Double Rainbow: Asperger's and Girls

In my last post, I critiqued a chapter of Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. Now I’m taking a look at Asperger’s and Girls, a slim collection of essays in which Attwood and others tackle the intersection of Asperger’s and gender.

Or, rather, in which they attempt to take on that intersection.

Now, a few (well, one or two) of the contributions to this collection are thoughtful reflections on what it means to be a girl or woman with Asperger syndrome. Certainly the intersection between gender and autism is one that warrants interrogation. Autism is popularly thought of as a condition that predominantly affects males, and many more males are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders than females. Some “experts” even assert that autism is constituted by the possession of an “extreme male brain.” (A concept that warrants a post all to itself.)

Tony Attwood starts off the collection (he is unbearably referred to as the “world’s foremost authority on the subject of Asperger’s syndrome” on the back of the book) and his piece actually isn’t awful. It isn’t particularly substantive or well-developed either—it’s a disjointed collection of Attwood’s thoughts about why girls might be under-diagnosed, and how girls and women with Asperger syndrome might present differently from men and boys. The piece, titled “The Pattern of Abilities and Development of Girls with Asperger’s Syndrome,” essentially lists behavior patterns that are stereotypically gendered female—like a lower likelihood of aggression, playing with dolls, and an interest in animals and literature vs. technology and math—and maps them onto Asperger’s. Attwood acknowledges the stereotypical nature of these observations, however. He allows for the understanding that boys and girls are socialized differently and face different behavioral expectations, and that diagnostic disparities and differences in presentation are not necessarily due to some inherent difference between the sexes. (Not that there are only two sexes, but that reality is far beyond the limited scope of this book.)

“Girls,” of course, is not a monolithic group. The contributions to this volume completely ignore race and ethnicity, and thereby unintentionally default to addressing a white readership. Class and geography, and thus their attendant issues concerning access to diagnostic and supportive resources, are ignored. Any meaningful discussion of girls’ sexuality and gender expression can’t afford to ignore non-straight sexualities or gender non-conforming idenities and behaviors, but this book does just that. Not only does it erase queer autistic experience by failing to acknowledge it as a reality, but it actually singles out and pathologizes certain gender non-conforming behaviors.

The chapter titled  “Preparing for Puberty and Beyond,” by Mary Wrobel, is—as one might expect, sadly—phenomenally essentialist. The author fixates on menstruation as the definitive marker of female physical maturity, erasing the experiences of people with ovaries and a uterus who nonetheless don’t menstruate–or male-identified people who do–and completely denying the existence of trans girls and women. Sexual attraction is always described in terms of “the opposite sex.” In one passage that completely drives me up a wall, the author asserts:

It is socially appropriate for teenage girls to shave their legs and underarms. Girls who don’t shave are likely to be teased and humiliated. Most neurotypical girls decide to shave on their own, but the idea of shaving may not occur to girls with Asperger’s. At some point before high school, parents will need to explain the resons for shaving and carefully instruct their daughters on leg and underarm shaving.

Yes, teenage girls who don’t shave are likely to be teased and humiliated—which is wrong. Anyone might choose to shave or not, but the expectation that women shave their legs and underarms is arbitrary and oppressive. That paragraph is loaded: Are girls who don’t shave simply failing to grasp “appropriate” behavior? Are unshaven legs or underarms indicative of something “wrong?” What about people who choose not to shave for reasons related to identity? Because shaving one’s legs and underarms is such a gendered behavior, girls who feel more “masculine” may just not feel right shaving. Or one might find shaving uncomfortable or just something not worth her time—women don’t owe society an explanation for choosing not to shave, and we don’t deserve to be scrutinized and shamed over the matter. I thought feminists beat this issue to death decades ago.

I’m so hung up on this passage because it’s a glaring example of how this book constructs adolescent girls with Asperger syndrome as naïve innocents who just need to be guided toward “appropriate” expressions of gender normativity and heterosexuality. Gender norms are never challenged, and most of the contributors apparently never even entertained the notion that girls on the spectrum might have their own thoughts about gender and sexual politics. 

There is actually an entire chapter dedicated to extolling the joys of unquestioning conformity to social expectations. Called “Girl to Girl: Advice on Friendship, Bullying, and Fitting In,” it’s an exquisitely, excrutiatingly offensive little piece. I can’t do it justice in one or two short paragraphs; it’s getting a post all it’s own.

Out of nine chapters, only three are actually written by women on the autism spectrum. All three are clustered together at the back of the book, a poignant reflection of how autistic voices are marginalized and tokenized within our own movement. “Aspie Do’s and Don’ts: Dating, Relationships and Marriage,” by Jennifer McIlwee Meyers, is more or less what it appears: a rambling assemblage of relationship advice for young women with Asperger’s. Meyers actively deconstructs some popular attitudes toward dating and relationships, but her contribution is nonetheless disappointingly heteronormative, in keeping with the rest of the book. Ruth Snyder’s “Maternal Instincts in Asperger Syndrome” is a miniature memoir detailing the author’s experiences from adolescence to adulthood, dealing with abusive partners and dismissive doctors, and raising her four children. The piece is difficult to summarize, and the introductory blurb that precedes it is ickily fetishistic:

Ruth Snyder’s story is often painful to read, as she describes a childhood of abuse and neglect. The expression of her experiences is as significant as their content: hers is a genuine voice from the world of autism.

