Dr. Laura Anderson on Gender Nonconformity and Differently Wired Kids

gender nonconformity kids
 

In this episode of the Tilt Parenting Podcast, we’re going to be diving into a topic I’ve been looking to cover for some time now—gender nonconformity in kids. To talk about this, my guest is Dr. Laura Anderson, a clinical child and family psychologist who has worked with children, adolescents, adults and families for twenty years. Among Laura’s special areas of focus is support for gender expansive youth and their families, autism spectrum disorders, parenting neurodiverse children and teens, and improving family communication.

The topic of gender nonconformity in children is a personal one for Laura, as she is raising a son who is both neurodiverse and gender expansive. I have received many requests from listeners to do an episode on this topic, so I’m thrilled to finally be able to share this with you. We cover a lot of ground in our conversation, as Laura explains what gender nonconformity is, how children’s gender identity is formed, what the latest research says about a connection between autism and gender expansive behavior, what children who are gender nonconforming and the parents raising them need in terms of support, and much, much more.

 

About Dr. Laura Anderson

Dr. Laura Anderson is a clinical child and family psychologist who has worked with children, adolescents, adults and families for twenty years. She is licensed in Hawaii and California in the US. She has lived out of the United States on several occasions, including recently with her family in West Africa. Dr. Anderson is currently based primarily in Oakland, California. She provides video health services to members of the expatriate community.

The areas of her expertise include school-based behavioral health, the assessment of children and adolescents, support for adoptive families, support for gender expansive youth and their families, autism spectrum disorders, parenting neurodiverse children and teens, and improving family communication. Dr. Anderson has done talks and trainings in the US and internationally on child development, school-related issues, and issues related to gender identity development.  Perhaps most importantly she is also the proud parent of a bold, amazing, neurodiverse, gender expansive son.  For both personal and professional reasons, Dr. Anderson is passionate about supporting gender expansive, non-binary, and transgender youth and their families in the global nomad community.

 

Things you’ll learn from this episode

  • The difference between sex assigned at birth, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation
  • What gender nonconformity and expansive behavior and expression in kids might mean
  • How gender identity is formed and what influence, if any, do parents have on it
  • Why gender identity isn’t a choice
  • The mental health risks and challenges for gender nonconforming children
  • How to address it if they suspect their child is nonconforming in gender identity
  • What the journey looks like for gender nonconforming kids, from preschool to puberty and beyond
  • What the current says about a connection between autism and gender nonconformity
  • What kind of support parents with gender nonconforming kids need
  • How parents can best understand and navigate the journey to supporting a child who is gender nonconforming

 

Resources mentioned for parenting gender nonconforming kids

 

Episode Transcript

Laura Anderson:

One of the key takeaways that I talked to folks about what this work is that the really good news for parents is that if this is something your child is insistent, consistent and persistent about the really clear and persistent about the fact that they have a need to behave in gender expansive ways or that they are not the gender that that they were you believe they were based on their sex assigned at birth, that parents are enormous protective factors without parents support, and if parents are trying to change these key pieces of their kid’s identity again, out of out of understandable fear. If parents try to change it, then these kids really, really struggle.

Debbie Reber:

Welcome to the Tilt Parenting Podcast, a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring, informing and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host, Debbie Reber and I am really excited to bring this episode to you as we’re going to be diving into a topic I’ve been looking to cover for some time now, and that is gender nonconformity in children. My guest is Dr. Laura Anderson, a clinical Child and Family psychologist who’s worked with children, adolescents, adults and families for 20 years. Among her special areas of focus is support for gender expansive youth and their families, autism spectrum disorders, parenting neurodiverse children and teens and improving family communication. The topic of gender nonconformity in children is a personal one for Laura as she is raising a son who’s both neuro diverse and what she describes as gender expansive. I’ve received a lot of requests from listeners to do an episode on this topic. So I’m really excited to be able to bring this to you. We cover a lot of ground in our conversation, as Laura explains what gender nonconformity is how gender identity is formed, what the latest research says about a connection between autism and gender expansive behavior, what children who are gender non conforming, and the parents raising the need in terms of support, and much more. Before I get to that conversation, I have some really exciting announcements to make. One is that my schedule for next month differently wired to your world book tour is pretty much all set. In the second half of June, I’m going to be making stops in Seattle, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, DC, Maplewood, New Jersey, and New York City. If you live in or near one of those cities, I would love to get to meet you in person at one of my events. And just as an FYI, these book tour stops aren’t going to be your typical author reading kind of thing. The plan is I want these to be more community gatherings where we can just get together and have meaningful conversations about how we can change the future for differently wired kids. For all the dates, the tour stop info and to register for one of the events just go to tilt parenting calm slash tour, I cannot wait to get to be in the same room with members of the tilt parenting tribe, I hope I get to meet you at one of these events. And on that note, next week, I will be announcing some really special bonuses I’m working on for people who pre order my book differently wired, as well as some other things that are special related to the book launch. So be sure to sign up for my email list at tilt parenting calm if you’re not already on there, so you don’t miss any of these announcements and opportunities. Thank you so much. And now here is my conversation with Dr. Laura Anderson. Hello, Laura. Welcome to the show.

Laura Anderson:

Hi, Debbie. Thanks for having me.

