35 replies

  1. Thank you for this open sharing. An issue you only touch on obliquely is of course that women are often those who care about and for autistic males, as mothers, sisters, lovers, partners. Perhaps you will follow up with further reflection on how it feels to be with someone who has little or no empathy–wow! not sure I can imagine that, or perhaps to put the shoe on the other foot, we have all experienced it to some degree, as lack of empathy not considered a flaw in men in patriarchy. Siggghhhh….

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    • Yes, thanks for your response, Carol. You’re right–a lack of empathy is not considered a flaw for men who reflect patriarchal values. When men DO behave empathetically, many consider them to have gone “above and beyond.,” empathy being primarily a “feminine virtue.” One of the things I HAVE learned over the years is that marriage is not a coming together of two people in order to produce a better “unit.” Each individual brings themselves (including lots of baggage) to this union and navigating that “marriage terrain” (especially heterosexual marriage) in a patriarchal culture requires finding first an independent self–at least, that’s what was I needed to do.

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  2. Thanks, Esther!

    Is it a feminist issue? I’ve read that the older the father is when the pregnancy occurs, the more likely the risk of autism in the child, as well as a number of other possible disorders. Apparently, sperm degenerates as men age. So the match with an older man is not a good idea for the girl if she wants to have kids. And I think that’s something women are not informed about, and they should be.

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  3. Studies show that autistic people, rather than lacking empathy, suffer from too much empathy. Emotions are overwhelming for the autist, so she or he tends to withdraw when presented with a situation that overwhelms her/him.

    For a better understanding of the ASD spectrum, I highly recommend reading articles on autism that are written by members of the neurodiversity movement, who are themselves on the ASD spectrum. Try Rudy Simone’s books. Or Ari Ne’eman’s blog. Or Landon Bryce’s Th’Autcast blog.

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    • Thank you, Jenn D. Yes, I’ve seen those studies you mention. I think one of the difficulties getting hold of the subject (ASD) is because, as Linda noted, when you meet one person with ASD, you’ve met one person with ASD. There is a broad spectrum of behaviors, for sure. I write from my own experience. My spouse has repeatedly told me, when I’ve asked him to “put yourself in his [my son’s] shoes” when my son behaved in unacceptable ways: “I CANNOT do that.” From my perspective, he seems to be saying he cannot empathize.

      Thank you for the book and blog recommendations. I will take a look.

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  4. Given the lack of representation of women in the medical profession until only the last few decades practically everything in the medical field, but especially in the area of psychiatry, deserves a fresh set of, if not feminist, at least feminine, eyes. If I understand your stats correctly, while over 1% of children are diagnosed with ASD, over 2% of children who are male are so diagnosed. I immediately thought of the issue I wrote about several posts ago–circumcision (March 5–‘Female Challenge to Male Privilege’)–and sure enough Google would not even let me finish typing my search before it confirmed the existence of research arguing for a connection. That is most definitely a feminist issue.

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  5. Thanks, Stuart. We know so little about ASD. I had to google as well and found http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/20/circumcision-autism-new-study_n_6503106.html

    Correlation, of course, does not “prove” cause as the article notes, however, the more research, the better!

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  6. I’m suddenly wondering if the majority of the members of the U.S. Congress may be high-functioning autists. And perhaps this is also true of members of other nations’ governments. Especially in the U.S., women make up more than half of the population, but are a smaller percentage of the government. Which is highly patriarchal. And really hard wired.

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  7. Women and girls are believed to be under-diagnosed with autism (or often mis-diagnosed with other things such as Borderline Personality Disorder) The mainstream view of autism is biased because it has mostly been identified and studied in males, so “experts” have a harder time recognizing in females. I was very fortunate, especially for someone of my age (I’m now 33) to be labeled when I was young and given various services. I suggest you check out: http://autismwomensnetwork.org/ Oh, and could you please not bring up Adam Lanza. He is very much a sore point among our community. Autistic people are more likely to be victims of violence and abuse (especially by their caretakers!) than perpetrators. Overall, your compassion and love for your husband shines thru this article in spite of its flaws, I can tell you are trying your best to learn with limited resources. I’d be happy to write an article (or more) for this site about my own experiences as an autistic woman if folks are interested.

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  8. Thank you, caelesti, for your thoughtful reply. I think you make an excellent point regarding the mainstream view of autism and its bias because its subjects have been predominately male and “knowledge” about autism has been constructed within that male bias.

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  9. We are in the same boat, yourself and I. Many thanks for this insightful post.

