Autism and Gender Binarism: A Stern Letter to an Academic Colleague

September 8, 2014

Back in 2011 I was moved to write a letter to an academic colleague in Australia, calling her out on the gender binarism of her online dissertation research survey on autism and sexuality (this was hardly the only flaw in the survey in question – the entire research project was packed with ableism, stereotyping, stigmatizing language, and false assumptions). The letter was subsequently reprinted in Integral Education: The CIIS Blog, along with additional comments from me.

I’m reprinting the whole blog post here (which includes the full text of the letter), as part of my ongoing project of making this blog a place where all of my various short pieces of writing can be easily found. I’ve also added a brief new postscript at the end.

Yesterday I wrote a strongly critical letter to a colleague, a psychology researcher who works at a university far from CIIS (“far” in terms of both geography and institutional perspective), and with whom I’d had no prior contact.

Here is the full text of my letter:

Dear ____________,

A colleague forwarded me your survey on autism and sexuality.

I’m shocked – and, frankly, outraged – that any Psychology scholar in the 21st Century, and particularly a scholar who claims “Research Methodology” and “Stereotypes and Prejudice” among her research interests, would create and distribute a survey on sexuality that so blatantly excludes and marginalizes all forms of sex/gender identity that fall outside of the narrow conventions of the “gender binary” model.

Your survey repeatedly conflates gender and biological sex. Your questions assume that there are exactly two types of genitalia and exactly two genders, and that if a person has one type of genitalia, that person is necessarily male, while a person with the other type of genitalia is necessarily female. You ask about the research participants’ feelings about being male or about being female, with the assumption that every participant must be either one or the other. You don’t even provide the option of answers like “None of the Above,” “Other,” or “Not Applicable,” much less make room for the voices of participants who are intersex, asexual, agendered, transgendered, multigendered, fluid-gendered, etc.

While this sort of binarism and ciscentrism unfortunately remain the norm in mainstream society, one expects better from a scholar of your caliber, especially a scholar in your particular field and with your particular research interests. Those of us who have attained advanced degrees and academic positions in the social sciences incur a certain degree of social responsibility – responsibility to advance human understanding and social justice by uncovering and challenging the biases and prejudices that marginalize any of our fellow human beings. And this process of uncovering and challenging bias and prejudice begins with critical reflection on our own fields and especially our own work.

In addition to the ethical issues here, there is an issue of validity. Having studied the autistic community up-close for over a dozen years, I can tell you that sex/gender identities outside of the “gender binary” are in fact significantly more prevalent among autistic adults than among neurotypical adults. By constructing your survey in a way that shuts out the voices of those outside of the gender binary, you have skewed the results of your research so severely as to render the results of your study invalid.

Should you continue to do research on autism and/or sexuality, I sincerely hope that prior to distributing any surveys or publishing any results, you will have your work thoroughly vetted by scholars within the autistic community (in the case of any study relating to autism) and scholars knowledgeable in the fields of Gender Studies or Queer Studies (in the case of any study relating to sexuality). I would be happy to direct you to some excellent scholars in these fields who I’m sure would gladly assist you.

I believe that your research topic is a very important one, and I applaud your intentions and support your further work in this direction. I hope you will take this letter in the constructive spirit in which it was intended.

Sincerely Yours,

Nick Walker

California Institute of Integral Studies

I wrote this letter for a few reasons, which I believe are worth enumerating here:

First, of course, there is the social responsibility that I mentioned in the letter – the responsibility of each and every member of the worldwide community of scholars to take a leadership role in advancing human understanding and social justice, and to continually uncover and challenge the biases and prejudices that pervade our own fields.

Second, my sense of ethics demanded it on a personal level. I had become involved in two different discussions concerning the flaws of the study in question – one discussion among academic colleagues and one discussion among fellow members of the autistic activist community. My own code of personal and professional ethics prohibits me from saying anything behind a colleague’s back that I won’t say to that colleague directly, so once I became involved in discussions of this study, it seemed proper for me to communicate with the study’s author.

Finally, I’m not just a scholar and educator, I’m a scholar and educator at California Institute of Integral Studies. I’m well aware that CIIS struggles with diversity issues. As an institution, we’re not free of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or other forms of prejudice. But the important thing is that we do struggle with those issues. We engage with them; we make a sincere and continual effort to address them. We have genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion, even if we’re not perfect at it. As an autistic student and faculty member, I encounter less discrimination at CIIS, and more sincere attempts at inclusion, than I’d be likely to encounter at just about any other academic institution. I’m proud of my school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and I believe that our successes in that realm invest CIIS scholars with a certain degree of responsibility to actively serve as voices of conscience in the broader acadmic community.

Postscript, September 2014: 

My letter led to a brief and quite civil exchange of emails with the researcher to whom it was addressed. It did lead her to adopt a slightly less binarist approach in the subsequent surveys for her study. I haven’t kept track of her work since then; there’s too much autism research out there for any one person to follow all of it, and hers didn’t strike me as likely to yield any results that were particularly novel or interesting.

This past Spring, my friend and colleague Karla McLaren created an online survey of her own as part of the research for her master’s thesis (I have the honor of being on her thesis committee). Karla’s survey wasn’t even about gender and sexuality. But at the beginning of the survey, in the part where respondents were asked for basic personal data, Karla (who is a far better scholar than the person to whom I wrote the above letter, and who has a far better understanding of autistic people and of human diversity in general) had the good sense to make “Sex or Gender Identity” an open-ended fill-in-the-blank question, instead of an either/or or multiple-choice question.

The results? 27o of Karla’s autistic survey respondents identified as female. 105 identified as male. and 113 – nearly a quarter of her respondents – identified as something other than female or male. The 113 non-binaristic answers included genderqueer, genderfluid, trans*, bigender, agender, asexual, androgynous, neutrois, demifemale, two-spirit, “complicated,” “gray-agender demigirl/asexual/gyneromantic,” and dozens of others.

These answers alone constitute a motherlode of information about autistic gender and sexuality – a research jackpot which would be (and always has been, and continues to be) completely missed by any survey that reduces data-collection about gender and sexuality to simple multiple-choice questions, much less to a binary choice.




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