Oby Ukadike: From the campus of Harvard Medical School, this is ThinkResearch, a podcast devoted to the stories behind clinical research. I'm Oby, your host.

Isabel Castanho: Welcome back to another takeover of the ThinkResearch Podcast by the MIND Project. I'm Isabel Castanho, one of the co-founders of Neurodiversity at the MIND Project and today's guest host.

Last time I was here at ThinkResearch I had a conversation with some of my colleagues from the MIND Project about neurodiversity. Be sure to check out that takeover episode if you haven't yet where I delve into the world of neurodiversity with the amazing guests Dr. Walid Yassine, Dr. Georgios Ntolkeras, and Anuksha Wickramasinghe.

Today, i will chat with yet another extraordinary guest who is breaking barriers and championing neurodiversity, especially in the trans community, Kris King. Please join me in welcoming Kris, who has contributed to enlightening articles on the subject of neurodiversity and just led a groundbreaking workshop on neurodiversity in the trans community this past October. Kris, it's an absolute pleasure to chat with you today.

Kris King: Thank you so much for having me, Isabel. I'm honored to be part of this important conversation.

Isabel Castanho: Kris you are the founder of the Harvard Trans Community Celebration that had its second edition this fall. At this year's event, you led a session titled Trans and Neurodivergent in which you discuss the intersection of neurodiversity and gender identity.

I had the opportunity to attend it in person, and I'll never forget something you said around the beginning of your presentation. You said, "We are better as a species for our neurodiversity. We should not suppress them, but celebrate them." I couldn't agree more. I would like to ask you to please tell us more about the event overall and the session that you led in particular.

Kris King: Absolutely. So I serve as the Founder and Executive Director of the Trans+ Community Celebration at Harvard. Part of our mission is to discuss intersectional communities as it relates to the trans community, and we know that there is a significant overlap between folks on the autism spectrum and folks in the trans+ community.

Gender diversity and neurodiversity are indelibly linked. And so it was important for me as someone who exists at that intersection as a trans person, as an autistic person to talk about what that looks like from a practical aspect as well as what we know in terms of research and theory.

And one of the underpinnings of that presentation was to understand that we are better for our neurodiversity as a species. That's not just in the scientific wherein it is advantageous for us to have a variety of skill sets legitimately for the survival of our species. We can go all the way back to the era of humanity as primarily hunter-gatherers, and traits that are associated with ADHD, that are associated with autism are incredibly advantageous in conjunction with our neurotypical traits and community members for our survival.

But additionally, when we start to look at conversations around, for example, affirmative action and we see the narratives around the importance of diversity across other aspects of the human race, it's important for us to include neurodivergent brains and bodies in those conversations as our diversity in any understanding of the word is better. The more diverse that we are, the better off we are for the health, safety, and success of the human race.

Isabel Castanho: Mmm. Yeah, thank you for sharing that with us. Still on the topic of your presentation at the Harvard Trans Community Celebration, one section of your presentation-- and you mentioned this just now very briefly, was about research on the topic of neurodiversity. You called our attention to the importance of community-driven knowledge, you mentioned that often the community in question-- for example, autistic individuals or individuals with the ADHD, are not interested as much on the why, but rather, on resources and equity efforts.

What are things that the research community can do to listen and meet the needs and expectations of the community that they are trying to help and support?

Kris King: That's a great question, Isabel. So often in the sphere of disability bioethics and in research, people are consumed with one of a few questions. Either, why disabled people exist, when disabled people have the right to die, how disabled a fetus needs to be in order to ethically abort it, and similar questions. And we're really caught up in these minutia whereas the disabled community at large is really far more concerned with how do we create equitable lives and how do we get access to support services and community.

That includes things like the right to die, the right to have kids, the right to any number of other things, but that is where our able-bodied peers really focus their energy in a way that is not community-driven.

When we talk about community-driven knowledge, we're talking about the things that come out of living rooms in the '80s and Reddit posts of the 2000s and Instagram comments in the present day. And we're talking about what happens when we get a lot of autistic people in the room, folks of diverse backgrounds and experiences, and figure out what the common threads are and the common needs are.

And so it's important for researchers to be involved in those spaces as a fly on the wall. It's my opinion that if you're working in the autism field and your social media feeds are not filled with diverse autistic representation and you do not have a slew of autistic people that you work with that have different degrees of experiences on the spectrum, different backgrounds, different racial and ethnic backgrounds, LGBTQ+ people, folks with other disabilities, if you don't have those diverse perspectives, then you are only serving the experience of autism that has been historically centered.

