My problems with ‘female autism’

A few years ago a new notion arrived in the autism world – that of ‘female autism.’ This is the idea that autistic women and girls present differently to men and boys. On the surface there is some validity to this but I have a number of reservations about this model.

The first and most obvious – to my mind any least – is that there are more than two genders. Binary male and binary female are but two of a myriad gender identities  so to say autism is either ‘male’ or ‘female’ invalidates the experience of gender divergent folks. Is there, for example a non-binary autism type or a trans masculine autism type? Are there lists of characteristics for these groups? Autism is different for each autistic person whatever their gender identity may be and gender goes way beyond the binary of cis male and cis female. 

To talk about ‘female autism’ is to deny all the other genders. It also doesn’t really work, even with autistic people who are cis gender. Many cis autistic women have the apparently ‘male’ characteristics an many cis autistic men have the apparently ‘female’ characteristics, In fact many cis autistic people have a combination of the ‘male and ‘female’ traits making the whole thing quite problematic. The gendered autism model doesn’t quite work.

There is a history of gendered approaches to understanding autism and many of them are highly problematic. When I started my advocacy career in the mid-2000s there was a pervasive view that autism was the result of an ‘extreme male brain.’ As such autistic people were seen as being very masculine in their approach to life and their expression. There are so many issues with this it may make my laptop explode as I type!! Well, maybe not but it is very problematic. If we are all ‘extreme male’ then why are there autistic trans women? Why are there autistic non-binary people? Also what are ‘male’ characteristics anyway? This theory suggests a very poor understanding of gender and of autism but it was pervasive for many years.

There are many lists of gendered autistic characteristics, some compiled by prominent autistic women. I have an issue with these lists because they suggest a poor understanding of the complexities of gender and the nuances and often individual nature of autism. To say ‘this is a female trait’ and ‘this is a male trait’ doesn’t really work in my mind. That being said autistic women and girls can still struggle to get a diagnosis. This does suggest a difference for autistic cis women but we need to be really careful about assigning characteristics broadly to any particular gender. Autistic cis men and boys and gender divergent folks can also struggle to receive an appropriate diagnosis. I think clinicians need to improve their understanding of autism for ALL genders. There are some elements of life and expression that many autistic women and girls might share but that is a very different notion to saying ‘autistic women do this that and the other.’ Autistic people need to be taken as individuals whatever their gender.

We need to get better at understanding autism as well as gender.   Gender – and autism – are not as simple as assigning a list of attributes to an entire demographic. I prefer to view us as individuals with individual identities, expression and needs.

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