The authors of The Autistic Trans Guide to Life, Wenn Lawson and Yenn Purkis, share their personal experiences of being both autistic and trans.
What are the unique challenges that autistic trans people face, and how can you work through them? Wenn Lawson answers.
Hi, I’m Wenn Lawson, I’m a trans masculine autistic individual who transitioned over a 7 year period (2014-2021). It took a long time for me to recognise my male gender (I was 62 when I began my transition). Many of my challenges with being autistic and trans are written about in our book. I am only going to answer the question above, in relation to my experience and I’m only going to tackle a few of the challenges.
Although I knew I wasn’t female, (in the traditional sense of the term) I didn’t have the words for describing how I felt or what my gender might be. Instead, I told myself and others ‘I must be middle sex/gender’.
During the process of transitioning and still so today, I have challenges that relate to my being autistic and to being trans. Some of these are connected to my sensory system which is mostly heightened. This means I need to wear tinted lenses, wear a baseball cap to help minimise lighting impact upon me, and sometimes I use ear plugs or ear defenders when noise is too much for me. I also avoid crowded spaces, smelly restaurants, itchy clothing, being required to multi-task (outside of an area of interest) and be involved with socials I’ve not got a say in. Many of these issues are due to my autism but they impact being trans because the non-autistic trans community often expect trans folk to be sociable, enjoy parties and be quite extravert. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but mainstream trans folks might not understand those of us who are autistic.
My ‘unique’ challenges may not be yours, but it is important to identify these for yourself. Although I think the sensory things can be unique to autism, they may be highlighted for/in autistic trans people because being trans might present some novel situations we may not be prepared for. For example, I wasn’t prepared for the smell that hit my senses when I first stood to pee. Somehow sitting down to pee I hadn’t noticed the strong smell of urine. There are two ways to deal with this, if this is one of your challenges. Initially, we can drink more fluids (especially water) as this will dilute the urine and remove the unwanted smell. Secondly, we can choose to sit to pee, so we are one more step removed from the fragrance of urine. Of course, this means using a stall in public conveniences and not the urinal. If you are transfeminine you might welcome this change.
Another challenge I faced during transition after a week on testosterone was having painful nipples. I have a high pain threshold in general, but this one really was something that caught me off guard. I took one paracetamol to help and avoided loose, flappy clothing that moved lots and irritated my chest. I am used to wearing loose fitting clothing because it helped to disguise my shape so moving towards more fitted clothing was a challenge.
I was unsure how testosterone might affect me… I guess it might be the same for those taking female hormones. It is important to check blood levels pretty often, especially at the beginning of transition. I appreciate not everyone chooses to transition medically, but if you do, it’s a challenge to trust others to advise you. As an autistic person I’m not keen on doctors and medicos, let alone attempting to explain my concerns to them. But, it’s really important we each take hold of our own fate and let others know what we need from them. For example, if you can’t cope with being in a waiting room, ask the nurse to text/call you when it’s your turn to see the doctor, so you can wait in your car or close by, but not in the waiting room.
If you have any allergies (latex; Elastoplast) make sure you let the medicos know because they might use such as a dressing after a shot or after surgery. I come up in welts if these are used on my skin.
As autistic people we may be very sensitive in a number of ways. Negotiating these is also a challenge! Separating any issues that are trans related from those that are autism related is a challenge in and of itself. As autistic people we are very literal and single minded. This might mean we have particular beliefs about our gender and how we ‘should’ look, or what we ‘should’ feel. Quite often you might ‘feel’ you are ‘not trans enough’. Being trans and moving away from the gender you were assigned at birth is a process of change and not necessarily a feeling state. I have a good friend who was trying to be helpful and make me feel good about myself. He said ‘you pass well as a man Wenn, no-one who meets you and didn’t know you were trans would guess you were’. His words are actually ‘genderist’ (like racist but with gender rather than race). He didn’t mean it to be derogatory but being the gender you are at home in has nothing to do with whether or not you ‘pass’ as that gender. The literal take on this is offensive and not helpful. If this happens to you, don’t take it personally because the individual doesn’t know their words are hurtful. Rather, you can point out that gender is a spectrum and no one gender is like another. Meaning, you are not attempting ‘to pass’ as much as you are working towards being your authentic self.
There are lots more challenges with being autistic and trans, but I have mentioned a few. It might be helpful to join a facebook page or a trans/autistic group where you can share the challenges you have, with others going through similar stuff. Don’t struggle alone!
Five things most people probably don’t know about me… Yenn Purkis answers.
I am Yenn Purkis. I am trans and autistic and one of the authors of the Autistic Trans Guide to Life. Here are some aspects of my experience that most people probably don’t know.
I came out as non-binary when I was 44.
While I reflect back on my life and see that it was glaringly obvious at almost every point that I am gender divergent, I didn’t get to reach that understanding until well into my forties. This is probably because the language around gender diversity simply didn’t exist for most of my life. The options for gender when I was growing up and into adulthood were male and female and that was all. I always felt ‘wrong’ to identify as female and that I was probably some kind of third option for gender. I just didn’t know what that was until recently.
It was only in the past few years that I understood my gender identity better. I was speaking with some trans and autistic friends in 2017 and 2018 and started to apply my growing understanding of gender divergence to myself. It was a real journey of discovery and when I finally came out the primary feeling I had was one of immense liberation.
I changed my name to Yenn in 2019.
My dead name was very gendered female and never felt right to me. I never felt close to my name but when I came out I realised that gender identity was one of the reasons I wanted to change my name. Shortly after I came out I kept trying to force the matter and come up with my new name but it didn’t come to me. I decided to let my subconscious come up with a name for me.
About eight months later I was sitting at my desk at work and the name came to me. I wrote it down ‘Yenne’ and thought ‘no.’ Then I wrote down ‘Yenn’ and realised it was the right name for me. It took me a millisecond to embrace my new name. When I unpacked it I realised that it was meaningful for several reasons. The first was that to yen is poetic language for yearning and I am a very self-reflective person, much given to soul-searching. I also thought that it was a nod to the past as it contained some of the same letters as my dead name. Yenn was also a ‘gender neutral’ name. This really appealed to me. I love when I go to a doctor’s surgery and they come out and you can see them trying to figure out who Yenn is from all the patients!
For a while I was the worst culprit for misgendering myself out of anyone.
Because I knew myself as she / her for so many years it took me three months to stop regularly misgendering myself! I think this is an issue for lots of people when they come out. I thought it was annoying but rather amusing too!
I am asexual but I thought I was a lesbian for many years.
I came out as a lesbian when I was 16 but looking back it was a case of me conflating gender identity and sexuality and not realising that there were more sexuality options than gay, straight and bi (which was my understanding at the time). I am now a very proud asexual (‘Ace’) person too.
I work in a corporate job where I am openly autistic and non-binary.
I am involved in my workplace’s LGBTQIA+ Pride network and am very much out loud and proud as autistic and non-binary at work. Last year I did a voice-over for an animation for International Non-Binary People’s Day. My job is in diversity and inclusion in Human Resources so I do a lot of work around gender, sexuality and disability – and other things – when I am at work. I love having a supportive workplace where I can be my true self.
We have written the book to support and provide helpful guidance for autistic and trans and gender divergent people. It has lots of useful information that autistic and trans people can use to navigate life well. The book will be available from 18 March 2021. You can order it here.
Wenn and Yenn will be co-presenting a panel discussion on ‘Gender and Autism’ at JKP’s Connected by Autism conference, on Thursday 25th March. Click here for more information and to buy a ticket.