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.