with Caroline Watson & Hannah Watson
Today we have a subject that we haven't covered before on SNJ: Having a child or adolescent who is transgender. It's not a special educational need, but it's a fact that being trans or non-binary is more much more common in neurodiverse young people.
Being trans and autistic can bring with it greater challenges the young person and their parents in supporting them. If you're interested in how to support a young person who is autistic/neurodiverse and trans, you can try "Supporting Transgender Autistic Youth and Adults: A Guide for Professionals and Families", from Finn Gratton. The NHS has parent information here. I'll add more resources at the end.
This is a subject very close to my heart, because my youngest is also trans. It can be very difficult to get the right kind of treatment with interminably long waiting lists for NHS services, for those both under 18 and in adult services. Private treatment is very costly but can end up being the only speedy way forward when gender dysphoria is causing immense distress.
I'm leaving aside treatment questions for young people; I'm not an expert. If you are a parent on this journey, I would recommend you and your young person do thorough research. Always consider, however, where the information has come from and whether it is compassionate and unbiased.
What I do know, is that we need to have more understanding of, and empathy for, what it is like for young trans people and their families. It's common for the young person to be very upset when they identify why they are feeling as they are. They most often spend a long time denying their own feelings to try to "fit in". This in itself can cause significant mental health issues.
It's also extremely challenging for parents having to adjust everything you held as basic truths about your child, including different pronouns and new identities. It's important to remember as a parent, that however you feel, it's fundamentally not about you. Your child is going to need your support more than ever.
Today's article comes from Caroline Watson and her daughter, Hannah Watson. As SNJ is a parent-led site, this story is Caroline's narrative, but Hannah's story is woven into the article. (Hannah doesn’t have an autism diagnosis, but her experiences at school will be familiar to many). Both Caroline and Hannah's aim is to help other families. Their full story first appeared in the magazine of The Beaumont Society, a national self-help body run by and for the transgender community.
Caroline Watson: My Daughter, an Unexpected Gift
I remember the day as if it was yesterday. It was the 16th of March 2015 when my lovely 22-year-old son came into the room and said he had something to tell me. Wringing his hands, turmoil on his face, talking under his breath and clearly upset, he told me ‘I want to be a woman, I’m a woman inside and I have to do something to change the rest of my life’.
I was shocked, I didn’t know what to say and my stomach felt like I’d swallowed a bowling ball. He carried on but kept retching and could hardly get the words out and my heart went out to him. He continued, ‘I’ve been to specialists and psychiatrists and I have gender dysphoria. I’ve been like this since I started school’.
Finally, what I’d known in my heart for years my head now knew. A kind and thoughtful child, who loved having girls as friends, but there was often crying at night and sheer terror every time school holidays ended. I tried to understand what was going on, but couldn’t get through. Now it all clicked, and I felt unbelievably sad and guilty that I had not recognised the signs. I managed to ask if he was going to be dressing up as a girl, a stupid question, but I was at a loss to understand everything. He said yes, and I panicked inside, picturing him in a skirt and being laughed at and even beaten up. He said he wanted to be ‘elegant’ and I cried knowing this was to begin a journey that would change all our lives.
Hannah Watson: A gradual realisation that I was female
From an early age, I always knew something was up. Something I could never quite lay a finger on. I had few friends in primary school. I never really got on with the boys, nothing they played ever seemed to appeal to me. At the age where girls think boys are rough and violent, that wasn’t really ever an option either. At least I had Pokémon and I have to say I was pretty good at it. Even if I was a bit of a loner, I was still the person everyone went to for help when they got stuck in Cerulean Cave.
Secondary school was more of a downer. It was drilled firmly into me that if that square peg won’t fit into that circular hole, they’ll just keep pushing until it does. For me, still not really knowing who I was, there wasn’t really any choice but to fall in line. It’s not as if I could wave a magic wand and become a girl. Given the option, I’d have definitely taken it. At that point, I scratched it down to the fact that the girls' school looked way nicer, and I wouldn’t have to be forced to play rugby in the freezing cold.
There were times when I really couldn’t see an end. I’d lost any faith in life before I’d really even started. The solution (well, the best I could manage at the time) was my studies. I loved to learn, to figure stuff out and to explain it to others. Further Mathematics? Check. Even more maths on a lunchtime? Check. Going to all the quizzes, science fairs, and anything else they’d send me to? Sure, why not?
Caroline: I felt very alone
For days after Hannah came out, I cried a lot when no-one was looking. I'd find quiet places at work to bawl my eyes out; after all, there was nobody who would understand this. I wasn’t stable enough to even broach it with my closest friends. This was an incredibly lonely time. I didn’t even understand what gender dysphoria was.