That experience is one that is exclusively dominated by young white men with one very specific spectrumal experience, and we see that when we look at the development of the diagnostic categories, and we see that in a lot of the early activism beginning with the first person diagnosed with autism, Donald Triplett.

It's important when we talk about leaning into community-driven knowledge, we end up with questions about trust and we end up with questions about authority.

So we have this really tricky balance, especially those of us in research and in academia, to understand, how do we weigh the value that a Facebook post with thousands of likes and affirming comments from community members has when we don't traditionally look at Facebook posts as a site of research? But in fact, it can have considerable value when we look at the needs of a community because that's where the voices are.

Isabel Castanho: Yeah, I would say representation is really a pivotal aspect in fostering understanding and acceptance within the realm of neurodiversity. I would like to continue on this topic of representation. So yes, you've just talked to us about very important plausible arguments on why it's really is important.

Going a step further on this, what steps or initiatives do you believe are essential to improve representation for neurodiverse individuals and sharing their voices and experiences are heard and acknowledged?

Kris King: Absolutely. One of the things that I see a lot of the time is folks are only willing to have autistic representation that they deem palatable. That often looks like white, well-spoken autistics. It's folks like me who are able to get in the room. It's not folks that are low-income and don't have access to support services. It's not folks that are autistic folks of color. It's primarily not autistic women and trans people. So it's about developing relationships with community members that are not, quote-unquote, palatable to the neurotypical eye.

The launching point has to be bringing people into the conversation. As I mentioned, it could be as simple as diversifying your Instagram feed or existing in community spaces. What happens when you figure out how to talk to lots and lots of community members on social media?

But ultimately, it means we have to foster spaces where autistic people can lead autistic research. It means that we have to fight for equity so hard that we are getting autistic people with doctorates. We're getting employed autistic people to lead this research and be involved at the helm and not just as consultants.

One thing I always remind folks of is we have an 85% rate of underemployment and unemployment among college-educated autistics. So even in this college-educated subsect of the autistic community, which is a relatively small percentage of the population at large, we're seeing high rates of under and unemployment and that's a population that researchers can tap into for consultants, folks to work on their projects that have a background in academia. That's a huge opportunity both for autistic people to be employed and compensated for their experiences and their work, but also for researchers to have a team with autistic minds on it.

Isabel Castanho: I would like to now rewind a little bit and delve a little bit more into your personal story so we can understand all of this. Can you tell us more about your journey to date and how you became involved in advocating for neurodiversity?

Kris King: Absolutely. I am someone who was recognized as neurodivergent really early on, but folks didn't really know what that looked like. I'm someone that was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder or sensory integration dysfunction at the time when I was about a year old. And that was the first recognition that there was some brain makeup that was different than the neurotypical expectation.

I was diagnosed with ADHD as a teenager. And again, we weren't necessarily having the neurodivergent conversations, and we certainly weren't having conversations around equity and what it looked like to be proud of a neurodivergent mind and successful in that. It was about a medicalized and pathologized view of that brain as something that was wrong or needed fixing.

And it wasn't until the onset of the pandemic that I was able to reckon with being an autistic person, and it was something that I found out for myself and brought to folks in this medicalized space. And the language that was said was, well, absolutely. We already knew that even though it was something that I was not aware of.

And so it's been an incredible journey for me in the last couple of years to understand my brain and my being as valuable sites and not just this medicalized and pathologized view of being. It's been incredibly empowering for me to learn with the rest of my community and along with many, many other folks who, in the isolation of the pandemic, were able to do some reflection and understand their own neurodiversity. It's really been a beautiful community to be involved in and a very unique space to be advocating at a space like Harvard University.

Isabel Castanho: Mmm, that's good to hear. As a non-binary individual, what unique perspectives and challenges do you believe you bring to the neurodiversity movement?

Kris King: In terms of challenges as I mentioned previously, we have this understanding of autism that is specifically relegated to young white men with one specific experience on the spectrum with really minimal variation. And so being someone who has other marginalized identities, especially folks who experience medicalized transphobia or medicalized racism in particular, the barriers to access are drastically increased.

