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Many people who learn and think differently are also on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. This can be a lot for kids—and their families—to navigate.

In this episode of In It, Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek talk to Kade Friedman. Kade is the Director of Education for PINE, the Program for Inclusion and Neurodiversity Education. 

Kade identifies as non-binary and neurodivergent. They work with teachers to guide them in teaching neurodivergent, disabled, and gender-expansive students. They also work with families of neurodivergent and gender-questioning kids.  

Listen to get all of the following:

  • Tips for families of kids who are discovering their queer identity

  • Suggestions for teachers to help them create an inclusive environment 

  • Important dos and don’ts to keep in mind

Episode transcript

Gretchen: Hello and welcome to "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...

Rachel: The ups and downs...

Gretchen: Of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor with a family who's definitely in it. Today we're talking about supporting kids who are questioning their gender identity or their sexuality.

Gretchen: Lots of people who learn and think differently also identify somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. And this intersection of identities can be a lot to manage for kids and their parents.

Rachel: Here to help us figure out how to best navigate this sometimes tricky territory is Kade Friedman.

Gretchen: Kade, who identifies as non-binary and neurodivergent, is the director of education for PINE. The Program for Inclusion and Neurodiversity Education.

Rachel: Kade works with teachers to co-create equitable and inclusive learning communities with neurodivergent, disabled, and gender-expansive students.

Gretchen: They also work with families of neurodivergent and gender-questioning kids. And we're so happy they are joining us to talk about all this. So Kade, welcome to "In It."

Kade: Thanks, Gretchen.

Gretchen: We are so happy to have you today. And so, I'd like to start off by having you tell us a little bit about the work you do with teachers.

Kade: Sure. So, the work that I do with teachers is often coaching them. And this could be either brand new teachers or even seasoned teachers on what does it look like to teach inclusively. And that is often encompassing neurodivergent and disability, but also gender. Just because of who I am and the world that we live in.

Gretchen: And do you also work with families?

Kade: I do, I've worked with several families this week about supporting their kiddos with neurodivergent, finding good schools for them, and communicating with educators about what the appropriate supports might be. And also about like the co-occurring conditions of like, "I think I might be queer as a kid," or "I think I might be gender nonconforming as a kid. I may not know other people in the community or have language for it yet, but like, how do I navigate that alongside, you know, being neurodivergent?"

Rachel: We actually have a lot of questions for you on all of that. And we know that some of our "In It" families are trying to figure out how to think about and talk about this stuff with their kids. But first, I was wondering if you could tell us some of your own story. So, when did you first start to understand that you're neurodivergent and then when did you start to understand that you were gender non-conforming, and which came first? Like kind of paint that picture for us.

Kade: Yeah. So, I mean, I was thinking about this in preparation for our talk today and like, I'm remembering I was probably about three years old when I just sort of knew that the labels of boy and girl didn't apply to me, and there wasn't another option. I mean, this was the early 80s. And there just wasn't another option.

So, I was just kind of like the kid who was weird. I wore both boys and girls, quote unquote clothing. I was not, like, exclusively into being friends with other girls the way that young girls often can be, or the way that kids of a gender will often latch onto kids of the same gender. I didn't know other gender-nonconforming kids or have language for that.

And it was probably when I was like 5 or 6 that I knew that my brain was different. You know, I was in a gifted and talented program, and that was, like, awkward in and of itself. I knew I really like to nerd out about stuff and that, like, only really adults wanted to listen to me and that my peers did not have patience for my very long verbal rants. I was also reading at like four, and so, like, I really couldn't talk about how I was meeting with peers in preschool, you know?

And it was later when I started, I switched schools, and when I was in the first grade, I started to be bullied. And that was when it was like, "Oh, I'm different in so many ways." And it really made me think about finding community outside of school. And that was sort of like what saved me.

And like having different communities that were either explicitly queer or just queer affirming and queer allied like summer camp was like that for me. I don't, I can't think of specific queer people there, but like, no one cared that who I was, how I looked, who I was into, you know. Just no one cared at summer camp.

