Recent research found that trans people are more likely to have synesthesia, a condition where, according to Psychology Today “one sensory or cognitive pathway (for example, hearing) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (such as vision).” For example, someone with Synesthesia might see colors when they hear music. The study found that 42% of trans people have synesthesia, compared to 14% of non-trans people.
Another study found that trans people are more likely to have autism: 14% of transgender and non-binary people vs. 4% of non-trans people. A caveat: scientists point out that autistic folks, less aware of or invested in social norms, may simply be more likely to come out as trans, rather than be trans.
But what if there is a link between transness and cognitive “abnormalities”? Is that scary? Is there something to fear or bury in these findings? If there is a genetic link between autism and/or synesthesia and transness itself, could trans people could be deemed genetic aberrations, pathologized even further than we already are?
These questions lead to another:
Why are “abnormal” brains so stigmatized and do they have to be?
While many progressive movements are predicated on social conditioning (“nurture” rather than “nature”), the neurodiversity movement is based in biology. It posits that all brains are different from each other to some degree and the stigma we associate with some types of brains (for example, those called “autistic”) is arbitrary and cruel, based on the way our society is structured rather than the inherent worth of the brains in question. Autistic people pioneered the neurodiversity movement, but it has come to include those with many neurological differences like bipolar disorder and ADHD.
Neurodiversity says that if our society expects consistent mood and productivity, that is not the fault of the bipolar brain, because there are other possible ways to build the world. What if people could work when they were motivated? What if people could follow their own cycles?
And if our society asks for people to adhere to arbitrary standards of politeness that baffle autistic minds, neurodiversity says that the problem is the standards themselves, not the brains that fail to meet them.
Many neurodivergent people find this a liberating and beautiful way to see the world: to constantly question where neurotypical people have set the standards and created biases against the rest of us. It is akin to recognizing anti-trans bias and realizing it is not your fault.
Although neurodiversity is based on the idea that diverse brains occur in nature, when it comes to the brain, the distinction between nature and nurture has begun to blur. For example, many mental illnesses are now thought to be caused by a genetic predisposition combined with an environmental trigger that sets it in motion, often a childhood trauma (neglect; emotional, physical, sexual abuse; or other forms of trauma). Even when a mental illness has an environmental cause, like PTSD does, it can change the architecture of the brain in a way that is observable in brain imagining. The brain can also heal, changing back to its pre-traumatized state in a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity.
Because of this complexity, neurodiversity offers something of value to trans trauma survivors, even if it is not necessarily a permanent identity as a neurodivergent person. Rather, neurodiversity offers acceptance and understanding to trauma survivors’ needs, even when they are in opposition to the expectations of the world. It offers us all have a place in a diverse ecosystem of thinking and feeling. And even if our particular niche is not well understood in the world we inhabit, we still have much to offer to the world.