Debbie Reber:

Yeah, I feel like this is a conversation that I’ve been wanting to have for a long time. And I’ve been hearing from more and more listeners that they have questions about this. And then serendipity brought you and I together in the Netherlands. You’re in California right now. And that’s where you live currently. But we got to meet at a conference and I just was so excited to be able to connect with you. And probably even before I talked to you for a minute was like, will you come on my podcast. So anyway, thank you. Thank you so much for being here.

Laura Anderson:

Yeah, it’s an honor. I’m really excited actually to talk about this stuff. It’s close to my, my heart and my head.

Debbie Reber:

Excellent. So let’s, you know, before we get into the meat of the conversation, I would love if you could just take a few minutes to tell us about who you are your work your family and really connected with your personal why and the work that you do in the world.

Laura Anderson:

Sure. So I am a see honestly, as far back as high school I knew I wanted to be a psychologist who works with families and I am a child and family psychologist almost 20 years now. I’ve been licensed and I’m licensed in two different states here in the US and I am I’ve lived out of the country on several occasions. And so this period of this intersection of psychology and living abroad is one that really resonates with me. I love kids and families in any setting. I’ve worked in schools for almost all of those 20 years with actually offices, right on school campuses. But I’ve also done work in a range of other private practice and contract, foster care and all kinds of different things. So I’ve seen kids and families in almost every place, you can find them. And I really love parenting support, and just helping families thrive. And so that, so that’s one thread. And the other thread is that I’m the parent, I’m a transnationally adoptive parent. So we’re a mixed race family. And my son is both neurodiverse and gender expansive. And so that shaped my knowledge, like kind of came into my parenting with a broad understanding of child psychology and child development. And open mind philosophically, but parenting My son has really brought me to the table of figuring out even more the nuances around the these issues.

Debbie Reber:

Well, that’s why you’re the perfect guest for this conversation. You’re also the perfect mama for your son sounds like so he kind of won the lottery and him getting to be part of your family, for sure. Me too. Well, I mean, he, my mantra is, it ain’t gonna be adult ride. That’s something we can relate to. Yeah, so yeah, he’s teaching me tons. So I’m lucky to Yes, the learning never ends, does it. So I want to start at the very beginning. And as I say that I feel like I’m singing a song from the sound of music, that let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. But I even want to just look at this idea of gender identity, can you give us a definition for that? Because I think for this is a new conversation for a lot of people. And I just want to make sure that we cover all the bases before we get deeper into it. So what is gender identity?

Laura Anderson:

And I think, yes, it’s an important place to start, because language changes constantly with this stuff. So when I talk about it, I always start with inviting people to a little bit of forgiveness for what they don’t know, and what’s changed since yesterday when they thought they knew it. So it’s really Yes, it’s important to ground us in sort of the latest thinking about this stuff. Gender identity is your internal felt sense of how male or female you are. And in the old days, those were very binary, we understood them to be you were either entirely male and felt that way, either entirely female and felt that way, that’s kind of still a common understanding. But in reality, over time, we’re seeing it’s really a spectrum, there’s greater understanding that, that similar to but totally different from sexual orientation, and we’ll talk about that, too. It’s no longer fair to think of them as only living in two boxes that we know that it’s a natural expression of gender development and human sexuality to fall on a spectrum, not into boxes. So to kind of reiterate, the gender identity is your internal felt sense of how male and female you are. And sometimes that lines up with our parts, it lines up with our sex assigned at birth with what doctors assume we are based on our anatomy for a lot of folks that lines up in it, and they don’t question it, because it’s in alignment from the beginning. And for a whole other group of people larger than we might have known. 20, 30, 40 years ago, there was actually not total alignment between their internal felt sense of gender, and the sex they were assigned at birth. And so sex assigned at birth refers to your anatomy, gender identity refers to how male or female you feel on the inside, and your gender expression is what you show the world. So how do I live in my gender? How do I communicate to others, what my feeling about how male or female is what I do with my hair, or makeup or jewelry or way I crossed my legs or the way I move my hands when I talk or all of these things in our culture that are so incredibly gender loaded. So gender expressions, but we show the world about our felt sense of gender. And then the one last piece of definition that’s important is that these often get confused with sexual orientation. And it’s important to distinguish them, our gender identity really isn’t related to who we’re then attracted to. It’s it’s they’re totally separate. You know, some people who are totally aligned in their gender are heterosexual, some are homosexual, some are bisexual and broader than that. And the same is true for folks in the transgender community. Some people who are trans are also straight and some are gay and some are bisexual and pansexual and beyond. So we often confuse the two because I think what first shows up for Families is that their kids will do something I use the language My son is gender expansive. I don’t know exactly what gender journey we’re on. But what I know is the word gender expansive means his expression. The way he’s always done stuff was not typically boy, he just showed broader interests and toys and clothes and things that sort of expand our old notion of the, of the gender boxes. And so that’s why I use the word gender expansive, and sometimes gender expansive, kids really are just checking that out. That’s why there’s dress up clothes in preschools, and you know, because boys less for fingernail polish, and girls will check stuff out as a totally, really common part of development. For a lot of those kids. That’s exactly what it is. They’re just checking it out, they’re relating to their mom or their dad, or that kind of a thing, right, and it doesn’t become an identity piece, it remains only sort of a questioning of expression, am I going to show the world gender this way kind of a thing. But for another subset of kids, it’s expression that then develops in there is a sexual orientation component later, it turns out that those that particular group of kids who was demonstrating gender expansive behavior later identify as gay or lesbian. And there’s still a third set of kids for whom when they’ve done this experimenting, and they’re doing gender expansive things, it’s a reflection of an internal felt sense of gender that is different from their anatomy. And those are your transgender folks. So I always let people know that a little bit of gender expansive behavior and experimentation, quote, unquote, with expression is really a part of natural human development for all kids to explore. And then if it persists, and kids are insistent, and they’re consistent in their desire to live in their gender this way, it can be an indicator of either sexual orientation stuff later, or gender identity stuff, and that’s where the work is teasing it out. And also to say those are very natural, what we know more and more is a broad range of gender identities and a broad range of sexual orientation are also a natural expression of human sexuality. It was just to say that some kids experiment as a really typical part of expression, and then it doesn’t ever evolve into homosexual sexual orientation or a gender identity piece. So I don’t really ask any questions at any point, because it’s hard to talk about in a linear fashion. Because Yeah, three, the The point being that what usually comes to parents attention first, is the child doing something that falls outside of the gender norms, were so very gendered in our culture, we everything takes on meaning for what we subtly and not so subtly expect girls to do expect boys to do. We get heavy messaging in media, from our families, and make a ton of assumptions about gender. And so we come by this confusion about this stuff, honestly, because it’s sort of the water we swim in, I say, right, like, when we’re gonna have a baby, one of the first questions people always ask is, what are you having, and then we make a whole bunch of assumptions about what you’ll get to do in life with this little being because of their gender and what they need because of their gender. And so when kids come out, or go through phases, or you know, as children coming out, meaning when they start to demonstrate behaviors that are expansive, it gets parents attention, we notice it and other kids notice it, and other people notice it, too. So I have it’s important that it doesn’t always mean you’ll be on a journey that involves sexual orientation or, or gender identity, but but it might be, and so we need to talk about that, too. Absolutely.

