Children with autism report greater gender diversity: study

Emily Stembridge

August 29, 2022

AUCD's network of Intellectual and Developmental Disability Research Centers (IDDRCs) consists of 16 Centers. Fifteen Centers currently receive funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). IDDRCs contribute to the development and implementation of evidence-based practices by evaluating the effectiveness of biological, biochemical, and behavioral interventions; developing assistive technologies; and advancing prenatal diagnosis and newborn screening.

Editor Note: This story includes some complex technical terms that are an important part of the research highlighted in the article. These terms have been noted with asterisks (*). See the end of the article for plain language definitions for each.

Children with autism report higher rates of gender diversity — the way an individual experiences gender, which may be different from the gender they were assigned at birth — than their typically developing peers, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (TN IDDRC, UCEDD, LEND) researchers have found.

A study led by Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., 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 study 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.

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 focused on past observations and relied on just a single question from a broad questionnaire given to parents.

Corbett’s study was developed with John Strang, Psy.D., pediatric neuropsychologist at Children’s National Hospital who specializes in the assessment and care needs of gender diverse youth. Strang’s use of two sources of information — the parent and the child — was designed to be more capable to measure gender diversity.

“Our findings support research showing a higher prevalence 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 more complex mental health challenges which require additional 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 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.


Glossary of terms:

* Gender diversity: the way a person experiences gender, which may be different from the gender that person was assigned at birth.

** Nonbinary: A term adopted by individuals who do not identify as either a male or as a female, but instead view gender identity as a spectrum. Nonbinary individuals often prefer the use of “they/them/their” pronouns over “he/him/his” or “she/her/hers” pronouns.

*** Gender-body incongruence: The difference between an individual’s expressed gender or gender identity and the gender they were assigned at birth.

**** Neurodiversity: The range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, as part of a typical variation within the human population. (The terms “neurodiverse” and “neurodivergent” are commonly used when speaking about autism spectrum disorders.)