Yes I know I don’t fit in with the other mothers at my child’s school. I either get there early and hide in my car for 20 minutes, psyching myself to walk in. Or I’m late, very late with wet hair and odd socks.
Yes I know I don’t fit in with the other mothers at my child’s school. I either get there early and hide in my car for 20 minutes, psyching myself to walk in. Or I’m late, very late with wet hair and odd socks.
Source: | Asperger Women’s Association Worldwide on WordPress.com
Autistic Women ~ Pleasantly Eccentric Chameleons
Yvonne Mikulencak, M.A., M.F.A
When it comes to women and autism, the statistics have been a mirage. I am not a medical professional, but I am autistic and I can see through the mirage. What power do statistics have and what do they mean to me and the autism community? I will start with three examples that we blindly accept. First, there are fewer autistic females than males; second, females are not affected by autism as much as males; and third, nurture does not affect autistic females. Bad statistics have the power to create bad science and bad policy. In my own journey, I have learned that women are affected by nurture as well as nature. Early medical professionals in the neurotypical community have created a stigma that is very difficult to overcome.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2007 at the age of 56. At that time Asperger’s Syndrome was considered the haute couture of autism but recently it has been relegated to the status of High Functioning Autism. At that time, attention seeking mothers, lead by Jenny McCarthy and the like, were dominating the media with long disproven claims of vaccine damage, mercury damage, and Big Pharma. Dr. Andrew Wakefield dominated the scene with a law suit involving his claim that autism had a connection to the MMR vaccine. A conclusion which later would be proven to be intentionally false, but not until major distortions to public perception of autism as a curable disorder or disease were ingrained.
These myths were attached to autism by people who had no experience in research solely to scare the public. In the middle of the werewolves and zombies of autism causes, my psychiatrist stated “You shot from the hip and did everything right.” Right? At first I was proud but then I thought, “What was wrong?” I had a great, successful life and enjoyed 95% of it, so what was “wrong?” Different I am, but I tossed that up to my identity as being an individual or coarsely stated by me all my life as a GDI ~ God Damned Independent. Was that the wrong?
I went through five psychologists before I found a great psychiatrist who is top in his field. Until this point, all my life I was in the dark about my autism. What I saw as a strength was just announced to me as being a weakness, even a possible disorder, but my psychiatrist stated that I did so well, it was up to me if I wanted a diagnosis. Having recently retired, I had nothing to lose, except the opportunity of teaching people about autism, so I chose to have the diagnosis. The only way to teach others about autism was for me to learn what I was. Like Superman, I felt I must learn what planet I came from and what were my autistic super powers. Why were those differences considered a weakness/disorder?
Although I was confused I believed in myself to find answers. How can a diagnosis change my identity? My psychiatrist asked how I could justify my unusual differences in society. I replied that I thought is was just my cultural difference of being Czech American in an American society. I thought I was normal and fine just a different culture. Now I learned that I was not like others but autistic.
I grieved the loss of my old identity. The grieving took place over a year, at which time I began to accept my new identity as being autistic. A label which many see as “wrong” or “broken”. Over 6 years, I learned what people saw as “wrong” was actually “right”, just different.
To learn about autism, I went to autistic meetings in my city and quickly learned that the men were different from the women. Women, for the most part were pushed into the background, to be recipients of the aggressively controlled male podium. I wondered why I did not identify with the autistic men and why so few women were diagnosed , except those diagnosed peripherally as a part of their children’s diagnosis.
Along with the accusations of what a terrible Quasimodo life we autistic people must live, comorbid neurological disorders were incorrectly thrown into the mix as a component of autism although they have nothing to do with autism. However, I identified with the lists of autistic traits, scored high on autism tests and my psychiatrist, a leader in his field, pronounced me with an autism badge of honor. Then, I recognized the pronounced difference between autistic males and females.
