Among autistic folks, there is a concept called “masking” by which we compensate or hide as neurotypical(NT) to survive an ableist and neurotypical-centric society. Basically, it’s sort of like being in the closet, but rather than a closet itself, masking is often more like having a dry cleaner’s carousel of neatly organized costumes and outfits that fit multiple scenarios and situations. We may not realize that we’ve put on a certain mask at all; we sort of pop into it when a certain situation arises that demands that particular behavioral switch. The simplest way that I can put this to a NT person is that it’s adjacent to putting on your “customer service voice,” and simply living there.
This essay is about my experience as an autistic trans woman, and what the intersection of these identities has looked like throughout my life. Often, through writing posts like this, I have come to some of my greatest existential realizations. In fact, it was in the writing of a long-since abandoned blog post that I came to understand how much my neurodiversity has impacted my perception and understanding of gender. In my earliest piece published on this website, I spoke briefly of my “binary-ish” gender but didn’t get very deep into the concept— mainly because even I didn’t quite know what I meant by “binary-ish.” I’ve attempted to write a piece about this several times but never gotten into the meat of the issue primarily because I’d not yet come to terms with the fact that I am autistic/neurodiverse(ND).
Even NT people can relate to this on some level, as there’s a sort of “costuming” demanded of going into a professional office environment, or in having a conversation you have to pretend to be interested in, or in feigning enjoyment of a poorly cooked dinner with the in-laws. For ND folks, however, masking goes beyond the NT understanding of having to be civil in stressful places. Masking can induce a significant stress response in the autistic brain, with many reporting headaches or even excruciating migraines following an extended camouflaging period. Autistic women are particularly susceptible to over-masking their ND traits and are more likely than autistic men to develop anxiety and depressive disorders as a result. This often directly correlates to misdiagnosis, with autistic women being treated for peripheral symptoms, rather than being taught how to live and accept that their brains work differently from those of NT peoples’.
Something I’ve learned most acutely from my partner, Levi, who is a Black trans man, among other autistic PoC I’ve met and spoken with, is that autistic/ND people of color also experience masking on a different and often more stressful level. Autistic Black folks, for instance, may have to both mask their neurodiverse traits AND code-switch between African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and General American English. Where autistic traits and behaviors can more commonly result in people being abused, there are more highly developed masking traits, which explains why women in general and people of color receive autism diagnoses less than cisgender white men and boys.
A multitude of factors is involved here, as some people of color with children may be less likely to seek out diagnoses for their children due to a valid mistrust of potentially racist doctors and healthcare practices. On the surface, it may seem as though non-Hispanic white boys are more likely to be autistic, but it seems far more likely to me that this is not the case and other demographics are simply not being diagnosed properly, or not being assessed for autism diagnoses in the first place. Furthermore, because marginalized people tend to be more adept at masking, our autistic traits are noticed and therefore diagnosed less often. My experience as a white trans girl is different than my black trans boyfriend’s experience. He had to mask to survive and not be murdered by police; I had to mask to stay employed and keep people from thinking I’m weird. We are dealing with far different levels of stress behind our masking.
Many undiagnosed autistic adults do not know that they are masking until they are finally identified as autistic, whether clinically or socially. Through my own identification and diagnosis as an autistic person, the extent of my own masking has started coming to light.
A Boys’ Club
The perceived phenomenon of young male autism diagnoses is largely because early studies on the matter were done almost solely on young boys and men. Women and girls were largely left out of these studies because their autistic traits were seen as less defined by the male-centered standard, or, rather, more often than not, their traits have been deemed socially acceptable for girls. Basically, a quiet or timid boy shirks social norms more than a girl who is “painfully shy,” fails to make eye contact, or develops a special interest in something like cooking or the color pink. These traits are celebrated or reinforced in girls but are seen as inherently aberrant or divergent in boys. The fact that autism exhibits differently in boys/men and girls/women is such a recent development that autistic women are only now starting to hold space for themselves in autistic community spaces that have historically tended to exclude and over-question women's’ autistic traits.
