How do I explain gender identities to autistic children? Part 1
Updated: Feb 10, 2021
My 9-year-old son is obsessed with a classmate who uses the pronoun they/their/them. He keeps asking the child "are you a boy or girl?" all day and every day and he refuses to use the proper pronoun. How do I get through to him to at least stop asking?
From the child's perspective
Everyone wants belonging and connection with other humans.
Let's imagine: one day, he learned super interesting and novel information about another child. The first time he asked "are you boy or girl?", I imagine that the other child stopped, paused for a moment to manage the emotion and discomfort that question elicited, before answering that question slowly and carefully. I bet our kiddo felt like he just won the lottery. Someone slowed down for him, oozed emotion towards him, and gave him the time of day. He had a conversation about something important to another person! He did it! Mom did you see that?! Everyone always told me to find out about what was important to another person and talk about that. I did it!
It would be super confusing to tell our child that he shouldn't talk about this specific topic. Our child is going to think that us adults are snake oil salesmen.
This is not a teaching moment. This is not the time to control our child's behaviour. But we shouldn't ignore the situation either.
It is very common for parents or caregivers to berate the offending child as a way of soothing the child they offended. Vice versa, if our child is at the receiving end of this offense, we are also very likely to get mad and want to rush to protect. That is the opposite of safety for both children. First, we need to help the children feel safe, but are we exuding safety from our every pore? Or are we feeling nervous and unsure ourselves? What can we do to make ourselves feel safe in this situation while keeping the children safe?
Before reacting to control and manage the situation, we adults need to pause for a moment, turn our thoughts inward, and regulate our own emotions and intensity. 92% of our communication is non-verbal. Even if we don't say or do anything, our bodies radiate all sorts of thoughts and emotions. (Think how professional poker players work).
This is an opportunity and not a crisis.
This is a precious and wonderful opportunity for the children to experience uncertainty in social interactions positively. This is something us caregivers or educators can get really excited about. True exploration happens in these moments. Every human experiences countless social encounters where there are uncomfortable misunderstandings about the awareness and intent of others. We can allow ourselves to honour and celebrate these awkward moments.
We need to let go of our own expectations that our children should not do something that could be perceived as offensive.
Instead, we need to recognize and honour the child's exploration and curiosity about other humans. Is the child trying to connect? Is the child trying to sort out a concept? Is the child processing with this new uncertainty outside the gender binary? Or is the script of asking the same question and getting the same answer feels good? Something about this routine of repetitive asking can be very important, and we can help the child notice and celebrate their feelings and actions.
Ask ourselves internally, where is the offense really coming from?
While it is annoying to ask the same questions over and over again, why is this specific question particularly offensive to repeat? This is offensive because the non-binary child may have a lifelong experience struggling to have their existence recognized in a gender binary world.
Gender binary is deeply ingrained in every aspect of our society. Is it a boy or a girl? Our own culture has no tolerance for uncertainty around gender identity. We unconsciously need to categorize a child as either boy or a girl, before we can initiate interaction with them or their parents. We look for cues (clothing, hairstyle, and accessory) to make a guess and we do this instinctively. As a parent of a non-binary child, explaining my child's existence is an emotionally draining and routine chore that I have to perform even when my child is not present. How often do we use the pronoun "they" when addressing or talking about a person whose gender we have yet confirmed? How much gender binary builds into our daily conversation with others? We adults habitually refuse to use the proper pronouns, so how can we suddenly expect our children to not do that?
Take ownership of our own feelings and roles in the problem.
Kids are often wiser than we think they are. They know when an adult feels shame even if the adult doesn't recognize it. Systematically, we have let this non-binary child down due to our own long term inaction and bad habits. This is not the fault of the child who is asking this question innocently. We caregivers and educators have enabled a gender binary environment that built up to this moment. We did not proactively build a safe space. We are only reactively doing it, only after a non-binary person is expressing their existence. They have caught us not doing our job properly. There is no amount of reactive performance of controlling the autistic child's behaviour that would mask our mistake. Kids are smart.
Despite having a gender non-conforming older sibling, my younger child with verbal expression differences habitually uses binary pronouns. When a situation like this one arises, I take responsibility for my own bad habit. "Even though we try to teach B about using proper pronouns, it is my fault that we don't use "they" pronoun regularity when talking about someone whose gender we haven't confirmed. I am sorry I have let you down. His daddy and I will try hard to correct our bad habit, especially at home"
Let this be a teaching moment for us adults.
In a later post, I will address resources at home for families to proactively build a safe world for everyone.