldn’t explain why exactly—I just felt different from the other women I knew. But I didn’t feel like a man, either. I realised when I was diagnosed with autism that I just didn’t feel like the other people I knew, male or female. I’ve got a tribe now of like-minded women.” 

Not identifying with stereotypical gendered roles sometimes means not identifying with stereotypical roles in general—whichever gender they relate to.

Categorising things differently.

People with autism often have a unique take on the world around them, noticing things that other people fail to pick up on and missing things that are obvious to other people. They may see patterns that are unavailable to others and, when it comes to gender, can have a very different take on binary roles.

Maureen told me, “My boyfriend and I have been together for two years and we’re very happy, but I’ve had relationships with both women and men in the past. I’d identify as bisexual, but that’s probably a bit reductive. I don’t really see myself as fitting into any category—if I fall in love with someone, I don’t feel a need to describe that in terms of their gender.” 

We’re aware that there is a link between autism and fluid narratives on gender and sexuality—we’re just not exactly sure what the link is. Taking a broad view of this subject—from people who don’t identify with roles such as “wife” or “mother” to those who reject binary constructs of gender altogether—we can see that neurodiversity provides the basis for the acceptance and embracement of a pluralistic view of gender.

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1. Bargiela, S, Steward, R, Mandy, W (2016) The experiences of late-diagnosed women with autism spectrum conditions: An investigation of the female autism phenotype. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(10), 3281-3294

2. Strang, JF, Kenworthy, L, Dominska, A (2014) Increased gender variance in autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Archives of Social Behaviour, 48(3), 1525-1533

3. Kristensen, Z & Broome, MR (2015) Autistic traits in an internet sample of gender variant UK adults, The International Journal of Transgenderism, 16(4), 234-245

4. Bargiela, S, Steward, R, Mandy, W (2016) The experiences of late-diagnosed women with autism spectrum conditions: An investigation of the female autism phenotype. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(10), 3281-3294

5. Hack, S (2018) Using intersecting identities and radically accepting communities to increase coping skills, in E Barnes (ed) Knowing why: adult diagnosed autistic people on life and spectrum. The Autistic Press: Washington