Tuesday 15 May 2018

Higher autistic traits in those attending transgender health services don't necessarily mean autism

There are some key messages to take from the findings reported by Anna Nobili and colleagues [1] following their examination of "self-reported autism spectrum quotient-short (AQ-short) [scores] in a transgender clinical population." Not least that when compared with a control group - "cisgender individuals" - there "were no significant differences in the number of people who presented with scores suggesting a possible diagnosis of ASC [autism spectrum condition(s)]."

OK, before heading further into the Nobili findings I think it might be worthwhile setting the scene a little. So, for quite a while now there has been some increasing interest in how autism or at least some of the traits of autism, *might* be over-represented among those presenting with gender dysphoria (see here). Gender dysphoria, according to the UK NHS Choices website is "a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there's a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity." Allied to other peer-reviewed research looking at gender identity [2], sexual preferences in the context of [some] autism (see here), and combined with quite a sweeping *theory* talking about an 'extreme male brain' in the context of autism (see here), and well, let's just say some speculation about a link between some autism / autistic traits and elements of gender and sexuality has been noted. And indeed, continues to be noted [3]...

Nobili et al - including one author who is rather central in autism research circles to the promotion of that extreme male brain theory - examined AQ responses in some 650 matched pairs (transgender matched with cisgender). Among the transgender participants: "A total of 260 people (39.6%) in each group were assigned female at birth whilst 396 (60.4%) were assigned male." It's worthwhile noting that AQ is a self-report questionnaire, and whilst heralded in several quarters as a good 'are you autistic?' screener, there are some people - including me - who have some reservations about it's 'universal' usefulness to just autism (see here and see here for examples). I'll come back to this shortly...

As per the opening paragraph to this post, the numbers of participants "indicating possible ASC caseness" did not differ significantly between the groups. So, around 33% of the cisgender control group hit a score of 70 or more on their self-report responses to the AQ compared with 36% in the transgender group. The authors did detect a statistically significant difference in possible caseness when looking at those assigned female at birth in the transgender group but not for males. A similar finding has been noted in other independent studies [4]. Nobili and colleagues however concluded that their findings were in line with other observations in adults in that: "there is no evidence of increased rates of autism in transgender populations as a whole."

Going back to my reservations around the AQ as an exclusive autism screener, I also noted something important reported by Nobili and colleagues: "High AQ scores may not be indicative of the presence of an autism spectrum condition as the difference between groups mainly related to social behaviours; such scores may be a reflection of transgender people’s high social anxiety levels due to negative past experiences." I was really intrigued by this finding and interpretation, particularly in light of other recent peer-reviewed speculation by Jack Turban [5] who suggested that: "ASD [autism spectrum disorder] symptoms [in transgender youth] may represent social deficits that are secondary to social stress and deprivation, as transgender youth suffer high rates of peer and family rejection." On a previous blogging occasion, I've also discussed research suggesting that something like a generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) may 'inflate' responses/scores on the AQ (see here). Given that anxiety is an all-too-often bedfellow accompanying a diagnosis of autism, I'd be interested to see quite a bit more study on this topic in the context of AQ use. Y'know, perhaps alongside some more formal measures of anxiety both in relation to autism and also more readily pertinent to the subject matter analysed by Nobili et al. And, outside of just anxiety, other clinical features/conditions might also be thrown into the research mix [6]. Insofar as the idea that mental health may also be a topic requiring more focus in respect of the transgender population, I'll bring to your attention some other recent research by Becerra-Culqui and colleagues [7] on this point.

There is a further scheme of work to follow in this area, and I'll be interested to see what further results turn up, particularly with regards to females assigned at birth with gender dysphoria. And since I've mentioned the AQ and (once again) my reservations, I'll direct you to another paper published in the same journal at roughly the same time as the Nobili findings, where the AQ was again 'implied' as being equal to the presence of autistic traits [8]. And yet again, another example where one has to be very, very careful about making that 'exclusively autistic traits' link...


[1] Nobili A. et al. Autistic Traits in Treatment-Seeking Transgender Adults. J Autism Dev Disord. 2018. April 13.

[2] Cooper K. et al. Gender Identity in Autism: Sex Differences in Social Affiliation with Gender Groups. J Autism Dev Disord. 2018. April 28.

[3] van der Miesen AIR. et al. Prevalence of the Wish to be of the Opposite Gender in Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 2018. May 7.

[4] Vermaat LEW. et al. Self-Reported Autism Spectrum Disorder Symptoms Among Adults Referred to a Gender Identity Clinic. LGBT Health. 2018 May 9.

[5] Turban JL. Potentially Reversible Social Deficits Among Transgender Youth. J Autism Development Disord. 2018. May 12.

[6] LugnegĂ„rd T. et al. Asperger syndrome and schizophrenia: Overlap of self-reported autistic traits using the Autism-spectrum Quotient (AQ). Nord J Psychiatry. 2015 May;69(4):268-74.

[7] Becerra-Culqui TA. et al. Mental Health of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth Compared With Their Peers. Pediatrics. 2018. April 16.

[8] Loureiro D. et al. Higher Autistic Traits Among Criminals, But No Link to Psychopathy: Findings from a High-Security Prison in Portugal. J Autism Dev Disord. 2018. April 12.


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