She’s survived many betrayals—by uncaring parents who were ashamed of her; lovers who used her and left her; doctors who misdiagnosed her and her children; and unsympathetic teachers—we must marvel at her resiliency. She had never stopped looking for ways to improve her life and the lives of her children. We are so grateful she has shared her story, and believe it will enlighten all who read it.

This passage echoes loudly of the supercrip trope, and it’s unclear what exactly makes Snyder’s voice more “genuine” than those of the other two autistic women who contributed to the book.

The contribution of Temple Grandin, who is easily the most well-known of the authors, is confined to the final two and a half pages. Grandin isn’t an unproblematic figure, but in the context of this particular book her chapter is probably the most subversive. In “For Me, A Good Career Gave Life Meaning,” she briefly describes her experience as asexual and aromantic, and how she finds fulfillment primarily through her intellectual and working life. Grandin’s is the only chapter that doesn’t essentialize or perpetuate oppressive attitudes toward gender and sexuality. Interestingly, Grandin’s is the only piece in which the editor has taken pains to express that she “doesn’t claim to speak for all women on the spectrum.”

All of the other chapters, to varying degrees, emphasize autistic women’s “vulnerability” to “predators.” While, as I have pointed out multiple times in previous posts, disabled women are far more likely than non-disabled women to be victims of sexual assault, this book places the onus of avoiding victimization on girls and their parents instead of confronting the structural reality of rape culture. This attitude, combined with a complete ignorance of intersectionality and the contributors’ fixation on menstruation and (heterosexual) dating, makes the collection feel bizarrely out of touch. The topic of autism and gender does warrant analysis, but this particular book—despite being touted as “ground-breaking”—falls short of that task because it seems to have borrowed its gender politics from Caitlin Flanagan.

Previously: Tony Attwood tells us to “make lemonade,” Autism vs. Asperger Syndrome


by Caroline Narby
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I write a little bit in the areas of embodiment and autism. I am very disappointed that Bitch Media has announced their intent to discriminate against people with disabilities in the hiring process for an executive editor. 

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11 Comments Have Been Posted

I actually own that book. I

I actually own that book. I found nothing of worth in it. The chapter on puberty was disgusting. The way it just subscribed to "social rankings" (like certain people being better than others) in a way that validates them, while also saying autistic people would never really aspire to much within those ranks, just ugh. The chapters by autistic women were better, but that wasn't hard (and they're not great). It was especially disappointing because I was so glad to finally see something about autistic women, and a lot of people had said it was a good read. After reading this thing, I bought Women From Another Planet, which was a relief.

I have Aspergers and a book

I have Aspergers and a book I've enjoyed reading is Aspergirls by Rudy Simone. Rudy is on the spectrum and there's the load of different accounts from others on the spectrum. It takes stuff from partners and parents of those with Aspergers. I'm not sure if it said the kind of b.s. that was mentioned in your article, but I say give it a try.

Re shaving

I think it would be so nice if people could just tell their daughters "Other girls will be starting to shave, this is why some women do shave this is why some women don't, and you can go back and forth, but you should know how others might see whatever you decide to do."

This could carry over to so many other things to. "If your goal is to look flirty and feminine, I really think you should wear this dress, if your goal is to be comfortable and show off how much you love X, that t-shirt is good."

It allows for gender non-conformity, and self-expression, but at the same time parents/others can help guide those who really would like to shave their legs/wear the more feminine outfit, but just don't think to.

'the experts'

i really appreciate the article by caroline narby, it was very honest & accurate.

i'm 50, african american,divorcee, of a 17 yrs hetero-marriage, a 'menopausal-homosexual/latent lesbian', mother of two teens, x cps teacher & i doubled majored in psychology & physical ed. & participated in 3 intercollegiate sports, etc. and i have aspergers. i do suffer from anxiety daily, memory issues, particularly details, sometimes have trouble verbalizing thoughts that easily come to mind. the social anxiety & sensory over load anxiety seem to have increased over the years & as i have become more aware of the actual workings of the local, regional & global society. i assert that increase stress makes both of the anxiety issues; social & sensory overload more pervasive & thus prevalent.

it is convenient and typical for the 'nero-typicals' to assume that their social interaction is 'normal' thus healthy. it may be 'the norm', but 'the norm' does not necessarily denote healthiness. the basic capacity to read emotions & thus behavior via body language & eye behavior is useful but by no means essential to the ascendance to one's highest potential.

i liken such abilities of the visually & speech dominate population as potential deficits to their over all development. i site helen kellers great achievments without such abilities. i also sight temple grandins view that such a dominance of speech and i shall also add capacity for 'double talk' may masks or may inhibit a more balanced development in other areas of mental processess.

the emphasis of visual image, body language, subjective beauty, being thin, having the 'right' clothes, & seeming 'cool' has led this society and others to some ridiculous and serious adverse behaviors. the addiction to fashion, non essential cosmetic surgery, fad diets, cliques, bullying & such adds to the stress of many lives. people doomed to find solace in their over-dependence on nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, food, shopping, sleeping pills etc.

