Yenn Purkis and Sam Rose are the (awesome autistic trans) authors of The Awesome Autistic Guide for Trans Teens – a handy new book which will help you navigate the world as an autistic trans teen. It’s packed full of information, tips, advice and helpful activities to complete. Books are great, but we also know it can often be useful to hear directly from people who share your lived experiences and identities, so we asked Yenn and Sam some questions about being awesomely autistic and trans. They share their thoughts below.
What is the best thing about being autistic?
Yenn: My passions / intense interests. I can be completely immersed in the things I love and they bring so much joy. A Yenn without a passion is hardly a Yenn at all. Also the neurodivergent community. I discovered this many years ago and still absolutely love there being people out there who approach life similarly to me and ‘get it’. Almost all my friends now are neurodivergent – or lovely neurotypical allies. I never had this growing up so it is just amazing to be connected to my compatriots in the land of autism.
Sam: My sense of awe and wonder in the world. I can access this sense on a really interesting level in my interests, when I can almost feel connections in my brain forming between things. I do think of this experience as tied into my autism as I’ve heard other autistic people describe the same thing and I feel it quite deeply. I can get this sense of wonder from simply looking at a freeway and thinking about its construction, I can also get it from watching a bird hopping around on the ground. I really connect well with other people who experience this sense of wonder, and quite often they are also neurodivergent, so the community is really important for me too.
What is the best thing about being gender divergent?
Yenn: I know who I am and I can be proud of who I am. There is a trans and gender divergent community and I am a part of it and my community accepts me for who I am. I spent years feeling like my gender identity was different to others’ but not understanding what it was. Being out is just amazing. It is a liberation. My dad reflected recently that since I have been out I have been infinitely happier. He is absolutely correct. I love my non-binary / transgender identity.
Sam: I love the way I have come to challenge the idea of my assigned gender, and I love seeing how it has helped me make better friends with myself. I think being able to connect with myself better also helps me to connect with others better, because I am consciously aware of a lot of gendered expectations and how they might influence our perception of the world. I have learnt a lot, especially from older people in the LGBTQIA+ communities. I am really grateful to be able to take lessons from inspirational trans activists throughout history and try to build them into my life and my communities.
What advice would you give to someone who thinks they might be autistic but isn’t sure?
Yenn: Look at some content by autistic people. There is a lot of it about! I know I have put a lot of content in the world and I am only one of many advocates. Talk to some autistic people – we usually have a fairly well-calibrated ‘a-dar,’ so may well be able to tell if you are autistic, plus if you are autistic then finding your peer group is a good thing anyway. If you know some autistic people then ask them for recommendations for clinicians who are good and respectful and can give you an assessment. Whenever someone tells me they got the diagnosis I say ‘Welcome to the club!’
Sam: Definitely agree with Yenn here, I will also add that to think about what it would mean for you. I recognised myself in the descriptions of autism I read instantly, but over time I started to doubt myself. My dad told me that if thinking about myself through the lens of autism felt useful, and helped me answer questions about myself, then it probably is an accurate fit for how I process information. Diagnosis can be really helpful, if your gut feeling is that you are autistic, it’s important to listen to that.
There seems to be a lot of labels under the gender divergent umbrella – how did you know which label felt right for you?
Yenn: It took me a while to find the appropriate label for my gender. At first I knew I was non-binary but non-binary is a sort of umbrella term with a bunch of identities within it. I had a young friend make me a ‘demigirl’ badge which I thought was odd as I hadn’t ever identified as a demigirl!
Eventually I reflected on how I felt about my gender. I realised that I did not feel anything in relation to my gender. I did not feel male, I did not feel female. I have no connection to a binary gender. I realised that I do not have a gender. I am agender – which falls within the umbrella of non-binary. I also identify as transgender as I transitioned from assigned female at birth to agender / non-binary. I do love all the options and identities available. It’s always nice to reflect on identity and have epiphanies. I love a good identity epiphany!
Sam: I feel quite comfortable thinking of gender identity quite broadly; genderqueer or non-binary are two labels I really like. I do think of myself as trans too; I think of being trans as the ‘umbrella’ above those labels. I read a lot of them but I didn’t want to limit myself with specific labels, because I really see my gender identity developing quite quickly as I get older and get more into my hobbies and routines. It can be really helpful finding specific labels so you can chat to other people who share it, and I find it’s a great way to really explore what these pockets of our identity mean to us, how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen by others.
Do you have any tips for someone who is gender divergent and who wants to come out to a friend or relative?
Yenn: Remember that thinking about coming out and preparing to do it can be more scary than actually coming out.
Make yourself a plan. Consider what you want to say. Who do you want to come out to? What do you want them to know? You could write it down if that helps. It can be very tricky coming out to family, especially if they are conservative or have issues around gender diversity.
I would suggest the first time you come out to do so with someone who you are fairly certain will be supportive and use this to build your confidence for coming out with people you are less confident will be supportive. You will almost certainly need to come out several times. Even if coming out is challenging it can be a liberating thing to do. You have the right to be who you are and to come out and affirm your identity – maybe keep that in mind when you are have the conversation. Also plan the environment for the coming out conversation – set up the time and place and make sure it is somewhere that you feel confident and comfortable.