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  10. My 29-year-old son, who lives with me, is “on the spectrum.” He struggles with ADD, depression, and anxiety, has never held a job and is on disability. I struggle to try to understand him, but it’s like we’re from different planets. He is smart, but has trouble communicating. It’s very frustrating for both of us. He is dependent on me in many ways, and I worry about what will happen to him when I’m gone.

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  11. I am so touched, Katharine, with your honest writing regarding your struggles and worry about your son. It’s my hope that as more and more people “shed light” (so to speak) about their experiences with ASD or being in relationship with people on the ASD scale, our thinking about it all can evolve as we move towards understanding and acceptance.

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  12. Thanks, Esther, for this informative and personal blog post. I think that autism, as you present it, is quite clearly a feminist issue. If the disorder has both biological and environmental roots, then since our “environment” is patriarchal, that fact probably plays a role. Christa Wolf, an East German feminist, wrote a related story back in the 1970s or 1980s called “Self-Experiment.” In the story a researcher volunteers to be the first woman to become a biological man and then experiences what it’s like to be treated like a man and decides to become a woman again. Her reason is that men can’t have the same empathy (or love or compassion) as women in our patriarchal society.

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  13. Oh, wow, Nancy, your comment has so many layers. But, yes, our patriarchal social system shapes our identities–to be sure. Your comment opens up the question of just what IS a woman or a man–for that matter. (Caitlyn Jenner comes to mind here.) Shows the power of social systems on how we go about our lives and if we don’t question, question, question just what it is that we are doing, we can become complacent to the way things just “are.” There is no reason, in my mind, why biological men cannot be empathetic. So much depends on the pressures that shape us. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

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    • I am a woman on the spectrum. If I experience the needs of others more slowly, I sometimes understand problems more usual people find baffling. Girls on the spectrum are likely to be understood as “shy”, to spend time alone and like it, to seek out the company of those with shared and uncommon interests. I was diagnosised by a female transpersonal therapist, who also identifies with the spectrum. The other two ASD’s I know are also women. As is Dr. Temple Grandin, whose insights and writings on ASD, based on her own experiences, are well recognized.

      As many ASD’s have trouble tracking what is accepted behavior for one gender or another, we perhaps give off confusing signals, but that does not have to mean that we are not women, are not female, are not feminists– although we may not be “feminine”.in the narrow sense. Those who struggle to love and care for those who are both ASD and male deserve respect, but to tie the Spectrum to the gender “male” and suggest that “maleness” implies certain lacks in human connectedness– that is, al least, arguing in advance of the evidence.

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      • Thank you, superkrone (love this name), for writing about your own experience–a woman on the spectrum. I’ve met Dr. Temple Grandin and heard her speak at a conference on autism. She is, indeed, a fascinating human being. I liked how Temple honored her mother during her lecture, stating that her mother insisted that she learn “skills” while growing up. Temple began by taking in sewing for her neighbors, and as that skill developed, she learned to create some beautiful embroidery.

        My intention is not “to tie the Spectrum to the gender ‘male’ and suggest that ‘maleness’ implies certain lacks in human connectedness….” What I do suggest is that when people (and based on what we currently know about autism, more males than females fall on the spectrum)–when they display what some consider to be aberrant behavior in our day and time, they just may be reflecting what patriarchy teaches and expects–especially from men. Society (with all its expectations) has a huge effect on all our behaviors. It is not “maleness,” but “masculinity”–those values and “ways of being” in society that men (males) are expected to reflect that, in my opinion, cause difficulties.

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  14. This was a fascinating article. I’d say the comparison of autism and patriarchal values was insightful. For me, it seems that most heterosexual men are emotionally dead and without empathy. Men like this tend to go into professions that allow them to be this way. On the other hand, autism–high functioning- might be a huge advantage in women, who get forced to feel and take care of everyone. I’d say that autism in women breeds strength, and autism in men is very hard to distinguish from all men who have made the world a toxic mess of male supremacy.

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    • Thank you, AE, for your interesting response. Very much appreciate your support. One of the difficulties, I would say, with high-functioning women is that women in our society are likely to be censored when displaying the kind of “strength” that in our highly-gendered society is reserved for men. However, your thinking has a wonderful logic to it!

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      • Except, AE and Esther, empathy is where we need to be headed as a culture. We need to be open to the needs of all of society, not just those who already have what they need (for e.g. white middle-class and upper-class men). I don’t think it was a mistake of the Women’s Movement to offer assertiveness training to women, but it was an oversight not to offer “empathy training” to men. Unfortunately, to make it through the transition to a more “egalitarian world,” women need to be able to advocate for themselves within patriarchy and that means they need to learn how to act more like the men (i.e. like men’s acculturation to assertiveness, etc.). But for us to form a livable society in the long term, we all (men and women alike) need to become more like women (i.e. their acculturation to nurturance, cooperation, empathy, caring, etc.).