Debbie Reber:

Yeah, this is just fascinating to me. And I’m so grateful. I mean, you obviously know so much about this. And just to kind of really help us wrap our heads around it is, you know, even as someone who reads art, all the articles about this and stuff, it’s still a lot to kind of wrap my head around. And, you know, we talked about the language and making sure that you understand what these different things mean. So, as you were talking, I was thinking about this controversy that erupted maybe eight years ago or something over a woman, an executive from J crew was interviewed for I don’t know if it was a vanity fair, some high profile magazine, and there was a picture of her painting her son’s nails. And that just sparked a huge controversy and just thinking about how gender identity is formed. And, you know, you talked about the role of the media and all of these things. What kind of influence if any, do parents have on their child’s gender identity? Or is it something that they come into the world with?

Laura Anderson:

You know, there’s more and more research that really does say that gender identity is another example of neuro diversity. There are theories about it there. Nobody we’re still piecing things together and figuring out exactly what it is but we do know gender identity is not a choice expression. is how you show people the world your gender like I could tomorrow go out and sweat pants and a baseball hat. And I’m squarely identify as female and feel female and everything lines up for me. But tomorrow I could choose to behave in ways that kind of buck those norms a little bit, right. And I and I can make a choice to present as more masculine. But that’s my expression. For for gender identity that felt internal sense of whether you’re male or female, or both, or neither, is not a choice. And it’s often driven just by kids, what we what I can see is their wiring really, and there’s more evidence that perhaps one of the theories is that it may have something to do with the release of androgens and other hormones during pregnancy. Because when I think about it, and this is very, I mean, I’m using sort of oversimplified in a way, but I, I think about that moment in our brains, when we’re in utero, that gets coded for gender, our brains and our genes line up and they code us around, you know, male or female, or whatever, is not the exact same moment that our parts sprout. It’s just not there’s a process between, there’s a developmental process at the phases of how gender identity forms even scientifically. And so the way I sort of started to think about it is there are events and things that can shape things in utero, that may, that may just expand the notion of either a really solid box that is male or female. And I think we do have some data, the social piece is that we do have some data that says in areas where there’s more tolerance and acceptance of expression, when kids are given permission to be who they are their expression flourishes. And you may see more examples of how you show gender to the world in a diverse way. But that parents can’t actually change their child’s core identity. So the good news is that we can sort of give permission and shape and allow for make room for kids who who are feeling this drive and this need to identify this way we can help it we can help them feel seen and help them feel secure. But there is no evidence whatsoever that that parents created gender identity diversity in their child, or can change it. In fact, we know attempts to try to change gender identity don’t work, and they actually hurt the kids on the receiving end, I know I understand I come to this work with parents from a very understanding place. It is and I speak from firsthand experience, it’s very scary to parent a child that you know, is going to be the source of added public attention, and that you’re going to be judged. And for folks who are already parenting neurodiverse kids, we know how this works for a bunch of different reasons anyway, in terms of our heightened sense of being under a microscope if our kids caught doing something unexpected or unacceptable. And there are real fears, right, especially in a wide range of places, even in the most quote unquote, progressive places. It’s just still unfortunately true that LGBTQ folks are at greater risk for harm for teasing for bullying for for all kinds of things. So it’s, it’s unnerving for a parent, I mean, most of us parents want our kids to have a little bit of hardship so that they’re resilient, right, we want a silver spoon our kids, we’d like them to develop some, some metal and some coping skills, but but most parents do feel anxiety. And they do feel some sadness, that that this layer of complication for their child means that the whole family may be under added scrutiny and that their child is at greater risk for hurt feelings, because it is a common belief in the culture that that parents somehow caused this or somehow shouldn’t allow it to happen. I mean, one of the key takeaways that I talked to folks about what this work is that the really good news for parents is that if this is something your child is insistent, consistent and persistent about the really clear and persistent about the fact that they have a need to behave in gender expansive ways or that they are not the gender that that they were there you believe they were based on their sex assigned at birth, that parents are enormous protective factors without parent support. And if parents are trying to change these key pieces of their kid’s identity, again, out of out of understandable fear. If parents try to change it, then these kids really, really struggle, they’re eight times more likely to attempt suicide, they’re six times more likely to experience major depression, three times more likely to have substance abuse problems and three times more likely to engage in high risk, sexual behaviors. And I think of those as really shame based behaviors. So cuz the kids are living in the same world we are, they’re getting all the same message. About how boys are supposed to be and how girls are supposed to be, and they’re getting them directly and indirectly. And so they already feel as if something’s most of them feel as if something’s different about them. They, they’re they know, they get the feedback, they get the messages. And then if their parents aren’t able to be affirming or giving them the message that something’s wrong, then that is a really, really difficult thing for kids to feel good about themselves and thrive. If parents do their work, and can be supportive, then all those factors go out in the wash, then then it’s entirely possible to have healthy, happy functioning, thriving gay or trans child, I think, parents try to do some of their changing out of the belief that they’re protecting their kids. And they mean well, but what we know from the research after decades is the harm that’s done by parents sending the messaging that their kid isn’t Okay, and that something needs to change is is actually greater than the harm that’s done by the kid who’s teasing him at school that we’re trying to protect our kids from. So we accidentally hurt our kids trying to protect them. So we need to kind of make a switch and think about how to work with the environment our kid is in, and how to teach our kid, you know how to read safety cues in the environment, and how to know where it is safe and how to handle feedback they’re getting for being who they are. So it just we just have to think differently about how we believe we’re protecting our kids in the situation.

