Someone’s gender is part of their identity, how they feel about themselves and how they relate to the world. As they grow up, children may want to explore their thoughts and feelings around their gender identity. This can be very challenging and complex, for a variety of reasons. As parents, what is the best way for us to support them?
Gender - how you feel about your identity based on social and cultural characteristics
Sex - your physical, biological characteristics including body parts, hormones and chromosomes
Cisgender/cis - someone whose gender identity is the same as their sex at birth.
Transgender/trans - someone whose gender identity is different to their sex at birth
Non-binary - someone whose gender identity doesn’t fit within the labels of ‘man’ or ‘woman’. There are multiple non-binary gender identities.
Pronouns - words like ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’ that we use to refer to someone
For more terminology, see 68 Terms That Describe Gender Identity and Expression.
What is gender?
In the UK, our culture has historically been built around the idea of two genders, male and female, and we have clear social norms around what is considered masculine and feminine in terms of personality traits and behaviours. However, these are not fixed, immutable facts. Other cultures have much more flexible ideas around gender, such as having less strict rules around gender, or having more than two genders.
Social norms can also change over time. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, pink was considered more suitable for boys to wear and blue for girls, before swapping over in the 1940s. However, the trend of blue for boys and pink for girls only caught on more strongly when pre-natal testing for sex became widely available in the 1980s. So we can see that gender ‘norms’ can change over time, and also depending on where you live in the world.
Sadly, in the UK, and in many other Western cultures, there has been strong social pressure to reinforce our gender norms, and people who did not conform were considered to be mentally or physically unwell. They were often subjected to harmful ‘treatments’ or ‘cures’ or institutionalised, hidden away, unseen. As our society becomes more accepting of differences, it is gradually becoming safer for trans and non-binary people to explore their gender identity and express their true feelings.
Trans people have always existed, they are just more visible now in Western culture. There is evidence of trans people dating back to ancient civilisations and throughout history. In the UK, changing attitudes and legal protection under the Equality Act 2010 means it’s less risky for people to discuss gender identity, and as a result, we are developing new words to describe people’s experiences. We also have new medical treatments for people who wish to medically transition. In addition, the trans pride movement has helped to raise awareness and acceptance.
Autistic experiences of gender
As autistic parents, we need to be conscious of the fact that being autistic can affect our own thoughts and feelings around gender identity. Gender is a social construct and autistic people tend to care less about social constructs than non-autistic people. We know that autistic people are more likely to be transgender, and also that transgender people are more likely to be autistic.
Coping with change
At the same time, being autistic can make change challenging for us. We may need more time to process changes to our child’s gender identity. This is not to say that we can’t adapt or shouldn’t accept these changes, but just to recognise that we need to accommodate our own needs in order to fully support our children.
It is ok to experience a range of emotions, including shock, confusion, anxiety, and sadness around your child’s gender identity. However, if this is affecting your ability to accept your child for who they are, including how they wish to explore and express their gender, it is important to get support for yourself. You can access general peer support from Autistic Parents UK, or contact one of the charities listed at the end of this article.
Non-cisgender young people need to know that they are unconditionally loved and supported by their families. Although it is safer to be trans nowadays, it is not easy, and trans people face enormous prejudice and discrimination. Trans people are at much higher risk of suicide, and family support can be a protective factor.
How can I support my child?
The most important thing is that your child knows you love them no matter what, and that they feel safe to be themselves in their home and family environment. Listen to what they are telling you and try your best to respect their wishes, for example, if they ask you to use different pronouns. If you make mistakes that is ok, just apologise, keep trying your best, and keep learning.
It is highly unlikely that your child wants to be trans or non-binary just to be ‘trendy’. It may be something they have spent a long time thinking about before discussing it with you. Bear in mind that there are many people who think that being autistic is ‘trendy’.
Children begin to understand gender from a young age, although of course, their understanding will change over time. Typically-developing children begin to develop their concept of gender between the ages of three and five. They may then go through a period of being quite fixed in their ideas around gender, which may relax between the ages of seven and ten. These ages are just a guide and every child is different, but this shows that gender is a concept that can be discussed even with very young children.
There may be other issues that are linked to them wanting to explore their gender identity such as sexuality, homophobia, bullying, puberty or misogyny. Some strongly held, inflexible beliefs could lead a child to question their gender. For example, if a child who was assigned male at birth has a strong belief that ‘dancing is for girls’, and they really like dancing, or if a young person starts to experience same-sex attraction but does not understand that this is ok. It is important to validate how they are feeling and then explore these beliefs gently.
It is possible that they may change their minds about their gender expression in the future. It will be easier for them to do this if they know you will support them unconditionally and they will not have to fight for acceptance. All children and young people experiment with their identity in different ways as they develop. Some of it will stick and some of it won’t, but that does not mean how they feel right now is not valid. It is ok for gender identity to change over time. It’s also ok for them to make decisions that they later regret. Your role as a parent is to help them work through it.
Being a parent doesn’t mean we have to have all the answers, but we can learn, and we can help find other people who can support our children.
Books for Young People
You may like to read these books and see if they are suitable to share with your young person.
Resources for Adults
The books for young people listed above might also be useful for you, and there are many links in this blog post where you can learn more. You may find the additional resources below helpful to develop your own knowledge and understanding around gender identity, and to access further support.
Zoe is a late identified autistic parent to 2 unschooling neurodivergent children, writing about autistic identity and culture. Find her on Medium https://medium.com/@zoewilliams_2443 and Mastodon https://cupoftea.social/@rekindled.