Women have their own unique differences including the ability to conceal their autism, especially from professionals who were unfamiliar with autism in women. Also, women suffer victimization because of their sex more than men. If it was a disorder, if it was perceived as bad, and if it was over the heads of the 5th grade intelligence of the average person, then it was a part of autism. You had no right to be called autistic unless you were a historical figure or a modern day figure who lead the world in your field. As for women, they were lacking a label and punished for different behavior because they hid their autism like chameleons hide with their colors. Women developed skills to blend into the neurotypical society to be pleasantly eccentric.
Modern science has learned our neurological brain system is not black or white but a spectrum of traits genetically created by basically different brain wiring. One end of the spectrum is neurotypical and the other end is neurodiverse, as the following spectrum chart demonstrates .
Nature and Nurture
Neurotypical (NT) I—— I——I——I–——I Neurodiverse (ND)
Between the ends, double lined, are traits shared by individuals on both sides with the center being the transition to the dominating respective brain operating system. These tween s are often referred to as either Aspie Lite on the NT (Neurotypical) side of the spectrum and Aspergers on the ND (Neurodiverse) side. We are all on the spectrum of two brain operating systems developed by nature. Being a spectrum of individuals, many on the border of the spectrum change share some of the traits of the other,but remain with their dominant brain operating system.
Nurture can play a strong role in these shared traits. That being said, autistics remain highly individual in their collection of traits both dominantly neurodiverse but some neurotypical. This is simple enough until we toss in a mix of comorbid disorders which are shared with NTs, but often are inaccurately placed as a part of ND. Comorbidity as a condition coupled with a disorder or disease. It is not caused by or linked to the condition and is found in both NTs and NDs.
Autism (Neurodiverse), like its counter part NT (Neurotypical), is speckled with individual neurological comorbid disorders. Neurotypical and neurodiverse, as I have explained, are basically two different brain operating systems, like MAC vs PC Operating Systems. With computers, you choose the operating system you want, however, with two different brain operating systems, you are born with one or the other and there is no choice. There is no cure for either side. Counter to the promotion by parents who cannot come to terms with “different”, autism is genetic, not created. Ridiculous unscientific studies which find just about everything causes autism are promoted by many neurotypical parent organizations to scare the public into giving money out of sympathy or of the unknown.
Given that one mother decided to throw her autistic son off a bridge to drown in the river below, I am not surprised that more parents have not used this medieval test to see if autistic people float or drown like witches. Such mentalities are destructive in many ways. Out of a parent’s willful inability to understand autism, they harm the autistic child for life. Many of these people can be found with organizations who are on a never ending trail to find a cure for autism. With the results of every research project, they are told it’s simply genetics and a cure is neither possible nor needed. Autism Speaks has no autistic person on their board and sends out false advertisements demeaning autism and those who have it. It’s geared to use the unknown and ignorance of society to cast autism in the darkest shadow for the sake of giving money to their organizations. They do equal damage, if not more harm, to autistic people. Females who are autistic are cast as rare or immune to this new fearful plague they advertise.
How much is nurture and how much is nature? Rightfully, the struggle to find who I am took years considering the general mentality of many neurotypical parents and even some professionals who believe that autism is a disease or disorder to be “cured”. Autism or neurodiverse is merely a natural genetic trait developed by nature in a complimentary way with neurotypical traits for the human race to survive and advance . While neurotypical traits treat most things within the species as social, neurodiverse traits drive cutting to the chase to find solutions to problems, with ultra focus. The neurodiverse trait uses patterns and logic in math, science and arts or any area the autistic person finds as their passion.
The challenge for parents of an autistic child is proper child development from birth to school age when nurturing is most important to brain development. Autistic girls are just as subject to nurturing as NT girls, needing a social language learned early in life, which is not natural for them. There are few studies on the effects of nurture on a child’s brain development.,with most focusing on Nature alone to develop an autistic child to their greatest potential for themselves and society.
