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Gender dysphoria is a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there is a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. The prefix ‘trans’ is often applied to people who have acted on their gender dysphoria and have taken steps to live as a member of the opposite sex. Most such people prefer the prefix to be kept separate from the noun, eg “trans woman”.

Gender dysphoria – when can you tell?

Children may show signs from an early age – such as refusing to wear the clothes or play with the toys stereotypically assigned to their gender or wanting to be called by a different name. For many this will be a phase, but when this persists, it may indicate gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria is an entirely normal, if uncommon, event: an expected part of the diversity of human nature, a part of the way that someone is, a consequence of the complex mechanics of child development. Such people can be recognised throughout the world and throughout history; we are in the process of becoming better at looking after them and accepting them fully in society.

It is not a mental illness, and some young people will need a lot of reassurance around this.

There is much contention between those who maintain that it is possible to know from an early age if a child will be trans as an adult (and who therefore advocate supporting, sometimes medically, this outcome unequivocally) and those who aver that children must be allowed to change their minds, and therefore advocate ‘watchful waiting’. We are not aware of conclusive evidence in favour of either side of the issue.

Gender politics

Trans issues are currently a matter of confusion and (sometimes spiky) dispute.

Some well-placed trans-activist organisations, led by Stonewall, set out an agenda for trans rights, and took steps to promulgate it in the public sector and in company HR departments.

Feminists of the gender-critical persuasion – those who believe that gender is a social construct designed to oppress women – formed pressure groups to oppose the trans-activist agenda because of the effects that they felt that it had on women’s rights.

The trans-activist groups refused to discuss the feminist’s assertions and resorted to insults. The temperature rose steadily, and has reached the point where J K Rowling has been branded a transphobe, and denounced by her Harry Potter actors, for expressing her views on trans issues.

There are now some indications that the government will step in and settle the arguments – at least as far as the behaviour of the public sector is concerned.

The result of these disputes has been to make life unpleasant for a lot of trans people. Schools and other public bodies are bombarded with contending sets of advice and ‘school packs’ from opposing pressure groups, with scant guidance from the government as to which they favour.

What are schools doing?

In the main, schools are taking steps to make trans pupils feel comfortable and included in the school. This extends to gender-related issues such as school uniform, the provision of toilet facilities that the child feels comfortable using, and the name that a child goes by.

Some have gone further and converted all toilet facilities to gender neutral. We think that this is injurious to girls (in particular) probably illegal – another matter on which a clear government policy would be welcome.

Some have become disciples of one pressure group or another and have adopted policies accordingly. Most focus on supporting their pupils.

How parents can help

Most parents will sail through school without any need to know more than the importance of being kind. For those who think that their child might be affected, or are just interested, there are several things worth doing:

Find out which set of policies your school is using, and which pressure groups (if any) it has affiliated itself with. In particular note if the pressure group advocates that schools may keep parents in ignorance when their children show signs of gender dysphoria.

Read the Tavistock Clinic website and the websites and schools packs of the various pressure groups, to give yourself a grasp of the issues. We list, without recommending, several below.

Take all the frighteners with a large pinch of salt. Truth has been an early casualty of the disputes.

Talk to your GP, who is your gateway to NHS support and advice.

Talk to the school and form a partnership to support your child.

Hope that the government gets a grip and clearly sets out best practice.

Autism and gender dysphoria

According to psychologist Dr Wenn Lawson, individuals with autism are seven times more likely to live with conflicting gender and sexuality issues, and 20 per cent will experience gender dysphoria compared to 1 per cent of the typical population.

For autistic children, developmental delays may mean they present physically as one age, but socially and emotionally are at a younger age. They may display typical autistic traits such as obsessions or special interests or fixating on someone to copy.

‘In autism these things can get muddled,’ says Lawson. ‘Neurotypical children can tell the difference between male and female by the age of four. But autistic children will pick out the detail of people, for example what the nose looks like. And object permanence – knowing something is there even if you can’t see it – is typical by 18 months in neurotypical children but delayed in autism. Those kind of things impact on gender identity.’

High functioning autistic children are particularly likely to copy another child in the class, in an effort to learn how to act; and girls more so than boys – 40 per cent of autistic girls follow other children like a shadow compared to 10 per cent of autistic boys, according to Lawson. In addition, gender is a social construct which autistic people, less fettered by the cultural domain, are not as likely to recognise, Lawson says.

Lawson recommends giving the child a personal policy to keep themselves safe – identifying  when it is safe to wear a dress for example, and teaching them about safety in numbers, and somewhere they can go where they will be safe. Autistic people typically find it difficult to work out consequences, so it is advisable to work out lots of eventualities and how they should respond.

Dr Wenn Lawson was speaking at a masterclass on gender dysphoria for the National Autistic Society

www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/stories/stories-from-the-spectrum-wenn-lawson

Further information

The Tavistock Clinic / Gender Identity Development Service: appointed by the government as the gateway to medical treatment for gender dysphoria 

tavistockandportman.nhs.uk/care-and-treatment/our-clinical-services/gender-identity-development-service-gids

Pressure groups of a trans activist tendency

Mermaids  mermaidsuk.org.uk

Gendered Intelligence genderedintelligence.co.uk

Pressure groups of a gender critical tendency

Transgender Trend www.transgendertrend.com

Bayswater Support Group www.bayswatersupport.org.uk

Pressure groups involved in gender issues generally

Stonewall www.stonewall.org.uk

Woman’s Place UK womansplaceuk.org

Please note that we are not recommending the content of any of the above websites, but we are of the view that each states clearly how they see the world through their own lens.

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