Men, women and autism

Yesterday, the Guardian published an article on the special challenges facing girls and women with autism (It’s not just boys who are autistic), in a special women’s page guest-edited by Bridget Orr, who has Asperger’s syndrome and whose own contribution is at the bottom of that page. It struck a chord with me because I had significant problems going through school and have been told that I would have had an Asperger’s diagnosis had I been going through the system today. There is an argument that autistic traits are associated with masculinity, which makes the condition generally harder for women, and that the “invisibility” of females with this condition should be some sort of “feminist issue”. (More: Autism Vox.)

There is a passage where one woman recently diagnosed as having Asperger’s in her 50s speculates on what her life may have been like if she had been a male with the same condition:

For women such as this, having their “oddity” validated, acknowledged and, to some extent, explained, can be life-changing. Selina Postgate, 53, always knew she was different: but it was only last summer that she finally found out why. “Knowing I have Asperger’s syndrome has changed everything in my world,” she says. “It’s made me realise who I really am, and why I think differently.”

If the diagnosis had come earlier in her life, Postgate believes she would have been a lot more successful. “I’ve never managed to do the things I’ve wanted to do,” she says. “I’ve done very little with my life professionally and I could have done a lot more if I’d understood myself.”

Nor would it have mattered so much, Postgate argues, if she had been born male - even undiagnosed, men with autism can live a life that is high-performing, acceptable and rewarding, she believes. “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.

“Instead of that, though, I have achieved practically nothing. Relationships, like jobs, have gone out of the window - I’ve not had the self-awareness to hold down either.

I get a real sense of “someone else’s grass looking greener” reading this. I wrote a letter to the paper in response to this passage (an edited version of which I posted here), but I intend to flesh out my argument a bit more here. In short, one’s life might be different as an autistic male, but there is no guarantee that it would have been any easier or happier than a woman’s.

(Note: in between writing this and posting it, Selina Postgate replied to my comment at Autism Vox and said her words had been cherry-picked by the reporter. However, the general tone of the report was that autism is so much harder for girls and women to deal with than it is for men and boys who supposedly have some sort of special place in society as eccentric boffins, and it failed to acknowledge the specific problems males with autism or Asperger’s face, which is why I have attached this note but still posted my original entry, with some edits.)

While some children with Asperger’s may be “bright but eccentric”, many also have significant problems adjusting to the school environment, which may get them into continual conflict with other children and with the school staff also. My own experience is that, after several years of being shunted from schools to special units, I was railroaded into an unsuitable “special school” which was in reality nothing more than a dumping ground for secondary-age boys no other school wanted. It may be true that ordinary secondary schools do not cater for pupils with Asperger’s that well; my school did not even try, treating my challenging behaviour as the irritating whining of a “mouthy little shit”. Of course, only people who were unable or unwilling to dish out violence were required to tolerate irritations.

As adults, there is certainly no guarantee of a sheltered academic career and a sympathetic wife who compensates for one’s own social inadequacies. While many sufferers have married, there are many cases of such marriages breaking down; one party may become dissatisfied with the other’s lack of empathy, particularly if confronted with a rival who offers all the things the autistic partner finds difficult. And that is if one even marries at all. There are quite a few people with substantial technical achievements who are still socially isolated and without partners; anyone familiar with the international IT scene would know of a few, the best-known probably being the individual who founded a “free software” movement and tirelessly insists that all software should be free, regardless of the fact that software of this type does not pay the bills. The respect people have for this man’s achievements is tempered by general hostility to his hard-set convictions; for this and other reasons, he is increasingly seen as out-of-touch, arrogant, and rude.

Besides, there are examples of female achievers with autism or Asperger’s; the names Claire Sainsbury, Temple Grandin and Donna Williams spring to mind. This lady had written elsewhere that she had two daughters, and assuming she raised them herself, that is some achievement (she acknowledged this, in a comment on this blog posting in reply to one I made). This reminds me of something I read of Germaine Greer saying a few years ago: that feminism had denigrated motherhood to the extent that she once met a woman who said that she had achieved nothing in life other than raising four children; nobody would think such of someone who “just” had a major academic career but had never got married or had children.

