Stories

Nurturing my autistic, gender-questioning child

​​Jude Lax started noticing that her daughter struggled in certain social situations when she was two. Loud noises, crowds, and sudden changes to a plan often led to meltdowns. As her young identity became more defined, so did her feelings towards her gender. Jude explores the crossover of autism and gender identity.

Words by Jude Lax|photography by Jack Lax

  • Article
Photograph of a young child with blonde hair holding up a colourful camera. The camera obscures their face and they are wearing a camouflage jumper and tracksuit bottoms. There are some mountains behind them and the sky is blue and cloudy.
"Photography is in her blood.". © Jack Lax.

I first started to notice that my child was a little different when she was around two. She started to describe herself as being ‘a daddy’ when she grew up. By the age of three, she refused to wear tights or skirts and would yank out the bobble that I put in her hair. When she watched ‘Frozen’, she was always Kristoff, never Ana or Elsa.

She actively hated the colour pink, as if it had somehow made an offence of who she was trying to be. As time went on, and the more times she refused the clothes that I presented her with, I would have to take her along to the shops. It took a while for my eyes to turn towards the boring greys and blacks of the boys’ department, away from the exciting sparkles of the girls’.

Photograph of an adult and two children sitting in a field, on a wooden bench which is facing a lake. Across from the lake there is a woodland and a small house. 

The adult has short brown hair and is wearing a long-sleeve grey t-shirt. Sat on their left is a child with blonde hair who is wearing colourful shorts. On her right is another child with light blonde hair and a dark blue t-shirt.
Nurturing my autistic, gender-questioning child. © Jack Lax.

We love to be out in nature. Away from the city and looking at the horizon is our joy.

It was not just the colour of clothes that my child struggled with. She also found textures irritating. She couldn’t have the top of her arms showing. Jeans, leggings, skirts or dresses were a no-no. An embossed jumper, or one with a fussy pattern, was too much for her.

I’d decided to have a break from my career when she was born, and for the first two years of her life it was just the two of us. When I had her little brother, and she started at the local playgroup, I began to notice that there were differences in her behaviour. She got stressed out if her environment was too loud, if we changed plans at the last minute, or if too many people spoke to her at the same time.

We made mistakes, as you do when you’re a first-time parent. We would book trips to see Father Christmas at his grotto, which resulted in us being taken out of an emergency exit. A trip to a panto that started with pyrotechnics meant we had to leave after ten minutes. The trips to see grandparents or go to kids’ birthday parties, which inevitably meant lots of noise and attention in the first five minutes, resulted in a meltdown.

Photograph of a young child sitting on a rock wearing a wet raincoat, trousers and walking boots. Their back is to the camera and they are facing a lake and several mountains.
Nurturing my autistic, gender-questioning child. © Jack Lax.

A wet weekend in North Wales – it didn't stop us climbing a mountain, though!

The relief of diagnosis

In the depths of lockdown one, we got the call we had been waiting for. Our daughter had been under the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services for two years for suspected autism spectrum disorder (ASD). At the scheduled time, we plonked our two kids in front of the TV. We barricaded the door with snacks and set up our phone on loudspeaker.

The child psychologist (CP) called from an empty office in Manchester city centre and delivered the news we had been expecting. Our five-year-old daughter was autistic.

I’m not sure who suffered more on that call, the trained CP, who had spent years delivering such news to parents face to face and now had to communicate remotely without the support of body language or eye contact. Or us two tired parents, receiving the news at a time when we were trying to deal with home-schooling, the loss of my husband’s industry and the stress of me trying to finish my master’s degree.

Photograph of a young child with short blonde hair standing in the sea. They are wearing a blue swimming top and a pair of light blue shorts with a shark's mouth on them. 

Further into the water there are a number of small boats. The sky is blue and cloudy.
Nurturing my autistic, gender-questioning child. © Jack Lax.

Always first in the water.

Weirdly, I felt relief at hearing those words. The guilt of going through a diagnostic process makes you believe you are making it all up. My daughter is a happy, bubbly, vivacious child who has so much empathy it sometimes hurts my heart to see how kind she is.

Because she doesn’t fit in to the stereotypical norms of autism (everyone is an expert when they’ve watched ‘Rain Man’), friends and family found it surprising that we had been to the GP with our concerns.

What they didn’t see was the social hangover that she had after an event, or the meltdowns on the way home from school every night. Her need to be cocooned to feel safe, or the way that she moved her body when she was winding down. How literal her mind is – it was really fun to explain what I meant by “ants in your pants”!

Photograph of a young child riding a bike through a field of buttercups. They are wearing an orange t-shirt, blue shorts and a pink helmet. There are some trees in the background.
Nurturing my autistic, gender-questioning child. © Jack Lax.

She learned to ride her bike at two and there has been no stopping her since.

Now she is six, about to turn seven, and certainly knows her own style. In Superdrug at the weekend, the lady who was threading my eyebrows commented on the well-behaved child that I had with me. “Are they a boy or a girl?” she asked.

I looked over at my child for an answer. As she stood waiting for me with her short hair, backwards cap, burnt-orange boiler suit and black Crocs, I wondered why the lady needed to know.

She asked again, and my child shrugged her shoulders and turned to me in confusion. I said, “They haven’t decided yet.” I do still use the she/her pronoun in general, as she hasn’t asked me to change that yet, although I am open to using they/them or even he/him if that’s what she decides.

Photograph of two children standing in a field, underneath an arch formed out of trees. The taller child is holding a green and blue football and is wearing grey shorts and blue Crocs. The other child is wearing a blue t-shirt, light blue shorts and sandals. They both have blonde hair.

There are some trees behind them and a blue cloudy sky.
Nurturing my autistic, gender-questioning child. © Jack Lax.

As siblings, our children have always been close. They choose each other as their favourite people over everyone else. 

A mind full of wonder

LGBT Health published a report in 2019 linking diagnoses of gender dysphoria (GD) with ASD.  Although they found that more research needed to be done on the subject, in the 292,752 children who participated in the study, “Children with ASD were over four times as likely to be diagnosed with a condition indicating GD.” I do not have a scientific background, but I think it’s very interesting to see the link between the two.

Even if the fact that she wants to be a boy is linked to her autism, it still makes her into the person that she is.

Not that I would change one tiny thing about my child. Even if the fact that she wants to be a boy is linked to her autism, it still makes her into the person that she is.

Photograph of a young child with short blonde hair jumping into the air by the sea on a sandy beach. They are wearing a blue swimming top and a pair of red shorts. As they jump they are holding on to a red brimmed hat on their head 

Further into the distance is the horizon line of the sea. The sky is blue and cloudy.
Nurturing my autistic, gender-questioning child. © Jack Lax.

She loves the sea; the sounds and smells keep her calm for hours.

I’m not sure what route we will have to take as she matures. I don’t know if we’ll need to be referred the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS). Or if she will become comfortable as she is – a gender nonconforming female, or a demi-girl, as I’ve heard it called.

What I do know is that she loves art. She loves her friends and her family. Her mind is full of wonder, and I couldn’t be prouder of the person she is becoming. I feel pretty lucky to have a child who is trying to push all the boundaries she wants to.

I’m making it my priority in parenting her that I have all the knowledge I need when she asks me a question. I am here to reassure her that whatever she wants to be in her future is fine by me. My job is to keep her safe and let her decide who she wants to be when she is ready.

About the contributors

Jude Lax

Author

Jude is an aspiring Young Adult novelist, writing her way through life to try and understand what it’s all about. She lives in Manchester with her husband and two kids.

Jack Lax

Photographer