Whether that is accessing support services, understanding diagnosis and accessing diagnosis, whether that is finding community resources and feeling represented in those community resources. So it really can be a challenge, but I think that being a non-binary individual, being a trans individual in the autism community is hugely advantageous in terms of developing these equity directions and how we should be proceeding as a community.

When you start thinking critically about gender and understanding the ways that female and male identities have been imposed on us as men and women, and the ways that gender has been forcibly assigned along with a myriad of expectations in our society and culture, you start to de-binary the world that you live in.

When you exist in this trans lens, those binaries become increasingly obvious. One of the places that I write a lot of theory is what it looks like to de-binary autistic binary. So what happens when we stop viewing autistic people as high or low-support needs? We start understanding that support needs just are.

We all have support needs as individuals, autism or otherwise, but it's about whose needs are automatically met by society and whose aren't. When you start thinking about what happens when we don't view people as disabled or abled and we start valuing people for their skill sets and what they can bring to the table, we suddenly have an incredibly equitable view of humanity and value for all minds.

And so I think it's a huge advantage to be able to view the world without such stark impositions of binaries and be able to have conversations where people are just people rather than the disability and autistic-based binaries that we impose on their existence.

Isabel Castanho: I really love this view of the world. And you briefly touched this, but unfortunately, it's just a reality. Many neurodivergent and trans individuals together or in isolation often face stigmatization, lack of understanding. In your opinion, how can we create a more inclusive society that embraces both neurodiversity and gender diversity and offers opportunities to excel?

Kris King: Absolutely. The core of the issue is, trans+ folks and neurodivergent folks are excluded at every possible moment, whether that is access to K-12 education, whether that is access to employment, equitable housing, security in walking down the street. We have to begin by going back to basics. We have to make sure autistics have equitable housing, have equitable employment. We have to make sure trans+ plus folks have equitable housing and equitable employment.

Until folks are able to economically meet their needs, have safety and security in their homes and in their communities, we're unable to create spaces where autistic people can speak freely and advocate for their needs, and that's true for trans+ people as well.

So we have folks like myself and many others who have the privilege and the resources to speak out safely about our communities in some circumstances, but until we create that safety and security for all in our community, we truly won't understand what our communities even really need.

Some of us are doing the best that we can with community-driven knowledge and taking a best guess and know that we're headed in the right direction, but we can't have that complete understanding until folks' basic needs are met. We don't need any more neurotypical people trying to investigate what genes are causing autism.

We have to figure out where autistic people are unemployed, in unsafe and abusive housing scenarios, and in an affirming situations where they are unsafe and start advocating for those basic human rights first so that we can understand what neurodiversity and our communities really need in the minutia.

Isabel Castanho: Yeah. And within these communities, how can we ensure that the neurodiversity movement is inclusive and supportive of all gender identities and expressions? And how can allies and supporters best advocate for and uplift neurodivergent individuals within the LGBTQ+ community?

Kris King: Absolutely. These autistic voices are out there. There's so many trans autistic folks, there's so many trans women and AFAB autistics who are speaking out and saying the most brilliant things. All you have to do is find their voices. All you have to do is start engaging on social media and start reading their books. And that information is out there. The best way to uplift their voices is to follow them and learn with them and learn from them.

I hear all the time that folks don't know where to start in terms of learning about an understanding of autism that isn't from a big nonprofit and isn't from the '90s or isn't from incorrect information and misinformation about vaccines and autism or about the white boys of Hans Asperger in 1941.

And it really is right at your fingertips. It's in your phone, it's on Instagram and TikTok in particular, but also it's on Reddit, it's in books. These folks are starting to publish incredible literature. Encourage people to start engaging with those communities in ways that are accessible to them from within their own homes.

Isabel Castanho: Taking the time to learn-- I mean, I speak for myself. That's what I'm trying to do, to learn to listen from the community. And one thing that I would add on just what you said, Kris, just because--

And as a scientist, I have to say this, which works for everything, is to hearing more than one source and cross information, because of course, there's a lot on the internet that can be sold even by someone in the community that it's just misinformation, so it's really important to hear several voices. But absolutely, I agree with you. Just the best place to look for is within the community to hear what other people have to say. That's great.

Kris King: Yeah, absolutely. And I'll say, even if an autistic person says something and you're like, wow, that's really interesting, go into the comments, see what other autistic people are saying. We're having really-- some of the most interesting conversations and fascinating things that I've learned about autistic people that resonate with me personally and with my community are conversations happening in the comments sections of posts about autism by autistic creators. That is where we're congregating. We're congregating in Facebook groups. We're congregating in Reddit comments.

