Autistic and Dysconnected

Why Autistic Young People are More Susceptible to Transgender Messaging

I have worked as a science teacher in one capacity or another for the past fifteen years. Among my most beloved students are those whom I suspected were on the autism spectrum, or “neurodivergent.” These kids are not too difficult to spot; they are often unusually detail-oriented, can readily ascertain laws and patterns, tend to hyperfocus, [1] and often earn the highest scores on assessments. Hans Asperger noted that in order to be a good scientist, a touch of autism is in fact, helpful.

Of course, you do not have to be a science teacher to envision that “geeky and socially awkward” kid who may not have been first choice for prom night, but when it came to getting help preparing for that ominous chemistry exam, was first on the list to call. Indeed, idiosyncrasies associated with neurodivergence are prized in the sciences, making ASD [2] learners among the most appealing for science teachers (and struggling peers).

Winsome quirks aside, many neurodivergent students also battle depression and anxiety. [3] On more occasions than I care to recount, my inbox brought messages from concerned parents explaining that their child was overwhelmed with depression, hopelessness, and despair and would miss class because they could not get out of bed. In the classroom, anxiety often manifested in trembling hands while writing notes, heads powering down by taking naps during lectures, mouths clamming up during class discussions, or bodies sitting alone, away from other students.

Vulnerabilities that Leave One Dysconnected

Unfortunately, the constellation of features that gives rise to both winsome quirkiness and these darker dispositions put autistic youth at elevated risk of succumbing to transgender messaging. In the documentary Dysconnected: The Real Story Behind the Transgender Explosion, filmmaker Don Johnson interviews physicians, psychologists, social workers, teachers, and activists to highlight the epidemic of medical transitions among alleged gender dysphoric people. Many of them recognized that autistic people are disproportionately affected by this epidemic.

Patrick Lappert, M.D., a plastic surgeon, remarked that transgender individuals have a 30 percent chance of being on the autism spectrum. If autistic individuals represented 30 percent of the population, we might not give notice to such a statistic, but the CDC reported in 2021 that only 1 in 44 8-year-old children in the U.S. were identified with autism (1 in 27 boys; 1 in 116 girls).

This was highlighted in a recent study reporting that transgenders were 3 to 6 times more likely to be autistic compared to cisgender people. [4] The authors suggested that these elevated rates could be due to “long-standing experiences and feelings of ‘not fitting in socially.’”

This comports with what Maria Keffler, co-founder of Advocates Protecting Children and author of Desist, Detrans, & Detox: Getting Your Child out of the Gender Cult, observed. She noted that the challenges of navigating a neurotypical society makes autistic young people ripe for the transgender narrative. The claim that, “You don’t fit in with other people because you are not actually the biological sex you think you are; you are trans,” is convincing. For anxious young people struggling with developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships (a diagnostic criteria for ASD), the claim promises a “solution” to satisfy the heart’s cry to fit in and feel valued – even if the solution involves invasive medical interventions.

Keffler also pointed out that because autistic individuals typically think in terms of black and white – exhibiting what researchers have termed cognitive rigidity – their ability to evaluate more nuanced arguments is challenged. Combined with their proclivity to hyperfocus, this creates the perfect storm, and they end up imbibing a metanarrative that seems to explain why they feel anxious, depressed, or even suicidal (which is common for autistic people anyway [5]). Keffler noted that once many of them have made a decision to transition, their black and white thinking does not easily allow reversal.

The added onslaught of propaganda afforded by social media, Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs, the entertainment industry, and peers feeds into a growing confirmation bias. Because autistic teens are prone to rumination (or even obsession), they will make life-changing decisions without consulting their parents. Tragically, transgender messaging funnels these wonderful lives into an identity that is not real, medical treatments that are dangerous and unsustainable, and even greater risk of suicide.

