Studies Establish Link Between Autism and Being Transgender: A Divisive Topic Sparks Political Debate

Conservative lawmakers have found a new weapon in their fight against trans rights. Ironically, research aimed at understanding transness is the basis for several new restrictive laws. Here is what’s happening.

Hormone Therapy’s Link to Autism

At least three U.S. states brought anti-trans bills for a vote in the spring of 2023. 

When researchers started to note a link between autism and transness a decade or more ago, none of them could have imagined their research would be used the way it is now.

Supports say this research is reason enough to ban hormone therapy for trans patients, and that’s exactly what’s happening in Georgia, where Senate Bill 140 points to the autism connection.

Transgender People 3 to 6 Times More Likely to Be Autistic

Meanwhile, in Missouri, the attorney general issued an emergency ruling that would require anyone seeking gender-affirming care to be screened for autism.

Arkansas lawmakers also passed a law that denies trans-related hormone therapy to minors who have been diagnosed with autism.

This all comes on the heels of research that shows transgender people are three to six times more likely to be autistic than cis people.

Are Politicians Misinterpreting the Research?

Psychiatrist Meng-Chuan Lai, who co-authored the 2020 study that revealed those findings, is surprised by how his research is being used. The University of Toronto professor says the new laws are driven by politicians’ ideology, not science.

There is no denying the link between autism and transness, says R. Larkin Taylor-Parker. The legal director of Autistic Self Advocacy says similar results have been seen in study after study.

But Tayler-Parker also says that politicians are misinterpreting the research to make the case that autistic people can’t make their own decisions.

Researchers Are Fighting Back

Academics aren’t taking the attack on their research lightly, though. And they’re fighting back.

Northwestern’s Aron Janssen and Michigan’s Daniel Shumer, for example, testified in a court case opposing the Missouri emergency decree.

Their testimony hit home, as the judge in that case issued an injunction against the measure. The Missouri attorney general then dropped his emergency rule completely.

Ban on Hormone Therapy for Minors

If trans rights advocates were celebrating that victory, though, the party was short-lived.

Just a few weeks later, Missouri legislators passed a new law banning the use of gender-affirming hormone therapy for minors, prisoners, and those on Medicaid.

Scientists have tried to fight back in other ways outside the courtroom, too. A large study published in July 2023, for example, once again noted the connection between autism and transness.

Scientists Concerned About Politicians’ Use of Research

However, the authors of that paper published additional notes along with the main text making it clear that research should not be used to restrict medical care to trans autistic people.

Meanwhile, Lai has been outspoken about the need to separate pure research from political implications. Scientists should be free to study nature and humans without fearing how their results might be used by those with agendas, he says.

So the battle rages on, pitting academics against lawmakers who want to use the research for political gain. 

And all the while, autistic and transgender people are caught in the middle.

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