Since only my friends came to see me present, I thought it would be prudent to post the presentation I worked hard on here. Citations can be asked for upon request.
This should not be taken as something peer reviewed that can be cited, but as an introductory conversation. While I’ve done research, this piece could have been researched better and could have also been generally written better.
Trans autistic people have been in the spotlight of the media over the past year. Much of this attention has not been positive.
In the recent BBC documentary, “Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best?” there is a section where Zucker discusses autistic trans youth. He says that autistic children wrongly convince themselves that they are trans due to fixating on their gender.
Quoted from the Daily Wire, Zucker said, “It is possible that kids who have a tendency to get obsessed or fixated on something may latch on to gender,” and that “Just because kids are saying something doesn’t necessarily mean you accept it, or that it’s true, or that it could be in the best interests of the child.”
For those who don’t know, Dr. Zucker is a psychologist and sexologist who formerly headed up the Gender Identity clinic at CAMH and is still a tenured professor at the University of Toronto. He is well-hated by the trans community for his aversion/cure-based techniques in treating gender non-conforming children and gatekeeping adult trans people’s access to hormones and surgery. In order to access hormones and surgery, some people had to lie and say that they were aiming to become heterosexual and conform to gender norms. And he used these results to publish his theories on what trans people are like. He’s still considered a leading expert on trans health in some circles.
A recent article in the National Post by Susan Bradley blames trans activists for converting autistic people to also being trans. Susan Bradley was a psychiatrist working at the Children’s Gender Identity clinic alongside Zucker.
The histories of autistics and trans people are intertwined. Trans children are quoted by Zucker to be seven times more likely to be autistic. Both identities are pathologized in the DSM and have movements that are trying to attain social identity status and thus justify the need for human rights. Both identities experience stigma and oppression based on the “expertise” of professionals and parents outside their community. Both identities have to contend with cure narratives that attempt to eradicate their existence. And both identities are based off labels created by settler colonialism.
The history of trans identity is tied with the history of queerness. The terms homosexual and heterosexual was coined in 1869 by Karl Maria Kertbeny. He tried to justify better treatment of men who were labeled criminal and deviant for having same sex desire or gender non-normative expressions. The homosexual was a biologically determined condition and thus something natural according to Kertbeny. Instead, homosexuality was taken up as a pathological diagnosis imposed on those who displayed “gender inverted” characteristics including same sex attraction. Prior to the the creation of homosexual, people who displayed same sex desires in Western society were stigmatized in the realm of Christian dogma and were referred to as sodomites. Sodomites were men who engaged in sex with other men so it was the sexual act that was stigmatized, not so much the entire person. In this discussion, no women have been mentioned. Due to sexism, women were not scrutinized to the same degree as men but were sometimes impacted by the stigma placed on homosexuality. Queer women’s subculture didn’t really manifest until the early 20th century due to how difficult it was for a woman to be an independent wage earner.
The impact of the terms homosexual and heterosexual were far-reaching. Suddenly, people were being understood as heterosexuals and that deviation from this signalled illness. Through the vectors of education, policy, healthcare, culture and religion, this knowledge insinuated itself into the social fabric of Western society. And in turn, heterosexuality was imposed on other people through practices of settler colonialism such as mandatory policy changes, and residential schools. Indigenous ways of understanding gender and sexuality across the world were steamrolled in favour of the Western settler colonial agenda. I’d like to note that the people who produced the language of heterosexual and homosexual, and many of its future interpretations were not homosexual or at least openly so. This theme of knowledge being produced not by us is part of the systems of violence that many marginalized communities face.
The history of autism begins with Eugen Bleuler who coined the word in 1908 to describe “severely withdrawn schizophrenic patients”. In the 1940s, two child psychiatrists independently contributed to the medical definition of autism, Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger.
