This month's blog article was featured in the January 2022 issue of our digital newsletter, Aspire Wire. To receive future Aspire Wire emails, subscribe here.
by Elise Wulff, MEd
Senior Program Manager, Aspire
On Wednesday, January 26th, Elise Wulff, MEd, Aspire Senior Program Manager, will be presenting at a Lurie Center for Autism “Coffee Convo” event. Her presentation will be parenting a neurodiverse gender fluid child. Elise will present an overview of the emerging trends in the intersection of neurodiversity and gender identity. She will then facilitate a conversation with Shira Cohen, Aspire parent of Hallel, to hear about their family’s personal experience. Hallel describes themselves as non-binary; they use they/them pronouns. The discussion will focus on how caregivers and providers can offer the most inclusive support to all members of our community. In preparation for the upcoming presentation, Shira shares her thoughts below in response to Elise’s questions:
What were some early indicators or observations that clued you in to your child’s gender fluid identity?
From the age of 2, Hallel never did typical "boy" things... They were super into fairies and princesses at a very, very early age, and were not at all into stereotypical "boy" things despite out best efforts to give them variety. Pink was their favorite color; they were only into having girls as friends. We were very aware that their preferences were extreme, and we were also very accepting of these and let them lead.
Which aspects of your child’s neurodiversity do you believe served as strengths in their exploration of authentic gender identity?
They never cared what society told them. NEVER. And to this day (now they are 10) they are very independent about their preferences and not at all swayed by others. In retrospect, I believe they never picked up on the intrinsic social cues that many of us neurotypical people integrate, such as what to like, who to be, what it means to be a "boy," or "girl."
Which aspects of their neurodiversity present barriers?
We have had to talk through the implications that others may not understand their gender identity. We have had to discuss with them how to respond to someone who you just meet in passing, and how you don't need to correct them for misgendering you, because you don't have a sustained relationship to them. Whereas, when you are in a relationship with someone, it's REALLY important to make sure they have your gender right. Hallel is a very precise kid. We have had to discuss why you might WANT to correct Grandpa when he uses the wrong pronoun and how it's not helpful to do it in the moment. But, because Grandpa respects you, he's trying and it's hard for him to get it right. I think with a neurotypical kid, the conversations might actually be similar. We are just very explicit as we parse out the variety of situations Hallel might find themselves in.
What professional resources have you found most valuable in addressing your child’s needs?
There is not a lot out there on this intersection between neurodiverse kids and gender identity. At least there wasn't when we were really struggling with it all when Hallel was between 3-7. The best resources we now have are just to build our social and religious community around individuals who can either serve as models for neurodiversity, gender identity, or both. Hallel has a non-binary big sibling through Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, and they have been an amazing mentor to Hallel in normalizing being non-binary.
What resources have you found most supportive for your needs, as a parent?
I can say that I have found many unsupportive resources. My husband and I have had to forge our own way. Early childhood educators who thrive on teaching quirky kids have been our best teachers. They have told us to let the child lead, and in this case, the child has led and Hallel is now my teacher and a teacher to many.
Last April, Shira and Hallel were featured in a story by Martha Bebinger of WBUR. You can find the article here. We encourage you to check it out to learn more about their personal journey.