Rachel: Yeah.

Kade: And then I had all my, like, special interest, you know, afterschool programs where I could geek out with people about the things I was into. And often those were around arts and crafts, and making things. But it was like the relationship was about that. It wasn't, we didn't have, like, friendships. It was all parallel play. And even now with my friends, I'll be like, "Do you want to come over and we won't talk for three hours and we'll sit and we're all mixed up? That's my idea of a great night.

Rachel: That actually sounds great right now. So, can you tell us a little bit about your neurodivergence in terms of, do you have a specific diagnosis that you're comfortable sharing or, anything more about that?

Kade: Yeah. So, it was probably like ten years ago that women and non-binary adults started creating social media to be like, "Hey, we think we're autistic, we think we have ADHD, but there's absolutely no research criteria or anyone that will touch this with a ten-foot pole. And we need to like, share our experiences, and find validation from each other."

And that was when everything sort of exploded for me. And I was like, "Whoa, this is me. Look at all these people who have been called weird and have had trouble making friends and are super into specific topics. And have been like told to change what you're doing to try to appear more normal." I feel like that language was really used in the 80s and 90s. I mean, even now it's still used.

And so, I think it was probably five years ago I self-diagnosed as autistic and I was pretty sure and then reflecting, was like telling friends. My friends were like, "Yeah, of course." And my friends were also like, "Yeah, well, we're all neurodivergent." I was like, "Oh, yeah, all my friends are neurodivergent and somewhere in the queer spectrum."

And lately, I've also been thinking that I probably have the overlap of autism and ADHD, because of the ways that I just, like, really need rigidity and structure and predictability, but I also crave novelty. And those are often the things that are like the big flashing light signals that I think you might have more than one thing going on in your brain.

Gretchen: So, do you think there's a connection between being neurodivergent and identifying as non-binary or genderqueer? And is there research on that?

Kade: Yeah, I mean, there's so much research that's come out in the last two years, specifically looking at the overlap in autism and just queer in general, right? Genderqueer sexuality queer, and that autistic people are eight times as more likely than not autistic people to fall somewhere in that queer spectrum. And for like folks with ADHD and learning disabilities, the research is like somewhere between 3 and 4 times more likely.

But like a lot of the people that I talked to — and of course, this is like my chosen community — but, I do think in some ways it's representative. There's something about whichever identity you discovered first, recognizing that this like, socially agreed upon system that the whole world operates under doesn't fit you. Like, I knew this right away because of gender.

And so, it was not a big leap to be like, "Oh, well, like the socially agreed upon ways of communicating and being in the world also don't fit my brain. And that, now that I already know that these systems out there are faulty, it's either like I'm an alien or the system is faulty." And the first time it happened, I was like three and I was like, "Oh, I'm a really good person. Maybe I'm not a person, right? I don't fit in this, like, gender system."

And then when I was in elementary school, I was like, "Oh no, this is just another system I don't fit in. There are other people who don't fit in the system and school is also a system like that. And the workplace or like the way people greet each other on the street, like all of these ways of being are like the norm by default and not actually because it meets everyone where they are.

Rachel: Wow. That's a lot to grapple with as a little kid. Thank you for sharing that. A quick note. After we spoke with Kade, they got back to us to let us know that one of their statistics was a little off. According to research, kids with ADHD are not 3 to 4 times more likely to express some kind of gender variance, but actually 6 to 7 times more likely.

Let's talk about your work. What are some of the more common questions that you get from teachers who are learning, trying to figure out how to support kids in their classroom who are gender nonconforming or who seem to be questioning their gender identity?

Kade: You know, a lot of times, and this is actually, it's like the same question for talking about neurodivergence or talking about anywhere in the queer spectrum. Teachers and families and caregivers are like, how do I talk about this with kids? Or how do I talk about this kid to everyone else? It's so interesting. And I feel like sometimes people forget, like we're people, just check in with us, just be like, "Hey, what are you feeling right now? What are you thinking? What's on your mind?"

