Autism Acceptance Month: 'Smile' - Autism & Feminism

I've been an autistic feminist since birth. Sounds a bit hyperbolic, doesn't it? After all, one can't make decisions about their philosophical ideologies as an infant, and you'd be right to be skeptical of anything said by anyone who really believed they had. No, what I mean is that I was part of a feminist household. My mother is a feminist, and she raised me with the ethics and philosophies of feminism. Long before I knew what philosophy was, or that feminism had a political presence, I believed that everyone is, and should be perceived as, equal, despite any differences, real or imagined. Today, I proudly state myself to be a feminist.

Likewise, while I didn't know growing up that I am autistic, I was already expressing myself as an autistic person. I tended to be tomboyish, not in a sports way, but in a climbing trees and collecting rocks kind of way. I generally disliked wearing skirts and dresses, preferring comfortable pants and overalls which had pockets to put random weird shit into that I found on the ground. I was fascinated by science, especially astronomy. I had numerous special interests. I had food sensitivities that sometimes resulted in dramatic scenes (I recall an incident with a macaroni and bean salad). I had a lisp, which I viciously corrected on my own. I became so stressed in middle school, that I got ulcers, and generally suffered from other stomach issues. I was rather solitary. I didn't have a lot of friends. And I had the distinct sense that I was different. The list goes on. But I had no idea that some of the things I experienced could turn out to be a link between autism and feminism.

The intersection between the subversion of feminine gender norms and autistic challenges is startlingly close, particularly when you analyze autistic women. I truly believe that autism is a feminist issue, that if we are to advance the cause of equality for all, that feminists of all shapes and sizes would do well to align with autistic people. Because we are shining a spotlight - often without knowing it - on what keeps us all imprisoned by absurd and outdated notions.

Autism on Venus & Mars

If you know much about the spectrum, you'll probably have heard Autistics describing themselves as feeling that they come from another planet. There's an entire site devoted to it. This comes from the general alienation (no pun intended) that people on the spectrum feel from society. Likewise, you may have heard of a book that came out in the '90s called Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. This book purported the notion that the differences between men and women are so great, that we may as well be from different planets. So what can these two things mean for men and women on the spectrum?

In the early 2000s, a researcher named Simon Baron-Cohen posited a new theory regarding autism called "extreme male brain." This proposed the notion that people on the spectrum had a brain development steeped in male hormones such as testosterone. This meant that people on the spectrum were more likely to display traditionally male characteristics to the extreme, regardless of sex or gender. It was an explanation of current diagnostic criteria, and it reinforced the idea that autism is a mainly male disorder.

As it turns out, this was pretty much wrong.

While there was some merit to the theory, and not everything about it can or should be dismissed, this theory is at the heart of a lot of misleading information that has kept women from receiving diagnoses for decades. True, there is evidence of greater testosterone in autistic women than allistic women, yet there's clearly more to it than that. Furthermore, the way in which this aspect of autism may manifest is different than it is in men. It would seem that autistic men and women really did come from a different planet...two of them.

Here are just a few differences in the way that men and women present differently on the spectrum:

  • Special Interests - Traditionally, things like this have been relegated to the particularly odd, such as memorizing train time tables; however, women tend to have special interests that are considered more gender-appropriate, such as liking animals and fashion. I, personally, took History of Costume, and used my study of social, psychological, and anthropological to become a wardrobe consultant, despite my general abhorrence of fashion.
  • More Expressive - (and more open to talking about feelings) Evolutionarily-speaking, women are the social animals of the two genders. This was a survival instinct, and it has carried through to this day, even to some degree for autistic females, making us more likely than our male counterparts to want to engage socially, despite our deficits in this area.
  • Chameleon-like - Autistic women tend to be a little more adaptable than autistic men, and we're particularly good at "mimicking" or "mirroring" the behavior of others, making us appear "less autistic." As an actor, I learned many ways to reciprocate and get by in social situations.
  • "Gaming the System" - I use this term to describe how autistic women use our abilities with pattern recognition, system creation, and intense focus to navigate social situations. We spend years doing this, an exhausting process of trial and error, research, and practice...just to have conversations. 
Furthermore, here are some of the unique challenges that women on the spectrum face:
  • Diagnosed Late - This is the big one. Due to our symptoms being internalized, women on the spectrum haven't been generally noticed as children, and we often come to diagnosis through our own research and motivation.
  • Meltdowns/Temper/Crying - Autistic women seem to experience more intense and frequent meltdowns than males, likely because we spend a lot of time masking ourselves, depleting our energies until we have no filters to process and express ourselves.
  • Greater Expectations - As we tend to be great maskers, people tend to react to us as though we don't have autism, an unfair reaction. This often results in intense exhaustion and burn out.
  • Difficulty Keeping Jobs - We tend to do alright obtaining jobs, but between sensory, social, & communication issues, literal/rigid thinking, and a tendency to get bored once we master certain tasks, women have trouble keeping a steady job.

