There are some complex and interesting interactions between autism and feminism, which cut in several directions at once, and I think they’re worth giving some thought to.
Views from the Margins
For most autistic people, realising that society has expectations of us comes with the realisation that we do not conform with them. We often find it difficult to identify the norms we’re expected to live up to, and even when we have, if we can’t see the point then most of us can’t bring ourselves to try very hard. We tend to have little patience for things that seem stupid to us.
So autists are natural non-conformists. In a way, that gives us a head start when it comes to recognising how ill-served women and girls are by society’s norms. Because we can’t and won’t take social expectations for granted, it seems absurd to expect that the female population in general would — especially given how many autistic people have very strong opinions about what’s fair and what’s not.
On top of that, among the things that autists tend to be no good at conforming to are gender norms. It is increasingly widely recognised that there is an intriguing correlation between autism and variant gender identities, but this is a far broader thing. Boys are expected to be competitive, in social games that are often beyond us. We are expected to enjoy team sports, when teams are baffling and most of us are dyspraxic or at least clumsy. We are expected to be part of a universal boys’ club by default, when for the most part other boys are no less alien to us than girls are.
All of this means that the average autistic boy suffers a good deal from the patriarchy. Male privilege means something quite different for someone able and willing to dominate others than it does for a socially confused autistic boy who just can’t get a handle on masculinity. It’s something else again for someone who’s got enough of a handle on masculinity to reject it outright.
Autistic girls don’t do any better out of it of course, having to deal with all the usual crap that girls have to put up with in a patriarchal society, and having to navigate social hierarchies that are largely incomprehensible. All this while being frequently baffled by things that their peers, teachers and parents expect of girls.
The ‘Extreme Male’ Privilege Problem
All of this means that an autist can expect to get acquainted early on with many of the problems faced by marginalised people everywhere. On the other hand, we can sometimes lack insight into other people’s perspectives, particularly the neurotypical people we tend to be surrounded by. The imaginative leap required to understand where female neurotypicals are coming from is not an easy one even for women on the spectrum, let alone men, boys and the rest of us. Part of feminism is not just growing aware of the ways that social relations disadvantage women, but actively working to change them. That’s a challenge!
Many of the things that men do, to the detriment of women, are things that autistic people are particularly prone to. Men too often talk over women, and fail to listen to what they say; autists tend to find it hard to know when to stop talking on topics of personal interest, and can be slow to process what other people are saying. This can manifest as extreme forms of what men do to women all the time. On the other hand, in autistic women and, to be fair, a large number of men, it can go the other way: staying quiet for fear of imposing or offending in some way.
Living with other people, men tend to spend far less time than women doing housework; autists have a strong tendency to either be obsessively clean and tidy, or hopelessly messy. That leaves a lot of autistic men not doing our fair share of just the sorts of things feminists have been trying to convince men to get the hang of for as long as there have been feminists. We all miss things that seem obvious to others sometimes, and changing or acquiring habits is hard. That goes for everyone, but autists far more so.
Perhaps the worst is when autistic men come across as creepy (this is not something autistic women are entirely immune to, but women are generally far less likely than men to be seen as creepy). This is not always our fault. I recently read an article about the psychology of creepiness with a sinking feeling, as I realised how many of the psychological cues for a perception of creepiness are regularly seen in autistic people: ‘Invading personal space’? Oops. ‘Talking too much about a topic’? Guilty as charged. ‘Laughing at inappropriate times’? ‘Not letting someone out of conversation?’ ‘Displaying too much or too little emotion’? ‘Smiling peculiarly’?
…oh dear. Sorry about that.
Much of this is down to the fact that non-autistic people often find those on the spectrum extremely difficult to read, as well as vice versa. As this study notes, things that make a person unpredictable often make them seem creepy. It’s hard to know what to do about this; perhaps specific anti-creepiness training could be useful for some of us, but perhaps it might also help if other people got better at spotting when social awkwardness is not a sign that someone is a threat. Over-zealous condemnation of men who make other people uncomfortable risks veering into ableism, but personal safety is crucial. By all means keep your distance from anyone who makes you uncomfortable, just try to remember that instincts can be wrong.
