Autism – not just for the boys…

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?”.

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