Autism - not just for the boys...

by Louise Livesey // 4 June 2008, 16:43

The Guardian has a really interesting article on women with autism. It flags up that the major symptoms of autism tend to be behaviours assumed as masculine taken to pathological extremes (for example social awkwardness or obsession about a topic). Of particular interest for me* is this section:

This means that women with autism often struggle at work because they lack what is often taken for granted in women - the intuitive ability to understand where people are coming from and how to manage situations. Because of subtle sex differences, we tend to "expect" more of women in the workplace in terms of smoothing things over, of saying the right thing; and whereas we would excuse a man who lacked these abilities, we are subliminally a lot less forgiving of a woman who has similar shortcomings.

From The Guardian

So essentially because autism is seen as a "masculine" illness with "masculine" traits women with autism continue to get the rough end of the social deal. Take this excerpt from Selina, a 53 year old woman with Aspergers:

"At school I was bright, but eccentric. If I had been a boy, that would have been tolerated more. I'd have gone into science, I'm sure - I might have gone on to be a nuclear physicist. I'd have met some girl who would have become my supportive wife and she would have made up for my social shortcomings, in the eyes of the world, and I'd have been the rather odd but brilliant professor who couldn't really handle social occasions but who was always well looked-after by his lovely wife, and who did so many wonderful things at work that none of it mattered anyway."

From The Guardian

As Bridget Orr then argues:

Female "invisibility" in the autistic spectrum should be a feminist issue. For all the struggles with employment, family relationships and individuality that "normal" women face every day, we face these too - and more besides. You only have to look at the lists of famous people who, it has been speculated, were in the autistic spectrum - Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven, Albert Einstein, - to see how boys' autistic traits are synonymous, to some extent, with successFrom The Guardian

* It interested me because this problem, whilst more extreme for autism suffered, and compounded by their other symptoms, is also at the heart of many work problems for women. For example it has been assumed by some student's I've taught over the years that I will "naturally" be more understanding because I'm female. It's also assumed I will smile more, be more reassuring and will more lenient than male counterparts. Now I don't revel in "masculine" behaviour and I'm not a ladette but still the percepetion that I am not-"feminine" enough is galling. I find myself asking "Why do you expect me to smile and nod all the time?" "Why do you want me to phrase my feedback differently to the feedback you get from male counterparts?".

Comments From You

Cara // Posted 04 June 2008 at 17:09

*Applauds* Louise. Well said. I have a psychology degree and it has never made sense to me that autism is considered extreme "maleness". As you say, much more is expected of women - we have to be super empathetic, intuitive, sympathetic, and sensitive 24/7, and sometimes I am not particularly any of those things! Not all women are naturally amazingly socially skilled and empathetic, you know.
It also lets men off the hook - if men behave awkwardly or even offensively, they are excused if they say Oh I didn't mean to offend anyone, as if, he's just a man you know!

Sabre // Posted 04 June 2008 at 17:14

I found the Guardian article interesting because I've been pondering recently about the lack of inclusion of women in medical research generally. In this case it can be seen that women do get autism, but has anyone bothered to do proper research on the specific symptoms that women display? Doubt it. Similarly we all know that women can have heart attacks but most/all of the original medical research was done on males, with the assumption that a female body would react the same way. Therefore most people are not aware that for women, stomach pains can be an indication of impending heart attack, rather than chest or arm pains. In drug trials, durgs are almost always tested just on men. I think the original reason for this was not to do anything that may affect female fertility (as if it was more important than a male fertility!) Yet it was assumed that a woman's body would respond to drugs similarly to a man's body.

The medical profession has historically ignored female health. Why do doctors still not fully understand what happens to women during menopause? Because it's an exclusively female problem which is not lethal. Who wants to fund research into that?

In the case of autism, it really doesn't help that it is often referred to as a manifestation of the extreme male brain. No wonder most people aren't aware that women suffer from it too.

Louise Livesey // Posted 04 June 2008 at 17:48

Which takes us back to this article by Jess on knee replacement orthopaedics really.

an anonymous commenter // Posted 29 June 2008 at 07:04

Speaking as one of these - apparently - rare and fascinating creatures, may I take issue with that comment from Sabre? Only, I do NOT take well to being told that I am "suffering" when I'm not. You're talking about a deeply ingrained part of my personality here, and, judging by my relatives, probably my genetic heritage too. I'm not going to claim that being a misfit smartarse is always a barrel of laughs, but the vast majority of "suffering" involved is that which is inflicted by other people...

