A subset of autistic users has reported that they are not always able to use the pronouns that another user requests.

The problem

The current Code of Conduct is clear on this matter: Using stated pronouns is greatly preferred. The users in question report that this is unfortunately impossible for them.

It is also acceptable to consistently and inconspicuously use gender-neutral language, but that may not always be possible for these users: natural and inconspicuous writing correlates poorly with rigidity of language! It can also easily come off as hostile to trans users, and even at best shows less respect than using appropriate pronouns.

I am asking about users who wish to show respect to trans and non-binary users, and therefore to comply with the Code of Conduct, but who are currently unable to do so.

How does the problem work?

What situations does this apply to?

  • Using different pronouns for different people, as opposed to the same pronoun for everyone?
  • Changing a previously assumed pronoun (from username, avatar, previous knowledge of the person before transition, etc.)?
  • Using pronouns outside a closed set (e.g. able to use "he" or "she" but not "they", or "they" but not "zie")?

How does the difficulty work? Understanding this may be helpful in coming up with solutions.

  • What are its causes?
  • What worsens or alleviates it?
  • Is it a difficulty perceiving users as their stated gender, or using language that expresses this perception?

What would make it easier for these users?

What can the StackExchange software, user-supplied software, or human editors do to help these autistic users use the correct pronouns?

For example, would some macro like %possessive@JaneDoe (that reads JaneDoe's profile and expands to "hers") help? Or a user script that, before posting, highlights every personal pronouns so that the writer can fix them manually?

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    @KevinB Not a dupe: I'm not asking what the CoC says. I'm taking the latest FAQ's interpretation of the CoC for granted and asking how we can help (a subset of) autistic users comply. Nov 14, 2019 at 22:24
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    Complying is the actual problem. If they (we - as in everyone here) don't need to comply they would have no problems. Nov 14, 2019 at 22:31
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    In what ways are autistic members unable to comply with the CoC?
    – user102937
    Nov 14, 2019 at 22:34
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    @RobertHarvey Some said they have trouble determining the right pronoun they must use even to the point that actually reading the persons profile does not really help. I am just relaying information others have said. I don't have experience with this particular difficulties. I am more aware of problems pronouns can cause to non English speakers that barely know what third person pronoun actually is, let alone use proper one. Nov 14, 2019 at 22:39
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    @RobertHarvey I imagine that's it's to do with change (so pronouns and language learned over many years), which many autistic users will have issues with. In general explaining why the change is necessary and giving lots and lots of notice would be helpful.
    – Cyclical
    Nov 14, 2019 at 22:40
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    Based on my observations, neurotypical people are going to have these same difficulties.
    – user102937
    Nov 14, 2019 at 22:44
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    There's no reason to read someone's profile to find their pronoun. If it becomes a problem, the person in question can notify the parties involved as needed of what pronouns they prefer, and then there's no question what pronouns should be used. We aren't expected to visit the profile of every user we interact with. The duplicate covers this.
    – Kevin B
    Nov 14, 2019 at 22:47
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    @Leopold: That's not what I'm saying. The byzantine nature of the pronouns debate, and the resulting CoC with all of its detailed refinements, is enough to make anyone's head spin. I've already caught myself removing "he", then removing "he/she" from several posts. Common sense used to be enough.
    – user102937
    Nov 14, 2019 at 22:50
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    I think it's far from established that anyone on the autistic spectrum would actually have a greater difficulty complying than any neurotypical people. Nov 14, 2019 at 22:53
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    @curiousdannii Got links to "I'm unable to do this" that don't also say "because of autism"? If so, please edit in. I haven't seen any, just "I don't want to do this", which is not the same question. Nov 14, 2019 at 23:10
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    @LeopoldsaysReinstateMonica Got any links to academic research showing that autism may mean that some people have problems with pronouns? Nov 14, 2019 at 23:12
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    @curiousdannii: I've worked with an autistic that used to ask what people's names were by pointing at them and saying "What is it?" Most people didn't even understand what question was asked. Can you imagine trying to teach the pronouns FAQ to him? Nov 15, 2019 at 3:41
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    You say "used to". Not (even implicitly) "does". It clearly can be taught, it clearly can be learned, and it clearly can be shifted from being an issue to.. not being an issue. @rockwalrus-stopharmingMonica
    – Nij
    Nov 15, 2019 at 7:19
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    @Nij I cannot say that I share your optimism that someone who didn't pick up from context that humans don't make good antecedents for "what" and "it" even after it was pointed out to him several times would be able to learn and consistently apply several screenfulls of context-dependent pronoun rules, or that moderators would be able to tell over the internet that it's something that he legitimately has had trouble with his entire life and he isn't trolling. Nov 15, 2019 at 15:06

4 Answers 4


I'm going to answer purely from my (9 year old) sons point of view - he is autistic, highly confident and very, very verbose, and we've had discussions on this subject in the past; I have a few trans friends and he finds the whole thing highly confusing.

