A lot has been written lately about autism presenting differently in males and females, and how this leads to more boys being identified earlier, while girls often go unnoticed until they are women. Some of this writing has been very helpful, and it has led to a number of us recognizing ourselves and seeking confirmation, instead of getting caught up in stereotypes based on one slice of the population.
But I also sometimes find it odd to read about autism in terms of gender. It gets me thinking of those other articles I’ve read that say Autistics are 7 times more likely to be gender non-conforming in some way. So I think there are probably a lot of us who cross those lines between a “male” and a “female” presentation of autism.
I also think there are two ways of looking at this issue. First is the idea that gender-based stereotypes of “autistic” behavior have guided the diagnostic process — clinicians are looking for traits identified in young white males of a certain socio-economic status, so they miss other traits that don’t fit what they’re looking for. This is the narrative in a number of articles I’ve read; they discuss the ways in which women and girls go unnoticed because of gender-based assumptions of what autism looks like in boys.
I think this definitely happens. But the other way of looking at it is that society’s gender-based assumptions also shape how autism manifests in boys and girls growing up.
A personal tangent for context: I’ve never felt particularly female. I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be male, either. Sometimes I’ve felt like both, sometimes I’ve felt like neither. But I’ve always found it jarring when I realized someone was seeing me as female, and only female, and responding to me differently than if I were “just a person.”
Because that’s how it made me feel, sometimes; I was just being a person, and suddenly someone else was calling me a “girl.” I encountered this time and time again, especially when I was in predominantly male environments, such as martial arts classes, the physics department in college, and when I served in the US Air Force. I would be going along, doing my thing, when I’d realize I wasn’t just part of the group like everyone else: I was “the girl.”
On the flip side, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in all-female spaces that were specifically set up as all-female spaces. (If a group just happens to consist of all women, that feels fine to me.) I don’t have a problem with women-only spaces existing, and I understand why some women prefer them — I just never feel at home in them. I don’t feel a strong connection with the idea of being female, so if a space is set up with the idea that there is a bond between us because of our femaleness, I’m not going to feel like I fit in.
(I am curious about the experience of being in an all-female, all-autistic environment, though. There’s a women’s support group in my area that I have yet to be able to attend, but I plan to check it out sometime.)
But whether or not I feel female, society sees me as female. I was seen as a girl growing up, and socialized as a girl; that socialization shaped my outward behavior, and thus changed the presentation of my autism.
While a quiet, painfully shy boy may raise questions, quiet, shy girls are desirable. They’re cute. And not only does society see this as normal, it shapes girls to be quiet and accommodating. People talk about the “masks” that Autistic women have learned to wear, and how that mask lets us “slip under the radar” undetected until (perhaps) later in life when the mask starts to break down. But we need to talk as well about the societal pressures that shaped that mask — the pressure to conform, to be social, to be “nice.”
Some of us never cared about that, I know. But a lot of us, tired of being ostracized, did our best to learn “the rules.” And “the rules” are highly gendered.
(That means there are also strong societal pressures on boys and men, especially around a certain presentation of “masculinity.” I haven’t experienced those pressures, though, so I’m not really talking about them here — but I do know that they exist.)
So if social pressure wanted me to be quiet and accommodating, what happened when I needed something — quiet time, dimmer lights, different food — to help me cope? I kept it to myself and pushed on. Speaking up for what I needed was discouraged, was seen as intrusive or presumptuous, so I didn’t. And what happened when I got overloaded enough for a meltdown? That meltdown turned inward. I didn’t explode and lash out, I buried it in silent rage that eventually turned into depression.
Interestingly, a lot of my life was actually shaped by resistance to those gender rules and expectations, too; when society insisted that girls were not good at math and science, and I was, I took that as a point of pride and pursued those fields harder. When I was the only girl in my high school computer science class (this was the 80’s, kids, and it was very new) or the only girl in AP Physics, it pushed me harder to represent “my” gender well, even though I didn’t always feel like a full member of it. This was not necessarily a good thing, as I learned in college when I realized physics was not at all the career I wanted — but it represents another way in which I was shaped by gendered expectations in my childhood.
So what would you have seen when you looked at me then? A quiet girl, excelling in school and rarely asking for anything. Inside I was only half a girl, not knowing what to ask for, confused by everything and constantly misunderstood. Was I “masking” my autism, or just responding to every signal I could pick up and interpret?
The funny thing is, I actually just remembered an incident in which an early elementary school teacher (maybe 2nd grade) told my parents that she thought I was too quiet. My parents scoffed. I was in a class filled with some of the most rowdy, rambunctious kids that my school had ever seen (seriously, they changed class trip schedules because my grade would be too much of a handful) and they thought I was a problem because I was quiet? I agreed with them at the time; I wasn’t a problem, I was one of the “good” kids.
But now I wonder what that teacher saw.