Furthermore, very few studies have been conducted on how trans/nonbinary people exhibit autistic traits versus our cisgender counterparts.
The fact is, marginalized autistic people seem to be better at masking than your average cishet white autistic boy because there has been a lot of work done in the (American) culture to accept white ND boys. ND girls, trans folks, and BIPoC seem to have to mask far more in order to survive a culture that is NT-centric/ableist AND racist AND sexist. As intersectional identities add up, there become more things to mask, with trans people often masking both their autistic traits and their true gender identities and preferred gendered behaviors.
As we are seeing more autistic cis women and trans people address their neurodiversity, we begin to see intersectional feminism inviting us to live our truths in safe spaces. Through meeting fellow autistic trans folks, I’ve been able to identify how masking has followed me throughout my own life.
As a young child, masking was a skill that didn’t come naturally to me until I hit grade school. At first, I said and did things that were seen as confusing and strange to other children, and so I had few friends. The adults in my life didn’t understand why — I was such a sweet, sensitive, and intelligent kid, so why couldn’t I figure out how to make friends like everyone else? Even nerds like me weren’t interested in my friendship. It seemed like it shouldn’t be too hard to find another kid in the first grade obsessed with the full catalog of Animorphs books and Beanie Baby preservation techniques. But it was. I didn’t pick up social cues quickly, and on my first day of school, I pushed a kid for refusing to tell me his name. Couldn’t he see that I was trying to be friendly, dammit? As I would later learn, violence of this nature was my very first mask. My brothers got me to do things by pushing me, so I assumed that was just how you got people to do what you wanted them to. Getting in trouble taught me that this was incorrect, and I adjusted quickly to the new rule.
Making friends was always hard for me growing up. I have had few close friends that I didn’t meet through mental health spaces even into my adulthood. My very first friends in grade school were, in fact, bought and paid for because nobody liked me, and I was quickly considered social anathema in that hierarchy. In order to be seen with me, my first friends demanded $10 per week, and my little trans autistic mind didn’t realize that they were taking advantage of me. I’d figured that everyone must do that to gain friends. It literally never occurred to me that something was wrong there. I needed friends, and they were offering friendship at a small monthly surcharge. Weren’t all friendships transactional, after all? I had no concept that this wasn’t what everyone had to do to gain friends, though in time, I did realize that what was happening was wrong, and I sought out new friends.
As far as gender goes, I knew what was expected of me as a child perceived as male and performed those social roles to the best of my ability for much of my life. Boys were always confusing to me — wild and rough, often violent and cruel, though even sensitive and kind boys never quite gelled with me. While I could keep up with them sometimes, I strongly preferred the company of girls, though girls often told me to go play with boys, and boys, mockingly, told me to go play with girls. And so, rather often, I just ended up buried in my books instead of interacting with other people at all. Words like “bookworm” followed me my whole life, and this worked better for me than some others like “friendless loser.” Bookworm seemed more appropriate, and I dug into the norms of a kid who spends all of their time having intellectual conversations with school librarians. Intelligence is gender-neutral, and I found that when I spoke a certain way that the impressive (for a ten-year-old) words I’d been collecting in my mind afforded me a kind of protection. Teachers tended to like me because I was demonstrably smart, driven in the subjects that interested me, and was hyperlexic in a way that made me amusing to them if nothing else.
I masked my femininity from everyone, including myself, because society reacted to me so poorly when I expressed it as a child. Growing up, my brothers and older cousins often beat me for being queer, so I did my best to at least be “one of the good gays” and switched subconsciously between feminine and overcompensatingly masculine depending on whom I was around. I drank beer and ate steak, I played beanbag toss (cornhole, for you fellow Midwesterners) and took whiskey shots with my brothers at holidays. I did everything expected of me to be accepted as “one of the guys,” albeit with a big gay asterisk. But that facade, that mask, became less and less accessible to me over time. Those things I did to mask began to clash horribly with mounting gender dysphoria, and the masks started to feel more like a pile of ill-fitting costumes that I placed on one after the other, without taking off the ones underneath. Naturally, I began to suffocate between the two extremes of masking and gender dysphoria.