The problem

There is one way the world makes sense. Boys have a winkie, girls have a not-winkie. Him/Her is the way you indicate this. Boys like being rude and riding bikes, girls like pink and 'girl stuff'.

This kind of pigeon-holing is of course discarding a very wide range of identities and subtleties, but he's autistic - this helps him get a handle on how to deal with people when he has issues parsing emotive speech and facial expressions. At least if he's dealing with a boy he knows he can be rude or talk about bikes. It works in a lot of situations.

Where it doesn't work he finds it stressful and upsetting. I work in tech and I see analogous behaviour in a some of my colleagues when they move outside a well defined comfort zone. There are a number of Stack Overflow mugs in the office, so I feel it's a good sign they are indicative of at least some users of this site.

What can be done to prevent this reaction?

With an autistic child, patience, education and discussion are key. You cannot force the issue. To do so just causes anger, confusion and pushing back. An adults response is going to be more complex, but along the same lines.

What can be done by SO?

Certainly pushing a sudden CoC change was not going to help. But they are a company - we should not expect anything less. What might have helped was a community education effort. Explain why misgendering or ignoring gender identity could cause offence, explain why the changes will improve SO as a whole, and above all give a bit of warning that change is coming.

What wouldn't help is suddenly changing the rules, and meting out punishment based on these new rules immediately, causing anxiety and upset. After all you've gained 20k internet points by being smart, by using 'they' in responses and never given offence. Suddenly the rules of the game have changed and you can have this taken away by rules that are far, far harder to understand than just 'doing your best to be polite'. A tantrum or two could be expected.

In the end I feel that a softer introduction of updated rules would have been far, far more acceptable to autistic users of this site. It is of course a bit late for that, but it's never too late to actually engage with users of the site and create something that works for a far broader spectrum of the sites users.

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    I'm sure many, probably most, neurotypical 9 year olds would also find the concept of transgenderism highly confusing. Nov 14, 2019 at 23:23
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    Hm, this seems to be disputing the premise? Saying that a user who already likes the CoC will not have the difficulties users have reported? You could improve this answer by 1) clarifying that question 2) making it more SE-specific: nobody here can check who else has a winkie, unless there's something extremely interesting in Area 51. Nov 14, 2019 at 23:25
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    @curiousdannii which is exactly why UNESCOs guidance is teaching it to 5 year olds at school.... (page 50)
    – gbjbaanb
    Nov 14, 2019 at 23:30
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    @LeopoldsaysReinstateMonica I was trying to illustrate from experience the 'What are its causes? What worsens or alleviates it?' parts of the question, focusing specifically on the amount of push-back from changing established rules and how to mitigate that. The question is very broad and I didn't want to waffle too much, just address the parts that stood out from my own experiences and discussions with someone speaking from an autistic persons point of view. 9 is young, but he's also actually met and spoken to TG people; I felt it was a worthwhile addition (if not a full answer)
    – Cyclical
    Nov 14, 2019 at 23:34
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    @curiousdannii There are many young children who found the whole concept of transgender folks existing, or members of the LGBTQ+ community existing, perfectly straightforward.
    – auden
    Nov 15, 2019 at 3:17
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    +1000 This is what the company should have done and what would have helped everyone get used to and accept the new policy, not just persons with autism. Everyone finds it difficult to change their perspective and habits, and good management introduces changes in a transparent and gentle way. Nov 15, 2019 at 7:44
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    Agreed, and in particular it should have been communicated in terms of how it relates to questions, answers and comments, i.e. 99% of activity. The policy was drawn up by people who spend disproportionate time in chat rooms, based on problems that mostly occur in chat rooms, and was dumped like "This is really important and you must all do it starting now everywhere" with no clues or consideration of how it would work in questions, answers and comments, with users who are usually anonymous, who we rarely encounter twice, and who we rarely need to refer to in the 3rd person. Nov 15, 2019 at 14:52
  • @heather very true. My stubborn, autistic son is now perfectly accepting of gender issues - he doesn't understand well at an emotional level, but's he knows there are people who have an alternative gender identity, it makes them happy, and it's hurtful to try to argue. These are logical facts to him after a bit of discussion. Now if I can only get him to stop telling religious people that their god is imaginary I might be able to relax in public (this doesn't come from me, it's his own take on religion)
    – Cyclical
    Nov 16, 2019 at 0:49

