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Autism in women and gender stereotypes

(62 Posts)
Z0rr0 Sun 05-Jul-20 17:34:58

Came across this really interesting paper from 2016 looking at how ASC (autism spectrum conditions) present differently in women, and how girls and women become expert at masking their conditions.

There's a section at the end on 'forging an identity as a woman with ASD' which concerns young women’s perceptions of social gender stereotypes that they had felt pressured to, struggled to, and at times, refused to fulfil.
It says: Young women’s opinions varied regarding gender-stereotypical roles. Whilst some openly rejected gender-based theories of behaviour: “[I don’t] really accept the validity of gender stereotypes” or ‘status quo’ behaviours...
And it talks about how several were sexually abused in relationships because they adopted passive personalities and didn't know how to say 'no' and also how they struggled to build friendships with neurotypical girls because their conversation and small talk was so nuanced with expressions they struggled to read, that they preferred friendships with boys who were more straightforward:
Another remembered feeling intimidated by neurotypical teenage girls and had experienced rejection for being seen as “one iota different from them”. In contrast, a number of young women said they felt more at ease in their friendships with males. This was not thought to be related to biological sex, but to society ‘allowing’ men to be more straightforward, and this being a communication style that suited women with ASC better:

“I just feel so much more comfortable with men because they’re more, you can take them at face value and its not that fear of them judging you or having alternative motives and thoughts and they kind of say things straight.”

Which strikes me as a clue to why ASD girls might be seeking to transition to boys, so they can express themselves in a way that suits them, in a more 'male' fashion, but without the pressure of being hit on by the boys.

OP’s posts: |
wellbehavedwomen Sun 05-Jul-20 19:19:33

I don't find the rates of transitioning in girls with ASD surprising at all, tbh, given how horrendous adolescence is for young women on the spectrum.

That's a really interesting contribution to why, thank you.

Siablue Sun 05-Jul-20 20:31:48

I have autism and this is so true. It was really hard for years for girls to get an autism diagnosis. Being a teenage girl is really tough because you don’t fit in. I had no idea how to deal with the attention I got from boys. A lot of very bad things happened to me and it took me a long time to realise I was in an abusive relationship.

Simon Baron Cohen has a theory that people with autism have an extreme male brain. This was not popular with girls with autism but now it is being taken literally.
The thing is you are not going to fit as a boy or a girl you need to be accepted for yourself.
What girls with autism are generally good at is copying. You try and do what neurotypical people do but because you take things literally you often get it wrong. But this means you are suggestible. If someone says do this and you will be accepted you do. Even if you don’t want to.

Bluebooby Sun 05-Jul-20 21:50:32

Black and white thinking, slower to pick up social cues, sensory issues - all contributing reasons why girls with autism are more likely to "present as trans" in the current climate imo.

Nicky Clark (autistic woman and campaigner) has been doing a podcast series on sex and gender. I haven't listened yet but think it could be interesting. If anyone wants to listen, she links to it on her twitter.

DuDuDuLangaLangaBingBong Sun 05-Jul-20 22:20:45

Good find, thank you for sharing it.

HeyAllYouCoolCatsNKittens Sun 05-Jul-20 22:32:08

I am not diagnosed but have suspected I had ASD for some time now. My DD is currently in the process of being diagnosed with ASD too.

I fit a lot of the criteria and only recently realised that girls present differently. When I was younger I was very much tom boy, and only ever hung around with boys as I felt they didn't judge me and just got on with them much better. Girls were very difficult to understand and they really judged every little thing I said or did.
I was socially inept and only truly learned to be better socially in my second year of uni (first year was a nightmare with everyone thinking I was being funny or off with them) I learned to mimic and integrate somewhat.

As I've gotten older I realised I just need to accept my traits and I've stopped masking, I don't care too much for making friends so if people don't like me they don't like me and I'm fine with that.

Anyway I'm digressing, my point is I can understand the identity issue, especially when you don't feel like you fit in and that you feel you mostly fit in more with the guys than the girls, I think it does explain a lot.

FemaleAndLearning Sun 05-Jul-20 22:41:35

Really good insight. Thank you for sharing.

BlackeyedSusan Mon 06-Jul-20 00:36:36

I don't see the point in wearing shoes that hurt your feet, teen girls did too much small talk...younger boys were more fun to still play games with.

JoyFreeCake Mon 06-Jul-20 01:41:13

Saying autistic girls and women have "extreme male brain" is like saying tall girls and women have "extreme male height".

Men tend to score higher on tests of certain styles of thinking and men tend to be taller. But that doesn't mean that a woman's thinking style or height are "male" just because they're closer to that of the average man than the average woman. There are few strict dividing lines between men and women for most physical and mental qualities; for most things (though not all) there's quite a lot of overlap. The reasons she thinks that way and the reasons she is tall are not that she is "more male".

The trouble is that we have more difficulty accepting a woman who thinks in a way that's more common for men than for women than we have accepting a woman who's a height that's more common for men than for women (although tall women do experience some difficulties with this).

