Healthcare clinician perspectives on the intersection of autism and gender dysphoria

Kate Cooper, William Mandy, Ailsa Russell, Catherine Butler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Autistic people are over-represented at gender clinics, but there is limited research to guide clinical practice with this group. We investigated the perspectives of clinicians working with autistic patients who experience gender dysphoria. We asked clinicians about the relationship between autism and gender dysphoria, and whether they work differently with this patient group. We recruited clinicians from young person and adult gender clinics and autism services (n = 16). We analysed the interview transcripts using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). The first overarching theme was clinician understanding of the intertwined experiences of patients, with four subthemes: (a) coming to an individualised understanding of autism, gender dysphoria, and mental health; (b) different ways of thinking about gender; (c) social differences as barriers and facilitators to gender comfort; (d) the challenge of sensory sensitivities and puberty. The second overarching theme was mismatch of patient and clinician communication styles and goals, with three subthemes: (a) different communication of gender needs; (b) changing clinical sessions to overcome barriers; (c) tension between clinician and patient aims and thinking styles. We conclude that autism adaptations should be made in gender settings, by increasing clinician understanding of how autism and gender dysphoria can intersect, as well as by making adjustments to clinic processes. Lay Abstract: Autistic people are more likely to have a gender identity which does not match their sex assigned at birth. Some people experience distress about their sex and gender not matching, which is called gender dysphoria. Such individuals may wish to attend a gender clinic to access healthcare support for gender dysphoria. Currently, there is limited evidence to help clinicians best support autistic people who need healthcare for gender dysphoria. We wanted to find out what healthcare clinicians think about working with autistic patients with gender dysphoria. We interviewed 16 clinicians who work in healthcare services with adults and young people who are autistic and experience gender dysphoria. We recorded the interviews and carefully analysed the content to find key themes. We found that clinicians worked with patients to try and better understand their experiences of gender dysphoria. Clinicians identified features of autism that they believed were related to gender identity and dysphoria including different thinking styles, social differences, and sensory sensitivities. Clinicians noticed that autistic people spoke about their gender in different ways to non-autistic people. Clinicians tried to adapt their practice to better meet the needs of their autistic patients. These adaptations tended to focus on differences in the assessment process, for example, offering longer or shorter appointments and changing their communication style. We conclude that clinicians were offering an individualised approach to autistic patients experiencing gender dysphoria. However, these clinicians were particularly interested in working with autistic people, and so may not be representative of the wider clinician population. Clinicians working in this area should receive training on autism adaptations and the intersection of autism and gender dysphoria.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-42
Number of pages12
JournalAutism
Volume27
Issue number1
Early online date14 Mar 2022
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023

Keywords

  • autism adaptations
  • autism spectrum disorders
  • gender clinics
  • gender dysphoria
  • gender identity
  • health services
  • transgender healthcare

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology

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