I would also dispute the suggestion that autistic traits are generally held to be “masculine” and would put female sufferers at a particular loss when dealing with other women or, especially, girls. Most, if not all, of the males I have come across who displayed signs of Asperger’s were not physically strong and disinclined to be dragged into a social circle, which marks them out as weak or “not one of the lads”. While the cliqueishness of female friendship groups is a well-known phenomenon, being on the outside of a tightly-knit male environment is every bit as difficult for a boy as being outside the gang is for a girl; it is probably much more dangerous for a boy’s physical health. In fact, one may not want to be part of the gang anyway, rather for the gang to accept this fact, which they often will not.

The wishful thinking I alluded to earlier about how much easier life would have been as a male hinges on a stereotype of brainy eccentrics; in reality, however fulfilled these people themselves are, not every man with this condition is like them and there is a high level of depression and even suicide among people with Asperger’s, male and female. It was painful to read her speculations about life as an autistic male, because my experiences at boarding school left me with a profoundly negative impression of what it was to be male, comparing the negative influences around me (from people who told me, in not so many words, that as much of a man as I was — at 13, with my voice yet to break — I may as well be a woman) with the women I knew from home who were very positive and well-adjusted people; I certainly did not want to be what I had heard a member of staff at my sixth-form college disparagingly call a “cardboard cut-out” or “anorak” (i.e. a computer nerd who lacks social skills) any more than I wanted to be a thug. At the end of the day, life is hard for anyone with this condition and making a “feminist issue” out of it is not helpful, because people are individuals and there may well be as much difference among males and females with this condition than between them.

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  • Selina Postgate

    Matthew, I didn’t only say that my words had been cherry-picked, I also said that I agreed with you, and that in talking about how my life might have been as a man I was talking about what might have have become of me if I had been a boy brought up identical middle-class circumstances.

    The particular invisibility of autistic women surely is a feminist issue, but in my opinion autism at large is more of a class issue. Some, and I repeat some, autistic men have “successful” careers, and so do a much smaller number of autistic women - but very few of them are working class. At the risk of generalising further, working class autistic women get wrongly diagnosed with mental health problems, and working class autistic men end up on the streets or in prison.

  • M Risbrook

    How do you know you have Asperger Syndrome? Have you been officially diagnosed? When did you first find out about Asperger syndrome?

  • Selina Postgate

    I was officially diagnosed last summer by a clinical psychologist who specialises in autism. I’d known about Asperger syndrome for years, but hadn’t considered it might affect me until a tutor at a dance course suggested back in 2002 that I might be “high-functioning autistic”.

  • The picture of the Asperger male supported by an understand wife etc is probably true of ‘Aspies’ who fall outside the diagnostic criteria of Asperger Syndrome (AS), but are nonetheless on the autistic spectrum - the so-called “Loners” (c.f Sula Wolff, 1995). That’s where I located myself, but ‘Loners’ make up almost 1% of the population, whereas AS is considerably less common. The level of disability associated with full Asperger Syndrome is evidenced in National Autistic Society statistics for unemployment rate for people with Asperger Syndrome, which is around 90%! (Yes, NINETY).

  • George Carty

    I wonder if Aspies are especially hard-hit in the employment stakes by the fact that the less a job requires social skills, the easier it is to export to a cheap-labour country?

  • Thersites

    Autism is a set of behavioural traits and can be caused by many things. To include intelligent loners and severely brain-damaged people as comparable in kind is misleading. Until recently, the term autistic was nearly always appplied to the latter rather than the former. As for Asperger’s Syndrome, is there any way of diagnosing it except behavioural observation? Is the medicalisation of a way of behaving a wise way to handle it?

  • Layla

    I’m a young women and have Asperger’s Syndrome. I was diginos when I was 13 years old and re-diginosed when I was 20 years old. Which the diginoes, my behavor made sence to me. When I tell people I’ve got AS, they are so surprised. I was put on mediction for a while to controle my behavor in my early 20’s but I hated it as all I wanted to do was sleep or vegitat in frount of the TV. Now with moving house and being off the medication, I’m a lot happier.

  • lea

    Autism is let’s just say a bit hard for the family. But it’s the choice of a parent if they wanted it to be a burden or they wanted it to be a challenge.

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