Medical student research- gender identity and autism / ADHD

Lucy McPhate is a final year medical student who has been completing research under the supervision of Dr Tamara May and Prof Katrina Williams as part of the Autism Research Team.

Lucy’s research examined gender variance, or the  “wish to be the opposite sex” in children and young people with neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism and ADHD. It is known from population studies that gender variance in the general population is about 1%. However, in children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism or ADHD, it can be as high a 5%.  This is important to know as gender identity is a part of a person’s whole identity, and knowing this is vital to understand in order to deliver effective patient care. This is particularly important in young people where their identity is still developing.


At the Royal Children’s Hospital, there is a research database of children and young people who have been seen for mental health issues. We wanted to see, in this population, what the prevalence, or common-ness, of gender variance. In addition, was it seen more commonly in autism and ADHD, and was it also common in other conditions as well?


1553 patient files later, we had our results. The prevalence of gender variance in this population overall was 3.1%, which was significantly higher than the population norm. In addition, gender variance was significantly more common in participants with autism and ADHD. Not only that, we found it was also significantly more common in participants with other conditions- intellectual disability, depression and anxiety.


This study supports the growing area of research that shows that gender variance occurs more commonly in children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental conditions.  This is important as it may support screening by clinicians- if they have a patient with autism making sure to ask about any issues around gender identity, in order to facilitate timely access to specialist care if required. Of course, more research is needed to reveal why there is a link between the two. Nevertheless, by improving our knowledge in this area we can hope to optimise the care of these young people.


Lucy has presented her findings at the Autism Research Team meeting, Gender Service Clinical meeting and at the 2017 ANZPATH conference in Sydney.


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