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Children with autism report greater gender diversity: study

Apr. 21, 2022, 9:10 AM


by Emily Stembridge

Children with autism report higher rates of gender diversity — the way in which an individual experiences gender distinct from social norms for their gender assigned at birth — than their typically developing peers, Vanderbilt researchers have found.

A study led by Blythe Corbett, PhD, James G. Blakemore Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and investigator with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, used both self-reporting and parent-reporting measures to assess the experience of gender diversity in 244 children between ages 10 and 13. One hundred forty of the children had autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the remaining 104 were typically developing.

Blythe Corbett, PhD

The findings, reported in medical journal Autism, showed that autistic children experience much higher rates of gender diversity and higher rates of nonbinary identification than typically developing children. Parents of autistic children echoed their children’s self-reports, describing significantly more gender-body incongruence experienced by their children than parents of typically developing children. Interestingly, parents of autistic females-assigned-at-birth reported significantly more gender-body incongruence than autistic males-assigned-at-birth.

These results expand upon previous studies which showed increased rates of gender diversity in autistic children and highlight the importance of understanding and supporting the unique needs of autistic children who experience gender diversity, Corbett says.

While prior studies on autism and gender diversity have built a foundation of understanding for researchers, they have been largely retrospective and relied on just a single question from a broad parent-report questionnaire. Corbett’s study was developed with John Strang, PsyD, pediatric neuropsychologist at Children’s National Hospital who specializes in the assessment and care needs of gender diverse youth. Strang’s implementation of two informants — both parent and child — was designed to be more rigorous and explicitly able to measure gender diversity.

“Our findings corroborate and extend an emerging literature showing a higher preponderance of gender diversity and nonbinary experiences in youth with ASD,” Corbett said. “Importantly, the results also show that some individuals with ASD and gender diversity may have higher mental health challenges necessitating multidisciplinary support. It is important to recognize that co-occurrence of gender and neurodiversity may contribute to greater psychological, emotional, clinical and ethical challenges for both the child and their families especially within a complicated social and political context.”

Understanding the experiences and needs of gender diverse youth is critical, as statistical comparisons in the study between groups with ASD and with typical development revealed associations between gender profiles and symptoms of anxiety, depression and suicidality. Youth with co-occurring ASD and gender diversity or incongruence may require intervention services to support both.

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