In this interview, author Laura Kate Dale discusses her new book Uncomfortable Labels with Spectrum Women Pride Page editor and autistic and non-binary advocate Yenn Purkis. The book is an autobiographical account of Laura’s life as a gay autistic trans woman.
Why do you think you weren’t diagnosed as autistic sooner?
I think for me personally, the issue was two-fold. Firstly, I was the kind of child on the autism spectrum who presented at a young age as very rule following, very detail oriented, and very able to follow set instructions. I wasn’t physically aggressive during meltdowns and was generally perceived as being well behaved for a male assigned child. When you’re a well-behaved kid, people sort of just assume nothing’s wrong. Additionally, when I first started school, far more visibly notable was my difficulty writing, my constant falling and bumping into things, and my general lack of basic co-ordination skills. When I met with special needs coordinators as a child they honed in on the fact I had Dyspraxia, and didn’t really look much deeper. Once a clinician spots one thing to diagnose, they typically chalk anything abnormal up to that one neurodivergence rather than anything else. For a long time, my being weird and odd just got chalked up to me having dyspraxia, and because I was well behaved and followed rules well there was no need to dig deeper. Once my routine saw a big shake up in secondary school, it became more apparent there was more going on.
How and when did you know you were transgender?
While there were many moments growing up that I look back on and see signs of my trans status in, the time I really started to work things out was as I hit puberty. I get that puberty’s bodily changes can be scary and uncomfortable for everyone, but for me it was a special kind of uncomfortable. Every change that my body underwent felt like I was morphing into some horrible stranger I didn’t know or feel comfortable with. I felt less and less comfortable in my own skin, I felt less and less comfortable speaking as my voice dropped, and I felt less and less able to be myself. That huge disconnect which arose during puberty was the thing that told me something was wrong.
As a result of hormone replacement therapy, I’ve undergone a second, oestrogen based puberty, and while it was still quite a lot to process, it was exciting rather than distressing, in a way that was very affirming.
What do you think about theories like the ‘extreme male brain’ theory and why are they harmful?
I’ve never been a fan of the extreme male brain theory of autism. It really seems to be rooted in decades old faulty diagnostic assumptions that only boys get autism, which is patently not true, we know there are countless women with autism. Additionally, for people like myself who are trans women on the autism spectrum, for the extreme male brain theory to make sense, I would have to have become so male that I somehow ended up in female which just doesn’t make any sense. Additionally, if the extreme male brain theory was real, you would have to assume me starting oestrogen therapy would make my autism lessen or go away, which it did not.
What are your thoughts on functioning labels for autism?
While I understand the use of high functioning and low functioning as shorthand terms, but I largely think they miss out on a lot of the nuance of autism as a spectrum condition. When people use the term high functioning, they largely mean verbal, and able to get through most days without visible meltdowns, and low functioning usually is used to refer to the inverse. The problem is, high functioning implies low suffering, which is often not the case. You might have a person on the autism spectrum for example who is verbal, and can get through lots of days without meltdowns, but who struggles so much with food texture sensitivity that they really struggle to eat anything but a limited set of meals, who has audio sensitivity so bad that they have to frequently wear earplugs to avoid being overwhelmed, and who can get through the day only because they have a highly pre-planned routine holding things together. That “high functioning” person may be constantly on the brink of being overwhelmed, but be able to speak and muddle through most days well enough, and labelling them high functioning often leads to an assumption that there is little help they need, or few accommodations that need to be made for them. High Functioning should not be correlated with being minimally impacted..
Are you a cat person? Why?
I am a cat person, and honestly, it’s because of any pet, I think they act the most similarly to a human on the autism spectrum. They’re largely happy to do their own thing, but occasionally need sensory input, touch, and company on their own terms. They dislike strong sensory information, they do well with routine, and they struggle with change. They’re a pet I feel like I can live with without any friction.
Why do you think you spent some time breaking rules when you were a teenager?
