Autistic people aren’t being fooled into being nonbinary. We see past the binary that fools you.

Person with a nonbinary flag
Photo: Shutterstock

Growing up, I never really understood social conventions. I often felt like everyone else in my life had been handed some esoteric script full of strange and bewildering rules of conduct, and I never received my copy. And often, when people did bother to try and explain the rules to me, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why?” Very rarely, if ever, did I get a satisfying answer, and yet everyone accepted these various and sundry social norms as if they made perfect sense. This extended to all areas of life, but especially baffling were the seemingly arbitrary yet supposedly vitally important rules for gender.

Frankly, the very notion that every human being can be reduced to one of two discrete labels and filed away in their respective box has always felt reductive at best and patently absurd at worst. To think that the vastness of human experience and identity is somehow inherently constrained to this binary simply does not compute to my brain.

It’s nearly impossible these days to pay any attention to trans and nonbinary issues without coming across the infantilizing claim — typically purported by TERFs and their sympathizers — that autistic people are being “brainwashed” into believing we’re trans and/or nonbinary, that we are so universally impaired as to be incapable of asserting our own identities or making decisions about who we are for ourselves.

Not only is this claim offensive and dehumanizing, but it’s also completely backward. See, those who claim we’re being “brainwashed” into discarding the gender binary are working from the assumption that said binary is immutable and essential. The evidence simply doesn’t support this assumption in the least.

In “Brief Report: Gender Identity Differences in autistic adults: Associations with perceptual and socio-cognitive profiles,” Reubs Walsh et al. found that we (autistic people) are actually more likely to gravitate to nonbinary identities, not, as TERFs claim, because we’re more suggestible, but actually the opposite: because we’re resistant to social conditioning. In the report, Walsh writes:

Others have proposed that individuals with autism are more prone to reject ideas they perceive as flawed or logically inconsistent (Kristensen & Broome, 2016), such as social conditioning and social norms (Ansara & Hegarty, 2011), and this facilitates ‘coming out.’

Put another way, autistic people are not being brainwashed. The rest of society is. We just happen to be resistant to the social conditioning that teaches everyone else how essential the gender binary supposedly is.

And the fact is, gender is something that has to be taught to young children who do not understand it innately. Further, it’s a fairly new concept historically; 19th and 20th-century researchers have searched for an innate and immutable quality of binary sex to confirm their cultural biases about the roles of men and women but never actually found it. They were instead faced with the reality that biological sex is a nuanced and many-layered phenomenon comprising a myriad of variable factors. Ultimately, the very concept of gender identity was developed as a tool to reinforce this artificial binary and justify coercive medical practices towards intersex children in order to force them to conform to this notion.

Given all this, it’s little wonder the gender binary that most of society seems to take for granted has never made any sense to me. Though I was born AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth) and gravitated towards a feminine expression that would ultimately lead me on a path of transition fairly consistent with the narrative of the average trans woman, I don’t actually identify as female. My transition has made me much happier and was vitally necessary to my well-being, but it’s not motivated by some immutable internal sense of “being a woman.” Rather, I’ve simply learned that, for whatever reason, my body craves and responds best to estrogen rather than the testosterone-dominant balance it asserted in my first puberty. Likewise, being largely “femme-presenting” seems to suit me and make me happy. But I don’t see any of these things as inherently gendered. Like me and my own sense of self, they simply are.

I certainly don’t identify as male either and have, in fact, mostly given up on trying to tie any aspect of my identity to a discrete gender label. When I couldn’t figure out why it was so important to everyone else, at some point, I just disregarded the gender binary as an insufficiently evidenced claim and went on with my day, and I haven’t looked back since.

And I’m not alone in this sentiment. Most of my social circle happens to be comprised of fellow autistic folk, and most, if not all, of them share this rejection of the gender binary in some form. Each perspective is unique, however, and I don’t wish to misrepresent anyone’s personal truth, so I’ve collected some anecdotes from friends and partners to share here with permission.

One friend reports that, despite being AFAB, they never understood the strict “rules” for girls and didn’t feel they fit within those rules. Learning that nonbinary identity was an option gave them the freedom they craved to define themselves on their own terms.

Another says she primarily identifies with the label “autigender,” signifying an inability to meaningfully separate her autism from her sense of gender. She sees people everywhere claim to act in accordance with ideas about gender they call “absolute” and yet violate routinely, but fail to see any hypocrisy in this contradiction.

Yet another explains they unfortunately have to mask a lot, both in terms of neurodivergence and gender, and tend to tell people they’re a woman because it’s more readily accepted. In reality, however, they say their gender is a mess, in a good way; they don’t feel like they have to figure it out or label it because it doesn’t really matter.

It’s worth stressing that no group is a monolith. I’m sure there are autistic folk out there who identify with the gender binary, and I’m not here to invalidate their experience. I am here to offer some insight into why I, those close to me, and seemingly a large percentage of autistic folk have a tendency to drift away from greater society’s binary conception of gender.

And for the most part my own experience aligns rather closely with the perspectives I’ve shared here. Though I came from the “other side” of the supposed divide than my AFAB friend, I similarly never really understood what it meant to be a boy or why I was expected to limit my behavior and expression in certain ways.

And though I now tend to reject gender labels entirely beyond the vague umbrella of “nonbinary,” if I were to pick one that resonated on any level, I’d likewise say “autigender” is the best fit. After all, it’s my autistic tendency to reject social conditioning and interrogate claims everyone else takes for granted that led me to thet conclusion the gender binary was a frivolous and flimsy notion best left ignored.

If you take anything away from this essay, I hope it’s this: autistic people are not confused about our gender. Rather, if anything, we tend to see more clearly than the rest of you because we demand coherence from concepts everyone else takes for granted.

I’ve noticed a tendency where even otherwise well-meaning and understanding people who acknowledge the validity of nonbinary identities often, to me, still seem overly invested in the idea of the binary as “default,” with said nonbinary identities existing as an “other,” an optional third category. Where they see two boxes and then perhaps add a third box (or, if we’re very lucky, a handful of additional boxes) with some prodding, I see a vast ocean of possibility with no hard edges or boundaries.

So, if you have an autistic person in your life of any age and any level of support needs, I urge you to be supportive and understanding should they express confusion with gendered concepts you take for granted or assert an identity outside these bounds. And if you’re on the spectrum yourself and find your identity conflicting with the binary, please know you’re not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you; you are not broken, and you are allowed to simply exist as your authentic self, whatever that may mean for you.

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