"Smile" - Why Autism is Ultimately a Feminist Issue

The greatest challenge for any autistic woman is adhering to cultural norms dictating what is considered "appropriate" for female behavior. Gender norms don't just hurt women in general; they particularly hurt autistic women. Because women are evolutionarily-predisposed to be more social, adaptive, expressive, etc., women on the spectrum tend to display more competence in these skills than our male counterparts. As a result, we are expected to act and react more like allistic women than like our autistic male counterparts. The problem here is that we have fewer personal resources for fulfilling that expectation, leaving us exhausted in our pursuit of social inclusion, and causing a number of comorbid conditions, like severe anxiety and depression. Our literal thinking and low self-esteem tend to make us vulnerable to predators. Autistic women are used to their disability being considered "invisible," but that invisibility isn't a cloak of protection; it isn't enough to fend off the well-meaning, the snarky, and the downright abusive.

There is an example of the ridiculous things women deal with on a daily basis that I find supremely efficient:


I have personally been told by men that I'm too pretty not to be smiling. It doesn't matter that I am out and about, minding my own business, that I don't feel like smiling, that not smiling has nothing to do with the mood I'm currently in, or whether being pretty has anything to do with whether or not I should smile or that those in my presence deserve to be graced with said smile. In our society, this happens all the time, and whether we're interested in partaking of this particular expectation, it is expected regardless.

Now, consider for a moment how this might be considered doubly hard for women on the spectrum, who tend to have the most expressionless of "resting bitch faces," and may not have the wherewithal to comply to this absurd request, to keep up this idealized version of ourselves, even if we want to.

Yet the issue here should not be who has it harder (autistic or allistic women), or how to make autistic women better at conforming to this encounter, but to question why such an encounter exists in the first place. Books like the Beauty Myth and movements like shaved heads and #AxthePinkTax further highlight how women have long struggled to keep agency with our own bodies and be valued for our own worth, regardless of our place on or off the spectrum. Women of all types need things to get better.

There's a growing movement of "design for disability". The idea here is that by removing limitations that make life more difficult for people with disability, we are actually making life better for everyone. Our struggle as autistic women will not improve until we eliminate societal norms like the 'smile' example, tell the fashion industry we will no longer put up with uncomfortable shoes and clothing for women, and help the world understand that women don't have to be social, adaptable, talkative, or pretty, wear make-up, bras, or high-heels, or any of the other expectations placed upon us to be of value. Likewise, as feminism is about equality for all, and always has been, advocating for women is also advocating for any oppressed minority. 

We need, both as women and as people on the spectrum, to urge these two groups towards intersectionality. We are all in this together, and, together, I believe we can game a whole new system.

I am posting an article written by a woman on the spectrum on social media every day this week. Men's voices are important, too, but not unlike the #MeToo campaign, or any other truly feminist movement, this is not about quelling the voices of men, but making sure that ours are also heard. You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to see what's happening.

If you want an interesting overview of some of the issues facing autistic women from pre- to post-diagnosis, the Scientific American article "Autism—It's Different in Girls" is a bit older, but highlights some of the research that is still really just coming to light.

I also highly recommend Aspergirls by Rudy Simone. This book was a revelation for me post-diagnosis, and was the beginning of really accepting myself as an autistic person.

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