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  15. Thank you Esther. Ive been married for 19 years, and your shared thoughts just confirm what I had suspected for quite a while. It explains so much about my highly intelligent husband who is single-minded when it comes to his career, constantly pre-occupied with it, lacks empathy, keeps to himself, and doesn’t really nurture familial relationships. I have 3 brothers, none of whom are anywhere like this, so it took me a long time to grasp. In fact, two of my brothers, though highly intelligent, are incredibly empathetic.

    I also have 4 sons and have noticed some of these traits in my oldest, and your article just made it easier for me to have a conversation with my boys about this.

    How you managed a couple of decades with this is truly inspiring especially if you, like me, choose to undermine patriarchy in all it’s guises, every step of the way.
    Thanks once again for sharing.

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    • Thank you, Ray, for your empathetic response. That means so much to me. One of the hardest aspects in my particular journey has been the dismissive attitude from family, friends, and counselors on those occasions when I’d “take a chance” and open up about my experience within the family and my perception about it all. Sending you lots of positive energy as you continue to find your way in your particular circumstances.

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  16. I think autism is a feminist issue because it is an issue where women are vastly underdiagnosed and people with autism (of all genders) are marginalized because they are on the spectrum. I do not think autism is a result of patriarchy, nor do I think autism is a problem. I say this as someone who is almost positive that I have ASD (yet to have professional diagnosis). Our brains are different than neurotypicals’, but that is not a bad thing. It is quite disturbing to me how often when an autistic person commits a violent act we are so quick to pin the blame on their autism. Knowing when displays of empathy through words or action are expected can be challenging for those with ASD, but this does not indicate a lack of feeling.

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    • Thanks, Jacqueline, for your reply. I do not think autism is a result of patriarchy, either. The point I am attempting to make is that autism (in many cases–especially men in our society who are high-functioning) reflect patriarchal values and many of those “values” match symptoms of autism that one finds in articles on the subject. In my experience, then, I’ve found discussion about behaviors with those high-functioning men in my life practically impossible.

      Your comment about people with autism having brains that are different from neurotypical people’s brains reminded me of Temple Grandin. When I heard her speak at a conference a couple of years ago, she brought along pictures of her brain and put those pictures up on the screen alongside of a “normal” (whatever that is) brain. Her point was that, in her case, she “sees” and understands things visually (almost exclusively).

      And, of course, it’s never appropriate to blame people’s acts on any one thing. We (humans) are so complex. My father would blame what he considered negative behavior on the fact that somebody was a woman. Not “cool.”

      I wish you peace on your journey.

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  17. Hi to all, this is a challenging subject for sure. Both my boys were diagnosed with autism at age one. I began to notice that what I was reading to understand them, was reminding me of my own childhood. When I was a little girl, I was highly sensitive, empathic and non-verbal because as I understand now, I was and am a sensitive empathy and highly intuitive. ( I was diagnosed just for validation back in 2012. ) It is actually more that there is so much sensory overwhelm on so many levels that we retreat inward to align directly with source. My oldest Asperger son who is now ten is highly spiritual, very sensitive, but is confused about the human experience, because children learn early to say one thing but act the other ie inauthenticity. The patriarchal culture does not know how to understand any one’s humanity and certainly not those of us on the spectrum. I consider it part of human evolution as does David Icke, who says these folks have access to parts of the brain we once had a very very long time ago and are coming back on line with, hence the savant qualities many access. Both my boys refer to Creator as Mother God though I did not push that agenda. CJ wants to fix computers or make them for free because living in section 8 housing he understands people are in need of so much and he has a big heart. He also wants to build computers that run on free energy to take care of Mother Earth and her children. My younger son is very artistic and musical and more non-verbal as I was when I was a little girl. We just have different operating systems and we come on line at a different rate. We process more slowly but it forces deeper contemplation. We massively internalize but it causes us to take responsibility for ourselves too. I see this as part of human evolution. I asked our In home Behaviorial Therapist why she thought the universe is showing us autism and she said one consistent thing she saw was that these children force us to slow down. That certainly seems valuable in this culture. I also see many therapies used to help children with social skills being something that all children can benefit from interms of more enlightened social interactions. That sort of thing could be a game changer for better sensitizing children to each others needs, individuality and humanity. I think boys on the spectrum will not be able for the most part I think to enroll in the military. That is a good thing in my book. These boys don’t have machismo. I have had to take my boys out of public school because most little boys are very mean-spirited. Boys with autism can be very bright and very sweet and demonstrative. My little guys have their challenges but they are so loving and lovely. Our culture is full of toxicity and I think children with autism are showing us what they need to be provided the proper environment to flourish or they self implode. I think they are showing us about patriarchy and how sick it is not just for them but for all of us. I also think this is one way Holy Mother is if you will breeding out the meanspirited-ness of men in the culture. Just my experience as an Asperger Mom with two children, boys with autism. Dr. Joe DiSpenza is a neuroscientist who says viewing brain xrays or mri’s – there is no such thing as a normal brain…that makes sense to me….thanks for listening….

