Dr. Wenn Lawson, Ph.D., delves into the intersection of autism, sexuality, and gender. He describes monotropism as a theory of attention and addresses common sex differences in autism. The presenter discusses gender dysphoria, its biological and physiological underpinnings, and its prevalence and impact on autistic individuals. Lawson highlights the need for autism-specific sexual education and walking with autistic people as they discover their gender identities. He reiterates the spectral nature of autism, gender, and sexuality and provides resources before the Q&A. 

Handouts are online HERE

In this webinar:

1:00 – Introduction
3:10 – Outline and poem: Who Am I?
5:30 – The spectrums of gender, sexuality, and autism
9:10 – Monotropism
15:00 – Sex differences in autism
22:55 – Gender dysphoria
31:20 – Physiological underpinnings of transgenderism
35:20 – Genetic underpinnings of sex determination
40:15 – Gender determination across development
44:30 – Summary and conclusion
51:25 – Q&A

The spectrums of autism, gender, and sexuality

Lawson reads a poem titled Who Am I? to illustrate what it’s like to live in a binary world as an autistic transgender person (3:50). He underscores that gender and sexuality are separate and that, like autism, they both occur on a spectrum (5:30). The presenter asserts that non-verbal individuals should not be assumed as unintelligent, highlighting that many co-occurring conditions also impact the way people see and understand autism (6:40). Lawson explains that separating social, public, and private matters can be complicated for autistic people. They may ask questions like, “Why can we swim without a swimsuit at home but not in public?” or “Why do they call restrooms private when there are lots of people in there all the time (8:15)?” 

Monotropism: Autism as a matter of attention

The presenter shares a YouTube video explaining autism as a matter of attention (9:10). The host, Quinn, discusses monotropism, a theory about how the flow of attention differs between autistic and allistic (non-autistic) people (12:00). If, for example, we have ten focus points, an allistic individual would allocate around five to the main task and the rest to other less critical items. However, autistic people (monotropic) allocate differently, placing eight or nine of the focus points on the main item with much less to distribute across other things (13:25). Lawson explains that with so much mental force propelling you in one direction, it is challenging to switch tasks or thoughts. 

For more information, visit monotropism.org

Sex differences in autism

The speaker notes that, despite historical research biases, we now understand that autism is just as common in females as it is in males (15:00). However, presentation and experiences of autism differ significantly according to the individual (16:25). Lawson discusses common misconceptions about autism in females like the assumption that social competence excludes the potential for autism. He explains that autistic females may struggle more with anxiety and how tics like finger curling or nose crunching are often overlooked (19:00)

Due to monotropic flows of attention, autistic people often have difficulty comprehending broader cultural and social norms compared to their allistic peers (22:55). Lawson explains how this lack of understanding can leave autistic children vulnerable to abuse and maltreatment as they may not understand which behaviors are or are not acceptable (24:55)

Check out Dr. Lawson’s novel The Very Secret Diary of Jesse Jones. It tells the story of a young non-binary autistic person trying to work out what ‘comfort’ and ‘discomfort’ feel like, how to separate ‘appropriate’ from ‘inappropriate,’ and how to focus on school work, even when it’s not interesting. 

*Currently available on Thriftbooks, Barns & Noble, and other websites

Gender dysphoria

Gender dysphoria is a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress due to a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. Lawson discusses the prevalence of gender dysphoria in autism, highlighting its biological nature and physiological basis (26:15). He highlights that over 40% of transgender individuals living with gender dysphoria attempt suicide, underscoring the need to understand drivers of mental health (30:10). The speaker highlights the importance of staying in tune with our young people and walking with them through these processes of discovery which can be very scary and uncomfortable (28:10)

Physiological underpinnings of transgenderism

The speaker shares a video that discusses how cells communicate based on the presence or absence of specific chemicals that dictate developmental pathways in humans (31:20). He explains that male and female reproductive organs originate from the same place, depending on which pathway is activated (33:00). Therefore if a fetus is exposed to the wrong chemical at the wrong time, it can activate pathways that may not otherwise take effect (34:05)

Genetic underpinnings of sex determination

The video explains that early exposure to testosterone is known to affect developing embryos, noting that some people with XX chromosomes have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, causing an overproduction of testosterone (35:20). Similarly, androgen insensitivity syndrome, which occurs in people with XY chromosomes, keeps targeted cells from receiving testosterone, meaning those tissues default to the developmental pathways for female organs (38:10). In this case, the child will be genetically male but outwardly “look” and grow up as female, illustrating the fact that, in reality, gender is not binary (39:30)

Gender determination across development

The video emphasizes that gender variation occurs in many stages of development. Therefore, if you have abnormal hormone levels at one stage but balanced ones in another, you can get a physiological mismatch between reproductive systems and brain development (40:15). The presenter explains how identity exists within a neurological framework because people have an innate sense of who they are that is based on genetics and physiology and is not changeable (41:55). The speaker underscores alleviating the shame and stigma around being transgender, reiterating that it is not a mental health disorder. They urge viewers to take this journey because the destination is worth it and to not be weighed down by the judgments of others (44:00)

Summary and conclusion

Lawson reiterates the physiological and neurological bases of gender and asserts the need for more extensive and individualized sexual education in autism (44:30). He highlights that autistic people are sexual, too, and that if parents/caregivers do not educate them, they will learn from other sources. The presenter underscores the availability of porn and the predisposition to intense focus (monotropism) that many autistic people experience (45:45). It is critical, he continues, that we walk with autistic people as they discover their gender (47:55). Lawson notes that personal trauma and baggage can cloud our thinking and keep us from seeing people for who they are (49:00). The speaker concludes that there is no such thing as typical gender or sexuality and that depression, suicide, and mental illness are often linked to issues with gender and sexual identity (50:00). Lawson provides websites and resource lists before the Q&A (51:25).

Resources:

  • The Autistic Trans Guide to Life is available here and on Amazon. 
  • Transitioning Together, One Couple’s Journey of Gender and Identity is available here and on Amazon.
  • Not The Norm, a website offering help to navigate autism and pornography is here
  • Autism & Mental Health MOOC (Mass open online course) is free and can be found here

Originally published June 2, 2024

The speaker:

Wenn Lawson, PhD, is an autistic lecturer, psychologist, researcher, advocate and writer who has shared his professional and personal knowledge for nearly three decades. He has written and contributed to over 20 books and authored many academic papers. He servs on the board of The Autism Research Institute.

Learn more about Dr. Lawson

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