When I was first identified as autistic around 2001, very little had been written about autistic girls. There was a page or two in Tony Attwood’s book Asperger’s Syndrome, but there were very few books and articles that focused specifically on how girls experience autism. Today, that is changing. I wish I could be happier that more professionals are realizing autism isn’t a “male” condition.
Unfortunately, there is very little “autistic girl” literature written by professionals that I can read without cringing. All too often, these books and articles combine sexism with ableism.
For one thing, many of these authors seem to think there is only one “typical” way to be a girl. Any not-so-girly interests or preferences an autistic girl has are attributed solely to autism. One widely-read example of this is the description of autistic girls and women on Tony Attwood’s website. Dr. Attwood makes sweeping generalizations about girls in general, and autistic girls in particular. He mentions that autistic girls may prefer “gender-neutral toys such as Lego”, but fails to mention that many non-autistic girls love Legos too, and that a girl’s love of Legos may have less to do with gender than it has to do with the fun of building. Is the fact that some girls like Legos better than dolls really so remarkable that it can be used as a diagnostic trait? Attwood seems to think so. He also scrutinizes autistic girls’ clothing choices. I know many non-autistic girls who prefer “comfortable clothes with lots of pockets” rather than “fancy, frilly clothing”. According to Attwood, however, not liking frills is just another sign of an autistic girl’s inability to understand social norms. He very clinically refers to tomboyish girls as having “an aversion to the concept of femininity”. Would he refer to a non-autistic tomboy in such pathologizing terms, or would he respect her interests and clothing preferences as valid choices? In addition, his black-and-white ideas about gender expression don’t even acknowledge girls who like Legos and dolls, or cargo pockets and frilly dresses.
Attwood is not the only prominent author to reduce all of a girl’s interests and choices to diagnostic features. Tania Marshall’s Aspiengirl infographics, which can be viewed on her Facebook page, are beautifully designed and informative, but they also contain subtle ableism and sexism. (I have not read her books, so I can’t say anything about them.) One graphic is entitled “Do You Know the Common Sub-Type Presentations of Asperger Syndrome in Females?” This graphic divides autistic girls into categories such as “tomboy”, “fashion diva”, “quiet one”, “extravert”, “bookworm”, or “nature girl”. While the graphic may technically be accurate, and its purpose of showing that autistic girls are all different is admirable, I think it is unfair to call these differences “sub-type presentations” of autism. After all, non-autistic girls can also be introverts or extraverts, tomboys or divas, bookworms or animal lovers, or anything in between! But we don’t call these differences “sub-type presentations of neurotypicality in females”. We call them personalities and interests, because “sub-type presentations” is way too clinical and pathologizing. Of course girls (on or off the autism spectrum) are different from each other—we’re human, after all! Perhaps the infographic would be better titled “Every Autistic Girl Is Different: Here are Some Common Personality Traits”, or a similar title. (This graphic’s remark that autistic girls have a “misguided sense of social justice” is worrisome too. While this may be true in some situations, most social justice advocates throughout history were considered misguided by those who disagreed with them. This remark, which is presented without any context, could easily be used to discourage or silence young autistic activists. But that‘s a discussion for another time.)
So, if these authors mean well and their works contain useful information, why am I worried about the way they choose to word their ideas? For one thing, their words promote a double standard. NT girls like Legos and comfy clothes; AS girls prefer gender-neutral toys and are averse to femininity. NT girls have personalities; AS girls have sub-type presentations. Wording things this way could make it harder for parents, professionals, and even autistic girls themselves to realize that autistic girls are people whose likes and dislikes matter.
Implying that our preferences are just “symptoms” could also encourage parents and professionals who haven’t yet embraced the idea of autism acceptance to be even less accepting of the autistic girls in their lives. They may try to change a girl’s interests and fashion choices to make her appear more outwardly typical. When I was a child, and even when I was an older teen, adults tried to do this with me; sometimes subtly, sometimes not-so-subtly. The result? Extreme social anxiety and years of emotional pain.
And I’m not the only one who is concerned. I recently shared Attwood’s essay, and my own letter to Attwood, with Dr. Christia S. Brown, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies how gender stereotypes affect kids. Dr. Brown agreed that “many, many girls like Legos, and comfortable clothes, and are not interested in gossiping with friends. There is nothing unique, unusual, or in any way wrong with any of those preferences. Those are really just stereotypes about girls that exclude many girls, regardless of their neurological background.”
I’m not saying that autism doesn’t influence our interests and personalities. Of course it does; after all, autism is how our brains are wired. And I’m not saying that being associated with autism makes any interest or personality trait “wrong”. I am proud to be on the autism spectrum, and I am proud of my special interests. But I want others to know that autism isn’t the only thing that determines what we like or don’t like, and that using pathologizing language to describe our interests can make people forget that our interests are as valid as theirs.
To my fellow autistic girls: never let anyone convince you that your interests should be toned down, hidden, or exchanged for something more “mainstream”. And to parents and professionals: let autistic girls be themselves! Whether we want to dress up, build robots, care for animals, or read for hours (or all of the above), don’t ever try to change who we are. When you write about us, think carefully about whether your words truly promote acceptance—because autistic girls deserve better than stereotypes.
About C.L. Bridge: C.L. is an autistic person who enjoys art, games, and aquatic animals.