Remembering Kayden Clarke: The Urgent Need to Improve Clinical Understanding and Care for Transgender Autistic Clients

Dec 14, 2016

Kayden Clarke was a 24-year-old trans man who identified as having Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism) and PTSD, among other challenges. He died on February 4 when police, responding to a suicide call, shot Kayden as he lunged at them with the kitchen knife he was holding. I will leave it to others to discuss the police response to the suicide call. What I want to address is what could have reduced the chances that Kayden and the police officer who shot him would ever be in that room together.

Kayden made a number of YouTube videos. The final two were made in December 2015 and January 2016. In the first, he happily shares that he finally has insurance that will allow him to begin medical Transition. He says, “I get everything I was supposed to have. I can breathe. The anxiety is gone.” Several weeks later he posted a video full of fury and despair, recounting how the gender specialist he went to told him that she could not write a letter of referral for testosterone treatment until Kayden’s Asperger’s “disease” was fixed. In this video, Kayden said several times, “I don’t know what to do. I’m at my wit’s end. I don’t know who to turn to.” Several weeks after that last video was posted, Kayden was dead.

New research indicates that about 20% of the Transgender population is autistic. A separate review of autistic people found that more than 20% identify as transgender or nonbinary. Many people in both the autistic and the transgender communities would say this high co-ocurrence is no surprise. Unfortunately, much of the clinical community lags in its preparation for working with this overlap.

Professionals who work with transgender and gender nonbinary people need to understand the experience of autistic people and know how to respectfully and effectively work with them. Those who work with autistic and other neurodivergent people need to understand the transgender experience and have the cultural sensitivity, as well as the skills and resources, to support their needs as transgender youth or adults. The coincidence of trans-identities and autism should no longer be viewed as a rare, interesting phenomena, as has long been the case with autistic individuals. The myth of autism rarity has resulted in few therapists getting sufficient training in autism and neurodivergence, while the thought that autistic Gender dysphoria was not true dysphoria has resulted in many delays and rejections of gender treatment for trans autistic people.

There is no doubt in my mind that Kayden Clarke would be alive today if he had been referred for medical transition. He would be making You Tube videos featuring his deepening voice and talking about top surgery. While the challenges of living with autism in a neurotypical world would remain, the affirmation of his capacity to choose a path based upon his inner sense of self would have given him additional strength in dealing with these challenges. He should not have died, and he should not have had to work as hard as he did to simply be himself and follow his dreams. Kayden’s videos and his subsequent death are an aching lesson in the power of our words and actions and of our failures to speak and act. It is time for gender specialists, neurodiversity specialists, and trans and neurodivergent people to come together, learn from each other and dispel the ignorance and prejudice that makes the world such a hard place for people like Kayden.

This guest blog post was shared with Gender Spectrum by Finn Vivian Gratton, LMFT, LPCC, a somatic psychotherapist who specializes in working with trauma, neurodiversity issues, and transgender issues in Santa Cruz and Mountain View, California. They identify as Genderqueer and autistic. They can be reached at [email protected].

This was an abridged version of the article. Please see full article ”Remembering Kayden Clarke: What Gender Specialists Need to Know About Neurodiversity and What Neurodiversity Specialists Need to Know About Transgender Issues” for references to videos and research and for steps that gender and neurodiversity specialists can take to support trans and Non-binary neurodivergent clients.