12 October 2016
Finally the world is starting to realize that autism as it often presents in girls and women can look quite different from how it often presents in boys and men, and it’s great to see women on the spectrum writing blogs, articles and memoirs, because currently the autism world is dominated by a few neurotypical men, neurosplaining from the outside what it’s like to be autistic. NTs (neurotypicals) are naturally limited in their abilities to understand ‘asperger’s on the inside’. That’s why I happily accepted a chance to read this memoir in exchange for a review.
The introduction warns that it gets very personal, but compared to other writing I’ve read (which by necessity is usually anonymous) this isn’t a particularly personal memoir. It’s written in a chatty style, and is very much like reading a series of emails from a new pen pal. The author warns that it gets quite girly. This may unnecessarily put boys and men off reading memoirs by women, even if they should. I see no reason for ever apologizing for being girly. (More on that below.)
I might buy this book for, say, an adolescent. There’s nothing in here that a 12 year old couldn’t cope with.
On the other hand, I have a few reservations and wish one of the chapters had been edited out.
I come at this from a feminist perspective. (That’s how I come at everything.) Here’s the thing about digging into the confusing world of gender and autism: The gender essentialism may astound you, particularly if you fall into the Cordelia Fine camp of understanding the world. (See her book Delusions of Gender, which makes heaps of sense to me.)
I therefore enjoy this book for the memoir while dismissing the neurosexist interpretation of events.
As an example, the author quotes Hans Asperger who went on record as saying that for success in science and the arts a dash of autism is essential. No one should be quoting this man without also mentioning that Hans Asperger also went on record as saying Aspergers can only ever present in men. Logical extrapolation tells us that Hans Asperger believed, therefore, that only men were capable of achieving true greatness in the arts and sciences. This was a typical view of gender for his era, and as enlightened people now know, female achievement in the arts and sciences has nothing to do with brain structure and everything to do with limited opportunities for women. We also know that there are almost as many autistic women as there are autistic men. I predict in another few decades we’ll accept that it’s a one to one ratio. That’s how it’s trending. We should bear that historical reality in mind as we try to make sense of the here and now.
It’s true that a lot of autistic girls get on better with boys, and this author is a great case study of that. On a surface level it makes sense to buy into Hans Asperger’s theory that ‘Aspergers is a form of extreme maleness’. However, I prefer a different explanation, in which autistic girls get on better with boys, as well as vice versa, because any differences due to autism tend to be better forgiven when you’re socializing with the opposite sex – it’s put down to them being ‘just a boy’ or ‘just a girl’. (Like when autistic people visit a foreign country.) When we conclude that Aspergers is ‘a form of extreme maleness’ this creates a terministic screen (to use Burke’s terminology) which influences everyone’s view of what autism looks like, and has the real world consequence of preventing a large group of people (both male and female, but yes, more often female) from being profiled for autism, and who may only be coming to it now, after decades of invisibility and mental health issues. This is due to the neurosexism initiated by Hans Asperger and more recently perpetuated by Simon Baron Cohen et al. Autism is not ‘an extreme male brain’. Not at all. Autism can look much more closely like how we perceive ‘extreme femaleness’, if such a thing exists – with emotions worn on the sleeve and the need to socialize etc. Autism isn’t all systemizing and introversion.
If autistic women are more likely to find ourselves in STEM jobs, it is said here and elsewhere that this is because autistic women have ‘more male brains,’ but could we not equally conclude that it’s because autistic people are more immune to the socialization that leads to a gender binary, just as autists are more immune to any kind of group think? The fact is, the research hasn’t been adequately done yet. We just don’t know enough about brain structure. It’s tempting to think of gender in terms of ‘hardwiring’, but I just don’t buy it. In another few decades we’ll have a much better understanding, providing more money goes into genetic research rather than searching for ‘cures’. (Another topic for another review.)