Too often people confuse autism traits with a comorbid neurological disorders which can be shared by neurotypicals and neurodiverse. Autistic passions, which are wanted and positive, are often mistaken as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and ADHD is confused with an autistic female’s gift of multitasking. Any trait a person does not understand becomes a mystery trait of autism instead of a co-morbid disorder that actually exists among many people. Meltdowns in girls are confused with tantrums which are a problem for autistic people from childhood through adulthood. Although shutdowns are not well understood by science and the general community, shutdowns are a total collapse of cognitive and conscious being for a certain period of time due to stress.. Last, autistic female traits are incorrectly attributed to male autistic traits by the general public and inexperienced professionals causing a massive under diagnosis of female autism.
Quick List of General Autism characteristics in females
Difference from autistic males
• More social through acting , mimicking , and echolalia
• More expressive in face and gestures.
Spectrum II Gender
Male Gray Matter & Hippocampus < Nature > Female White Matter & Frontal and Temporal Cortex areas
Male (more gray matter) I—-I—-I—-I—-I Female (more white matter)
How does nurture affect the traits of ND females? Whether neurodiverse (ND) or neurotypical (NT), a woman’s brain operating systems is different from a man’s. This makes the diagnosis for autistic women very difficult for inexperienced professionals when they only use the basic diagnostic tools created for autistic men and use them to diagnose women. Couple this short coming with comorbid disorders shared with both females and males of both neuro operating systems, and this makes for a non-straight forward diagnosis. Neurodiverse females often are more male minded than their neurotypical female counterparts and labeled “tomboys” because of interests shared with boys on both ends of the spectrum. These girls will pursue male interests and have equal abilities with boys in spacial skills and mathematics at a later age. The autistic girls tend to be more masculine and logical minded than their neurotypical female friends , but less masculine than their neurodiverse male counterparts. The blend is often too confusing for inexperienced professionals who only have exposure to basic traits based on the male autistic patients.
How do ND women differ from men, both NT and ND? ND women learn to speak the social and body language of the NT, which makes them chameleons. They can turn on the NT female traits when they sense it is important. It is both biological nature with their female brain operating system and social nurture with their ability to recognize NT social and body language from social nurturing at an early age.
Nature sets the brain operating system. According to Dr. Gregory L Jantz, scientists generally study four primary areas of difference in male and female brains: processing (verbal), chemistry (emotional memory), structure (sensorial and emotive), and activity (consistent emotional memory) among hundreds of other differences.1 The neurological component in the female brain operating system is set in the ND female white brain matter. The male and female brains have definite physical differences in their brain operating system. Females have nine times more white matter (wired matter) in the brain than men . Men have seven times more gray matter (thinking in the box matter) in the brain than women. Having more white matter wiring to both sides of the brain, women use the right and left side of the brain, especially for verbal and communication, whereas men use basically the left brain as well as processing centers for logic, mathematics, aggression, and spatial skills.
In our Spectrum charts, we show two linear spectrums: Spectrum I Nature and Nurture, and Spectrum II Gender (above) both showing individual traits which maybe nurtured into each gender allowing for shared nature and nurtured interests (as seen with two lines). Many women are spatial because their parents provided sports or dance to learn the physical and spatial skills. Many women have mathematical and logic interests because early nurturing and math and logic provide a comforting world for their introvert nature. Many girls who are called tomboys as a result of showing masculine traits, learn from nurturing by parents, courses/lessons, and peers. It is not unusual for ND girls to play with dolls into the early high school years and not date until later teen years or older.
As Temple Grandin expressed, ND children need to learn from NT children. Females prefer this mixing because they often become bilingual in NT social communication by echolalia for social language and mimicking NT’s facial and body language. ND females often copy phrases and body language from movies and tv programs and use these scenes and scripts in real life, when the scenario is similar. ND females automatically go into these “acting” roles of communication to be heard by the NT societal dominance. Professionals are often fooled by this behavior, and more often than not can miss a diagnosis of a female.
ND females go into performance mode when they leave their safety area, usually home, and need energy for an entire day of performing. When they return to their safety zone, they need down time to rebuild the energy it takes to perform such enormous hours. ND females are chameleons and do so for the social expectations of an NT based society.
Special interests or passions are a common trait equally between male and female autistic persons and erroneously classified by some people as the disorder OCD. Passions are wanted interests but OCD thoughts are unwanted. This is a clear difference which the average person and some professionals overlook because of a lack of education or training.