(deep breath. calm down)
Yeah...um...I have issues with the over-medicalisation of this kind of thing, that's all. In more civilized times we just got celebrated as eccentrics. Or burned as witches, depending on how far back you go. I'm sure you meant well, really, people always do...sigh.

As for the article: I always feel a twinge of dread when I come across stuff on the subject cos deep down I'm expecting it to be dehumanising, ill-informed and awful, but that was the absolute opposite and I'm glad I read it. Thanks! I also suspect you might have hit on the answer to the question posed in the article - that all of this bullshit "men are from mars..."-type social conditioning affects psydocs every bit as much as the rest of us, and can easily affect the diagnosis they decide to give you - diagnosis is a very subjective and not particularly scientific thing, but that's a rant for another time. ;)

Instead, here are some links, for anyone who's interested, tho I'm afraid they only really relate to feminism in an "oppressed peoples" kinda way.

Is Asperger’s syndrome/High-Functioning Autism necessarily a disability?(Paper by Simon Baron-Cohen How About Not 'Curing' Us, Some Autistics Are Pleading(NYTimes, may require free registration, worth it)
Aspies For Freedom

an anonymous commenter, again // Posted 29 June 2008 at 10:10

A few cups of tea later, and I feel like I ought to apologise; that last post probably came across as quite strident and rude. Of course, being an aspie, I have an excuse...heh.
It's not a proper excuse though. I'm not a huge fan of the hair-splitting semantic arguments that sometimes break out on feminist blogs, so the last thing I want to do is start one. It's just a sensitive area for me at the moment, cos I'm still trying to come to terms with the label myself. The character traits I'm used to, but the label is something else - a trade-off, where you get to make sense of a lot of your life, but it's at the cost of finding out that you are apparently horribly damaged and scientists are looking for ways to wipe the likes of you out forever. Or a cure, if you'd rather call it that. Warms the very cockles of your heart, doesn't it? I mean, I'm still trying to get my head around how the stuff which almost certainly made Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton and James Joyce into the people they were could reasonably be called a "syndrome" - have you ever heard of a good syndrome? - but hey, it doesn't matter, cos if you aren't normal then you ain't worth shiiiiiat.

Incidentally, where does Temple Grandin fit into all this? She's probably the most famous living "out" aspie (give or take a few pop stars) and she's, well, a she. And if I can extrapolate anything from my own experience, being both aspie and female is like being handed a double dose of WTF. Social indoctrination is one thing when you get to choose to resist it, but when the option to participate was never really open in the first place...Ah, human society. What an incomprehensible and ugly thing you are. Anyway, thats kind of why I'm here, cos I realised quite late on that being a girl must make me different and inferior, and that really came as quite a shock on account of it not actually making any damn sense whatsoever. Oh, and the whole "being crap at reading social cues ~ getting into stupid situations ~ ur gonna get raped" thing. That isn't much fun either. :/

(I just went to check something on Wikipedia, and have now also found out that I lack empathy and have no sense of humour. I am very very tempted to vandalise the hell out of that page. Any suggestions? Aside from an awful lot of swearing and some pictures of goats*? Cos that was my original plan.)


*Everyone likes goats.

Sabre // Posted 22 September 2008 at 12:12

@ anonymous commentator; Sorry for causing offence by my flip use of the word 'suffer' (and for not reading your posts until today). Autism is usually seen as a bad thing and I unintentionally fell into that trap with my language.

Anyway the reason I'm back on this post is that I read an article on the Telegraph today (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/main.jhtml?xml=/health/2008/09/21/st_autism.xml) about autistic women that I found very interesting. It looks at the pressure of being an autistic woman and why perhaps women/girls are less diagnosed than men/boys.

Tiggy // Posted 12 September 2009 at 22:49

Anonymous commenter you don't sound at all lacking in humour. The comment about the goats really made me laugh and you write quite humourously. You don't sound all that lacking in empathy either to be honest.

I just failed at one of Simon Baron-Cohen's autism tests because I made an overly sophisticated assumption. Maybe the autistic kids did too.

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