And I think there's a little bit of, like, overanalyzing and, like, trying to, like, manufacture the perfect conversation or response, but it's really just like being curious. I think if you start with being curious, that's often the best inroad, right? Like no one wants to be peppered with questions or like be forced to choose a label or an identity like that doesn't feel great, especially when you're first trying to figure stuff out.

And so, just being curious and asking questions and waiting to hear what people see and just taking it and not then trying to reflect back and evaluate it or put the label on it. And I think for, especially for young people, right? Like under the age of 18 or even under the age of like 12, depending on what their social media exposure is, making space to just have someone be interested in you without forcing anything is like often that's like the number one advice I'm often giving.

Gretchen: What about the conversations you have with parents? Is it similar?

Kade: It is, and it isn't, right? Like often when I'm talking to teachers, it's like, how do you navigate this with a group of people? And you know, sometimes teachers say like, "Well, I'll just wait until that kid's out of class and then I'll tell the whole class, 'well, they're autistic, so they're different' or 'they're non-binary.' And so, we have to like remember to do x, y, z." And I'm like, "Yeah, don't do that. Don't do that."

Like you always want to involve kids and stuff. And if you think the right thing is to talk about a kid behind their back, like ask them what they think about that before you make that decision. And with families, it's so different, right? Because it's often they're just having this conversation with their kid or with their kid and siblings.

You know, and it's just so common. Like as adults, we like want to get to the solution so quickly. And I think back to like, you know, conversations about race and like, teachers and families being so worried about, like, "I'm going to say something wrong, I'm going to get it wrong."

And so, I think for adults, and this is for teachers and for like, you know, parents and caregivers, like, do research, like make friends, like talk about this with other people, like consume media and like get the wheels spinning inside your head because you if you are not comfortable talking about this with your friends, how are you possibly going to be comfortable talking about this with a small person, a young person who doesn't have any framework for it, you know, and just has sort of like feeling and sensation.

Gretchen: That's such a good point.

Rachel: Yeah. Can you model for us, like an example or two of how a parent might approach a conversation with a kid who they think might be struggling with or maybe just exploring their gender identity?

Kade: Yeah, there's a couple different inroads. One could be like, "Hey, I was talking to my friend, so and so, I don't know if you knew, but, like, they're trans. Do you know what that means? And they were saying that there's this, like, new ice cream shop we should try out." Right? And so, it's like, not necessarily about the identity. It's just about that being a normal part of life and just bringing that more into your space and your world.

Another often easier inroad if you don't have people in your community who are queer, is to be like, "Hey, I was following someone on social media and they said this really interesting thing, can I show you?" And so, if you show your kid someone you're following and a piece of content they've created and be like, "Hey, what do you think about this?" That's going to open the door to like, it being OK to talk about it, it being OK to ask questions. It's also going to signal to your kid that you're like, in the world, and not like totally oblivious.

Rachel: No, I was just about to say that.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Rachel: Because sometimes something like that will come up where I'm like, "Oh, here's a thing." And they're just like, "Oh, you follow people?" Like, I'm like, "Yeah."

Gretchen: "You know about this?"

Rachel: Right.

Kade: And it takes the burden off of you as the adult to like, know things and have answers because it's like about this other person and you're just, like, exploring it together, you know?

Rachel: Yeah, yeah. What about don'ts? Like, those are some great, like, things to do or to try to do. Are there any like, things to definitely avoid?

Kade: I mean, I just, I wouldn't ask direct questions or like pressure kids to either disclose or put labels on things. And, you know, one of the things. I always tell any adult who's working with kids is like, "Let kids take the lead and wait for them to bring something to you," right?

Like, we talk about this with teachers about like when international tragedies happen, like you bring stuff up when kids bring it up, and you get to see sort of where they are and their thinking and processing and what knowledge they have. And I think the other side of that, that I also often recommend is always check in with your kid before you do something that is related to them.

