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Diagnose Me: Autism is a Feminist Issue

Intersections / January 13, 2016

Maybe you’re wondering why Autism is a feminist issue. Maybe you’ve got a general idea. Either way, I’m hoping something in my writing will teach you something new. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll even teach you something about yourself.

Hi. *Waves and smiles.* I’m 27 years old, have a Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Arts, am married to a wonderful husband, and we have many furbabies together. Oh, and I’m Autistic.

Great dinner conversation, I know. (Sarcasm.)

Being diagnosed with Autism happens at an early age, right? Sadly, that trope only holds true for boys, in most cases. In fact, I was just diagnosed this year, after having suspected I had Asperger’s Syndrome for a few years prior. I have two friends who, I suspect, are also on the Autism Spectrum, but they hesitate on seeking a diagnosis. This is because most mental health professionals are unaware that there are most likely just as many girls as there are boys on the Autism Spectrum.

When studies on Autism are performed, they are for males only. Girls have actually, at times, been turned away – in rare occasions are they admitted into the study, and typically it’s when they display that “classic” Autism. To date, there has not been an official study on females with Autism. It goes without saying that this would cause a gender bias in the documentation of Autistic symptoms, quirks, etc., which is a prime reason why Autism is a feminist issue.

So many girls go undiagnosed, “flying under the radar.” (An idiom used to illustrate the inability to detect something due to it being hidden.) It’s not unheard of for a girl to present the “classic” style of Autism. However, they only tend to make up a smaller percentile in the amount of girls that are Autistic, but they are no less important to the count.

There’s a certain point at which girls who are Autistic have a masking skill, using echolalia, mimicry, and every skill that being a human version of a chameleon can afford itself. Most of these “chameleons” can imitate their social peers flawlessly, only being considered shy or introverted, a little weird and clumsy. They will force themselves to learn eye contact, to learn “proper” facial expressions, and pick up “appropriate” girl skills or traits. All the while, they are internally wondering what the big deal is about boys, fashion, or other popular ideals. These traits, because they’re more associated with female cases of Autism, go unnoticed, making it more apparent that Autism is a feminist issue.

This isn’t the case with all Autistic girls, because there are some of us who have found an obsession with a particular boy band, horses, or latest styles. That can be embodied in the quote “Once you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.” It’s considered a spectrum for good reasons. The interesting fact is that, even though these subjects can turn into literal obsessions, it isn’t noticed because it is a typical interest for the female gender – but the difference is that it does indeed become an obsession.

Often, because of how females are expected to behave in our society, a girl or woman with Autism misses out on a diagnosis because they are dismissed as “shy,” “ditzy,” or other societal norms expected of women. Autism is a feminist issue because these characteristics aren’t considered symptoms of Autism, and therefore, Autism has become something more so associated with boys and men. When a society expects women to be submissive and not speak unless spoken to, of course traits like that would be ignored, even if they are to the extreme.

I am one of those females.

At a young age, I had never “fit in” with peers, but I did learn how to use my masking skills and became excellent at playing chameleon. Alone, I was rambunctious and “tomboyish.” I enjoyed playing outside barefoot, and playing with bugs and lizards. Around my peers, however, when trying to fit in I learned very quickly that I didn’t understand the behaviors of other girls. I would attempt to fit in, but often missed out on cues that I was either not welcome, or becoming annoying to my schoolmates.

This allowed for a hefty amount of bullying. Playtime went from attempts to control the games of pretend, to playing pretend alone and building fairy houses out of sticks, leaves, shells and mulch. I became more withdrawn, unsure of what words to use to communicate with peers, oblivious to being the butt-end of jokes, and noticing that I was being left out of the progress my peers were making with social skills. I also had an unidentified, undiagnosed, (until about five years ago), learning disability that almost resulted in being held back – dyscalculia.

The end result was having read more books out of our library than any other child at the school, becoming absorbed in earth sciences club, and having small poetry competitions between myself and the Language Arts teacher. I was extremely adept at music, both singing and instruments, but because of overstimulation and extreme stage fright, the chorus teacher refused to let me be any more than lightly involved. My security blanket was a backpack over-stuffed with books (especially The Silmarillion and any Irish myth book I could get my hands on), my sketchbook, a couple dozen drawing tools, kneadable erasers, internet-found tutorials of Chinese calligraphy, and a hoodie tied around my waist to feel safe.

While I didn’t have a delightful social life, I did have one or two close friends in my neighborhood and multiple acquaintances, and I did learn a lot. I was also grateful to feel a connection with a few teachers who knew I was different, but because I couldn’t express what was going on in my brain, they couldn’t do much other than be patient and supportive.

Sadly, there was a devastating result of being unable to communicate my feelings and my thoughts. My Autistic “meltdowns” – I like calling them short-circuiting, because the feeling of one of those attacks reminds me of a computer that became overheated and short-circuited – became implosions, or I would hold it in until I was alone and couldn’t hold it anymore. If I couldn’t have a proper short-circuit moment, I would excuse myself to the bathroom and self-harm, and no one ever knew because I hid the marks.