I would say that you will probably be surprised at people’s reactions to your coming out. You may find that some people you expected to be hostile are in fact supportive and some who you expect to be supportive will not be.
Sam: Coming out felt really spooky for me the first time, I was really scared about how my friends would react, and I was also scared that I would regret it once I’d opened up. The opposite was true, when I came out to my friends they were really supportive and I felt relief and excitement afterwards. Saying it out loud made it feel more real. I started my coming out to people I knew would be supportive and then slowly worked my way to telling people who I thought might have a harder time accepting it. I told others before I was going to come out to my mum for example, so that if it went badly I knew I’d have some supportive people I could go to.
I would also say that some people just need a bunch of time to come around to the idea. This is a real shame because it can make it hard to stay connected to someone if you want them to be in your life, but it is not your responsibility to change their mind if you do not want to take it on. Have some self-care things planned for afterwards eg. have a soothing or affirming activity set up, like drawing things or a movie that makes you feel good, get some of your favourite snacks, invite someone you trust to spend some time with you.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t understand your identity, or who says something mean or negative about it?
Yenn: I give presentations on gender diversity and autism all the time. I am comfortable talking to people who do not have a lot of understanding around gender. Most of the people I speak with are supportive and positive which is lovely. My parents tell me I have educated them about gender and they are lovely and supportive. I see gender as just one of my attributes. I like talking about it and raising awareness and understanding.
Sadly I often come across hostility and bigotry. I tell myself that the bigot is the person with the problem, not me. My response is usually anger – which I think is the right response. Some people turn the hatred in on themselves which can be dangerous. Being angry when someone attacks you for being yourself is actually a helpful response I think.
For the bigots on social media I sometimes stand up to them and sometimes just say nothing and block them, depending on how confident I feel at the time – and how much their bigotry has upset me. I feel a responsibility to stand up to bigots given I have some status in the community. I can’t just let it slide. I had someone I knew for 25 years tell me in a public post online that they were a transphobic bigot and I blocked them without hesitation as even though I had known them for a very long time I owed it to my other followers – many of whom are trans and gender divergent – to stand up to bigotry and make sure my page is a safe place and respectful of trans folks. So blocked and gone!
There is a range of bigoted responses to gender diversity ranging from intentional misgendering to insults and physical violence. None of these are OK and it saddens and angers me that trans folks are so often targeted. The idea that there are people out there – lots of people – who hate me simply because I dare to exist and share my experiences with the world is definitely not OK.
I think my response to bigotry depends on my relationship with the person as well. If they are a friend or family member I will devote more time and effort to addressing it and if it is some random fool on social media I will probably respond, wait it a bit and then block them. I don’t owe anything to bigots. I would say that if you have to excise someone from your life because they are transphobic and bigoted then do it. You owe them nothing and life is much better free from bigots, even if the bigot is a family member or close friend.
Sam: This is definitely something I have struggled with, and I am still working on what feels best for me in response to this situation. I have really tried to channel my anger into my advocacy and activism, but this can leave me feeling quite exhausted and still not great. When people are just trying to understand I check in with myself before responding to see how much energy I want to put into my explanations, because a lot of information is accessible online in video, word, image, and audio formats, so if I don’t feel up to explaining I will direct them to google. If people react negatively, which luckily doesn’t happen often to my face, I really try to just distance myself from them. I have a really great community of people in my life and I don’t want negative and closeminded people to take up any of that space. They can come chat to me if they are willing to let go of the idea of putting people’s genders in these rigid categories.
Could you suggest some places where readers could meet other autistic trans teens?
Sam: I think it’s a good idea to look at local youth mental health spaces and see if they have groups for the LGBTQIA+ community, because you will be sure to find other autistic people there too. The same for if there are groups for the autistic or neurodivergent communities. Autistic people can be found in lots of specialty interest groups because we can be so passionate. Interest groups can be a great way to meet likeminded people who may also be autistic and trans! For example, I have joined sports groups and painting groups where I have met people who are also autistic and/or trans. It feels a little easier to make conversation about my interests than about my identities.
I think some areas of the internet can be great too, YouTube has some great autistic and trans vloggers, places like discord, social media and forums can have autistic/trans groups you can join too. There is a safety risk when interacting with others online, especially as a teenager, so it is really important to be careful and to speak up if someone is sending you unsolicited messages or making you feel uncomfortable. Look for groups that have moderaters and that are really clear about rules and respect eg. no transphobia, racism, homophobia etc.
I would also say to consider setting one up at your school or in your local community! You never know who else might be going through similar experiences and wants to meet others similar to them. A supportive teacher, friend, or family member might be willing to help you out. It can be something as simple as hosting a movie screening or having board games or video games set up at a regular time each month, it could grow into something really beautiful!
Thanks for speaking to us Yenn and Sam! Their new book, The Awesome Autistic Guide for Trans Teens, is available now.