Worse than passively making people uncomfortable through our ordinary modes of expression, there are problems that stem partly from loneliness of many autists, and the difficulty in finding socially acceptable ways of expressing sexual or romantic interest. These range from clumsy advances and thoughtless expressions of disappointment to refusals to acknowledge signs of disinterest, to inappropriate touching or worse. All of this needs to be understood in the wider cultural context of the objectification of women, and male feelings of entitlement to women’s bodies. We might be relatively insensitive to (and critical of) cultural influences, but we’re not immune. At times this can make spaces that should be autistic-friendly inaccessible to autistic women, thanks to the wrong kinds of attention from men on the spectrum. Still, most autists, like most humans in general, don’t want to hurt anyone, and feel bad if and when we realise we’ve overstepped a boundary.
Boundary-spotting can be difficult sometimes, and at other times people trample right over each other’s boundaries knowingly. The communication difficulties that exist between autistic people and everyone else can make it particularly hard to recognise and enforce boundaries, which makes us bullish at times, and vulnerable at other times; difficulty understanding boundaries goes both ways.
There’s no reason to think autistic men are any more likely to be sexual predators, but autistic men who hold the same bad ideas about women as so many men will sometimes make glaringly inappropriate moves. Autism doesn’t make it okay to keep making them. Personal responsibility in light of neurological difference is a topic for another post — a long one— but to start with, we need to recognise that personal responsibility is not a binary thing. Dealing sensibly with moral questions means acknowledging that some things are far harder for some people. This does not absolve them of responsibility for those things, but neither does it leave them quite as culpable.
Pros and Cons of Obliviousness
There are advantages to a level of insensitivity to the expectations of others and the undertones of social interactions, when it comes to just getting on with things. Sometimes, as I’ve said, this doesn’t work out so well for other people; but it’s not always bad to tune out the crap that other people expect from you. If you’re pursuing goals that society has tried to tell you are out of your reach, you may be well-served by a built-in disregard for widely held ideas. There’s a freedom in coming to terms with the realisation you’ll never be what many people want you to be. Why would you want to be anyway, right? This probably helps explain the prevalence of autists defying gender norms — both in terms of non-binary and trans gender identities, and in terms of women determinedly pursuing careers in male-dominated professions.
Unfortunately, ignoring the crap that people throw at you isn’t always enough. Sometimes they just escalate their attacks until they’re sure their point has very firmly hit home. That can hit autists of all genders hard, and it can be difficult to know how to predict or fight this kind of escalation.
That difficulty navigating social expectations and conflict can also leave us vulnerable in sexual situations. Given how awful society at large is at respecting and negotiating consent, the additional misunderstandings that autism can bring, and how much less opportunity some of us have to gain experience with these things, it’s no surprise that autistic people can be unsure when or how it’s okay to withhold consent. Too much about this kind of thing is rarely made explicit. Autistic women are far from the only ones who are sometimes unsure if it’s okay to say no — but the problem can be particularly acute there. When your own instincts about what’s okay and what’s not are regularly at odds with those of most other people, there’s a lot of pressure to go along with what other people tell you is okay. It’s not always made clear that this definitely doesn’t extend to sex, and most of us don’t get taught enough about how to decline things anyway. All of this can leave autistic people alarmingly vulnerable to sexual predators. Many autists have also had their bodily autonomy taken away from them in institutional or therapeutic settings, one reason to be wary of some popular interventions.
The fact that these problems have not been discussed more has a lot to do with the under-diagnosis of autistic girls and women. It is still widely believed that autism is several times more common in males than in females, but in recent years we have started to realise that the far higher diagnosis rates in male populations are largely caused by autism presenting differently in girls. Societal expectations of girls make it more likely that they will learn how to fade into the background rather than causing a scene, to be manoeuvred into socialising whether they like it or not, and to have more people-focused interests. All of that makes it less likely they will be identified as autistic, and let’s also remember that across the board, the difficulties and complaints of those identified as female are taken less seriously by doctors, teachers and other professionals.
The problems shared by women and autists often have to do with the dominance of socially confident men, and the elevation of ‘masculine’ characteristics like competition and aggression over kindness and patience. The feminist movement and the movement for autistic rights and acceptance have substantial overlaps, as well as important tensions. Both could stand to learn from the other; both will fail many of those they are trying to fight for if they cannot.