It’s certainly worth noting here that in a different world, I would have been diagnosed with “Asperger’s Syndrome,” rather than “Autism Spectrum Disorder,” the former of which has been largely phased out for being a problematic term named for a Hans Asperger, a literal Nazi who created the scale by which autistics would be sent to work and used for their brilliance, OR which were to be culled from the society for not being “high functioning” enough. Aspergers, high functioning, and low functioning are all labels that have been phased out in recent years due to how little they actually help autistics communicate their experience. Each ND person’s needs are unique, and it’s worth noting that autistic doesn’t run on a scale from “Most autistic to least autistic” but on multiple scales of different needs and abilities from those of NT folks.
For instance, my autistic traits feature highly developed language (hyperlexia) and sensory perception, with moderate to low executive function and motor skills. While I can communicate in a way that was often identified as “gifted” when I was a child, this got me into trouble constantly for not being able to do what was often being asked of me. I could communicate my feelings and intentions effectively (perhaps even too effectively), but I could never express why I was struggling, merely that I was struggling. I just knew that I struggled, and the answer from the adults in my life was always to try harder.
Symptoms like dyscalculia (number dyslexia), aphantasia (the lack of a mind’s eye), auditory processing issues, noise sensitivity, among many others, went unnoticed or ignored because I masked them fairly well, and my hyperlexia and tendencies to infodump were identified as positives that must indicate my “true” ability to function. Rather, I received quick diagnoses like ADHD, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder because these symptoms of the greater problems were easier to see than the undercurrent of neurodiverse thought and action that has impacted every corner and crevice of my life.
Finding a Place in the *Other* Boys’ Club
As my sexuality developed, I assumed that I was a gay man because I didn’t have words to accompany the confusing feelings I had about gender. “Dysphoria” wasn’t a word that entered my vocabulary until my early twenties, and I had always associated trans women with “My Wife is a Man?!” episodes of Jerry Springer. I was effeminate, certainly, but not exactly hyper-feminine. So, while I aligned with gay men in the sense that I was attracted to men and found some semblance of safety in the gay community, it didn’t immediately make sense to me that I was more like the women on those shows than I was to the gay men who used my body for sexual gratification.
So I dated gay men and came to present myself as a feminine gay man because I knew that was more socially acceptable than the truth. With the vague feeling that there was some kind of storm on the horizon, I repressed the hell out of my transness because it just felt like that was what I had to do to survive. I quashed my reality and shoved it in a mental box where I also stored my childhood trauma, and there it lived with the rest of my traumas, slowly festering as a mental illness in what I would come to call my “trauma vault” through therapy.
It was only through meeting other trans people that everything began to click. I wasn’t a man; I was a woman—a straight woman at that. I had wrapped myself up so much in a gay male identity that this reality first hit me as a great shock, and I hid it from everyone, including my trans friends. Living a lie seemed easier than coming out as a six-foot-tall woman. I was told my entire life that I was the spitting image of my father, and while this was always meant as a compliment, I took it as a curse and an insult.
But men told me I was handsome all throughout my 20s, and I rather liked having people find me sexually attractive. I enjoyed feeling like part of a couple, particularly, however much I secretly longed for a heterosexual relationship. So I let myself fall in love with a partner who could only ever love the idea of me in return. He loved a man that I could never be, and while my relationship with that person was both important to me and brought me joy, I define that time in my life as extremely abusive and traumatic. My ex-partner came to control many parts of my life, and I believe that he saw glimpses what I was hiding — the storm that was, indeed, on the horizon, and he said and did things that were in an attempt to keep me in the closet, remaining a “man” for his benefit. He alienated me from my trans friends, whom he saw as threats, and told me several times that I was fortunate I wasn’t trans because I’d make “such an ugly woman” (words also echoed by my mother a few times.) He would follow up such horrible statements with affirmations of what a handsome man I was and would critique my evolving style of dress under a guise of protecting me from the big bad world. I do believe that, as my fashion sense feminized, he was honestly and truly scared for me — but rather than learn to love me for who I am, he tried to control me.
