Gender identity problems in autistic children – Review of a case study

This is a case report of two Turkish boys with autism and gender dysphoria. Unlike this earlier study of two boys with autism, the boys in this study verbalized a clear desire to be a girl.

In the earlier case study, the boys had cross-gender interests, but probably did not have gender dysphoria. In this case study, however, the boys had cross-gender interests and gender dysphoria.

This study followed the boys for at least four years, so we know that the gender dysphoria was not transient.

We do not, however, know if their gender dypshoria will persist. Most children with gender dysphoria desist around the time of puberty. What happens with children with autism? Are they more or less likely to persist in their gender dysphoria? How should parents and educators handle their gender dysphoria? Is their gender dysphoria different from gender dysphoria in neurotypical children? How common is gender dysphoria among children with autism?

In the first of these two cases the patient was treated with behavior modification, encouraging separation from the mother, and establishing a bond with his father. His cross-gender behavior continued. In the second case his parents tried to establish a good bond with his father, but again, his cross-gender behaviors have continued.

The author of this study suggests that gender dyshoria in children with autism may be underreported and might be interpreted as unusual interests rather than actual gender dypshoria. At this point, however, we don’t have enough data to know if that is the case. This is a case study of only two children.

This case study does, however, show that children with autism can have genuine gender dypshoria, like the Swedish teenage girl in this case study and the Japanese boy in this one.

“This case study, which is a preliminary attempt to report the developmental pattern of cross-gender behaviour in autistic children, tries to underline that (1) diagnosis of GID in autistic individuals with a long follow-up seems possible; and (2) high functioning verbally able autistic individuals can express their gender preferences as well as other personal preferences.

Finally, this report points to the need for further study of gender identity development as well as other identity problems in individuals with high functioning autism.”

(Emphasis mine)

Original Source:

Gender identity problems in autistic children by N. M. Mukaddes in Child: Care, Health and Development Volume 28, Issue 6, pages 529–532, November 2002.

More details about the case studies:

Case 1 – 10 year old boy with autism:

“One year after the referral [for autism], when he was aged 6 years, he started to show improvements in spontaneous speech and imitative play, and displayed more interest in his peers and other people. At the same time, his mother reported some cross-gender behaviours such as wearing his mother’s dresses, putting lego bricks in his socks under his heels and pretending to have high-heel shoes. Along with the improvement in spontaneous speech and imitative behaviour, he started to state his disappointment about his gender. Sometimes, he prayed and begged God to make his penis disappear. After these verbal expressions, he shared his fantasy about his wish to become a bride, married to a man from the age of 8 years. He never shows interest in male activities, he always avoids rough-and-tumble play and prefers to play with girls. Although he has shown some improvement in his social relatedness and language, his social difficulties in terms of reciprocal relationships with peers and sustaining a conversation with others still remain. Despite the eclectic treatment approaches (behavioural modification, encouraging separation from his mother and establishing a bond between him and his father), his cross-gender behaviours show a persistent pattern.”

Case 2 – 7 year old boy with autism:

He started to use phrases at age 4 years [he was referred to the clinic at age 3 for autism], showed improvement in social relationships and sharing interests with peers at nursery school. He also started some make-believe play. At the same time, he had shown persistent attachment to his mother’s and some significant female relative’s clothes and especially liked to make skirts out of their scarves. After age 5 years, he started to ‘play house’ and ‘play mother roles’. This was the most persistent and most pervasive pattern of his play, and he pushed his therapist as well as his peers and family members to ‘play house’ with him. He avoids rough-and-tumble play and likes to share his interests with one or two of his female classmates. His parents were worried about his behaviour and tried to prevent it, but he reacted aggressively. He started to state his desire to grow up as a woman (like his mother). He gave up his attachment to some feminine objects, but still shows persistence in playing the ‘mother roles’ and expresses his desire to be a woman. Although there are some improvements in terms of social relatedness, language and the disappearance of stereotypical behaviours, his social interaction pattern is still inappropriate for his age. His parents have tried to establish good bonding between him with his father as a identification object. Despite this, his cross-gender behaviours are persistent.

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