I’d like to note that they were observing white cis boys and were non-autistic white presumably cishet men. Prior to the discovery of autism, people were understood differently. They were called things such as eccentric, a little odd, passionate, socially awkward, and/or genius. Or at least the ones who were verbal were. The experiences of non-verbal or less-verbal autistics are even less talked about than verbal autistic experiences. In more recent history since autism’s beginning, technology and ASL have been deployed as methods of communication for some more economically privileged autistics.
Talking about autistic community and knowledge is very difficult. One of the many differences between autistic and trans identity experiences is that there is not much knowledge produced by autistic individuals as of yet. Autistic communities are far less organized than trans communities, especially in Canada. What I can say is that BIPOC folks and women have significantly lower rates of having their autism recognized. According to AWN, the traits found in autistic boys go unrecognized in autistic girls. For black and Indigenous autistics, their autism is often read as ODD or labeled as unruly/disruptive and diverted from autistic community into the school to prison pipeline because of how racism functions.
At the intersections of autism and transness, I begin with Ivor Lovaas who was a psychologist involved with the Feminine Boy Project in the 1970s alongside George Rekers. The project’s goal was to change the behaviour of young boys exhibiting feminine traits to prevent the boy from becoming gay. Lovaas is better known as one of the creators of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) which are intensive, behavioural modification techniques still used to treat autistic children today. Techniques can include aversion therapy, shock therapy, and negative reinforcement. These techniques are nearly identical to the techniques used in gay conversion therapy that is considered illegal in Canada.
The impact of settler colonial history on people who are labeled as trans and autistic (either by themselves or by medical professionals) is immense. Being trans and/or autistic carries numerous kinds of stigma and those who are both trans and autistic carry an additional layer of stigma. Trans and/or autistic people face barriers accessing healthcare, education, governmental services, employment, and a host of other indicators of a good quality of life.
I argue that greater emphasis needs to be placed on knowledge produced by trans and/or autistic people. While there are some amazing allies out there, trans and/or autistic people are not often leaders in producing knowledge on their own bodies and experiences. More work needs to be done to lift up and train trans and/or autistic people in taking over the reins of knowledge being produced on their bodies.
In Toronto, there is very little autistic let alone autistic trans leadership. Services geared for autistic people revolve around behaviour therapies like ABA on small children and other support services up to the age of 18. There is nothing for autistics over 18. And there are very little specifically for autistic trans people. I co-founded a group, Autistiqueers which is only a few months old. The autism services in Toronto are run by non-autistics. The theorists producing knowledge on autism and autistic trans people are parents and professionals. The loudest voices influencing policies are not autistics or trans people. Their way of “helping” autistics is often to try to change our behaviour to stop us from exhibiting undesirable traits. At this point, most of the organized movements and leaders of the autistic and autistic trans communities I know are from the US.
The process of creating autistic, let alone autistic trans space has been complicated. Non-trans autistics have begun organizing in Toronto and in cities such as London. Other provinces such as BC, Quebec, and Manitoba have chapters of ASAN, but when a group of autistics in Ontario that I’m a part of tried to apply to create an Ontario chapter, we were denied.
In Toronto, there are spaces for queer and trans disabled people through the Griffin Centre and the program sprOUT. But these spaces are not autistic-specific. I with some autistic trans friends noticed this and decided to work to create a group for autistic queer and trans folks. And thus we launched the group Autistiqueers. It’s been a vital space for everyone who’s attended thus far. We animatedly talk about our experiences and flap excitedly over how we have similar feels. We’re enacting consciousness raising. During the process to create the group, I tried approaching the autism services. While they were originally interested in hosting us, when I mentioned that many of the participants were uncomfortable with ABA, they stopped replying to my emails. Eventually, I found space in Sherbourne Health Centre through my contacts and managed to get a Community One grant. This is only the beginning.
I am doing this presentation because the queer and disability communities need to hear more about the issues going on in autistic and autistic queer and trans communities. Autistic trans people’s experiences are an important topic for our communities to talk about. Not only because of how many people are both autistic and trans (also, queer), but because there are a lot of shared experiences. If people can take one thing from this presentation, it is the importance of identity-led research and activism. Nothing about us, without us.