I'm on the autism spectrum and I'm also a member of the trans community.

I lived many years thinking I was cisgender before realizing that I was not.

I am telling you this because it means two things:

  • I was educated about trans issues and pronouns late in life

  • I remember what it means to not know about these

Here is what I had and still have struggled with:

  • Knowing if I am only assuming someone pronouns or if I know them for a fact

  • Not knowing if the person would be okay with me using "them" to talk about them (even though I know their pronouns are not "they/them")

  • Not knowing if the person would rather have me speak of them in a neutral way (they/them) in front of " internet stranger" rather than unnecessarily disclose their gender/pronouns

In short:

Every uncertain situation causes me stress. And, as an autistic person, what could be seen as a "certain" situation for neurotypical people could be seen as highly uncertain for me.

Here is what helps:

  • I love very clear rules. I feel the FAQ CoC is nice but, as an autistic person, I would probably want to learn much more about these issues (currently I don't because I am already educated about them). So, having online resources that I can consult to know (much) more would probably be helpful to a lot of people (autistic or not).

  • As I said, I have trouble remembering if I know something for a fact or if I am just assuming. In the case of pronouns, if you care enough about them, please put them in your profile. This way, it is easier for me to go back and check if I had made a wrong assumption or not.

  • For me, someone's pronouns are not information that sticks very well in my brain. It's too "abstract". So, for this reason (and some other), I tend to "they/them" everyone. However, sometimes I know the person pronouns, but I don't want to single out them by using their pronouns when I "they/them" everyone else. In those cases, I am often at loss as to what to do. What would help is if the person had put "I don't mind they/them" (or the opposite) in their profile. This way I know what I have to do and don't have to worry about hurting the other person's feelings.

  • Sometimes, I see a username and I think "this person definitively uses female pronouns". However, I know that your two cultures might be different, so I don't "dare" assume anything. So, if you care enough that you specifically choose a gendered username, please also put your preferred pronouns in your profile. (You don't have to if you don't care but if you do, this will make my life easier)

In short:

Please, explicitly state out every rule (even the ones that seem implicit to you). I struggle with implicit stuff. It stresses me and I don't like it.

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    +1 for the emphasis on clarity. At moderator's discretion and flag for attention to have someone else decide on the rules are the worst possible "solutions". I'm an autistic who is light enough on the spectrum to have learned how not to draw attention to it, but those kind of "solutions" are incredibly aggravating and stressful.
    – Gloweye
    Nov 15, 2019 at 9:50
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    @Gloweye To be fair, I believe that every rules on SE are like that (at moderator's discretion), so it's not just about this new version of the CoC (at least, I have always felt that the rule here were kind of "blurry" and it didn't changed with the new CoC) Nov 15, 2019 at 9:57
  • Many of these are easy to stay on the safe side of, though. This one is not.
    – Gloweye
    Nov 15, 2019 at 10:02
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    @Gloweye I don't know. I find those new rules easy enough to follow: "use 'they' if you don't know". "If someone asks you to use something else, use what they have asked you for". Nov 15, 2019 at 10:03
  • Those quotes in my first comment were both from the initial, deleted CoC FAQ. So yes, there's been a good improvement since.
    – Gloweye
    Nov 15, 2019 at 14:44
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    Thank you for "What would help is if the person had put "I don't mind they/them" (or the opposite) in their profile" -- I have now updated my profile to make that more clear. :) Nov 15, 2019 at 17:34

I'll give my own input on what I'd like as someone on the autism spectrum.

I'd like to be able to default to a neutral choice without fear of being banned or ostracized.

I have been able to adapt so far to saying him/her for transgender men and women, especially online. It's more simple because usually they use male and female names, pictures, and spread an air of masculinity or femininity and they are pronouns I am used to.