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  18. Hello, Autistic guy here.
    Read through your article, I don’t think Autism is a feminist issue, nor do I want it to be. There is already enough misinformation about what Autism is, and the last thing I want is for feminists mucking up the waters even further. Given how you’ve described your Spouse, I don’t think he’s autistic, either that or it is so high on the spectrum that it wouldn’t even matter. He is allowed to have his own quirks, he is an individual after all. I would assume he was a rumbustious young boy or had Adhd, being autistic doesn’t mean that you are always going to act out. Speaking personally I myself have always been very well behaved.

    Also, the list of symptoms is garbage, most of these symptoms are not accurate. Its also missing cognitive dissension, because most of them are not highly intelligent. At this point the conventional symptoms are so broad that everyone is to some degree autistic. As for what you’ve said about a lack of empathy, I find that personally insulting, given your lack of knowledge on the subject. Some of the most loving and compassionate people I’ve met growing up have been the mentally disabled and autistic, because they are people who understand what it is like to be disenfranchised. Think about all the bombings and murders that happen on a regular basis, are we to say that they too have autism? If so then the question should be who doesn’t have autism. I think you one example is of poor taste.

    More often then not it is feminists and other ideologues that exhibit these symptoms, so does that mean most “radical” feminists have autism? How about people that demand safe spaces? You see how this approach doesn’t work?

    I won’t go into the patriarchy part because frankly I think that that would be opening up a whole new can of worms. All I’ll say is that I disagree, autism should not be viewed as a means outside of the “patriarchal mindset” because autistic people want to be apart of it. It sucks being autistic.

    Sorry for the tangent, anyways. Don’t focus too much on diagnostics, I can tell you first hand that most institutions created to help high functioning autistic people are not very effective, neither is segregating them with other like minded autistic people. After all, the goal is to have autistic people develop their social and cognitive skills, not restrain them in a bubble. When in a bubble, the autistic person believes that he/she cannot escape it, like an elephant that is tied with a rope, it has the strength to free itself but cannot because it believes it can’t. These institutions reinforce that idea and it destroys autistic people from the inside and out, its why so many of us become depressed. It’s why I don’t base my identity so much on the disability anymore, because it has caused me so much grief and sadness throughout most of my life.

    As for why their aren’t as many autistic girls as boys, I’m not sure myself, but I think it would be foolish to assume that it is because of sexism. Personally I think girls are just more socially adjusted then boys -I don’t care if that sounds sexist because generally speaking its true- so it makes it harder to make an accurate assessment.

    Overall, just treat them like normal people.

    Now I’m on my third year of university, studying visual arts and in a healthy relationship with my girlfriend, who studies art as well. Most people would never think I’m autistic because I’ve learned to adapt. Because I don’t let my autism dictated how I live my life. It is oppressive, and feminists are not going to fix that. You DO NOT have my permission to do so, or represent me.

    I’m sure I haven’t been all that pleasant throughout this comment, and I’m sure you can tell based on what I’ve written that I am not and don’t agree with feminism. If you have made it thus far then I thank you for reading a different opinion. I assure you that this isn’t out of any misogynistic notions or ignorance. Learning more about it is actually why I’m not a feminist, but fear not I’ve actually a far left leaning sort of guy, I swear. After all my girlfriend even self identifies as a feminist -though in a more second wave sort of sense- and often reads up on feminist theory involving the art world. We always have robust conversations.

    I recommend you watch a documentary called “Autism in Love”. Its about four autistic people trying to deal with their own romantic experiences. I think it is an accurate depiction on what its like to be autistic.

    Thank you for reading and goodbye.

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Trackbacks

  1. » Autism: A Feminist Issue? by Esther Nelson
  2. #Feminists4Autism – The Rationalists
  3. ASD in girls: Gender stereotypes have made us horrible at recognizing autism in women and girls — Quartz
  4. Gender stereotypes have made us horrible at recognizing autism in women and girls – Quartz – Autism Global News

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