I developed depression and anxiety, which I also hid from everyone. (Yes, that is possible.) When I eventually became abused by a previous family member and later by a significant other, I refused to report it because it was my new way to “punish” myself, to allow for self-harm without using my own hands. That eventually resulted in PTSD. It’s not uncommon for Autistic people, males or females, to become abused and eventually develop PTSD.

When I got to college, it was a bit of a surprise to find more like-minded people. I made many enjoyable acquaintances, and connected with a few professors. Sadly, there was still bullying, but not by who you may think – it became some professors and one college adviser, as well as a few office workers. The tables had turned, (an idiom used to explain that a situation has become the opposite of what it once was), and fellow college classmates were more patient and supportive than most professors, who were there only for their job and not concerned with students’ personal lives. There were exceptions – I did have a very helpful professor who let me skip on group work as long as I compensated, and another professor who helped me during a panic attack caused by stage fright. But for those few helpful professors, I don’t think I would have lasted very long. Many dismissed me as a “flake” (someone who is unreliable, usually on purpose).

I eventually met a classmate who volunteered at a local school for Autism, who was educating herself because of her two Autistic sons. She noticed some Autistic traits in herself and considered herself someone with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of Autism eliminated from the DSM-V, and is not considered relevant in the U.S. but is still a valid diagnosis in other parts of the world). She encouraged me to go to the college counseling services for my issues she had noticed, and possibly be tested for Autism, with the warning that not many girls are diagnosed. This is when I first realized Autism is a feminist issue.

I didn’t think much of her suggestion towards testing, because there was no point if I was most likely to be dismissed.

Later on, after dating, graduating from college, and marrying one of the closest friends I could ask for, I confessed to my husband that I needed mental help. The anxiety and depression were becoming overwhelming. So I did what I did best, and made a list. I listed all of my quirks, shortcomings, family history and personal history. I listed every detail I could think of to make sure I was being clear and concise. I asked family and friends, and my husband, for traits of mental illness (now we also know “disability”) that they could think of. I sought a therapist for help, one that was more up-to-date on the newer version of the DSM-V, as well as current studies, and in my mental health evaluation she came to the conclusion that my General Anxiety Disorder, minor depressive episodes, and panic attacks had a root source – the different brain wiring of having Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What needs to change is how we view Autism, and how it presents in girls. Autism is a feminist issue because when it comes to diagnosis, women and girls are left out of the conversation. This includes trans girls, who, when diagnosed with Autism are found to have presented in the same manner as biological females. The same is true of trans boys presenting the same style of Autism as biological boys.

Thankfully, there are a few professionals realizing the complications of the gender divide in Autism, and how it affects the different genders. They understand how Autism is a feminist issue. The movement towards progress in Autism gender bias research is currently focused in Australia and Europe, with the United States beginning to follow. There are excellent professionals such as Tania Marshall, Rudy Simone, Temple Grandin, and more. There are even TED Talks, (something I absolutely love) by women with Autism, and professionals in the research field.

What does Feminism have to do with it? I think Autistic women, like me, could learn a lot from the Feminist movement. Especially since it’s still developing, even today. It’s possible that some of the first leaders of the Feminist movements may have been Autistic as well – what else could have provided such hyperfocus, such perseverance, and the application of hard logic? But I digress. Not only could Autistic women learn from Feminism in standing up for equal rights, but perhaps Feminist Neurotypicals (a term used for non-Autistic people) should stand up for the Autistic women who can’t speak for themselves, be it non-verbal Autistic women or Autistic women who simply don’t know what words or actions to use in order to fight for equal rights. As these concepts are expanded, Autism is a feminist issue in many different ways.

To me, the point of Feminism is to emphasize that all people are equal. Not that one gender is greater than the other. Feminism represents minorities. Even if they’re different. As Temple Grandin put it – “Different, not less.” She meant this towards the Autistic community, but it easily also applies to the divide we still face today between the genders. Autism is a feminist issue because both the Autistic and Feminist communities overlap and have a lot to learn from each other.

I am an Autistic Woman, and we deserve to be recognized for our differences, disabilities, and abilities. We present differently, but it doesn’t affect us any less. This is why Autism is a feminist issue.

*The author has chosen to explain certain idioms, sarcasms, and include an action to assist my fellow ASD readers. Some are unable to pick up euphemisms and expressions in text. Some of us have learned those skills, others of us have not, so she made her writing easily accessible to those of us who haven’t. 

Photo by Dee Ashley

Sarah
Sarah Neat-Sullivan is a varied freelance artist and craftster, with a BA in Visual Arts. She utilizes her diagnosis to educate, and advocate for fellow Autistic girls. This Florida native lives with her understanding, Neurotypical husband and their myriad of furkids.

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