Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gender Bending on the Spectrum

I've worked with kids on the autism spectrum for closing in on a decade. Autism is a spectrum of conditions with an abundance of misinformation, so for brevity's sake I'll only state that it can affect cognitive development, social perception, sensory processing, and motor control to varying degrees in each affected individual. As a disclaimer, it should also be noted that autism is not caused by vaccinations nor can it be cured by abstinence from gluten.

Part of autism education is assisting kids in learning social cues. Most people on the spectrum cannot easily understand nonverbal social cues, which can lead to gaffes in etiquette that make initiating friendships difficult and even hold them back professionally. Among other things, we teach them what certain facial expressions and body motions indicate, what is and isn't appropriate to discuss with someone based on your relationship to them, how to dress in given situations, and the basics of hygiene and grooming.

What I've witnessed and find myself having to debate with other professionals over, are practices that teach conformation to gender heteronormativity. While girls are told that they are expected to remove leg and armpit hair, boys are explicitly told that they may not wear dresses, high heels, makeup, or nail polish. Social stories contain stock phrases such as "Girls do __________." "Boys like _____________." and we are educating a slew of young people that these norms are mandatory in order to be successful in society.

I won't discuss the inherent logical flaw in pushing the idea that gender norms, which are as capricious as fashion trends, are absolute and unchanging (blue and pink signifying the opposite genders they currently do less than a century ago, for example), when there is a far greater ethical dilemma at stake.

What neurotypical people comprehend and autistic people are struggling to understand, is that there are repercussions in society for not subscribing to the mores of one's prescribed gender. What we are teaching however, is that there are no repercussions because there is no choice. Whether someone chooses to disavow certain aspects of gender normativity, like eschewing a razor or adopting Rimmel's London Look, should be entirely their prerogative.

There's also the idea fixed in the minds of the general public that autism is sole defining characteristic of anyone who has the condition, when it is, like any other trait, merely one facet of a whole, complex human being. Autistic people are as likely as neurotypical people to be transgender, and in enforcing the ideal that their gender identity must conform to their biological sex, we're not only robbing them of choice, for trans autistic kids, we are denying an essential aspect of their selfhood.

Morally, we are obligated to impress upon these kids the possible repercussions of how they choose to express themselves in society. When neurotypical kids choose the extent to which they will or will not conform to social mores, whether they are cis or transgender, queer or straight, they do so making an informed choice, and their autistic peers deserve no less. But education is all about choice, forming ideas and plans from the most accurate information available, and educators have an ethical, moral impetus to encourage their students to make the best choices for themselves.

Prescribing their choices based on our own mores and prejudices is not only unfair, but blatantly wrong.

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