The not so funny thing about categories is that the law of the excluded middle makes you take sides. You start out by naming something in order to understand someone better, in a certain respect. The label then takes on its own reality and in trying to explain it, it will become necessary to subsume people under it. This is done on their behalf, because they can’t possibly want to be that way. Except that we can and will wind up wanting to do it our way. At that point we take your label and proceed to own it by challenging what you make of it. “We’re not insane,” we’ll say, “you are for calling us that.”
All that is natural and unavoidable but it is also decidedly unhelpful as two sides have so been created. Positions get fortified. War symbols are created. One side carries the flag of the poor children (and their poor parents) who can’t speak for themselves. The other side that of the adults who cannot stop speaking for themselves (and their poor sisters). And then mayhem: you’re either for or against autism. I’m not so much interested here in the merit of one side or the other (but this is a clue: I can’t stop speaking for myself ;-). What I’m interested in is how all of this literally affects autistic people, because it does. It does in a big way.
On ‘not seeming’ autistic
You don’t have to look far to find derogatory descriptions of the communication of autistic people. Terms such as ‘disorder’, ‘impairment’, ‘deficit’ and ‘dysfunction’ abound in the research literature which, when you drill down into it, offers multitudes of negative conceptualisations of the ways that autistic people do, or don’t express themselves. In simple terms, autistic people are considered impaired whether they are speaking, or not speaking, for the words they choose, or don’t choose, for talking too quickly, or too slowly, for doing so at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or in the wrong place. Indeed, as I wrote in 2018, when I explored the intersection of autistic communication with noise and silence in schools, autistic people are simply considered to be making ‘the wrong kind of noise’.
Time to rethink autism and communication
The problem with the term ‘female autism’ is it essentialises the femininity of the experience of being autistic in this way. Yet there is nothing about this which is unique to autistic women and girls. When I first self-diagnosed I spent a lot of time reading blogs and books by other autistic women, the resonance of their words was a profound comfort to me during the uncertain time while I was waiting for a formal diagnosis. However, I would argue that this resonance wasn’t because they were female, it was because they are similar autistic people to me. Increasingly I find myself meeting men who are questioning whether they might be autistic and I find myself pointing them toward resources on autistic women and girls because this is the type of autistic person they are. This has nothing to do with their gender identity, they are not female type autistics any more than women who have been diagnosed using current tools are extreme male type autistics!
Beyond ‘female autism’
This means that if you are autistic but you like reading novels, your autism quotient will be lower. So you could be less likely to be referred on to autism specialists for assessment. It also means that mathematicians may score higher on the questionnaire because they are interested in numbers –- but not necessarily because they are autistic.
Not all autistic people are good at maths and science – despite the stereotypes