As that relationship drew toward its inevitable close, I was the most unhappy I’d ever been in my life and was starting to find myself unable to mask my identity the way I used to. I couldn’t just be a feminine man — it wasn’t enough. Masking became inaccessible, and so I came to numb myself with drugs and alcohol, the ultimate thing that drove a wedge between myself and that partner. While I regard that relationship as extremely abusive, I also understand that I deeply hurt that man with my lies and drug abuse. I lied about the amount of cannabis I was using (which was bordering on Jerry Garcia territory), and I lied about how I was taking my prescribed Ativan. I lied about drinking during the day, and I lied about being the man he had fallen in love with. Concurrently, my ex hurt me deeply in turn by manipulating me into staying in the closet for as long as possible so as to keep up the facade of being in a happy gay relationship.
I came out Pride Month 2017 in an argument about my cannabis budget. My ex discovered a vape pen that he didn’t know I had. Confronting me about keeping such things behind his back, he demanded that I confess all of my sins, and so I did. I told him why I was numbing the way I was, and what I’d been hiding all of those years. The torn remnants of my gender mask fell away, and all that was left behind was a terrified transfemme girl who felt as though the storm had not just hit, but had destroyed my home and my relationship with it.
My ex and I didn’t break up immediately, but it was soon clear that he didn’t want to deal with me transitioning, which is fair, to be honest. He was not emotionally equipped to handle what I was going through, and I was not equipped to handle him and his own inability to hold his family/childhood trauma. We were two hurting people who came together to hurt each other, and in that hurt, I grew and learned what I didn’t need from a partner. I learned that masking myself for a relationship ends in heartache, and it’s only been very recently that I’ve been able to start dating again as myself, free of masks, free of a facade. Honestly, I hold much resentment (that I’m working through in AA and therapy, thank you very much) toward this ex for how our relationship fell apart and how he treated me, but I would be remiss if I pretended that I didn’t play a part in the toxicity of our coupling.
In a whirlwind, I came out to my ex, to God, to my parents, to my friends, and, at last, the most burdensome mask I’ve ever worn fell to the ground and became unwearable. And so, I fled the city I had shared with a man who I had honestly and truly loved despite the ways in which we hurt each other so I could start a new life 3000 miles away.
So, where does my “binary-ish” gender come into play? I know that I’ve spoken a lot about myself from the perspective of being a trans woman, and what it means to wear a gendered mask in a world that expects the wrong gender presentation of us. In a large sense, my first coming out as a woman was incomplete, because while I am, in fact, a woman, and I truly love being accepted among the feminine gender and other stereotypical portrayals and expressions of my femaleness, I also find gender to be confusing as all fucking hell.
So, this is all to say that masking can get super complicated when you are both queer and autistic. We can get wrapped up in the imaginary identities we’ve built up around us because there is comfort in a safe lie, as opposed to building on a foundation of an unsafe truth. For autistic trans folks like myself, shedding a cisgender mask often means shedding our entire dry clean carousel of masks, as every mask we learned was also part of upholding our imaginary cisness. This means that, in addition to embracing our transness, we have to learn new masks that align with the gender that we truly identify with.
So what does it look like when an autistic trans person refuses to mask anymore? For me, this results in a trans person who straddles both binary and nonbinary labels. If that sounds confusing to any neurotypicals reading this, it’s far more confusing for neurodiverse folks to parse out. Extracting binary thinking when it has served us for so long can be jarring. While I am certainly nonbinary and inherently under the trans umbrella in that regard alone, I am also a transgender woman and identify wholly with the “Male to Female” experience. These are simultaneous truths for me, and I absolutely grapple with the question of whether or not my binaryness is yet another mask to protect me in a society that is more ready to embrace my transfemme self than it is to accept that my gender is also autistic AF.