And so you're absolutely right. You can't take any one person's word as the word of God, but as I said, if you have several thousand people reacting and engaging to a Facebook post, suddenly it has some value as community-driven knowledge and data that has been effectively peer-reviewed.

Isabel Castanho: Absolutely, yes. Yes, absolutely.

OK, so now I would like to ask you, what advice would you give to individuals who identify as neurodivergent and are also exploring their gender identity or even transitioning?

Kris King: I've had huge success in the trans+ community finding other neurodivergent folks and less so in the other way around. So autistic communities are more inaccessible to trans folks than trans communities are to neurodivergent folks. And that being said, I'm someone who's explored neurodivergent and trans communities primarily in bigger cities, primarily on the coasts, even though I'm a born-and-raised Midwesterner.

And these spaces are still not necessarily doing the necessary anti-racist effort to be really inclusive. However, broadly speaking, in my personal experience, I've had much greater success exploring trans communities and finding autistic people within them than the other way around.

And so I'd really encourage folks that are exploring their gender identity start there. You'll find a beautiful community of trans folks that are rallying, especially in the last couple of years as we've seen waves of anti-trans bills. Folks are organizing, folks are creating community spaces, and oftentimes those spaces are filled with autistic folks whether or not they know that they're autistic.

There's such a huge overlap in these communities that there really is opportunity to engage at that intersection. Even if it can be difficult to find them at the outset, you will find people that share your experiences.

Even if they don't have the exact same gender identity or the same spectrumal experience, we share commonalities at this intersection, and it can be a really beautiful thing to start finding folks that share some of those experiences with you. We're are really not an Island out here despite what the research and the community narratives pre-2020 would like us to believe.

Isabel Castanho: On a follow-up question, what advice would you then give to parents, friends-- what are things that you feel-- it can be your personal experience or that you've seen with other people in the community-- that you felt that was really helpful or was not helpful at all?

Kris King: I think the best thing that parents can do-- and again, I'm not a parent, but I'm someone who's experienced parenting. We can understand that parenting trans kids, parenting autistic kids comes with really unique challenges, and neither of those communities are monoliths.

However, the best overarching advice I can give is to try not to assimilate your child. Your child does not need to look like everyone else's children, and your child does not need to follow the same expectations that we assume of standard K-12 education, of employment, of specific gendered interests, of dolls or cars.

You lean into the needs of your child and what truly brings them joy and success, you will find avenues for them to succeed. And I will say, I was a kid that really struggled in K-8 education. I was someone who really, really struggled to succeed, and one of the goals that was placed in my very early childhood was to look normal on the playground.

And instead, now, I'm understanding that my goal has never been to look normal. My goal has been to find happiness and health in my body and in my mind. So I encourage parents to take a more holistic view of their child's needs and that they are a whole person regardless of how they might look next to their friends' kids.

I think it's really powerful and can drastically change the outcomes for the success of trans and autistic kids and trans autistic kids when parents start to view their kids as whole and complete human beings in the most radical way.

Isabel Castanho: Thank you. Thank you for that. And thank you, Kris, for sharing your invaluable insights and perspectives with me today. Your journey and advocacy are truly inspiring, and I'm very grateful for the work you do in promoting neurodiversity and inclusivity.

Kris King: It's absolutely been my pleasure. I really hope these conversations spark further discussions with folks and encourage listeners to embrace neurodiversity and transness in all of its beautiful and diverse forms.

Isabel Castanho: Absolutely. Before we wrap up, where can people find you, Kris? Are you on social media?

Kris King: Absolutely. I'm on Instagram at kris.b.king. And folks can always reach out to me via email at krisking@college.harvard.edu. And I'm happy to chat and support folks to the best of my ability and share any of my work.

Isabel Castanho: Thank you. And Thank you all for tuning in to this follow-up episode of the ThinkResearch Podcast. I hope you've been convinced about the significance of embracing neurodiversity to create a more compassionate and inclusive world. I say goodbye by encouraging you to stay curious and stay kind.

Oby Ukadike: Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate us on iTunes and help us spread the word about the amazing research taking place across the Harvard community and beyond. We are always looking to connect and collaborate with the research community and would like to hear from you. Please feel free to email us at onlineeducation.catalyst.harvard.edu to inquire about being a guest on the podcast.

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