I got some words I could look up like ‘transgender’ and ‘male to female transition’ and I explored the internet. Big, big mistake… The internet was full of hateful stories about transgender people, suicides, murders in the US, graphic images of surgery and the hell a transgender person had to face. This was not what I wanted, and I needed to believe that there was something positive out there so I did what I’m good at - I researched: properly.
I found more common sense, honest websites with contacts that could help me. My path was set.
I contacted GIRES (Gender Identity Research and Education Society) and talked to a wonderful man whose daughter had suffered horrendously during her transition. He and his wife became tireless campaigners and talked to me about being strong and reading all the information and research GIRES had to offer. Most importantly he taught me to see a future, a bright future, for my daughter in which we would share coffees and talk about hair and make-up. Although my mind was finding it difficult to see ahead, I started to see a goal we could aim towards and I told myself ‘I can do this’ and my child could become the woman she always should have been.
Hannah: Coming to terms with who I am
It was university that really gave me the chance to discover myself. They had their own anime and manga society, and even their own Pokémon society. I’d made great friends and was having a great time, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong below the surface. Something that always left me with a sense that I was missing something.
Truthfully, I knew. I’d toyed with the thought a lot, but always tricked myself into dismissing it. ‘You’re just worried your female friends assume you fancy them,’ ‘You’re just thinking that because your housemate is a massive feminist,’ ‘You’ve been watching too much girly anime,’ and so on. Of course, the biggest one was always, ‘So what if you’re right? What can you even do?’ Well, nothing, I thought. So I kept on going and kept on lying awake at night trying to convince myself this wasn’t happening. But in the end, I couldn’t ignore it. ‘I don’t want to be a woman. I already am one. I’m just stuck in this male-looking body.’
But who do I tell? What can I do? I was even afraid to search the Internet lest somehow people would find out, or I’d do a single Google search and drown in a torrent of hatred. Did I want a ‘Sex Change’? I had no idea what that even really meant. I had enough knowledge of biology to know that this wasn’t something that could be solved with one procedure.
Eventually, there came a point, born from necessity rather than courage, that I had to find out. What came out wasn’t the torrent of hatred I’d imagined. There was even something from the NHS. ‘NHS, I know them. I can trust them.’ So I read on. I found out there was a name for this. Heck, there were names left, right and centre. Some I’d probably heard before, but let blow out of my mind like ashes in the wind.
Knowing there were other people like me was at the same time reassuring and frightening. All the arguments I’d used to keep this in a box were shattered, leaving me staring firmly into the abyss. But at least I wasn’t there alone.
Caroline: Finding support for both of us
On my journey, I decided I needed help from a counsellor and, along with other support from two parents with children my daughter’s age. Many parents already had Mermaids as their support and our over 20s age group was sadly lacking.
So my daughter continued her journey, as Hannah, being feminine at home and androgynous when out and about. It was a strain keeping up the pretence. We could see it was very difficult for Hannah to be seen as someone she didn’t want to be. She so wanted to be female and we had many tears worrying about what to do next. We suffered the trauma of job hunting – do I interview male or female? Do I transition before or after? Will there be prejudice against a transgender person? She eventually decided to take time out and volunteered at a local Nature Reserve to build her confidence and although she was dressing masculine, she enjoyed the work and was making friends.
We started to go out more as Hannah grew more confident. Scared as I was for her, we coped pretty well and experienced no pointing fingers or being ‘called out’ that I thought, in my worried mind, we would encounter. We felt triumphant driving home that day and ready for the next phase in Hannah’s remarkable journey.
Hannah was told there was at least a three-year waiting list to even see a consultant at an NHS Gender Identity Clinic. This was extremely distressing for her. Seeing her living with a reflection she detested and those quiet times she sat in her bedroom was constantly worrying and too much for us to bear. If we were to go private it was not going to be cheap and if the GP would not do shared care, we would have to pay for the hormones and the blood tests too. It was a big decision and one I realised many parents in this position couldn’t do, living with the prospect of their young ones considering suicide to take them out of this agony. I was lucky enough to have a good job and the means to do it. We decided for Hannah’s sanity and ours, to go down the private route.
The visit to the private Gender Clinic in London followed soon after and, as the appointments were set up to get her towards prescribing hormones, we knew we had to allow Hannah to emerge properly and we had to be prepared. I purchased a great book called ‘Trading Places, When Our Son became A Daughter’ by an American mum called Jane Baker. This book was so inspiring, not only covering the process she and her daughter went through, but providing common-sense facts too.