Like if a family member texts you in this like, "Hey, I'm putting together birthday invitations. Like, is your kid still a she?" Being like, "I'll get back to you." And like as the adult feeling empowered to be like, "I don't have to give you an answer on behalf of my kid. I'm going to check in with my kid first, and then I'm going to get back to you and tell you what the answer is."

Because like, stuff changes and kids sometimes like aren't ready to disclose. Like they might be like OK if a doctor knows but not OK if Aunt Jenny knows.

Rachel: Right.

Kade: Things like that.

Rachel: Yeah. And I was just thinking about that too, like the idea I think sometimes parents feel like they have to explain everything to everybody and like, they don't.

Kade: Yeah. You don't owe anyone an explanation.

Gretchen: Right.

Rachel: Like, that they owe that information to whoever's asking, and, like, maybe not.

Kade: Yeah.

Gretchen: I want to go back to a do for a second kid because you wrote something for our website about talking to kids. And I think one of the things you had mentioned was, talking to kids about how, like, this could be in flux, like what you say today might not be the same thing you say two weeks from now, and that that's OK.

Kade: Totally. I will say also, like, particularly from middle schoolers not outing them at all to anyone at school, like not saying in passing to like your friend who might be a teacher in a different grade like, "Hey, so my kids exploring gender," right? Like, no, this is an adult your kid sees in a totally different context throughout the day. Like that person should not have this information about them.

But you might email your PTA and be like, or whatever your parent organization is, and be like, "Hey, do you guys have a GSA? Just curious." Right? Which isn't outing your kid and isn't saying anything, but it's like gathering some information that your kid might need.

Gretchen: And can you say what a GSA is for those who don't know?

Kade: Oh yeah. The, I mean it started out as the, I think, the Gay Student Alliance, but now it's the Gender Sexuality Alliance. It's like an affinity group for queer kids, gender-nonconforming kids, allies. Kids who have queer parents.

Gretchen: All right, well, I want to turn, to something that I've actually come across. You know, I know a lot of parents of middle schoolers and high schoolers, and a few of them have expressed that simultaneously their kids are getting a diagnosis, perhaps ADHD — it's been the more common one I've heard of. And they're also exploring their gender identity at the same time.

And the parents are feeling like "Oh, what do I do first?" Like, for example, if your child is, you know, really exploring their gender identity, but at the same time you're exploring ADHD medication and ways to, like, support the kid at school.

I guess I've heard from parents, they're like, "Well, what should I focus on first? Should I get the ADHD in order? Or should I help them with their gender exploration? Or do I need to do both at the same time because they're intertwined?" Or like, I don't know if there's an answer to this, but I feel like some parents are just having trouble parsing out what to do.

Kade: Yeah, I don't know that there's like a perfect answer. I mean, I would say that noticing and affirming all the parts of your kid, just as you would anything like, "Hey, it seems like you're really into cats these days," right? Like whatever it is. But certainly supporting kids with getting through the day at school and like, getting neurodivergent supports in place first, I think will give a kid access to like emotionally check in about gender stuff.

Like if you're kind of always in flux and not knowing how to navigate school from like the school work angle, you're not going to feel like emotionally regulated and able to even talk about how you're feeling and thinking in terms of gender. That's why I would say like affirming everything, but like making sure that kids just feel like school works, because once that's in place, you can access everything else. You know? it's like Maslow's hierarchy, right? Like if you're not emotionally regulated, you can't really do anything else.

Gretchen: That's true. Yeah. No. And school is hard enough for all kids, right? And exhausting enough for all kids. So, getting supports there will really help with everything else.

Rachel: What do you wish had been different, either at school or at home, or maybe both for you as a nonbinary and neurodivergent person growing up?

Kade: Wow. So much. I mean, you know, it's such a double-edged sword.

Rachel: In five words.

Kade: Yeah. I think so much about this. And like, "If those things have been different, would I still be like an educator in this space right now? If those needs had really been met?" Like, my whole life has been about making sure that adults have the tools to support kids like me.

