‘You have a lovely home’, says the female actor on the screen, as she smiles through rows of delicate white teeth. We are caught in the midst of that classic ‘meet the parents’ rom com scene, where the woman is expected to be three things: pretty, engaging and agreeable. She is to charm her mother in law to be, as the two of them discuss floral patterns and carpet designs, and possibly joke about their significant others’ sense of fashion. She is to flirt with her future father in law, not in an inappropriate way, but just the right amount, using all those familiar on screen phrases: ‘I can see where your son gets his good looks’ etc. It seems to be her responsibility, for reasons beyond me, to hold everything together. That she is composed, is comfortable in conversation, whilst still making space for others to speak. She never says too much, and never says too little, and she never really challenges the opinions of others, least of all, the men.
I have only learned one thing about watching that scene over and over: that I am the opposite of all of those things. And yes, I know that’s a common experience. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, autistic or not (although, as addressed by Chris Packham in a previous interview for Your Autism Magazine, one of the frustrating things about being on the autism spectrum is sometimes feeling emotions more deeply than most people, and having to validate or justify these emotions to others, without it seeming as if you’re making a big deal of something). I’m certainly not the first one to talk about it either.
The thing is, for me, my femininity has always been linked to being on the autistic spectrum. I think this is because growing up, we are often taught to believe that women are innately social creatures. We are taught that women are emotional, whilst men are rational; that men are active and women are passive. Men make jokes and women laugh at said jokes. Men are often portrayed as nerdy or eccentric (would you see a female Sherlock-like character, for instance?). Men are free to use their brains and imaginations in a way that women are not. Obviously things in our society have changed, and we are seeing more positive representations of female and minority characters on screen than we may have done before. A particular favourite of mine would be the character Abed Nadir, in the USA sitcom ‘Community.’ Abed’s obsession with TV and popular culture serves as a coping mechanism for the lack of certainty in his everyday life, and structures the narrative of the show. Although some may argue that Abed is stereotypical in that he struggles socially, speaks in a monotonous way, and does not understand sarcasm, he also forms strong friendships with the other characters, and often serves as the voice of reason. If anything, the other characters aspire to be more like him. However, despite the portrayal of Abed, and a few well developed characters which lie outside the usual autistic tropes, the problem is that autism is often still perceived to be a male (specifically a white male) disorder.
I think Joanne Limburg’s poetry collection, The Autistic Alice, illustrates this perfectly. Limburg, a woman on the autism spectrum, uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland as a metaphor for the autistic experience – e.g. in Limburg’s work, Alice represents the autistic person, feeling out of place, an intruder, in this confusing world of arbitrary rules and social expectations. Alice literally does not fit in: she is either too big or small. Alice is not instinctively familiar with tea party etiquette, she does not behave in the way that little girls are expected to behave. She constantly ends up in trouble or offending others, without knowing why. Alice is perceived as ‘inflexible’ and ‘uncooperative.’ She has a strange sort of power, in that she appears to cause, through no ill intent of her own, devastation in the lives of her friends and family, yet in her mind she is powerless and insignificant. As she grows older, she learns to fit in, although it is so exhausting, as if she is constantly learning the words of a script.
These are experiences I am all too familiar with! I have to recognise, that due to my background, I am in a much more fortunate position than most. As a child, even though I hated school, I had the privilege of returning to a loving home at the end of the day, which many children do not have. I also had a very early diagnosis, which has made my life much easier – I can ‘pass’ as neuro-typical to those who do not know me that well. However, primary school was particularly tough. It was not so bad in the very early days. Although I was frightened of the unknown, and of large social settings, I was too young to really be self-aware and too absorbed in my own imaginative worlds to even notice what my peer group thought of me. This soon changed and I quickly became very self-aware: aware that I was different, that I was interested in things other children did not know of or care about. I like reading and writing poetry, which is considered cool and interesting amongst liberal Londoners in their twenties, but not so cool when you’re 8. I also cared strongly about issues such as race, despite being very white – again, not such a popular topic amongst 8 year olds in an English village. I think I was perhaps inspired by my headmaster (who was always kind to me); a white liberal South African man, who often spoke to us about the atrocities of the apartheid.
During this time I became extremely aware of gender expectations, along with the rest of my class. Boys and girls became like different species, and it seemed that being just friends with people of the opposite gender was impossible. Boys considered too nerdy or too ‘girly’ got mercilessly bullied and girls were rated according to their looks and ‘sex’ appeal (at the tender age of 8!). It may be a sweeping statement, but I think, even as little girls, we are taught to see physical beauty as a goal to aspire to, so we can feel that not fitting into conventional Western beauty standards deems us ‘unwomanly’ and therefore unworthy. So of course, the easiest way for a boy to respond to a weird, uncooperative, hyper-sensitive girl like me was ‘yeah, well…you’re ugly’, and I would immediately burst into tears, knowing I had been put in my place. The other girls in my class switched between being my friends and allies one day (at times they could be unexpectedly kind), and excluding me the next. This, unfortunately, has made me distrusting of groups of women to this day – also not helped by a culture which constantly pits women against each other – but it’s something I’m learning to get over.
I was also declared ‘uncool’ by one child for not being interested in stereotypically feminine things, like fashion and shopping and girl bands and Disney movies. This was not necessarily to do with being on the autism spectrum, just my own personality or upbringing. My siblings and I didn’t watch much TV as children, although I have made up for it since! Still, I knew that part of the reason I disliked shopping was due to the experience – the discomfort of the bright lights, the fuss of having to try clothes on etc. But I learned to pretend that I liked it: ‘yeah, shopping’s sooo fun’, whilst privately thinking the opposite. I have always liked music and remember bonding with two of the girls over a mutual love of the band The Black Eyed Peas. Shortly after, one the girls (the one who’d previously decided I wasn’t cool) decided that she no longer liked The Black Eyed Peas, so naturally the rest of us decided not to like them either, even though I privately enjoyed their music (unfortunately I can’t say the same now!).
Criticism of The Black Eyed Peas aside, I am interested to explore this link between autism and femininity. Of course, had I been a boy, I would certainly have experienced similar struggles and I am not in any way trying to diminish the male autistic experience – in many ways I am relieved to be a woman, but that’s a whole other article! I am simply suggesting that the female experience of being an autistic female, or indeed, being on the spectrum and not fitting the category of straight white male, is one that is rarely represented or discussed. Although things are changing, and, of course my life has drastically improved with age, I still feel as though this issue is something that will always be present in my mind. I hope this can change, and I would like to see more representations and discussions of autistic people that lie outside the white male narrative.