Trans and Gender-Diverse People up to 6 Times More Likely to Be Autistic, According to Study

Transgender and gender diverse people may be more likely to be autistic than others, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

The study involved 641,860 people who provided information about their gender identity, neurodevelopment and psychiatric diagnoses, including whether they were autistic. The information came from five separate databases.

Across the datasets, transgender and gender-diverse people were between 3 to 6 times as likely to be autistic than cisgender people. The authors of the study said: "We use the term 'cisgender' to refer to individuals whose gender corresponds to their sex assigned at birth."

Past studies have found a link between being transgender or gender-diverse and autism, but the samples were small, according to the authors of the study.

The team found this pattern in the information they used despite the datasets being collected for "very different studies," co-author Varun Warrier, a research associate at the University of Cambridge's Autism Research Centre, told Newsweek. This gave the researchers confidence that the findings are "likely to be true," he said.

Transgender and gender-diverse people were also more likely to report they suspected they had undiagnosed autism. In addition, in two datasets with information available on other neurodevelopmental and psychiatric conditions, such as depression, transgender and gender-diverse people were more likely to have these than cisgender people.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by symptoms including communicating differently, repetitive behavior, narrow interests, and sensitivity to sensory stimulus.

Regardless of whether they were diagnosed with autism, transgender and gender-diverse individuals had a higher chance of reporting having autistic traits, including systematizing, where a person is driven to recognize or make patterns, sensitivity to sensory triggers, and lower levels of empathy.

Warrier said the study was limited because individuals were grouped as either cisgender females or males, or transgender and gender-diverse people in order for them to sift through the data. This is reductionist, he said, as there are multiple gender identities. On top of that, the respective datasets will have their own biases.

"It is likely that rates of autism diagnoses and other neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions may be different even within the group that we call transgender and gender-diverse in our study. We need to investigate this," he said.

It is difficult to say why transgender and gender diverse individuals are more likely to be autistic, Warrier said. "There is some evidence that autistic individuals may not identify with the gender binary. This could also be partly biological as both autism and gender identity are observed in early childhood. Ultimately, these reasons vary between individuals, and different autistic individuals may have different reasons for this."

The team hopes their findings will help autistic transgender and gender-diverse people access services and support they need.

Warrier said gender diverse or transgender identity is sometimes questioned in autistic individuals because people wrongly believe they are merely "obsessed" with gender diversity.

"What we're trying to do here is to really bring these challenges to the center-stage so that we can have better safeguarding of the rights of transgender and gender-diverse individuals," said Warrier.

transgender flat, stock, getty
A stock image shows the transgender flag. Researchers believe transgender and gender-diverse people may be more likely to be autistic.