My name is Shari and I am a single mother of two adult kids. My oldest child, who I will refer to as J, is now 24 years old. He came out as transgender at age 15 and socially transitioned to identifying as male immediately. The autism diagnosis came later: first with a self-diagnosis as a late teen, and then a neuropsychological evaluation and formal diagnosis at age 21. A year ago, I began working for AANE facilitating support groups for parents of transgender/gender diverse and autistic/neurodiverse teens or adults.
As I consulted with J about what to write for this article, we decided it would be helpful to look back on our journey and reflect on what we did right, and what we wish we had done differently. As always, it’s important to be gentle and patient with ourselves and each other, realizing that we now benefit from hindsight and experience we lacked in the past.
J changed his name and pronouns while he was away at summer camp and shared this information with me during a phone call. I felt blindsided and shocked. Fear, panic, and denial clashed with a deep love and instinct to protect my child. I told J, “I love you no matter what.”
The best thing I did was to seek information and knowledge. I connected with a transgender friend for advice, and researched organizations and resources. I realized the primary reason I did not want my child to be transgender initially was fear that the world would be unkind and his life would be more difficult. Educating myself was the best way to gain perspective about what concerns were valid and what was my own unfounded conjecture. This was a gradual process. At first, my focus was on finding resources for J, such as an LGBTQ youth group and a therapist who specializes in gender affirming care.
I made the decision to stay with the same pediatrician, who was supportive and willing to learn, but had never had a trans patient. Looking back, I wish we switched to an adolescent transgender health clinic earlier on. Also, I was so focused on J, it took me too long to seek support for myself. Attending a support group for parents of trans kids was instrumental in eventually helping me move towards acceptance. I learned many things including information about terrifying statistics and that the most significant factor in whether a trans person literally lives or dies is parental acceptance. I had always been a fierce advocate for my child. I knew I had to get on board and be one hundred percent in his corner, just as I have always been.
Many parents experience a child’s gender transition as a loss, mainly of the expectation and assumptions we had about how their lives would play out, but in fact our child is still the same person. We have to allow ourselves to let go of expectations and assumptions, and this process takes time. However, I made excuses for too long about my mistakes with names and pronouns and insisted that J be patient and tolerant. In reality, I was inflicting further emotional pain on J as he was going through a major change and desperately needed my love and support. It also took me time to understand being trans is not a phase or a fad or a choice. Interestingly, the more clear and strong I became in my acceptance of J’s gender identity, the more our extended family and friends followed my lead.
Also, looking back, I believe that being thrust into such unknown territory forced me to listen better to my kid. I didn’t know he was autistic, but I did know that we had experienced a breakdown in communication and trust during his early teen years. I was trying to parent with firm limit-setting and authority around issues like school attendance and homework. I could not fathom why my academically gifted student was refusing to attend school, home sick so often, and getting low grades. I confused an overwhelm-induced shut down with laziness. I made the classic mistake of trying to apply well-intentioned parenting strategies that may work with neurotypical kids to my neurodiverse kid, and it backfired every time.
Once I began listening better, and prioritizing J’s emotional well-being over academic success and social expectations, our relationship began to improve. Eventually, the transgender piece of J’s identity became something I understood more and the focus shifted to learning about autism. A parent coach from AANE helped me learn about resources, gain knowledge, recalibrate expectations, reprioritize, and further improve my communication strategies.
In more recent years and currently, various issues arise at different times that are sometimes transgender related and sometimes autism related. We face challenges together and I follow J’s lead. For example, J has had to develop strong self-advocacy skills dealing with transphobic attitudes in the workplace as well as asking for reasonable accommodations. While it is true that the world can sometimes be unkind, it is getting better. Also, I know the more confident J feels about who he is, embracing his identities as a transgender and autistic person, the more equipped he is to take on challenges, accomplish his goals, and most importantly, love his life.
I am proud of J and he knows it. We have an adult relationship that is loving and supportive, with respectful communication in both directions. Whatever happens in our day to day lives, we are on the same team and have each other’s back. And that makes all the difference.