Autism, a complex neurodevelopmental condition, has long been understood in medical and psychological terms but recent discussions within feminist circles have shed light on its gendered dimensions. Recognising the intersection of gender and neurodiversity is crucial in understanding the unique experiences, challenges, and strengths that individuals on the autism spectrum experience within a patriarchal society.
One significant aspect of the gendered nature of autism lies in the diagnosis process itself. Historically, autism has been predominantly studied and diagnosed in men, leading to a gender bias that has obscured the experiences of autistic women, non-binary individuals, and girls. The diagnostic criteria and assessment tools have been developed based on man-centric characteristics, such as repetitive behaviours and narrow interests, which may not fully capture the diverse range of expressions and experiences of autistic individuals across genders.
People with autism often use masking or camouflaging techniques to navigate social situations and meet societal expectations, thus concealing their autistic traits. Analysis suggests that women and girls with autism use more often camouflage autistic behaviour. However, further research is required to determine if camouflaging is part of the phenotype of those with autism who are assigned female at birth.
Camouflaging makes diagnosis more challenging and puts a significant toll on their mental and emotional well-being. The pressure to conform to gendered norms, such as maintaining eye contact, mimicking social behaviour, and adhering to specific communication styles, can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, and disconnection from their authentic selves.
The socialisation process that begins early in life heavily influences the experiences of autistic individuals and reinforces gender stereotypes and expectations – society’s norms regarding femininity and masculinity shape how autism manifests in different genders. For instance, autistic girls may be pushed towards conformity and forced to prioritise social skills over their unique interests. In contrast, autistic boys may be encouraged to embrace their intense focus and talents. These gendered expectations can result in disparities in diagnosis rates, support, and access to appropriate interventions and accommodations.
Research suggests that the co-occurring conditions and mental health challenges experienced by autistic individuals can vary depending on gender identity. Autistic girls and women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and self-harm behaviours compared to men. These gender-specific mental health disparities may arise due to the interplay between societal pressures, social isolation, and the internalisation of societal expectations, further emphasising the importance of acknowledging the gendered dimensions of autism.
Similarly, the intersection of race and gender plays a crucial role in the experiences of autistic individuals, as highlighted by Lovelace et al. in Missing from the Narrative: A Seven-Decade Scoping Review of the Inclusion of Black Autistic Women and Girls in Autism Research. The authors illuminate the significant lack of intersectional representation in autism research, with a predominant focus on autism and a disregard for the unique experiences and challenges faced by Black autistic women and girls (BAWG). This omission fails to account for the intricate interplay of race and gender, hindering the development of targeted support. The authors advocate for a more inclusive approach that recognises and values the experiences of BAWG, ensuring their stories are included in the narrative.
Building upon this call for representation, understanding the gendered aspects of autism is essential for developing inclusive and empowering support systems. Raising awareness about the unique experiences of autistic individuals across genders can help dispel misconceptions, challenge stereotypes, and promote more equitable and accessible healthcare, education, and employment opportunities.
Advocacy efforts must prioritise intersectionality, amplifying the voices of autistic women, non-binary individuals, and girls and working towards dismantling the gender biases that hinder their inclusion and recognition.