perhaps, *'the law of homeostasis' has intervene to give some persons a clearer perspective of life. perhaps eliminating the 'over used' 'cognitive connections' (speech & social cognition) that have led to such a shallow, narrow-minded & self entitled society was the way 'the universe' chose to bring some amount of balance back to humanities' spiraling out of control.

as temple grandin reminds us, we now have more humane handling of 'stock' animals, the nternet which has brought the world together to witness great revolutions, increased awareness of global issues & yes, more toys for the 'nerotypicals' etc. perhaps, it is time for the 'typicals' to stop & consider that we are their needed counterweight. i think it's 'hightime' that the 'typicals' humble out and ask us what's going on inside of our heads, instead of making their narrow-minded speculations & labeling it as 'expert' or 'ground breaking'.

i'm not sure who coined the term 'nero-typicals' but perhaps those on 'the spectrum' should be affectionately considered as 'nero-extraordinaires'? just a thought.

terri a.

Great Book

Book is really helpful for people who don't know about Aspergers and its affects. This book is a great resource to get knowledge about Aspergers. I don't say that this have all the information about Aspergers and its treatment. But Its quite fine for people like me.


I too did not realize that this had to be done, ha! Neither did I understand the whole "Booby Hammock" thing.. Nice post. :D

I think I may have Asperger's

I know it will be really hard to get a diagnosis if I do! I am 20 years old right now and when I was younger I think I was incorrectly diagnosed with ADHD.

I am really disapointed to know this about this book. I thought we were making progress here! If anything these neurotypical heteronormative people don't think people with asperger's are intelligent enough to write about themselves.

Please keep writing about this Bitch. I love you guys so much, I listen to your podcasts and I have the current and my first Bitch maganize by my bedside.

Too many overgeneralizations

My mom brought this book awhile ago from an Asperger conference she went to when I was still in high school. When I read the book I didn't like it either. It is written by a bunch of so-called "experts" who claim they know Aspergers and autism. I agree with this post that this book is downright offensive and it paints girls on the spectrum as naive individuals. As a girl on the spectrum, it makes me mad that the experts try to make us fit in with the neurotypical society rather than accepting us for who we are. I am about embracing autism and the individual and free choice. My dream is to have a world where differences and quirks are accepted. Another thing I didn't like about the Aspergers and Girls book is that it makes a lot of overgeneralizations. To sum it up, I say don't by the book it is offensive and it makes fun of us.


A 50+ diagnosed female...

I've recently been wondering why I keep apologizing, keep trying to explain to my lovers about AS. Why shouldn't they have to justify themselves, instead? We're logical, and peacekeepers. Great qualities. Do we really want to fit into their world? I think my answer is no. I'm tired of reading about us, tired of trying to accommodate the NT s. So what if we don't want to shave our legs? Way bigger problems in the world than that. If "fitting in" is all they have, it isn't good enough. A quote from Thoreau: "Don't just be good. Be good for something."

Time to take your universe back, ladies. You're beautiful, just the way you are, so wipe the dust off your feet. Time to celebrate the gift you were born with, even if it means being lonely sometimes.

mom of one with Aspergers and another that might have Aspergers

<p>Hi im a mom of five girls My older girls is 19 she has Aspergers I always new she was different when she was younger but the DR did not see what i saw Kari is her name she is so strong in so many ways We finely got a diagnosis of Aspergers at the age of 17 teen .Kari is so sensitive to a lot ways i guess I am trying to say that she is everything the Dr say that Aspergers is about . But now I am confused my 13 yr old has always been difficult totally opposite from Kari she is not sensitive she has a flat affect to her expression and can be very mean in some ways i thought boys where only like that . Kari and Alexis was the same in a lot of ways when they was younger. Alexis O.T says she has all the classic signs of Aspergers can some one please inform me of how many different signs there can be in girls with Aspergers because Alexis DR is not helping me at all i read the book that you are talking about and i did not get anything out of it it seems like they don't no why girls are different aether. please if any one can give me any feed back on this i would appreciate it so much thank you</p>

I am late commenting. I have

I am late commenting.
I have recently been diagnosed as an Aspie and so I decided to read books about females with Asperger's to make sense of things. I read this book and found it highly problematic. It did not represent my situation in any way and I decided to find what others had to say about it. I agree with the sentiments of this article. I hate how it makes female Aspies out to be innocent and naive, it reads like fetishization to me. Another attempt to stereotype non-neurotypical women as sexless, virginal, and pure.

I am more on the feminine side but I was always deeply obsessed with numbers, planets, and stars. I have since moved on to organic Chemistry. I reject the generalization that girls tend to choose dolls as their obsession. Puberty was a difficult time because it was made difficult by society. I never understood the logic behind shaving. When I was told yo shave by my mother I hadn't realized it was a gendered behaviour. I would cringe when I seen unshaven males because I rigidly applied this social expectation to everyone. I don't feel gender. I wonder if this is common among individuals with Asperger's.

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