Z0rr0 Mon 06-Jul-20 01:55:44

The things you mention @Siablue are exactly what the paper describes. Really impressive how girls can mimic so well but sad too that this can put them in tricky situations and that the male default means so many diagnoses have been missed in girls and women.

OP’s posts: |
Z0rr0 Mon 06-Jul-20 02:01:25

I preferred male company as a young woman too for the straightforwardness, although I don't think I am on the spectrum but I suspect my daughter might be @HeyAllYouCoolCatsNKittens and not really sure what's best to do about it. She's high functioning, an excellent student, great at art and music and dancing, but her social skills are lacking. I don't know whether to let her get on with it and avoid a diagnosis / label, or whether knowing would help her.
Glad you learned to accept yourself.

OP’s posts: |
JoyFreeCake Mon 06-Jul-20 02:04:30

Actually, it's more like describing tall women as having "extreme male build", because it's only in certain areas that autistic women test closer to the male average than the female average.

HeistSociety Mon 06-Jul-20 02:21:34

My DD is gender non conforming and likely autistic, but she's struggling to get a diagnosis due to a prior diagnosis. She's completely female - nothing male about her - but she gains no pleasure from femininity, and can't play by 'feminine' rules without distress.

NonnyMouse1337 Mon 06-Jul-20 07:35:14

Thanks for sharing this study. I read the whole thing yesterday. So much of it applies to me. I still find it a bit shocking and surprising how similar my childhood and experiences can be with some other women with ASD. I was diagnosed at 36.

I am pretty confident I would have gone down the trans / non-binary path had I been growing up today. Without the gender critical framework and vocabulary I would still consider myself 'a man in a woman's body'.

I was so skinny and awkward and unfeminine as a teenager. I couldn't stand make-up, or tight shoes and clothing. I desperately tried to fit in though and was very isolated, lonely and depressed. I had terrible anxiety and frequently thought about suicide. I really hated the expectations that came with being a girl / woman. I had a visceral aversion to anything that seemed 'too girly' because I thought if I liked or embraced some feminine things, it automatically meant I had to accept everything else that was girly or feminine, and I didn't want that. It never occurred to me that I didn't have to subscribe to all of the stereotypical things if I didn't want to. I learned to accept this as I got older, but I was so conflicted about myself and my place in the world, that had I been told my feelings of disconnection with other girls and women was due to being trans, I might have jumped wholeheartedly into crazy gender ideology. It was only growing up and getting older that helped me gain a more balanced perspective.

It is still incredibly isolating being among other neurotypical women. I struggle to relate to most women and if I'm in a group I start to feel that familiar anxiety and stress and disconnection building up even though I mask pretty well. It's like other women speak a completely different language to me. I don't understand them at all. Too many subtle or unspoken rules and expectations. I have zero interest in children and I think that confuses or unsettles some women because I don't respond in the expected manner when the topic comes up or I generally avoid getting drawn into such conversations. I really enjoy male company, conversation and male humour and I'm grateful that I work in a male dominated industry. I'm left to do my own thing and there's no expectations on me to join in. When women say they feel uncomfortable in male dominated workplaces, I find it hard to relate or feel sympathetic.

The section on difficulty with friendships and knowing who is a friend is so relatable. I have no idea at what point an acquaintance turns into a friend, and I don't have particularly strong feelings towards many of the friends I have. I enjoy their company now and again, but don't feel inclined to seek out their company. Very rarely I come across someone I really like (usually online), but they don't seem to want to pursue a closer relationship (probably due to my slightly obsessive special interests) and then I feel really upset. I love online interactions and can type a lot, which puts many people off. Oh well... I think I might have better luck with other autistic women, but a lot of autistic spaces these days are full of gender ideology so I don't fit in there either. ☹️

Anyway I love this board for all the factual information, papers and videos, insightful posts and debates. Keeps me busy. smile

NeurotrashWarrior Mon 06-Jul-20 08:03:19

Place marking to come back to. Excellent discussion.

Siablue Mon 06-Jul-20 08:15:15

NonnyMouse that’s such a good point. I do think that a lot of my aversion to ‘girly’ things is due to sensory difficulties. I remember crying when my mum put me in a party dress that had a net petticoat. It was like being scratched with sandpaper. There are a lot of clothes that I can’t wear. I have a lot of difficulty with make up too.

princesshollysmagicalwand Mon 06-Jul-20 08:26:48

This has come up on active threads, I'm not a poster on these boards usually. But this rang a bell with me.

I have long suspected I have ASD, I'm a woman, a child of the 80s. I'd be classed as high functioning I suppose. I'm late 30s, have always worked (until I had children), held down jobs and done well etc. I have a perfectly 'normal' life.

However, I struggled massively as an adolescent and young adult. Still do with small talk, groups, being around people for prolonged periods. I have sensory issues around food and noise etc etc.

