What Autism Teaches Us About Gender
There is a lot of talk in the autism community about whether or not men and women manifest autism differently. For a long time, there were statistics that said that four times as many men as women had autism, which made it seem like a men’s disease. But then, like other “men’s diseases,” heart attacks, for instance, it has turned out that mostly the difference is that men are more likely to be diagnosed with autism than women, but that is just because men get more attention than women do. Young girls with autism are often seen as “behavior problems” and not diagnosed, but forced to conform, which leads to significant later problems.
However, there is also a growing awareness that, like with heart attacks, women often present with different autistic symptoms than men. I won’t call myself an expert, but over the last year, I’ve read a stack of books about female autism. Here are some of the ways it presents in women that are different than male presentations:
1. Anorexia or other eating disorders
2. Copying the behavior of other girls at a minute, discrete level (sometimes from school, sometimes from TV shows or YouTube)
3. “Masking,” or pretending to be normal
4. Fashion obsession
5. Artistic or other special interests that appear more normal than the typical trains/numbers
These come along with other very typical autistic traits like difficulty with humor, social expectations, and intonation problems. In particular, autistic women can appear “overly empathetic” rather than under empathetic. This one trait alone is a major stumbling block to women getting a proper diagnosis as autistic. It’s the reason most people tell me I can’t be autistic, because I clearly have empathy. In fact, I think the whole idea of lack of empathy being an autistic trait is highly misunderstood.
What autistic people lack is a normal social sense. This can present as a lack of apparent empathy. Autistic people often miss social cues and/or physical signs of emotion. This doesn’t mean that autistic people don’t see others as human (in general). It means that we often need better information to help us bridge the gap (I’d argue this works both ways, that autistic people are just as often misunderstood by neurotypical people because…