But the others... I have an issue with formulation of sentences. I have a matter of fact speaking style where I speak precisely and literally. It's structured. Ordered. It has to be, because if I try to speak emotionally then I leave that safe zone and all the careful walls I have put together to remain in good etiquette come crumbling down.

Some of the genders have really unusual rules. For example, some genders have no gender. There's a gender that states your gender is based on the gender of people you're around. So if I'm a male, and I'm talking to them, I'd call them a he. Some of the genders have no corollary with a sexual identity of male or female at all, but have more to do with roles. Some of them have to do with what species they identify as, some of them extraterrestrial. That is no joke, I have researched this. And finally, some of them straight contradict each other's core beliefs. There's a gender for people who do not believe gender can exist and find that idea offensive, which means any other gender is in direct opposition to them and their core world beliefs.

So naturally, these genders will choose a pronoun outside of "they/them" because it makes them pleased. It'll be zir, xir, whatever. So not only do I have to care about the social aspects, I have to care about how to form these words in the nominative, accusative, dative, ablative, or genitive forms.

These rules are not structured, and when I encounter rules with no structure, my mind just goes haywire. I call it a "mental rejection." There's no way for me to deal with these cases with a rule that states I cannot simply say "them" which has historically been chosen to encompass any gender.

The rule that stated that a lack of recognition of their identity is a violation of the Code Of Conduct is simply too far for me. I know this is not good enough for the staff, but honestly I feel that they simply don't care about people on the autism spectrum. Certainly not to the extent they care about these gender groups.

We're basically just tossed to the side like trash.