Debbie Reber:

So, you know, for parents who are listening, who have kids who may be younger, and maybe you could speak to At what point or what age in a child’s life, this shows up or you start to notice. But is this a conversation that we wait for our child to bring to us? Is that a conversation that we start, you know, how do you recommend parents address this? If this is they suspect that their child is non conforming in some way?

Laura Anderson: Yeah, I think what we know is that kids can actually genuinely identify a gender identity around age three, three to five, that they can say, you know, I’m a boy, or I’m a girl, most kids or they may say, I don’t know, sort of a thing. And yet, and so and with sexual orientation, just as an aside, again, to differentiate the two, it’s not until kids are average age of 10. around that area, but for gender stuff, it’s three to five ish. And what we see is there’s a subset of kids in the transgender community who are very clear. And as I said, you’ll hear this language insistent, consistent, persistent, about No Mom, I’m a girl. And the parents are sort of a gas like, what how? How can they know this? But that’s also interesting, too, right? We don’t question our sons who say their boys from the time they’re three right? That doesn’t strike anybody is too early to know that they’re a boy or a girl, right? So for if you do have a child that is that we do have subset of kids who know that clearly articulated that clearly living it tell you like they’re just crystal clear. And they’re making all their choices in line with it. But that’s not the majority, and sometimes in the media push to kind of normalize transgender identities, and thank goodness they have, but sometimes that story gets told to help people sort of believe that this stuff is real, and it’s scientifically based, right? But in reality, that’s not it’s not always that clean and simple. Another really big trigger point for kids around their gender identity is puberty. So there’s also a really big subset of kids for whom they do gender expansive kinds of things they try on different, you know, they cut their their girls, they wear short hair, and they present in a way that’s more masculine. If they’re boys, they have a wider range of toys, and they, you know, present as more feminine. But nothing they’re not. They’re not saying hey, I’m transgender, hey, you’ve got this all wrong world. And then something happens in puberty, as they start to go through their Natal sex puberty. So if they were assigned male at birth, as their, you know, parts get bigger, and they are Adam’s apple changes and their body grows and their voice deepens. It creates an incredible sense of disconnect with their body, then all of a sudden, they’re, they’re like, well, not all of a sudden, no, what comes into view is the fact that they have been toying with this sense of gender all along, and something hasn’t felt quite right, but they didn’t really feel a need to address it and couldn’t put words to it. And then puberty comes in, and they’re literally confronted with what feels like a betrayal from their bodies. And so the beginning of puberty is another really common time that parents can start to see their child expressing a discomfort around gender because if there is a true identity piece underlying this, it’s a very uncomfortable time for kids because they do really feel that their body is betraying their internal sense of themselves. So preschool is a prime age. We hear a lot about it and Then there’s also a subset of kids for human puberty, it’s much it becomes an issue. That’s more vocalized again, but we know to in the research is that again, lots of younger kids in preschool, play around with expression. But if you’re what we know, in the research is if you have a child who’s in puberty and is starting to say to you, this isn’t right, no, you don’t understand, like, I don’t want to go through puberty, I don’t feel this way, this doesn’t work. For me, it’s much less common for kids that age, to then just sort of, quote, grow out of the expression phase. So if puberty is hit, and your child is expressing concerns about this, and, and often, for instance, in kids that are assigned female at birth, monthly monthly cycles, will, will really agitate depression and isolation, and a sense of sadness and distance, because of all of the things that that means for their body, and how that doesn’t feel lined up with what their heart and their brain feel. So that’s what I keep going back to is that if your heart and your brain is doing something different than your body is that it can create a lot of discomfort. And that’s where, you know, some of those numbers around depression and anxiety pop up. I think. And so do parents ask? I mean, yeah, it takes practice. And I think that’s one of the reasons why, why somebody who’s got a little experience in this can be helpful for parents. Because in some ways, I mean, they’re, it’s not that hard, when you’ve had a little bit of time to practice about it. I mean, it can be as simple as you know, I mean, some people really, you know, are really super clear. They feel like a boy in their head in their heart, and their body is looks like a boys and I may use kid language about you, what would you say? Are you a girl or a boy? You’re both or neither? And, and for kids? That there’s no issue there. They look at you, like, I’m a boy. You know what I mean? Right? They all sort of think whatever. Boy, that’s weird. But and then keep going the way kids do it their beautiful way, like what was up with Mom, what was that about? But for a kid who is struggling or isn’t sure it will get their attention? And their answer will give you information? They will say, you know, I don’t I don’t know, what do you think? Or sometimes I feel like both or? Or they’ll say no, I’m a girl, when you believed you were dealing with a Natal male. And then the parents job is to take a few deep breaths, because most parents are get a little panicky about what this could mean. And is it a phase? And what do I have to do now? And how do I get this right? And all of those things, and just take some deep breaths and realize it’s it’s a journey. And one comment on one day doesn’t mean that you have to up in your life, but you want to start then looking at your child through a different lens where you’re really kind of monitoring? Is this something that that we really need support and protection around for this child? How much do we walk into this? Do we name it? Do we walk into it? What does my child need to feel safe at school? What do they need to feel safe in our extended family? Most kids who are in that category of being really insistent and persistent will start telling you, I mean, that’s how parents know. They’re like, No, I want to dress No, I want to shop over here in the sparkly section, Mom, the boys clothes are boring, or, you know, that kind of thing. They’re already communicating, because most parents start to wonder about this stuff, because their child already actively moving toward an expression that gets parent attention. So parents really have a decision whether or not they can jump into that, and how much or whether they want to shape that. And, and, and, and not yet, because it’s it’s too much. And again, that’s with full respect to parents who need time and need space and maybe have to struggle with cultural messaging or faith based messages, or there’s a lot of reasons why gender takes on enormous meaning in families that that really is complicated to sort through. So yeah, you’d be surprised how kids can actually talk about it. And for the kids, who are who it resonates with, they will often give you an answer that that lets you know right where they’re at. And for other kids, it’s a process, they’re not going to give you a yes or no right away, because they’re not really sure. So it’s really staying in dialogue and being open to it. That is important.