My four year old has recently being diagnosed. She is described by my mother as being 'exactly like you' as a child. Difference is everyone just thought I was badly behaved.

Anyway I digress. I have always always said (to myself) in the workplace I prefer to work with a group of men - I find them so much easier to relate to and get on with. I progressed to Head of Department by the age of 30 in an extremely male dominated environment (Finance) pre children. The groups of women I struggled with, and after nine years at that company I don't keep in touch with one of them.

School was similar. I fitted in better with the bus, despite being feminine (and happy to be so). I've never felt like a boy. I just found their company easier, less confusing.

I'm waffling. But you get my point. This is in no way critical of women - I have a handful of female friends who are like my family. They've been my friends since childhood, are well used to my quirks and I theirs and I love them. But women, generally, that I don't know I find hard to make new friends with, to integrate myself with. I'm very awkward. It all feels very surface level politeness. They don't get me and I don't get them, no matter how hard I try. I can pretend to, very well but the truth is, I don't.

WomaninBoots Mon 06-Jul-20 08:28:51

I'm autistic. I can also understand how this gender ideology crap can take root in an autistic brain. I was dragged into some extreme religious thinking as a young person. And put myself in some stupidly dangerous situations. I wasn't diagnosed and no-one around me knew how vulnerable I was. It's frightening looking back.

I'm really upset for all these young autistic women who the medical profession/teachers/their parents should be identifying and protecting. Not transitioning.

Davodia Mon 06-Jul-20 08:34:39

I’m undiagnosed but suspect I have ASD. A lot of what’s mentioned here sounds familiar. I distinctly remember styling my hair like the girls at school wore theirs, then looking at myself in the mirror and thinking “See, I can look like you - but you still won’t accept me because I’m not like you”. Then I brushed it out because I knew they’d laugh at me for trying to fit in.

NonnyMouse1337 Mon 06-Jul-20 08:52:04


*NonnyMouse* that’s such a good point. I do think that a lot of my aversion to ‘girly’ things is due to sensory difficulties. I remember crying when my mum put me in a party dress that had a net petticoat. It was like being scratched with sandpaper. There are a lot of clothes that I can’t wear. I have a lot of difficulty with make up too.

My mum really wished I would conform to gender stereotypes. She tried to get to me grow my hair long, and wear dresses but I was always so miserable and uncooperative and difficult. Looking back it was definitely sensory issues but I didn't know it then.

I've gotten better over the years because I now have control over what I wear and when and I can select fabrics that don't drive me insane. So I can wear dresses now and again, but I'm most comfortable and happy wearing casual clothing. My favourite item at the moment is a baggy but soft jumper - from the men's section. I find men's clothing softer and thicker, which I think alleviates some of the sensory issues. Women's clothing can be so flimsy or tight around the arms / waist.

I've gotten used to a tiny bit of makeup as well - eyeliner and mascara, maybe lipstick once in a blue moon. I am still baffled by how many women can put foundation and other stuff all over their face. How does it stay on all day? Do they not sweat and feel it trickling down their face? I end up unconsciously touching my face and smearing it all over my clothing. blush

Hailtomyteeth Mon 06-Jul-20 08:59:09

I am autistic and diagnosed.
'Extreme male brain' is outdated.
Autistic women-children are misled by there being such narrow stereotypes of what women can/should be, by ideas like 'male or female brain', and by people who think that bodies can and should be adapted to whatever image we have developed of them.
Sharing interests with young men or finding their company easier than that of young women doesn't mean you are - or should be - a man.

Autistic young women need to know it's ok to be an outsider amongst NT women. It's fine. There's no value in conforming to their ways when that isn't comfortable for you. It's ok to be an autistic woman.

Davodia Mon 06-Jul-20 09:08:59

I think my lack of femininity was partly due to the fact that I expected to be criticised for making any effort. If I wore makeup or styled my hair the reaction would be “How hilarious, she actually thinks she’s pretty! Maybe she thinks someone might fancy her? Gross, who would ever fancy her!” But nobody would say anything if I wore loose plain (masculine) clothes that hid my body and no makeup. At a time when sexuality is beginning to appear, I was trying to desexualise myself to avoid being targeted. If it had occurred to me that I could take it further by actually not being a woman any more, I might have done that.

Z0rr0 Mon 06-Jul-20 09:10:19

I might be wrong but I don't remember the paper talking about male or female brains, just the rejection of gender stereotypes and the things I mentioned in the OP about relationships.
I'm really pleased this has been interesting/helpful for some women here.

OP’s posts: |
DickKerrLadies Mon 06-Jul-20 09:10:54

Only read the first half so far, but I don't want to rush it so I'll come back to it later.

It's really interesting though. Thanks for sharing.

Siablue Mon 06-Jul-20 09:14:20

It didn’t talk about male and female brains it did mention that autistic women and girls are more likely identify as trans.

The male and female brains theory is from another author but that has been sadly influential. This paper is possibly trying to refute that idea without mentioning it directly.

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