  • I'm sorry you feel this way :/ Also, "There's a gender for people who do not believe gender can exist" I have never heard of those, do you have a link? Or maybe you are talking about agender people? Nov 15, 2019 at 14:51
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    @BelovedFool Agender, genderless, gendervoid Nov 15, 2019 at 15:43
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    Completely agree. My oldest son has Asperger's and we were talking about this one night, and he simply said "How about everyone just defaults to NEUTRAL pronouns? Doesn't that make the most sense? It can't be this hard!" - and he is 100% correct. I've raised my kids to be inclusive of everyone, and the easiest way is to treat everyone the same - no more, no less. Nov 15, 2019 at 15:56
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    So, I think there are some misunderstandings here. I define myself as "agender" and I'm definitively not "find [the] idea [of gender] offensive". (but I may find it offensive if someone is trying to reduce me/someone else to one). Also, even if I find the idea of gender "utterly stupid", I still have no issue using "he" or "she" for other people. All I care about is too avoid hurting people by using the wrong pronoun. (I also care about making the word a better place, but that's a different story). Nov 15, 2019 at 16:24
  • Suggestions for improving this answer: 1) Add a bottom line on what helps: some parts suggest "nothing, my brain just works that way" but others suggest that publishing clearer pronoun tables, or maybe explaining why one uses certain pronouns, might help. 2) In a slow medium like SE posts, it seems to me you could write with whatever pronouns come to mind, then have a pronoun-fixing pass before posting (possibly with software assistance). Is this feasible? Why or why not? Nov 15, 2019 at 19:24
  • @LeopoldsaysReinstateMonica It's not feasible because of what's called coreference resolution. It's hard for software to understand who I'm referring to. If I say multiple usernames, how would it know what pronouns link to whom? I would probably find myself going in and editing my comments and answers because an unexpected behaviour changed what I wrote and did it incorrectly. My solution is just simple: Allow them to refer to anyone. Nov 15, 2019 at 19:50
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    @LeopoldsaysReinstateMonica I suppose so, if it can properly handle declension. I already find myself backspacing a lot. My muscle memory does not allow me to proceed in writing if my fingers detected an error and I don't find it enough to allow spellcheck to jump in and help me. So it's really hard to say. I can say that I don't even want to think about it. I don't want to look at it, think about it, whatever. If they can come up with a software based approach that's hands off then I'd be fine with that. Nov 15, 2019 at 20:05
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    @BelovedFool That's your opinion, though. Others often do not share the same opinion. The question here is about etiquette. As someone on the spectrum I have spent many years painstakingly reminding myself of what's socially acceptable and what's not so I can blend in. Social rules usually have a lot of structure, unless I were to move to an entirely different culture and rules are flipped. For this particular area, it seems to be different. Some nonbinary people do find the idea of sex and gender very offensive. And the rules are not as simple as "I am a trans man, so call me he." It's > Nov 15, 2019 at 20:08
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    extended to an idea such as, "I am a gender that believes in this idea, so it is either zir/xir/xhe/etc or changes to he or she based on my mood, who I'm around, etc." The current Code Of Conduct does not allow me to choose "they/them" to refer to them if they say I can't. I have to use their pronoun correctly, following the rules they have imposed. While I believe this would truly be rare, the principle itself demonstrated to me that StackExchange does not care how uncomfortable I am in that social situation. They'd move heaven and earth for this group, but I can go to hell in their eyes. Nov 15, 2019 at 20:12
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    The CoC FAQ says it's an option to write without pronouns at all, and/or to disengage. Can you perhaps edit your post to explain why these aren't sufficient? It seems to me that the first would help users who need strict clear rules to follow - they can just adopt the rule "never use pronouns". or the second, you could try, but when you experience "mental rejection", you can simply stop replying? Asking so I can understand - since I don't have the same issues as you describe, it's not obvious to me why that won't work for you.
    – Em C
    Nov 15, 2019 at 21:08
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    @EmC I don't consider that an issue. It's exactly what I plan on doing. The issue was the principle that they would not allow any leeway whatsoever on being able to properly engage with someone. If I were an employee at StackExchange, I can imagine that I would be fired because one of their employees would expect a certain kind of response and I wouldn't be able to walk away. In all of my life experience, I am able to "decline" participation in people's worldviews, beliefs, identities, and so forth. If you look at it this way, the principle becomes apparent. The lack of care is apparent. Nov 15, 2019 at 21:31
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    Hm not sure I am understanding correctly - you are upset that you feel forced to avoid pronouns / disengage when unusual-to-you pronouns are stated, to avoid offending others? Also what is the difference between "declining participation" and disengaging when someone says "my pronouns are [something you can't handle]"? (The employee part seems a red herring; there's many expectations of public-facing employees that wouldn't ever be expected of regular users, because we're not paid representatives.)
    – Em C
    Nov 15, 2019 at 21:56
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    @EmC It's not unusual to me. Unusual has a real definition and this would certainly fall in line with unusual. I have posted a survey result before in another post of mine showing that the majority of non-binary people choose "they/them" followed by mixing it up with their preferred pronoun. Therefore, offense by "they/them" is maintained by a minority of a minority of a minority. "Unusual" can't be used for anything if not this, and the lack of structure, organization, social etiquette, and consistency of the social rules and grammar rules are the point made here. Nov 16, 2019 at 0:23
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    @EmC The difference is that I must remove my answer or comment if I become too frustrated with having to formulate the answer or comment. The rules in the CoC state that "this is a form of not recognizing their identity, which is a violation" in reference to using they/them or using zero pronouns should a user say "Hey, use my pronoun." That unfortunately means that if I had a very good answer or very good comment, well, they're out of luck now. A better compromise would have been to allow it, and that compromise was never allowed. So randomly vanishing is all I have left. Nov 16, 2019 at 0:26
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    One thing you could do for posts, is just quietly disengage and let other users edit the pronouns for you. At least on my site, this often happens if there's been a mix-up, and nobody thinks twice about it. Comments, yeah, more likely be deleted, but comments aren't meant to stick around forever anyways. I guess randomly vanishing doesn't seem like a big deal to me personally - just the other day I got a comment reply to a question I asked someone a couple months ago. Anyways, I hope the mods on your sites are understanding; I think we all do hope to resolve any issues without drama :)
    – Em C
    Nov 16, 2019 at 1:09

In response to the question some have asked here about whether there really are people with autism that have trouble with pronouns: I've worked with an autistic person that used to ask what people's names were by pointing at them and saying "What is it?" Most people didn't even understand what question was asked. Needless to say, interacting with other people was very hard for him.

Teaching the pronouns FAQ to him would be very challenging. It took years of intensive training, but he was able to go from people having difficultly understanding his idiosyncratic language to the point where his speech and behavior is typical enough that people can go for a few minutes without realizing something is different about him.