Yeah. I mean, I wish that stores didn't separate or gender clothing and toys and that you could just go and see stuff and pick what you liked and that there wasn't like this inherent, like, socialized association to stuff. I would have loved to not be lined up by boys and girls in school all the time.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Kade: Or like separated in gym or like whatever. There were just so many ways that we were segregated that way. And I was like, "Where do I go?" And I wanted to go with the boys because they were my friends, but I looked more like a girl. So, I ended up on the girls line, and it was a nightmare.

I also, you know, a lot of the things I teach in terms of, like, inclusive education, like thinking about universal design for learning and giving kids more choice and meeting kids where they are and bringing their interests in — which I think is happening now for lots of kids, regardless of neurotype — that stuff would have been really more helpful for me, you know?

Like, I just I was just always doing like, group projects where I did the whole project and everyone else did nothing, and it just, none of it was great, you know?

Rachel: What would you say is kind of like the biggest step that you've seen taken in recent years. And then kind of on the flip side, what is something that is just like not moving forward the way it should be?

Kade: You know, it's hard to say because I live in New York State, which is a pretty blue place. And for all of the negative trans policies that are happening and being introduced and bills across the country, I don't experience a lot of that here. I think there's a positive thing that I'm seeing, specifically in education across the country, is more of a desire to be inclusive specifically for neurodivergent kids. That that's like, not even stigmatized the way that it was ten years ago feels like a leap and a bound.

Rachel: Yeah.

Kade: Right?

Gretchen: Yeah.

Kade: Like getting pulled out for speech services or having an OT come in is not a big deal, right? Going to our resource room with a couple of other kids to do a special project? Like, not such a big deal. It's just not stigmatized as much. And part of it is the word neurodivergent, right? Is like, not a medicalized word. It's an umbrella term that was chosen by the community. It's self-affirming. And so, there's like, there's definitely a shift. So, that's definitely like a positive.

I guess the negative is that that's taken hold much more in like, corporate America than it has in education. I wish that more schools made that the focus and said, like, "Hey, we know there's no such thing as a general Ed classroom. Even if all these kids have the same neurotype, like there's trauma, there's "I didn't sleep last night." There's "I forgot to eat breakfast." There's "I saw something terrible happen on the bus on the way to school."

And like, no one, kids are not showing up the same way as each other every day at school.

Rachel: Right.

Kade: And if we focused more on supporting kids as a group, as whole people, and less as like a diagnosis or "those are the kids with IEPs," I think that, I mean, school would just feel like a safer place.

Gretchen: Kade, we're coming towards the end. And so, is there anything that we didn't get to talk about that you'd love to bring up?

Kade: Yeah. My last parting words are just that, both with neurodivergence and like, just queerness in general — and I'm saying queerness as like gender and sexuality all sort of mushed up — lots of times we focus on what's hard about it or like what you can't do or what's a barrier.

And I think especially as kids are just starting to navigate this and as an adult, as we grow as a family or as a teacher who's like holding my space, like remembering to center the joy also and like finding like not just watching movies about introverts and people struggling, but watching movies about nerds and neurodivergent people experiencing joy.

And the same thing with queerness. Not getting stuck and bogged down in all that hasn't gone right, and the sadness and remembering that there's a lot of joy in these identities.

Rachel: That's so great. And that's something that we definitely want to focus on here at Understood is strengths-based, right?

Gretchen: Well thank you so much for this conversation, Kade. This was so great.

Rachel: Yeah. Thank you so much.

Kade: Yeah, it was good to talk with you both.

Rachel: Thanks so much for listening today. If you have any thoughts about the episode, we'd love to hear from you. You can email us at

Gretchen: And check out the show notes for this episode, where we have more resources and links to anything we mentioned.

Rachel: This show is brought to you by Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia. Learn more at

Gretchen: "In It" is produced and edited by Julie Subrin, with additional production support from Cody Nelson and Ilana Millner. Justin D. Wright mixes the show and Mike Ericco wrote our theme music. Briana Berry is our production director. Neil Drumming is our editorial director.

Rachel: From, our executive directors are Laura Key, Scott Cocchiere, and Seth Melnick. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being "in it" with us.


  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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