Debbie Reber:

That’s great. Well, you know, I would like to talk more about this typically what parents can do, if this if you know this is happening in their own family or just to support these kids in in society. But before we do that, I’d love to just spend a little time talking about this connection between autism and gender expansive behavior, there have been a number of articles that have drawn my attention in the past, you know, maybe two years that have been talking about this connection, and there seems to be not a lot of definitive reasoning why and maybe you you can add to that or give us a direction of what you know about this. But can you talk about that correlation and what we know about it in terms Of how common it is and why it might be happening.

Laura Anderson:

Yeah, and there, it’s really you’re right, we’re still doing more research. And there’ll be more to come. But yes, it’s interesting that three there, there are three groups of people that show up more in gender clinics than other groups of people, statistically and then one other anecdotally that I know locally, because I’m here in the Bay Area in the land of kind of gender clinics in terms of what people are seeing, and the children who are adopted are far more likely to express gender expansive identities, kids on the autism spectrum, and twins, you see higher prevalence in twins than non twins. And then the fourth category, anecdotally that folks here are talking about our children formed through IVF, or created families that involve IVF, or alternative reproductive technologies, assistance technologies to to form families and some of the thinking and a lot of its theoretical, we’ll be piecing things through is that again, that these things all have both a genetic component and a possibility that there’s something in utero in terms of wiring and timing of hormones, speaking to autism, specifically, the fact that autism already occurs so much more in boys than girls. And we certainly know that that there’s been more attention paid to better diagnosing girls, so be looking for girls on the autism spectrum more. So that part of the reason there’s such a wide disparity between boys and girls diagnosed is because we’re missing it in girls that that’s true. And we’re trying to address that as a field. But even so, it’s, you know, five times more likely, I think, at least in boys than in girls, and it’s much more common. And so that sort of suggests that there might be something related to hormones and development, and or genetics and the way genes are passed down. The and they’ve looked in both in gender clinics, there are also more children with autism presenting so you’d think there’d be 2% in the local community, and there’s 7%. So we’re not talking about 80% of kids on the autism spectrum having gender issues, but it’s, I’ve seen studies anywhere from five to 10%, which is higher than what you’d expect in the in the general population. So in both populations, if you take gender clinics, more autistic kids are showing up more often than they should based on the percentage in the community around them. And if you look at the autistic community, more of those children gather, the recent data I saw was seven to 10% of them will express gender expansive behavior or identity. So when in both groups, the other is popping up with two to three times I think, is what they said higher than expected prevalence for that group broadly in the culture. So again, we’re not talking 80 90% of folks, but we are talking statistically significant, higher than expected crossover between gender and autism. And the two main theories that that are positive about that are number one, again, that that has something to do with that science, the genetics and or androgen pregnancy related factors, for instance. And then the other is that our wonderful kids on the autism spectrum just don’t, it’s both protective and challenging for them, that they don’t read the social cues as well, they don’t bear the burden of all of the intensive messaging the same way. And so even though that can be one of the things we worry about, for kids on the autism spectrum, because they need a lot of coaching and training, to be able to notice what’s happening around them and to receive the messages they’re getting from the broader world. In this particular case, there’s thinking that, that autistic kids feel more free to move toward their true felt sense of self, because they’re not, they’re not having the crushing weight of all of the expectations hit them the same way that it does for other kids who are much more attuned to the cues they’re getting in the environment.