Supportive nurturing from birth to 25 years of age, (when a person’s frontal brain lobe is fully developed to know the consequences of their actions), makes a huge difference in the shared Gender Spectrum. A female toddler’s brain is still growing and developing. Dance and gymnastics from 3 yrs of age onward helps with motor skills and spatial abilities in girls. Acting, theater therapy, or role games from age five plus helps develop a girls inter and intra personal social skills. Simply watching television, girls can pick up on voice tone, conversation, come backs, and body language to mimic. Recognizing and recreating the body language and voice tone difference for emotional and social communication especially with NT females who thrive and control this form of communication in society. By playing with their NT peers, ND girls will pick up and copy what their NT peers display. This becomes a double edge sword for ND autistic females. The roles they act at school and at work as adults are energy draining, ND females need down time when they return home. They blend into society like chameleons, but only a few will be recognized as autistic making a correct early diagnosis nearly impossible by the average psychologist.
How do neurotypicals incorrectly perceive autistic (neurodiverse) female behavior? ND females are often left out of social activities if they are not trained early to fit into the social gatherings of NT females. Mean girls who are NT will often alienate or bully ND females because of their difference and independence . Autistic females, when stressed with chaos, will fall back into what I label as the Spock mode. They become methodical, unemotional, logical and rule oriented. NT women cannot understand or handle a female with these traits. Autistic females are greatly compassionate and empathetic but when their senses are overwhelmed, or there is emergency induced environments, there is social confusion or mental chaos and an autistic woman’s face may become emotionless. Their minds work like a computer to evaluate what is needed for these stressful times and perform, or they will go into a meltdown. Neurotypicals, not being experienced in neurodiverse social language , perceive the Spock moment as cold, aloof, and unempathetic to neurotypical social needs using NT (neurotypical) social and body language. Misleading readings emerge from the NT females because they cannot speak the body or social language of ND females. Often ND females will look for temporary solitude to protect their ultra sensitive senses and build up their energy to act the local NT part. Once the chaos has ended, the ND female will return to her learned chameleon behavior speaking NT facial and body language.
Like their male counterparts, ND females have meltdowns at times of overstressed circumstances, or from sensory stress in social scenes, on the job, or in school. Meltdowns become whirlwind emotional breakdowns that may become verbally abusive or irrational until the emotions wind down to a lull. After that time, ND females may become embarrassed, feeling at fault and responsible, even though they do not have any control over the meltdown. They are calm and very introverted, blaming themselves when there is no control. It becomes a no win situation for ND females socially or in the workforce.
A more rare response to lengthy stress is a Shutdown. Autistic female brains can pull the plug when over stressed. They are still and trance-like until something pulls them out of it. Then they are stunned to find little or no memory of happenings, even the passive of time, and they cannot account for anything during that time. Very little on Shutdowns is being studied today.
ND women are as different from ND men, as NT women are different from NT men. The X and the Y have meaning in the brain operating systems of men and women, both ND and NT.
The Message From Autistic Females
“Do not mistake me for being:”
On a positive note, there are many professionals who are highly experienced with autistic women such as Dr. Tony Attwood, from Queensland, Australia. Dr. Attwood and many professionals have studied women’s neurology and nurturing. They understand the difference between male and female brain coupled with Neurodiversity. Autistic women owe them our gratitude and our lives to their professionalism and ethics .
1 Jantz, Gregory L. Ph.D, “ Hope for Relationships -The whole-person approach to healing: Brain Differences Between Genders: Do you ever wonder why men and women think so differently?” Psychology Today, February 27, 2014.
Yvonne Mikulencak, M.A., M.F.A.
There is a growing movement against people first language when speaking about Autism. Of course always use what the individual autistic person wants to use for themselves at all times. Here are some great links for information on the reasons why more autistics are preferring identity first language with autism.http://www.identityfirstautistic.org
image credit ( Georgia Grainger) http://knit1poll1.tumblr.com/post/120704649261/image-description-two-stick-drawings-of-people