Asperger’s as a Woman: How is it Different?
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
There is no doubt that, in general, different genders experience Autism uniquely.
It is also true that gender in itself is a fulsome topic, encompassing both physical differences as well as myriad social constructs. I want to be clear that when I speak (throughout this blog) from the point of view of a cis-gender woman, I do not speak for everyone who identifies as a woman, nor do I intend to exclude any gendered or non-gendered identity.**
Autism, though still widely misunderstood, has gained a lot of awareness in the last few decades. When it was first discovered and catalogued, it was believed to exist almost exclusively as a male condition. This is true of other medical conditions beyond Autism, of course, due in part to medical research historically excluding female subjects from clinical trials. About 30 years ago, it was believed that for every 10 boys who had Autism, only one girl had it.
Today, however, estimates are that there is one female with Autism to every two males with Autism. You can see how, over decades, many girls ended up going un-diagnosed, growing up into adult women with Autism.
One of the many reasons that Autism may have gone undiagnosed in women for so long is because the condition can manifest very differently in girls than it can in boys, and so it would go unrecognized. Male and female brains are different on many small but significant, fundamental levels. Society also places different expectations on different genders, and a quiet, orderly girl is more generally socially accepted than a quiet, orderly boy.
Girls, from a young age, are socialized to internalize - to withdraw rather than aggress - and so, many Autistic characteristics can turn inward or become hidden much more quickly than they might in boys. Girls are also socialized to care more about what others think of them, a trait that does not come naturally to an ASD brain but which girls with Autism may learn more quickly than boys will, who generally don't have the same social pressure. Children of all genders engage in social mimicry with their peers in order to learn what behavior is acceptable and what is not, but girls often do this more frequently and with more success than boys, and girls with Autism can be particularly adept at mimicking the social activities deemed appropriate by others (thus masking more "visible" Autistic traits).
I remember, distinctly, the itchy, scratchy, burning feeling of tights on my legs as a young girl. I hated wearing them. This is a sensory issue shared by many with ASD - tight-fitting clothing or tags/seams that rub in the wrong places - though at the time I didn't know it, and thought other girls must just suffer through it better than I could. In the end I stopped wearing dresses altogether, knowing that wearing a dress meant having to wear tights. This, among many other "boyish" things I did as a child - not playing with dolls (what is the point?), not being afraid of dirt (it does, in fact, wash off), not wearing jewelry or make-up (impractically superfluous, to my mind) - ended up creating for me a label of "tomboy," which I embraced without much fuss, not knowing any better. I was happy to embody that archetype up through my early teenage years, in fact, because it automatically relieved me from some of the female-based social pressures that I could not live up to as well as other girls. "She's just a tomboy," people would say, dismissing some non-girl-accepted thing I had done, which to me sounded better than "she's kind of weird."
As an adult woman, many of the same social pressures that existed when I was a girl still exist now, at a higher level. Social pressures exist for men and boys, also - they just happen to be less opposed to certain Autistic characteristics than pressures on women and girls. For example, it is more socially acceptable for a man - as opposed to a woman - to be absorbed in his work and neglect any kind of social life, for a man to be "geeky" or "obsessed" with computers or comics, for a man to prioritize comfort and practicality in his clothing choices over style or fashion, for a man to show little emotion or to appear stoic, etc. Whereas women, in general, are expected to be social, emotive, talkative, gregarious, stylish, etc. In short, many things that an Autistic person, male or female or non-binary, simply is not.
I do not mean to imply that being a woman with Asperger's is any more difficult than being a man with Asperger's - like I have described in other posts, ASD affects each individual uniquely and all have their own experiences - I mean only to point out some of the most distinct ways that I, and other women whose stories I have had the privilege to read, experience Autism differently than a man might.
One of the most telling differences I have seen in myself and in others is the tendency to turn inward - to internalize the pain or over-exertion, and shut down. Many sources refer to this as an "Autistic meltdown" - it's really just when the world becomes too much, due to any number of extraneous factors (sensory overload, decision fatigue, social anxiety, etc.). A woman with Autism is more likely to take this route for a "meltdown" - turning inward - whereas a man with Autism is more likely to turn outward - to shout, storm or rage. I really think this has a lot more to do with the way gender roles and expectations are socialized in children than it has to do with anything else.
In short, being a woman with Autism is really no different than being a woman with anything else. The physiological and psychological differences that make up gender identity play a similar role in the way a woman may experience Autism as they do in how she might experience any other facet of her life.
I can say that today, women and women's perspectives of Autism and Asperger's are widely under-represented (though this is beginning to change), and as such it can be much harder for a woman with ASD to find resources that pertain specifically to her unique experience of the condition. I have tried reading memoirs written by men with Asperger's, and so far I just can't relate to the experiences they describe or the solutions they have used. John Elder Robison, for example, has a few great books out on the subject, which are all highly entertaining and informative - I just never connected much with the life experiences he describes. Not the way that I have with Laura James' experiences in Odd Girl Out, or other women writing on the subject (more posts to come soon!).
For now, I seem to have graduated from the "tomboy" label in childhood, through the socially-peripheral-and-yet-still-mostly-accepted "nerdy girl / band geek" in college, to simply a smart, quiet professional and mother, who lives with some quirks, as we all do. Socially I am far less active than my female peers, in general I dress more comfortably and practically than other women in the office (especially in New York, holy moly people), and more often than not I am the less emotional of the two halves of my love life (yes, my husband is more emotionally expressive than I am - shocking). But, with Asperger's as a part of my life, I am no less of a woman.
**Whatever gender you do or do not identify with, I ask that you take what resonates or is helpful for you from this post, and leave what is not. The intention of my sharing and of this blog as a whole is not to cause division, but to create connection.