Debbie Reber:

Yeah, that’s super interesting. Yeah, that’s I think it was an article in Forbes magazine that I had read recently. And I’ll post the link to that in the show notes. But that was one of the things I talked about was specifically that social, you know, just not really caring so much about how they’re perceived or what others think of them. So that would then suggest that there are other kids if that theory is correct, that there are kids who aren’t on the spectrum, who may be gender non conforming or have some gender identity things going on, but they’re not. They’re not even allowing themselves to go there because of societal expectations.

Laura Anderson:

Yes, that’s part of the thinking that Yep, that our kids on the autism spectrum just live in it that they that they don’t even really, they don’t respond to the cueing and they also get kind of confused, but they don’t really understand. They’re like, No, I don’t know why this is hard for the rest of you. You know, I’m a boy or I’m this and we Do you know in terms of numbers and frequency, it is also suggesting that there may or may not be some link to gender and testosterone is that within the autism community, currently, it’s more often that you see folks assigned female at birth, who also have autism, that are presenting with gender expansive stuff, we see more of that within the autism community than we do folks assigned male at birth, who then later identify as trans and have autism. So all we know is that there’s trends related to gender and autism, and they’re just starting to piece together, what what that could be, you know, and it’s one of those things where people say, Why are we so worried about why, and I think it is a human need to kind of be curious and to wonder, what could the links be? So they, you know, while they’re figuring all that out in the, in the meantime, I think having a child who is on the autism spectrum, one of the biggest questions parents have is well, how do I know this is really a gender thing? And not just the next Thomas, the train fixation, or, you know, dinosaurs, whatever, Harry Potter, extraordinary what you know, that specialized interest that so often comes along with autism? And again, there isn’t an overnight answer to that what that takes is knowing your kid and talking to the specialist who can really help you tease that out, you know, how long ago did it start? Was it tied to puberty? Does it shift during those times of the month, does it? How persistent is this? How many other shared made? How many other specialized interests do they have? How long have the other interests laughed? I mean, there’s, there’s ways that we tease out what is likely to be related to the autism specifically and what is totally separate from it. And I think it’s natural, you know, parents sort of wonder, well wait, because if this isn’t just a fixation, then I’ll feel more compelled to do more and to find out what what specialists would say I should do to support my child and becoming more aligned with their gender. But if it is going to be a fixation that he moves on from two years from now, the way he has with every other fixation, then I’m not going to take any steps in that direction, right. So so parents do need support from people who understand both autism and neuro diversity broadly, and also gender identity development, and what it looks like at different phases, because it does lend itself to different decision making is at the end of the day, that’s really for me, that’s as a mom, you know, I’m like, okay, I do, I wanted to know, I did a ton of research. Why does this happen? How come this goes together? Well, what’s the best way to explain it? And, you know, I also caution parents against that, too, because we have such we’re so talented at blaming ourselves and taking responsibility for things. And what if I hadn’t done this? And what if I hadn’t done that. And I think, in this particular case, it’s really an invitation for parents to think about this as truly more and more, we’re learning a completely natural expression of gender identity development, and it’s a range now, not boxes. And what parents need is support, to have their worries to grieve the things they thought they were prepared for with the gender child, they thought they had to do that work to get clarification about whether or not this is likely to be fleeting or not. They need space to be able to do that, so that they can show up for their kids. And they can go to the school and say, what are we doing about the teasing? Do we really always have to line up boys and girls all the time? You know, how is my child going to be able to use safe spaces to change or to use the bathroom? Like, what are we going to do about all these things, because what we know is if parents can’t find the support they need from their community, and professionals, then their kids are the ones that suffer and you also get more distance in a relationship with parents, the parents I know of trans kids who’ve been in the trenches and done their work and, and gotten their mind wrapped around it. Because it’s hard. It’s really hard to make sense of this stuff. And when parents do it. They talk a lot like when I first started talking about this stuff, the parents of trans folks were like, gosh, this feels heavy. What about the joy? Like No, no, that’s important too. And it is. I’m like no parents who’ve been on this journey, talk about feeling an added sense of closeness to their child when they’ve walked through fire. And they’ve done the creative problem solving, and they’ve had an openness with their kid. And they, there’s an understanding of shared protection and growth, that really does lend itself to a closeness that they haven’t had with other kids who are just sort of on an easier path, kind of a thing. And there are new communities that open up to them fund mentors, you find out pretty quickly in your surrounding community who your allies are. So there’s beautiful things that come from this, but Parents need support to get there.

