My mom, grandma, and I were shopping for clothes for my 9th birthday. For the first time, I had strong opinions about what I wanted to wear, and everything I liked was on the boys’ side of the store. That year, I had stopped going by my name and had asked my teacher and friends to call me “Tom” instead, as in “tomboy.” In 1988, that’s what girls who acted like boys were called. Everyone around me saw it as a phase I would grow out of, and in fourth grade, I did. Not because I fully accepted being a girl, but because I had to start wearing a bra. There’s nothing like puberty to convince you of the reality of your biology.
As I grew up, I still felt more masculine in many ways than I did feminine, especially by cultural standards. I wanted to watch sports and hang out with my guy friends. I was very black and white in my thinking. I couldn’t figure out how to wear make-up. I never felt like I fit in when the girls talked about crushes or their feelings or what I considered to be “drama.” And if I was part of a group, I took charge. It all made me feel different from most of the girls I knew.
As I grew into my 20s and 30s, I figured out why I always felt like an outsider. All the characteristics that didn’t make sense to me finally did when I learned more about neurodiversity and characteristics of those with autism, dyslexia, and ADHD. I found myself on this spectrum, understanding that the quirks I tried to hide and overcome were, in God’s sovereignty, a part of who I was.
As God told Moses in Exodus 4:11, “Who placed a mouth on humans? Who makes a person mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say” (CSB). Although disabilities are a result of the fall, God uses them in our lives to produce Christlikeness. They weren’t part of his original plan for humanity, but they are part of his plan for 1 in 5 people now. But even as we (rightly) normalize disabilities and neurodiversity, we can’t let society convince our young people that their neurodiversity is tied to a mistake in their gender identity.
Recent study finds connection between transgender identity and neurodiversity
If my shopping trip had taken place in 2021 instead of 1988, many would peg me as transgender. I would have been tempted to classify myself in that way instead of coming to understand that I was on the neurodiversity spectrum. That’s why a recent study caught my attention. This study, released in 2020, found “elevated rates of autism, other neurodevelopmental and psychiatric diagnoses, and autistic traits in transgender and gender-diverse individuals.” Journalists explained,
“People who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth are three to six times as likely to be autistic as cisgender people are, according to the largest study yet to examine the connection [641,860 self-reported individuals]. Gender-diverse people are also more likely to report autism traits and to suspect they have undiagnosed autism.”
The study’s findings that relate to girls and young women held particular interest for me. There are many characteristics that are true of neurodiverse girls that are typically associated with being masculine — especially during the school years. These include:
- Challenges with social skills
- High IQ
- Concrete, black-and-white thinking
- STEM skills instead of language/fine arts skills
Considering that girls often receive autism diagnoses later than boys, it’s likely that a young girl who identifies with these traits may be more tempted to think of herself as being transgender because of the differences she is struggling with, rather than considering she might be neurodiverse. She likely — in light of the frequent conversations that occur in culture and social media where so many girls spend their time — knows more about society’s acceptance of a spectrum of gender identification divorced from biological sex than the spectrum of neurodiversity. As she’s figuring out what these differences in her personality mean for her personhood, it can be a very confusing time for the struggling girl and her family, especially as the world’s answer to gender confusion is embracing transgender ideology.
There’s an opportunity for the church to support and encourage these families during this confusing season. We need to draw near, not push them away because we are unsure of what to do.
How can the church respond?
Numbers and studies report facts, but they don’t tell the full story. They can tell us what, but they can’t always tell us why. So when we read studies like the one cited above, we must look through our biblical lens, beyond numbers and profiles to see the people represented. How can we draw those who believe they are both neurodiverse and transgender into a relationship with their Creator, the lover of their souls? How can we show them their biological design is for their good? Here are three ways to start:
First, avoid teaching gender roles and expectations that aren’t biblical. If a girl can’t see herself on the checklist of biblical womanhood she hears at church, our society gives her one option — she isn’t a girl. But we can see spectrums of femininity and masculinity within the gender binary. We can teach those spectrums to our children while staying faithful to gender differences.
On Saturdays, I drop off my teenage son at musical theater rehearsal and come home to watch football. Our interests, skills, and even appearances don’t change our God-given sex. There is beauty and purpose in our diverse expression.
Second, welcome those who are neurodiverse. If a family has a member with autism, they are eight times less likely to attend church than a typical family. And surveys show it’s even less likely for adults with autism to attend church. Churches should take steps to be more welcoming to those with autism and other disabilities, breaking down barriers to the gospel and to inclusion in the church family. (Read: “How special needs inclusion changes the culture of the church” for more on the topic of accessibility). We need to show the children and teenagers in our church families that they don’t have to fit into behavioral boxes to be accepted. It’s okay to struggle with social skills, sensory input, or even reading out loud. Church should be a safe place to be yourself in the years when you’re figuring out what that means.
Finally, offer stronger community ties than other tribes. What did I want more than anything as I was struggling? To fit in; to have a group of people who accepted and even celebrated me for who I was. This is a common theme for people who “come out” and are affirmed by the LGBTQ community or those who receive a diagnosis of autism and join a group of people trying to make sense of what that means. Both these communities, for different reasons, are tightly knit and committed to those who identify with them. But the ties that bind us together as Christians are even stronger than what ties other groups together.
According to Galatians 3:28, we are called to prioritize our relationships as children of God, as brothers and sisters, above other labels we have, “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This doesn’t erase who we are; it just shows us our primary identities.
I’m thankful for studies that show us opportunities for love and action for those who often don’t look to the church first for acceptance. I am who I am today because my parents and church continued to accept me, give me opportunities to be myself as I grew and learned what that meant, and pointed me to God’s design in his Word. I look at girls in our youth group and see so much of myself in them when they struggle with their identities and even possible diagnoses. I can point them to a God who created them with care for every detail and with a purpose for each trait and quirk, and I can show them that being a part of a church family that loves you is even better than the communities the world tries to provide.
Pray with me for those who are neurodiverse and being convinced they are also transgender. And let’s all work to point them to the hope we have in Christ and the fellowship we have as believers.