Intervention, Outreach, and Connection

My own recent autism diagnosis provided some insight as to why I found those quirky ASD characteristics so winsome. Perhaps it was the recognition of a kindred spirit and respect for the struggle they would have in a world built for neurotypicals. While I did my best to make my classrooms welcome spaces, unfortunately, many autistic young people do not find acceptance or a sense of belonging among the most meaningful spaces in which they live, grow, and learn – the church.

In his book Autism and the Church: Bible, Theology, and Community, theologian and professor Grant Macaskill challenges the church to rethink the way we view autistic people. His first appeal is for education and understanding. Christians blessed with neurotypicality should understand that that parishioner who refuses to make eye contact in conversation, who fidgets in the pew during the sermon, or who is brutally honest when solicited for an opinion, is not intentionally being rude. Withholding critical judgment and reckoning such a parishioner as merely “different” or “unique” helps to pave the way for more meaningful engagement as friends. In a world dominated by neurotypical conventions and rules, living as an autistic is challenging and should summon grace. Despite the idiosyncrasies and what can appear as less-than-prosocial behavior, we should not forget they still bear the imago Dei.

For the young, autistic parishioner, the transgender movement provides two key things. First, a metanarrative that seems to answer the existential questions generated by their inner turmoil. Second (and perhaps even more important), it promises an accepting community. Yet as Daisy Strongin, the detransitioner profiled in Dysconnected, pointed out, the community is accepting only as long as the person identifies as trans; if they start challenging the claims of the movement, their status as a venerated member of the “community” is swiftly revoked. Already atomized, the cancellation often leaves them even more lonely.

To safeguard our autistic sons and daughters against trans messaging, the church needs to do three things. First, capture the imaginations of the young with a full-bodied biblical view of gender. God’s crafting of the first couple as male and female is beautiful, and several evangelical authors have written excellent works on the theology of gender. [6] Second, reach out and get to know those socially awkward people in the congregation. I have found autistic people to be among the most interesting, and it is easy to engage them in conversation if you talk to them about the things they are passionate about. Finally, all ministries of the church should work to provide a welcoming space for autistic individuals. In extending care to those who are “less charismatic or ‘likeable’ than others,” [7] we embody the values of the gospel we have been called to share. We also provide a safer haven and a more permanent community than what they will find in the trans movement.

 

[1] Baron-Cohen, Simon. The pattern seekers: How autism drives human invention. Basic Books, 2020.

[2] “ASD” refers to autism spectrum disorder.

[3] Attwood, Anthony, Craig Evans, and Anita Lesko, eds. An Aspie's Guide to Life on Earth: Been There. Done That. Try This!. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014.

[4] Warrier, Varun, David M. Greenberg, Elizabeth Weir, Clara Buckingham, Paula Smith, Meng-Chuan Lai, Carrie Allison, and Simon Baron-Cohen. "Elevated rates of autism, other neurodevelopmental and psychiatric diagnoses, and autistic traits in transgender and gender-diverse individuals." Nature communications 11, no. 1 (2020): 1-12.

[5] Kirby, Anne V., Amanda V. Bakian, Yue Zhang, Deborah A. Bilder, Brooks R. Keeshin, and Hilary Coon. "A 20‐year study of suicide death in a statewide autism population." Autism Research 12, no. 4 (2019): 658-666.

[6] Kleinig, John W. Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body. Lexham Press, 2021. Tennent, Timothy C. For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body. Zondervan, 2020.

[7] Macaskill, Grant. Autism and the church: Bible, theology, and community. Baylor University Press, 2019, 72-73.

graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno, with a BS in molecular biology and a minor in cognitive psychology. As an undergraduate, she conducted research in immunology, microbiology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, scanning tunneling microscopy and genetics - having published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and projects in scanning tunneling microscopy. Having recently completed an M.Ed. from University of Cincinnati and a Certificate in Apologetics with the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, Emily is currently an instructional designer/content developer for Moody Bible Institute and teaches organic chemistry and physics. As a former Darwinian evolutionist, Emily now regards the intelligent design arguments more credible than those proffered by Darwinists for explaining the origin of life.

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