Debbie Reber:

Yeah, I mean, I’m just thinking about you know, just in general the audience for this podcast and community is parents have differently wired kids and I created till parenting so parents could have Easy access to resources that can be really hard to find. And I can just imagine for parents who are on this particular journey, where do you even start? You know, do you have some resources that you recommend? Are there books for parents go through this?

Laura Anderson:

Yes, there are a bunch of different range. If you are a website, person, gender spectrum.org is a fabulous one. And they have so much information over there. It’s overwhelming. So pour two cups of coffee, or coffee and water. And and they it’s really specific to schools to parent support. They have online support groups, they have resources to read they they’re a great hub for a lot of information over the year that’s been pulled together for parents. So gender spectrum.org is a great one. If you already believe and have every reason to believe you’re on a transgender journey for sure that two books The Transgender Teen and The Transgender Child are both really good kind of Bibles in he community. Stephanie Brill s the author of both I’m forgetting the other name. And Diane Ehrensoft, who is based h re she has written The Gender Creative Child, and Gender Born Gender Made. She’s a guru in t is field has been doing this work for decades and decades and decades. That’s also sort of background reading. And then, y ah, reach out to me I you k ow, I one of the things that I talked about, in the conference w were at is our expatriate community has so many skills to g t this right, we’re thinkers, w ‘re envelope pushers where we a e people who get into other cultures and try to understand w at fits for us and what doesn’t we wrap our mind around things we didn’t think we could w fancy ourselves progressive a d out in front of stuff and, a d that’s fabulous. But our e pert community also has some pretty heavy norming, about what’s expected for kids to be successful, both in terms of n urological functioning in general and learning, but also i terms of gender, and moving beings in all kinds of specific changes and challenges. new schools, allies leave the discovery of a child’s identity o er and over again, coupled with just the typical challenges a d anxiety of changing environments and family stress, t e stress that can be part of t e family’s journey around this i significant. So if it feels valuable to people to think a out that intersection of expatriate living and the gender stuff, then I I really love again, it’s heart and head work t be connected with parents on t is journey so that our kids c n really thrive and believe t ey can be healthy, happy adults, kids and adults in whatever their gender identity.

Debbie Reber:

Yes, yeah. And for listeners, first of all, thank you, Laura, for sharing all those resources, I will include links to every book and every resource in the show notes so you can easily access them. And then you know, the conference that Laura is talking about is the families in global transition conference, which was in The Hague in the spring of 2018. That’s where we met. And yeah, I mean, your talk was so moving and powerful. And there, there are additional challenges for families who are living as experts. There’s a lot of expert listeners to this podcast, as well. So I appreciate that specific expertise that you bring to this conversation.

Laura Anderson:

Well, yeah, and I’m looking, I’m developing as we were chatting I am, I’m in the process of writing a book for folks in general and parents to kind of do their work around this stuff, and a whole section n schools, because schools a e such an important part for kids as well. So kind of the combination of school experience and parenting and adoption It’s it’ll be all that stuff rolled rolled into one, but a general kind of guide for parents o find their way through doing their work and finding the strength and the beauty that is in this journey. That may not have been what you planned but is still gorgeous.

Debbie Reber:

That’s great. Oh, that’s so exciting. And I look forward to reading that book. Where are you with it right now?

Laura Anderson:

It’s in, it’s gonna be a little bit still, I’m writing I’m cranking it out that the whole parenting thing, sort of, as we all know, takes time from that. So I’m cranking it out. It’s almost ready to be edited. So it’s coming.

Debbie Reber:

That’s exciting. That’s awesome. And I want to ask you one more question before we jump off about specifically what parents can do to support these kids. But before we do, I got a question from one of the listeners that I wanted to ask that’s more about sexual identity or just a sexuality. This listener wrote, I feel that there’s an overwhelming amount of sensory emotional communication to process in terms of intimacy, and this is for teens on the spectrum. And some teens feel like they don’t belong anywhere sexually is that a part of this whole conversation, just not really even having any sort of sexual orientation or just being a sexual in that way.

Laura Anderson:

We do know that there are higher rates, that was another in terms of sexual orientation within kids on the autism spectrum, there are actually higher rates of homosexual identity, bisexual identity and asexual identity all the above and again, that raises questions about is that related to wiring? Is it related to exactly the things that the reader so eloquently put that when we really think about intimacy, and our relationship to our body, it’s a complicated web of sensory stimulation and understanding emotional cues and vulnerability and all this kind of thing. So we don’t know exactly why it is yet. But yes, the reader is absolutely correct in in recognizing that our kids on the spectrum, present differently around some of these issues. And a parent’s job in that situation is, is just to sort of be alright with it and trust that if they’re working with somebody who’s a specialist around autism, to be thinking with that person, so is this sensory stuff, is it a social skills issue that we can give them training about? Is it that they’re having a negative reaction to stimulation in a certain area, there are ot exercises that we can do for certain types of sensitivities are a certain way and and you sort of, you’re kind of ruling out the things you know, would be quote, interventions for autism, and then you’re affirming whatever it is, your your kid is presenting, and, and trying to come at it from a place of curiosity and support, hopefully, rather than kind of like trying to force something one way or the other. But we do know that kids on the autism spectrum don’t fit easily into boxes around gender and sexual orientation more often than kids not on the spectrum fit easily into those boxes. Okay, great.

