Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On Feminerds and Asperger Syndrome

Jarrah of Gender Focus has a new series on nerdiness, womanhood, and feminism going up at Bitch Magazine. One of her first posts details the ever-so-popular stereotype on the hyper-male brain as it relates to autism, specifically, Asperger Syndrome, and nerdiness. What I find interesting, not about the post itself, but about one of the topics discussed, is that while Sheldon Cooper has been labelled as autistic by fans (I'm not disputing that, I'm a fan of the show, and boy howdy, as someone with OCD and autism...) his "friend who happens to be a girl", Amy Farrah Fowler, played by the delightful Mayim Bialik, has not been given the same demand for diagnoses, even though she is essentially a female Sheldon. I relate more to her than to Sheldon, because she was more pragmatic, practical, less arrogant, and is shown, unlike Sheldon, to have a sex drive. I would say she is autistic as well, but because she is a woman, has learned out of necessity to juggle social situations better than him. This is common in women with autism, myself included.
It's a good post, although a tad short, I hope to see more on this so-called male-female brain dichotomy as the series continues. Now, allow me to make my own contribution to the talk on nerdiness, autism, and the so-called male brain. This is a topic of interest to me, since I am a woman, autistic, queer, nerdy, and dating an autistic, queer, nerdy transwoman. Both of us have experienced erasure owing to this idea that autism, specially Asperger Syndrome, is inherently male, and, for some reason, the idea that AS means that you must be good in the hard sciences. Please note I am not a neurologist, a psychiatrist, or therapist. I'm merely a person with autism who distrusts this idea that we must fit into such narrowly prescribed categories. For a downtake on autism and this hyper male brain stuff from a less folksy and anecdotal POV, I recommend the always excellent Lindsay, at Autist's Corner.
To get it out of the way, my girlfriend is a theoretical physicist, and as an undergrad, she double majored in Mathematical Physics and Medieval History. I myself am almost finished with my undergraduate degree, and I'll be graduating with a B.A in Pacific & Asian Studies, after which I intend to pursue a Master's in International Relations, after deciding that I just wasn't cut out for Law. Both of us have our strengths and our weaknesses, my strengths are in languages, linguistics, art history, and Indigenous cultures. Her strengths lie in mathematics, physics, European history and literature, history of science, Middle Eastern culture, and we have overlapping interests in poetry, writing, and art, as well as a plethora of nerdy non-academic interests which are too long to list here. :-)
Neither of us see our interests as inherently male or female, and we didn't even before my girlfriend came out and was living as a presumed man. They were our passions, and they were not limited by our gender or sex. Our strengths are, in our eyes, provided partially by our environment. I grew up in a household that was absolutely rich in art books of the coffee table variety, owing to growing up in a town with many galleries and having a family who knew many of the gallery owners, hence my interest in art history. My girlfriend however, is the child of a mathematician who grew up surrounded by books on maths. Both of us had fathers who presumably have/had autism, and their interests were just as different and varied as ours are. The only thing connecting them was the love and passion with which they pursued their interests.
That's just a big huge disclaimer there. Now, let me explain what stereotyping autism as being a "male" brain means in both the practical and emotional aspects for me.
There is a huge problem with girls with autism being overlooked for a diagnosis. This led to a once common belief that autism affected males more, but the truth is, that gap is slowly closing now. It turns out, the real reason there has been such an imbalanced gender ratio had less to do with genes, and more with different manifestations of the symptoms of autism and the overlooking of girls who did not display the traits in an identical fashion to their male peers. We are all, in other words, Amys to the Sheldons of autism, being more or less ignored for diagnosis because we may have different ways of expressing our autism or may have become better at hiding the more obvious manifestations, owing to the greater societal pressure on girls to be polite, sweet, tender, matronly, and submissive, traits which don't come naturally to me, or, I imagine, other autistic girls. When we talk about autism in terms of male brains, we condemn these undiagnosed girls and women to a life where a diagnosis may not ever become tangible.
Secondly, it ghettoises autistic women who have a diagnosis and have learned to accept it. In spite of the arguably most famous autistic person in the world being a woman, we are still frequently left out of the conversation about autism on a societal level. In children's books about autism, the out autistic characters are almost always boys or male-identified. Same with television, or literature, the only prominent character with autism who was a woman I can even think of in fiction was Lisbeth Salander, who never had the condition explained to her, but was instead whispered behind closed doors or in monologues. Women with autism, as much as autistic men, need to see a variety of representations of themselves, to help develop a positive image of themselves and their disability. Having only one female autistic role model can lead some autistic women to feel they must emulate the prominent autistic woman in every fashion, even if it's not what they truly feel comfortable with.
And finally, it completely and utterly shoves all autistic people into neat little boxes of gender binary which they will most certainly not fit in. Whatever the reason, I have noticed more autistic people are gay, bisexual, genderqueer, trans, or just more comfortable with gender experimentation than the general population. What good does it do to put these people into the "male" brain category? Their gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation has been misunderstood enough, and this just piles onto that.
One of the things which attracted me to nerd culture was the fact that I could, in most spaces, be myself. I was not expected to emulate the behaviour of a "proper" woman, or act in a way that made me uncomfortable or less than true to myself. I could chatter about phallic symbols in the works of Yukio Mishima, video games, and the best alien hairstyles on Star Trek without repercussion. Nerd culture is flawed, but many parts of it are much more liberating in terms of "Acceptable" behaviour than mainstream society. Why would you try to rob it of that trait in order to satisfy some poorly constructed theory towards disability?

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