Picking things up from context is very hard for him. I am afraid that since he didn't pick up from context that humans don't make good antecedents for "what" and "it" even after it was pointed out to him several times, it would be quite a struggle for him to learn and consistently apply several screenfuls of context-dependent pronoun rules.

I wish I could be confident that moderators would be able to tell over the Internet that it's something that he legitimately has had trouble with his entire life and he isn't trolling, but that is a very hard thing to recognize over the Internet. Autistic people who have answered this very question have been treated with much skepticism, and someone has already declared to one of them on another question that they think they are really a troll that is trying to find a loophole in order to behave badly.

Knowing his personality, if the person I've worked with was introduced to the concept of neopronouns, he would be an enthusiastic adopter of the concept. He would probably choose a long and unintentionally socially transgressive pronoun for himself, and insist on assigning neopronouns to others. This would not help his "not a troll" case in the least.

This is all an enormous shame, because for all its flaws, SE has been one of the most autism-friendly places I've seen for people to express themselves and interact on the Internet, and he would be able to make a positive contribution here.

  • @BelovedFool I apologize and have changed the language. He has gone through training in order to be able to have mutually beneficial interactions with other humans, not to "look normal". Everyone he interacts with on a regular basis knows that he has autism, and he is very accepted and loved. You are not worthless -- in fact, it's no exaggeration to say that you are one of my favorite people to read on MSE, which makes me extra sorry to hear that I caused you pain. This answer was posted out of immense compassion for the person it is about. I would like SE to be a place for him. Nov 15, 2019 at 17:09
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    @BelovedFool It is a very good thing that the people he interacts with know he has autism, and at this point he has enough skills that they and he can meet each other halfway. That is much more difficult to achieve over the Internet where people are anonymous and there are fewer social cues. Nov 15, 2019 at 17:19
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    I'm high functioning, and no one realised i'm autistic. I've also got no qualifications in the language of the country I live in (my motherland too) and yet I managed to get through university. The question itself is a bad question, the problems autistic people face don't really mesh with what you're saying at least for my experience of autism. If anything, we'll have greater memory for anyone who's given a chosen pronoun. We'll take more care to check if someone who we're going to talk to directly has already defined somewhere their pronoun of choice. Your example is a severe outlier. Nov 15, 2019 at 17:32
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    @djsmiley2k-CoW There is a saying that if you've met one autistic, you've met one autistic. It is a very individualized condition. This answer was in response to the several people who left comments wondering if people with autism who have problems with social cues about pronouns exist. I'm able because of my lived experiences to say that they do. Leopold's question is not about whether the current policies are hostile to all autistics, because that is such a broad range of people. It is specifically asking about what can be done for the subset that do have issues. Nov 15, 2019 at 17:43
  • @rockwalrus-stopharmingMonica in that case they're screwed. You can only go so far to make considerations for one subset of a group, before you by definition start excluding other parts. SE has decided (deliberately or otherwise) that one group is more important than others, by the CoC. Either allow 'they', or risk loosing a number of autistic users because of the stress of not knowing what pronoun to use will cause them. Nov 15, 2019 at 18:35
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    @djsmiley2k-CoW Honestly I think that after this blows over, a way for moderators to be aware that someone legitimately needs a little more love and patience when it comes to nuanced social interaction would be more than enough for this person. Nov 15, 2019 at 18:42
  • Thank you for the edit (and the very kind message!). Your answer looks, indeed, much better like that. Also, thank you for your positive reaction to my comment. It can be hard to admit that you may have hurt other people feelings (I know that I struggle with that sometimes too) and I admire you for how well you took it and was able to act according to it. Nov 15, 2019 at 18:45
  • Is your conclusion that nothing will help, or are you suggesting mitigations such as clearer/more explicit/more mechanical rules? "insist on assigning neopronouns to others" I find this surprising: the FAQ says outright to use the pronouns people tell you, not to assign the pronouns you want to them. Nov 15, 2019 at 19:32
  • @LeopoldsaysReinstateMonica I've learnt not to worry what otehrs thing Nov 15, 2019 at 19:39
  • @LeopoldsaysReinstateMonica: It's not because of the FAQ. He has a great desire for people to have the same personal preferences as he does about things that he is excited about, but instead of being persuasive he is often perceived as pushy. If he were to get really excited about neopronouns his ideas about what pronouns he has created would be perfect for others would likely be taken as dictating to them. Nov 15, 2019 at 20:11

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