A new study out of England says that transgender and nonbinary people are also more likely to be autistic or display autistic traits than those who are cisgender.
The research, published in the September 2019 issue of the European Psychiatry journal, studied 177 people. Of those, a total of 14% of those who were transgender or nonbinary were also autistic, while an additional 28% were not diagnosed as autistic, but displayed autistic traits.
The authors found higher than average levels of “systematizing” behavior — that is, a tendency to adhere to rule-based systems — and lower than average levels of empathy amongst the transgender and nonbinary individuals they studied.
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“We found that a significant proportion of the transgender and non-binary group either had a diagnosis of autism or displayed autistic traits, including a difficulty in empathizing and an overreliance on systematic, rule-based reasoning,” said Dr Steven Stagg, the lead author of the study.
According to the study, the numbers were also largely driven by a higher percentage of those assigned female at birth.
“One of the striking findings was the number of individuals born female who met the cut off for autism spectrum disorder,” said Stagg. “This is particularly important given that individuals born female are twice as likely to be referred to gender identity clinics.”
The study also noted that 4% of their cisgender participants reported being autistic, which is higher than previous numbers for the general population, and leads researchers to suspect that allowing participants to self-select would have led to the anomaly.
“People with autism are also more likely to seek unequivocal answers to the complex issues surrounding gender identity,” added Stagg. “Our study suggests it is important that gender identity clinics screen patients for autism spectrum disorders and adapt their consultation process and therapy accordingly.”
Many transgender people have faced obstacles from medical professionals assuming that their identity as transgender or nonbinary is driven by autism, and much of that has been driven from questionable research. With such a small sample size, it is unclear if this study will help or hinder trans people or cause further medical issues down the road.