This gender essentialist view of autism also contributes to femme phobia in girls with autism. I know young autistic girls who have quite a bit of trouble wearing pink, or associating themselves with anything deemed girly. I also know autistic boys who love to wear pink and paint their nails (you may know some yourself – perhaps unprofiled – hint: even the heterosexual autistic boys tend to be mistaken as gay by clueless NTs) but the boys who embrace typically feminine accouterments and body language sometimes have this tendency beaten out of them as they grow up. I therefore don’t believe this ‘extreme male brain’ theory has anything inherently to do with autism; it’s to do with the fact we live in a sexist society, in which it’s honorable for a girl to be accepted as one of the boys, but not vice versa. In my own experience, I’m not hearing about all these autistic boys proudly claiming that they feel more like ‘one of the girls’. No, on the contrary, autistic men seem equally likely to also direct negativity towards ‘the bitchiness’ and duplicitousness of women, who are socialized into less direct (more polite) forms of communication and are therefore more difficult to read. (For more on that I refer to all the articles ever written painting prominent female politicians as ‘liars’.)
On the topic of women and what might almost be described as the ‘imposter sydrome’ experienced by autists living in an allistic world, it was nice to read here about David, the friend who also feels he’s playing a part. The narrative doing the rounds recently is that autistic women ‘camouflage’ and that’s why we’re harder to spot. Nope. Not buying that, either. It’s because designated experts don’t know what they’re looking for. Because of neurosexist beliefs, the likes of which are perpetuated right here, I might add.
I read the ‘work era’ of this memoir wondering how much of the author’s experiences as a manufacturing pro were down to her being autistic and how much were down to plain old sexism. It’s impossible to tell, unless Michelle were to clone herself, but make one (blonde, attractive) version of herself NT and put that version in the exact same environment. This section of the book is super valuable in its message that autistic people are an essential part of the workplace and accommodations should be made (I agree with Temple Grandin when she says we’d all still be living in caves without autistic brains), but relies a bit too much on therapeutic rhetoric which may unfortunately work against autistic women in the long run. Sometimes things that happen are not down to personal deficiencies but are instead (or also) due to structural power dynamics. I feel autistic women are more heavily penalized in the workplace than autistic men working in technical jobs, due to the fact we will forgive men for being systemizing introverts, but expect a higher level of socializing prowess from women without even recognizing our bias.
I’d love to read something which delves more deeply into all of that. A memoir of this kind will require a feminist author and some decades of reflection. It would be interesting to read another memoir written by this same author after another 30 odd years of living as an out-and-proud autistic woman, after the inevitable extra decades of re-visioning her own history. This memoir is more catharsis than deep reflection a la Helen Garner. (Yes, that’s a high bar!)
A note on the language.
It’s surprising to read a bit titled ‘Aspergers’ published 2016. I can understand why people profiled as Aspergic want to keep the label, but I am a bit suspicious of why. Such people are often keen to use the terms ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ as if they’re useful. (They’re not. If you’re ‘high functioning’ people will assume you don’t need accommodations; if you’re ‘low-functioning’ you’ll face exclusion from regular society – I’d prefer ‘functioning’ terms be nixed outright. Any autist can be high functioning in one area and low functioning in another area, and it varies from day to day.)
I’m mindful that no choice of words will please everyone when it comes to talking about autism, and no one should let that stop them from talking about autism! An autist is welcome to choose whatever words they like to describe themselves and their own experiences.
That said, if you have a problem with the diminutive ‘Aspie’ you may find this book grates. I don’t have a huge problem with this word, in part because it’s so handy (much easier than saying ‘level one autistic person’, which still other people find problematic). And who really knows what 'autist' and 'allistic' means? My daughter loves calling herself an Aspie. But I also acknowledge that being condescended to by neurotypicals is so very often a large part of the autistic experience, so avoiding diminutives ending in the /i/ sound isn’t a bad idea. (When she realizes how that all works, it will be interesting to see if my daughter stops using it.) My main problem with ‘Aspie’ recently is because people who use it also tend to cling to the label of ‘Aspergers’ so as not to be mistaken for one of those other poor ‘low functioning autistic people’.
On the topic of condescension, I do have a bit of a problem with the phrase ‘in [our] own little world’, which is used several times throughout this memoir. The author does go on to explain – very accurately, in my view – that if autistic people seem to retreat it’s actually due to a hyper-connectedness to the world and sensory overload. Learning to tune out is a coping mechanism which has absolutely nothing to do with being mentally absent. Quite the reverse. If NTs think that autistic people are somehow absent, this view will naturally lead to a conclusion of ‘deficiency’ rather than ‘difference’. That’s why the idea that autists live ‘in their own little word’ is not only condescending (probably due to the world ‘little’) but also inaccurate and, in the end, unhelpful in the mission to help neurotypicals to understand the autistic experience.