Hannah: Moving towards my true self
I slowly but surely entered and hopped through the various hoops of the NHS process. After seeing my GP, a psychiatrist and a counsellor, I decided it was time to open up to my family. They knew something had been up with me, I could tell, and I didn’t want them to be in the dark about it anymore.
My mum took it hard at first. She blamed herself, but at the same time, she was frightened for what lay ahead for me. I’ve always admired her strength and tenacity; this time was no different. Through books, the Internet and groups like Beaumont and GIRES, she researched everything there was to know. She realised this wasn’t anyone’s fault, this was just how things are. With her help, we approached Dad. We weren’t sure how he would take it at first, but after he casually dropped into conversation, ‘People should be freely allowed to be gay, or dress as women or whatever, as long as it doesn’t do any harm,’ we realised he probably knew more than we gave him credit for.
I really have come a long way, and there’s still a long way left to go. But I don’t look forward with fear, I look forward with excitement. I’m keen to develop my own style, eager to connect with more people like me and hopeful that I too can make a difference to this great community.
Caroline: Out to everyone and proud of my daughter!
We told most family by letter and close friends and work colleagues directly, sharing an article Hannah had written herself. Everyone was fantastic. Finally, and only because I was worried about them accepting that their grandson of 23 years was to be their grand-daughter, we told my husband’s mum and dad. They were shocked and asked lots of questions but said they loved their grandchild and would work really hard to say ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ and call her Hannah. I cried with relief on the way home, promising to get them a new photograph to replace their male photo.
A couple of weeks later, after my new photograph of Hannah was hung on the wall, Grandma and Grand-dad invited their friends in to wait for them as they put their coats on for the Sunday trip to the pub – something they had never done before. They asked who the girl was in the photograph and Grandma replied, ‘That’s my grand-daughter’. ‘But you haven’t got a grand-daughter,’ they replied and Grandma said, ‘I have now.’ How amazing is that, I could have cheered! I couldn’t have got a better response to Hannah’s evolution, even in their 80s they were showing people how it should be done.
Hannah had her own Red-Letter Day when she needed to tell the Nature Reserve where she volunteered that she was Hannah, and the day she left for work I was terrified. This could be the worst or best day of her life…
Her employers were amazing, were supportive of her transition and would accommodate anything she needed. She was elated when she came home, like a new person, which she was in a way, finally being able to tell someone who she really was. The next day Hannah, dressed to kill, well maybe to pond-dip, went to work as her true self and this encounter was to mould Hannah’s future steps in her journey.
Now Hannah was on hormones and beginning her new life, she changed all her documents and we finally did some clothes shopping that wasn’t in charity shops or online. Shop assistants were really friendly and wanted to share Hannah’s story. We also had that coffee and talked about hair and make-up. We had come a long way and although we still had more hurdles to jump, we were in a good place.
Now her journey changed direction. Hannah decided she would be an advocate for transgender people. With NHS Social Care students, she has made a difference to their curriculum in how to deal with transgender people in care and spoken at their conference. With various charities, she influenced policies and training and still works with Stonewall in schools to make sure policies are not just pieces of paper. Hannah now works for a wonderful local organisation that supports vulnerable people and regularly talks on local radio in support of transgender people. As parents, we are so proud of our daughter and we are able to help parents of young people as individual as ours to get them through what can be a very difficult and lonely time.
As a final note, I have been enlightened and enriched by the stories of many wonderful transgender people as we trod this path. As a parent walking with Hannah through our own individual pathways, I believe her generation doesn’t just accept gender diversity, they are gender diversity. That gives me huge optimism for the future of our young transgender people. We just need the support services, like clinics and GPs, to catch up. But that’s another story…
Tania's final note
If you are a parent whose child has told you they are transgender, there is help. There are some resources below. Just remember that no matter how scared you are, your child is more scared - especially of your reaction (and everyone else's). It's important to think before you speak, although you will inevitably make mistakes with new terminology. Remember, they are still YOUR child, the same person they always were. Your emotional support will never be more important. There will be bumps along the road and it may be scary and upsetting. Be respectful and be strong. If you're lucky, it's a journey you can share together with a stronger relationship than ever.
Resources to help
- Gene variants provide insight into brain, body incongruence in transgender
- Gender dysphoria and autism: Challenges and support
- Gendered Intelligence
- NHS GIDS (under 18s)
- GIDS: Charlotte, mum to someone on the autistic spectrum.
- Diversity Role Models
- The Beaumont Society
- Is There a Link Between Autism and Gender Dysphoria?
- Dear Boris, you must act now to help disabled children #LetUsLearnToo - September 8, 2021
- What schools need to know to support learners with hypermobility and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome - August 20, 2021
- Ofsted / CQC: SEND was bad before the pandemic, it’s worse now - June 17, 2021