Child Psychiatry Consult

Autism spectrum disorders in gender-nonconforming youth


Clinical pearl

Maddie, a transgender man, received a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder as a young adult – a full 16 years after the median age of diagnosis (MMWR Surveill Summ. 2016;65[3]:1-23).

The case illustrates some of the difficulties of attempting to parse out the cause of social impairments in an individual who also may have other phenomena that influence interpersonal functioning (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, gender dysphoria, etc.) in a developmental manner. Diagnostic “overshadowing” (mistakenly attributing symptoms to a particular condition and paying little attention to other possibilities) is not uncommon in youth with ASD and co-occurring conditions. Given the overlap between gender-nonconforming youth, individuals with gender dysphoria, and ASD, primary care providers may opt to incorporate mental health professionals familiar with ASD into the assessment and care of these children and adolescents. Getting a complete developmental history and paying attention to the possibility of early red flags for ASD can help to elucidate diagnostic possibilities and inform treatment planning. If a co-occurring diagnosis is confirmed, implementation of evidence-based interventions that are provided through the lens of ASD can help to minimize the risk of developing other co-occurring pathology, build resilience, alleviate social impairment, and foster self-advocacy skills in this very vulnerable population. Regardless of whether gender-variant youth and adolescents have an autistic disorder, mental health providers can have an integral role in assisting these individuals and their families to navigate a complicated system of care, address gender dysphoria, and promote healthy identity development (J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2016 Jun;55[6]:441-3).

Dr. Dickerson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, is assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, where he is director of the autism diagnostic clinic.

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