When I think deeply about it, I realize that if I’d been assigned female at birth (AFAB), I’d still identify as trans and not cis because I don’t understand the social constraints of gender as they’ve been applied to me and others. I do question my nonbinary identity in relation to my binary identity because I also don’t understand nonbinaryness either. I don’t fully understand binary transness, binary cisness, or nonbinaryness, or agenderness, genderfluidity, genderqueerness, or anything else. Gender confuses the everlasting shit out of me in every way. While I am pursuing a medical transition that aligns me with many trans women and transfemme nonbinary folk, I am doing so because my body doesn't match my brain, which is a physical health issue for me more than a gender issue for me. My body and my brain don’t align, so I am pursuing certain things to align them as best I can. While I do certainly understand these concepts of gender intellectually, it’s as though there is a physical barrier in my brain between me and understanding these concepts outside of an academic sense, even as I earnestly apply some of these gender labels to myself.
Again, I am pretty sure that my gender is autistic. Some people even call it “autigender,” a term that I don’t fully identify with yet but probably will in due time, as I continue to embrace my neurodiversity and apply my autism diagnosis to a life fraught with confusion and alienation from others.
Gender is both a social construct and a stark reality of the world we live in. Gender is everywhere, from obvious things like the kind of clothes we’re expected to wear, to less obvious things like how many exclamation points a woman needs to put in a professional email to avoid being perceived as “a bitch” or unenthusiastic. Autistic folk and trans folk alike internalize these things to the degree that cishet NT people often just understand without realizing they understand it. Rather than just knowing it, autistic folks have to watch and learn from neurotypicals' behavior to figure out what/how to mask. For autistics, it can rather feel like cishet neurotypicals get a top-secret manual at birth on how to act that the rest of us were denied.
The Labels We Choose
I am an autistic nonbinary androromantic trans woman, and my journey to these five intersecting labels has been confusing and long. At 32, most of my life has been leading up to breaking down all of my masks and letting them live in the rubble of my defunct dry clean carousel. I cannot continue digging into ruins to seek validation. For so long, I have thought that there was something wrong with me and the way I think and process things. Being diagnosed autistic has opened my eyes to the fact that the way I perceive the world is merely different, not wrong. The way that I am is not incorrect; it’s actually just how I was born and how my brain functions.
To drop an abstract concept that could easily spin off its own essay, this has enlightened me somewhat that what we each perceive as reality is subjective and informed by how our brains interpret and extrapolate data. Reality is HUGELY subjective. My brain might see something that yours never could, and visa versa. It is only through embracing experiences that are fundamentally different from our own that we can begin to see the full scope and beauty of the human experience.
I understand on some level that “binary-ish” could mean “nonbinary.” But my identity and the nature of how I relate myself to gender doesn’t fit that easily under either label, and I struggle to reconcile the nature of my medical transition with the fact that gender is a social construct that I shouldn’t have to adhere to in order to be seen as valid. My abundant confusion with gender is part of who I am as an autistic non/binary-ish person, and these identities intersect greatly for me.
While scientists do not widely understand the phenomenon, it is clear that autistic people are disproportionally likely to be trans. What I am saying is that some of us lack the full picture of gender, and that’s okay.
Much like my literal lack of a mind’s eye (aphantasia), I very literally seem to lack the ability to perceive and understand gender outside of my disconnect with my physical body. So, while I know that I am trans because physical dysphoria is a huge part of my experience, I don’t know what exactly my gender is because I cannot perceive it. It’s there, somewhere, just out of sight. You could go searching for it, as I have, but life seems easier when I stop digging into the carousel of failed labels that I’ve masked myself in to get by and justify my existence to others.
I most desire to leave the reader with a bit more understanding of the fact that gender identity and neurodiversity as they intersect are complex issues. I don’t have all the answers. For me, I know that coming to terms with my autistic gender both liberating and confusing as fuck.
Thank you for coming to my TedTalk — if you’re leaving scratching your head, I think I’ve done the job of getting you to understand what’s going on in my wonderful and confusing neurodiverse brain.
TL;DR: I am a very special snowflake; deal with it 😘