The Intersection of Two Spectrums

Autism and Gender

Two decades before same-sex marriage was legal in California, my partner Pauline and I had been in a long-term, loving, committed relationship when we asked our Rabbi to perform a commitment ceremony. He kept us on pins and needles for a couple of years until he agreed, modifying the traditional Jewish wedding and calling it a Covenant of Love. Pauline’s biological adult son, Paul, walked us down the aisle. Our friends and family celebrated with us. Months later, like most couples, we longed to raise children together.

For the obvious fact that we are two women, we’re not able to naturally bring our children into the world. However, possessing two wombs, insemination was doable and gave us double the chances of getting pregnant. Since I am older than Pauline, I tried getting pregnant first. We used live sperm from a friend of mine a few times, but after I had contracted an infection, we gave up on me. Pauline also used sperm from another a friend of ours, but his motility was too low. We bought frozen sperm from an anonymous donor. After many inseminations, a lot of crying and too many heart-breaking attempts, we gave up.

After giving ourselves time to heal, we considered other possibilities and decided our next step was adoption. But with that came new challenges. The agency we first went to told us we were not the ideal couple, being in our forties and lesbians, but did advise us of a place that was looking for people like us — the foster system.

They were looking for couples with the patience and resourcefulness that it takes to care for kids who could not be raised by their families of origin. We signed up with agencies who specialized in the adoption of older or special needs children from the foster system. The process consisted of background checks, interviews, training and doubts that we could survive the requirements.

We did prevail and adopted a rambunctious three-and-a-half-year-old boy in 2000 and a quiet two-and-a-half-year-old boy a few years later.

Our first son, Edgar, lived in his sixth foster home when we first met him. He suffered from severe neglect and abuse. Our second son, Thomas, was born to a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia who did not have the capacity to raise him. He was placed in foster care eight days after birth, neglected for almost a year and failed to thrive before being sent to a loving foster home.

“Do we have to take him home?” Edgar asked when we went to visit Thomas where he was living.

“Yes,” we told him. “This is going to be your new brother.”

“He’s broken. He doesn’t run and play like other kids,” Edgar said. “Thomas is too weird.”

Thomas was different. We realized we had our hands full early on. Both kids had mental health issues. For Edgar, we had a relatively good understanding of his problems and got him as many resources as possible. Thomas’ problems were harder to detect. He came to live with us on Valentine’s Day, 2003. Edgar tried to play with him, but Thomas couldn’t run around. Dinner time wasn’t much better. Thomas fed himself with a fork or spoon but didn’t know how to chew. Everything went down whole.

“Call 911,” Pauline screamed the first time Thomas choked.

I frantically ran to the other side of the table, stood him on the floor, got down on my knees and did the Heimlich. He survived, and so did we. In one week, Thomas had choked three times. By the end of February, we had discovered that Thomas had more problems than had been disclosed to us. It was evident that he had a hearing problem. After taking him to numerous doctors, we learned he had a brain disorder that interferes with muscle movements in the jaw, requiring occupational therapy for speaking and chewing. Thomas’ needed physical therapy for walking and balance. He also needed tubes put in his ears and have his adenoids and tonsils removed to help him hear and swallow better.

By the time Thomas was five, many of his early problems had improved, but his speech was not intelligible. We sent him to a special school to teach him, and us, sign language. Thomas did well, except with pronouns and identifying who was a woman or girl and who was a boy or man. He also had a fascination with objects that were odd for a young boy; jewelry, eyeglasses, hair, and shoes. We chalked it up to that’s who Thomas is and left it at that. When he needed glasses, he thought he had died and gone to heaven.

As the years went by, new problems showed up. Thomas did not socialize well with other kids, and he wasn’t maturing as expected. We took him to a psychiatrist and a mental health therapist who diagnosed him as developmentally delayed and eventually as being on the autism spectrum.

Finding a school for Thomas had not been easy given all his disabilities. The school district put all many of their special needs kids in one school, but they never addressed any of his issues. One teacher acted like a drill instructor. One day, I was so fed up, I stormed into the principal’s office and announced we were pulling Thomas out of school. We found a non-public school that met his needs including speech and mental health therapy on campus.

Everything seemed to be going much better, and we appeared to be on track. Thomas was still quirky. He continued to parallel play with other kids while they were playing with each other. He put a mop on his head to make believe he had long hair and said he was a boy who was going to be a woman. We thought, everyone is unique, but some are “more unique” than others. And then we were in for a bigger surprise.

After a visit to Thomas’s psychiatrist, Pauline came home and with some exciting news. You would think things couldn’t get any more interesting, but they did.

“The psychiatrist says Thomas is transgender,” she announced.

“Is that why he’s so interested in woman’s clothing and accessories?” I asked.

“That’s part of it, yeah.”

“So what do we do now?” I asked.

“We need to help her transition to a girl.”

“What does that mean besides a new wardrobe?”

Pauline sat down next to me and said, “It means a name change and using the female pronoun when we refer to him, uh, her.”

We looked at each other and knew what the next big issues were going to be in our lives. Pauline said it first. “They’re going to blame us,” she said, referring to her family. I was almost glad that my mother had already passed away and my father suffered from Alzheimer’s so I wouldn’t have to deal with my parents.

“The doctor also suggested we go to a support group called Gender Spectrum; They can help us deal with what we will need to do.”

“I’m getting too old for all these surprises,” I moaned. “Can’t someone else have this much fun in their life? When do we get a day off?”

A week later, we went to our first meeting.

It was the best thing we could have done to learn how to deal with family, friends and the school. Most importantly, we learned how to take care of Thomas and what he needed. First, the name. They taught us that gender is not the equivalent to sex. People fall on a gender spectrum; some are born as the gender that feels right to them. There are others that are more fluid and prefer not to identify as either male or female. Finally, some people believe they are in the wrong body, precisely what Thomas had been facing, feeling he was a girl but lacking the words to tell us.

Armed with this information, we started the transition with the basics: her name. Thomas became “T” to make the transition to her new name “Tammy.” Then we bought her girls underwear, a few blouses, and skirts. She was ecstatic. The first time she put on girls’ clothes, she could not stop swirling around with a huge grin on her face.

At first, Pauline’s son Paul did not initially approve of Thomas’ transition to Tammy, but eventually came around. Edgar took it in stride and continues to support throughout her whole process. We emailed and called family and close friends. Pauline’s family did blame us; my extended family was supportive but curious. Our friends responded with a resounding “Hurrah” and said that we were all so brave.

The following year, we put her on hormone blockers to stop puberty and give her time to decide if she is sure she is a girl. The blockers also alleviated the panic of growing facial hair, having an Adam’s apple, large hands, and big feet. To this day, Tammy knows she is a girl.

The near future will continue to bring challenges to my family. We are currently in the process of legally changing Tammy’s name, and our Rabbi is creating a special name-change ceremony for her. At the chronological age of 16, she must start taking female hormones to make sure her bones stay strong. Tammy will go through puberty at the developmental age of 8, creating the most challenging lifestyle process we’ve had to face.

There is not much information about children on both the Autism and Transgender spectrums. With Tammy’s permission, I will continue sharing her story as well as our journey as a family.

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