Debbie Reber:

And, you know, you said that words, curiosity and support curiosity is one of my favorite words, just you know, as a parent of a differently wired kid, I think that has to be what we lead with always. But can you talk about then, you know, just as a last question, and by the way, thank you for spending so much time, this has gone long, but it’s just so fascinating. And I just so appreciate you talking about this with us today. What can parents listening? Whether this is their child, or their child’s friend or other, you know, other kids in the community? What can they do to support these kids and their families in their communities? And especially in school? You know, you mentioned that it’s such a tricky place for these kids, especially in the middle school years and high school years. So what can we do?

Laura Anderson:

Yes, and that is a big question. And a wonderful one, I think, keeping in mind, if it’s your own child first, keeping in mind, you can’t create something that is not there. You can’t give permission for a child who’s not gay, or a child who’s not transgender, to become that, through allowing them to be who they are. And we know that if we shape it or silence it actively, or try to get them to change, they stand to come to face a lot of harm, to make a lot of shame based decisions, and to distance from you, as a parent. So so you affirm if it’s your child, you affirm, you let them get the doll, you let them play with the trucks, you get curious about how they’re identifying and what they want to be and who they think they are. And you, you walk with them, because they’re leading, they’re telling you already what they want, or you wouldn’t be aware that something’s going on. So it’s really it’s, it’s recognizing that what they need is an understanding that you believe them, and you hear them that doesn’t ignore safety concerns. In some places, some parents are like, you just can’t wear that to the football game on the other side, you know, that kind of thing. But if you’re if the child knows you’re affirming at the core of it, then when you say really, let’s talk about this, because because part of understanding and navigating this journey is understanding safety cues, and especially for kids on the spectrum. They might not recognize when they’re starting to get into a situation where they’re being read as as tramps, for instance. Right. And so it doesn’t negate parent concerns that kids need to be safe in the world, but it invites a different type of conversation. If a child knows you’re standing with them, and you support them fully. And you’re having conversations about safety and making good choices about where and how you show this part of you. That’s a different energy level than just you don’t do that boys don’t do that. You’re gonna get yourself hurt. It’s an entirely different vibe. So it’s being able to affirm kids if it’s your own kid is really important advocate at school schools can and do make changes around this stuff. grownups need to set a meal you yes kid needs to be able to handle teasing. If a child is being teased and bullied consistently for how they move through the world in their minority role as a gender expansive kid, the grown ups have to do with them, they have to step up and set a tone of gender diversity. They have to bring in books with gender diverse kids in it, they have to talk about this and normalize it and schools can do it and they will Do it, they need nudging often. But as we know, schools are wonderful systems that need a lot of nudging. And so advocating at school, if it’s a child in your community, I think having conversations with your kid that normalize gender, finding children’s books and gender spectrum has a great list of those to find children’s books that give examples of it. Use gender neutral language, when you talk to folks, oh, your friend, Sally’s dating somebody, well, is he or she cool? You know, or he or she? Are they fun? So you just do these gentle introductions of this idea that gender is a spectrum. And so that your child isn’t going to school accidentally adding to the stress that a gender non conforming child is experiencing. And the same is true for parents. I know we’re running along, and there’s lots of thoughts. But the same is true for other parents, this can be a really isolating journey for parents who are on it, because people do judge parents and because there’s a lot of misinformation out there. And so if you do have a good friend or your kids friend, there are ways to gently just say, Hey, I kind of see the journey you’re on. And I’m curious about that. Can I support you in any way? And that that an invitation to coffee and just name it I mean, people do both they either you can either feel the judgment or people pretend in this awkward lengthy voice to ignore your your five year old son spinning in the Cinderella. Like it’s really interesting the legs people will go to, to avoid this, that we really know that parents just need a community who gets it. And if they don’t get it, they’re curious about how to understand more. So

Debbie Reber:

Yeah. Wow, such great advice. And, you know, I think that last piece is so important for all of us. I think you’re right, people are uncomfortable, you know, even just using the right language, and I love that you opened up this conversation saying we need to be okay with that we might screw up in the words we’re using. And you know, and just letting these parents know that we see them and that we are here for them. And we’re not judging. And so I appreciate that invitation. And, Laura, thank you so much. This has been fascinating. I know what’s going to be so valuable to our community and I’m just grateful for you coming by today.

Laura Anderson: Thanks. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here.

Debbie Reber:

You’ve been listening to the till parenting podcast for the show notes for this episode, including links to Dr. Laura Anderson’s website, the books she mentioned and all the other resources we discussed, visit till parenting calm slash 108. If you like what we’re doing at the tiller parenting podcast, and you’d like to support us, there are a few easy and meaningful ways you can do this. One is to Join my Patreon campaign. Patreon is an online platform that allows people to make a small monthly contribution to support the work of an artist or musician or in my case, a podcaster. It’s super easy to sign up and even a small donation helps. If you’d like to support the show, visit patreon.com/tiltparenting. Or you can also find a link on the tilde parenting website. The other way you can help is to head over to iTunes and leave a rating or review or both if you haven’t done so already, there are a lot of parenting podcasts out there and new ones coming out every single day. So those ratings and reviews really help keep our podcast highly visible which in turn makes it easier for me to go out there and get those big guests. Thank you so much. And thanks again for listening. For more information on Tilt Parenting visit www.tiltparenting.com

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