As a teen, due to a mix of depression, peer pressure, and a lack of clear self-identity, I spent several years unclear on who I was, who I wanted to be, who I wanted to surround myself, and what I wanted to do with my life. Following rules, doing as I was told, and being well behaved had only led to me being bullied, ostracised, and hating myself. I had to push boundaries to work out who I was, and what was happening to me, and where I wanted my life to go.
Could you tell me about your social flow charts as a teen?
In my teen years, as both my trans status and autism spectrum symptoms were both starting to come more to the surface, I found that I could navigate social situations more comfortably if I planned for them in advance. I used to spend my days making physical flow charts for conversations, planning out likely and expected responses, and how I might respond to those. It meant that I was less likely to be caught off guard and allowed me to be less anxious in social settings, even if the end result was a stilted and repetitive speaking pattern.
What prompted you to come out as transgender?
I ultimately came out as transgender as a result of a friend in school recommending I watch an anime called Wandering Son. The show featured two transgender characters coming to terms with their feelings, coming out, and ultimately being happier as a result. It was not only the first positive depiction of trans people in media I had really seen, but it verbalised a huge number of thoughts I had privately held for years, but never heard anyone else express. That put a name to what I was feeling, gave me a starting point for further research, and ultimately led to me coming out as trans.
Do you have some pointers and tips for parents whose child comes out as transgender?
Your first reactions are likely to be disbelief and or mourning. For many trans people, we hide the fact we are struggling with gendered feelings for years, for fear of being bullied or worse. As such, a lot of parents of trans people feel like our coming out moments happen out of the blue. Have faith that we have most likely been thinking about this for years before coming out, hiding how we feel from everyone, parents included. Please don’t act on those early urges to say that it feels like you’re losing your kid, or that you think they’ve been brainwashed, or that you can’t see them as the gender they see themselves. Your feelings will likely improve with time, it will feel more natural, just try and process those feelings away from your trans kid as best you can, as not to make them feel worse than they likely already do about coming out to you.
What do you think about clinicians saying trans autistic people are only transgender because of an autistic ‘obsession?
This is another one of those trans autism theories that I really don’t think holds any water whatsoever. As a person on the autism spectrum, I’ve experienced multiple autism linked obsessive interests, and they always feel the same. A repetitive mental urge to learn every fact, collect every item, soak up every number, read every book on a subject. It’s a craving for information and cold hard facts about a topic. With regards to my trans status and female gender identity, there’s none of that obsessive repetitive fact memorising. I don’t find myself reading countless books about womanhood, I just inherently feel more comfortable living as female. There’s no obsessive edge, it’s just a fact I feel.
In what ways is that attitude damaging to transgender autistic people?
It implies that a core part of our being, something entirely separate from our autism, is a throw away interest, a fad that could a few years from now be replaced by Trains, or Pokémon. It takes away from the fact this is a real, permanent feeling.
How did you respond to your Asperger’s diagnosis?
In the aftermath of my diagnosis, I did a lot of research into coping strategies, which really helped me come to terms with my own symptoms and live my life in a more manageable way. I learned about stimming and found subtle ways to include that in my life. I worked out the common themes in my food texture issues and how to better overcome those, and I found tools like weighted blankets, smelling vials, and earplugs that could help me handle tough situations.
Can you talk about choosing clothes and the dilemma you had between wearing ‘feminine’-type clothes and sensory comfortable clothes?
In short, when I first came out as trans, I really struggled with a lot of feminine coded clothing. I had spent many years wearing loose-fitting clothing with very specific seams, necklines, and fabric textures. When starting to put together a female wardrobe I had to learn to deal with a whole host of new sensations, from bra straps, to more fitted tops, too thin straps on tops, to dresses that flowed rather than staying in a static place. It took me a while to get a proper balance of outfits that got people to code me as female, without causing me sensory issues.
How can people support a friend or relative who comes out as trans?
Just treat them exactly the same as you always have, but with a new name and pronouns. Seriously, the friends I have felt most supported by since coming out as the people who have never made a big deal out of it. You don’t need to go over the top throwing their name into every sentence and constantly using highly gendered terms, just treat them as the gender they have told you they are. In a perfect world, if you don’t make a big deal about it, you’ll be the friend that just feels natural to be around, which is really what most of us want.
Can you talk about your sense of pride at being a visible transgender autistic person?
I initially came out publicly online as a trans person on the autism spectrum less because of pride, and more to make sure those facts couldn’t be weaponised against me. if they were a secret, people who found out about it could hold it over me, so I took that power away from them. That said, over the years, I’ve become pretty visible online, and as a result had a lot of people tell me that my being visible has really helped them. I’m proud that by being a trans person in a competitive industry, visibly out and doing well, living a happy and successful life, I can offer hope to other people in my shoes. It was never my intention, but the fact I can help people feel more confident in coming out too does make me feel very proud.
Do you think things are improving for transgender people in society?
I think it we look at a long-term graph, things are trending upwards for trans people, but it’s not a consistently uphill path. As trans people have made big steps forward in terms of legal, societal, and media representation, a very vocal group of people has stepped up in opposition to try and push back against our advances. While I think things are improving, I think that has led to an undeniable rise in aggression, crime, and discrimination against us in an attempt to halt that progress.
What are your thoughts on ‘passing’ as cis gender or neurotypical?
I think that the idea that trans or neurotypical people need to “pass” in order to be deemed societally acceptable is absolute nonsense designed to make our existence invisible and more convenient. Some trans people are lucky and realise they are trans before they hit puberty or have the funds to privately get major surgery done to pass, and all the better for them, they likely are happy as a result. But for those of us who work out we are trans after puberty, or have limited funds for elective additional surgeries, we will never pass. We still feel the same things as trans people, we still deserve the same rights, but it’s often assumed that we simply have not tried as hard, or are not as truly trans. For people on the autism spectrum, passing as neurotypical can be a real double-edged sword, as it often means when a rare visible meltdown occurs it’s assumed its being put on for attention or some sort of personal gain. We need to get to a point where trans and autistic people are able to take up space, and be visible, because if only the “passing” people are deemed acceptable, anyone visible is treated worse as a result.
How can LGBTQIA+ spaces change to be more inclusive of autistic people?
This one is simple. we need more LGBT spaces that are not bars, and not pride parades. We need quiet LGBT spaces with no loud music and no flashing lights, and we need areas at pride events where there are no crowds for people to meet calmly and quietly.
What would you say in response to someone who asked you if you would take a ‘cure’ for autism or gender dysphoria?
There are undeniably some days where I would give anything to temporarily get away from some of my sensory processing issues, or to feel more comfortable in my body, but I wouldn’t want a cure for either. Both are inherent parts of who I am, inherent parts of my lived journey, and inherent parts of how I see the world today. I wouldn’t be me if I suddenly wasn’t trans or on the autism spectrum. My obsessive interests are the basis of me getting my dream job as a video game critic, I think I’m beautiful just the way I am as a trans woman, and I love the way I laser focus on tasks. There are things about myself that I love, that are linked to my autism and trans status, which I wouldn’t want to go away.
Can you tell me about why you love roller derby?
Roller Derby as a sport is incredibly welcoming and supportive of trans women skaters, and very willing to make accommodations for autistic skaters, which really helped me to finally feel comfortable taking part in a gendered team sport. One really valuable accommodation my league’s referees make for me is that I am listed as a hard of hearing skater, because I sometimes miss verbal cues in settings with lots of audio information happening at once. As a result, they will use visible hand signals and call my name additional times for penalties, rather than giving me an insubordination penalty for ignoring a shout which I missed in the audio clutter.
About Laura Dale
Laura Dale is a full-time writer and media critic. She spends her time writing reviews of video games, interviewing musicians, and writing books about gender and disability topics.
Her first book, Uncomfortable Labels, releases on July 18th, and discusses living at the overlap of autism and trans status. You can find the rest of her work at LauraKBuzz.com, and support her writing at Patreon.com/LauraKBuzz