Who Are We? Women, Autism, and Social Mimicry, Part II

Some of you may remember the Women, Autism, and Social Mimicry survey that I conducted back in November of 2011. As I mentioned earlier, I was aware of my own use of “scripts” for social interaction and was intrigued about the phenomenon of social mimicry among autistic women. This survey was meant to “take a pulse” or to get a sense of how common this might be.

I posted part I of the results of this survey in December of 2011. Due to personal issues in my life, I have been unable to devote the amount of time I have desired to the WWA blog until recently. Now I have been able to post part II of the survey results (questions 5, 6, and 7), which deal with the amount of difficulty with social interactions that the respondents experiences and whose social behaviours they mimicked. Questions 8, 9, and 10, which concern the reasons why respondents mimicked social behavior, bullying as a motivating factor, and continued mimicking, will be posted in part III. (Note: I initially intended to post this in two parts, but opted to post in three to aid in ease of reading.)

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Q5. Amount of Social Difficulty Experienced as Children/Teenagers

Women who took the survey were asked about the amount of social difficulty they experienced growing up — examples of social difficulty cited in the question included difficulty in making friends, playing with others, understanding social cues/facial expressions/tone of voice, and decoding unwritten social “rules” in their families or peer groups.

Most of the women who took the survey reported that they experienced either a moderate amount (33.49%) or a great amount (55.5%) of social difficulty as children and teenagers. This is nearly 89% of the respondents — and it’s not surprising, considering difficulty with social interaction is one of the most difficult and painful aspects of Asperger’s or other autism spectrum conditions.

3.83% of respondents reported that they were not interested in social interactions with others as children and/or teenagers. 2.39% reported experiencing a minimal amount of social difficulty, and .48% reported no social difficulty at all.

I received a variety of interesting responses by those who chose the “other” option (4.31%). A few of these stood out at me:

  • “Depended on situation: severe problems with family and random strangers, only moderate problems with self-selected peer group.”
  • “I had a core group of nerdy friends in school who accepted me as quirky. It was after graduating that I found it close to impossible to initiate or maintain any sort of social life.”
  • “Great amount of difficulty when I tried, much of my life I wasn’t interested in even trying.”

I found the first response very interesting because it was true for me at various times in my childhood and teen years. It was mostly true between ages twelve to eighteen and I attribute the major reason for my social difficulty with family members to the dysfunctional nature of the family in which I grew up. I’ve found that dysfunctional families can be the worst in regards to enforcing conformity to “status quo” — I believe that this tendency belies an attempt to hide the dysfunction from outsiders and thus any behavior construed to be even remotely weird, quirky, or out of the norm is regarded with suspicion or actively discouraged. While no exact data is available on the number of autistics who might have grown up in a dysfunctional family system, I imagine that it would be easy (albeit ethically and morally wrong) for other family members to cast them into the “scapegoat” role due to the perceived odd behavior and other challenges that come with autism spectrum conditions.

Q6. Frequency of Mimicking the Social Behavior of Others

Survey respondents were asked how often and how much they mimicked the social behavior of others as a child and/or teenager. Most autistic women in the survey reported a moderate amount of social mimicking (40.67%) and 32.54% reported a great amount of social mimicking. Some respondents reported a minimal amount of mimicking (12.44%), while 7.18% said that they were not interested in mimicking the social behavior of others. Less than 1% of respondents (.96%) reported that they did not mimic others’ social behavior at all.

6.22% of respondents chose the “Other” option and provided some interesting answers when asked to write in:

  • “This, of course, was different from my mid teens when my autism developed into Asperger’s Syndrome. From age 22, I was made aware of the importance of making (or faking) eye contact, faking certain body language, etc. – as an adult, I mimic much more.”
  • “I mimicked to a very small degree as necessary, but I was not interested in doing so. Only did because it was necessary.”
  • “I didn’t realize I was doing this until recently, when I look back.”
  • “I didn’t even realize that there WAS any social behavior that I could have mimicked.”
  • “I did not seem to pick up behavior ‘in person’ well at all. I did learn some mannerisms from fictional characters in books.”
  • “Again I was too socially aloof to even know there was a requirement or that I was not like everyone else.”
  •  “100%, that’s all I did. Every action was a concerted effort at pretending to be the people around me.”
  • “I didn’t start mimicking until I was in my mid twenties.”
  • “Just observed as a young child; began to try out hypotheses about how to act at about age 6; have continued that approach lifelong. Do, observe results, modify or not.”

The results to Q6 indicate that a large percentage of survey respondents moderately or greatly mimicked the social behavior of others as children and teenagers. One might look at the amount of social mimicry as a continuum, with more of respondents skewing towards frequent mimicking.I’m being careful not to draw larger conclusions, but I find it this result very interesting. Might the large percentage of social mimicking, if translated into the same results for the larger population of autistic women, be one of the reasons many of us missed diagnosis? Dr. Tony Attwood seems to think so, but I think this question should be explored further.

A personal note: If I had answered this survey, I would have probably reported a minimal amount of mimicking — I didn’t really start doing this until I was 18 years old and at college, which is similar to a couple of the “other” respondents above. In my case, I was sick of being alone and ostracized as I had been throughout high school and thought that the way to end my loneliness and to gain friends was to become more extroverted, as I’d seen from some of my classmates in high school. I thought that once I was way from home, that gave me license to act in any way I wished. Unfortunately, I began to reject my introverted nature and developed a lot of behaviors that aren’t natively my own, which I am still trying to unlearn now.

Q7. Who Did Respondents Tend to Mimic?

(For this question, respondents were asked to select all applicable answers and were allowed to select more than one to answer this question. Totals may add up to more than 100%.)                                                                  

Judging from the responses, those autistic females who mimicked the social behavior of other people chose a variety of models. (5.38 % of respondents to this question said that they did not mimic the social behavior of others.)

A large number of respondents (52.98% collectively) reported mimicking the behavior of classmates, playmates, and friends. 25.78% used the behaviors of both male and female classmates/playmates/friends as their models, 22.95% chose to mimic the behavior of other female classmates/playmates/friends, and 4.25 % chose to mimic male classmates/playmates/friends.

Altogether, 32.58% of respondents reported mimicking the behavior of family members. 16.15% said that they chose both male and female family members to mimic, 10.48% said that they chose female family members, and 5.95% reported mimicking male family members.

Breaking down by gender, 41.93% imitated the behavior of people from both genders (family members, friends, classmates, and playmates) while 33.48% imitated females and 10.2% imitated males.

9.07% of respondents chose the “other” option and gave a variety of explanations. Many of them reported imitating fictional characters from books, television shows, and movies. Some reported imitating teachers, authority figures, and other trusted adults. Others spoke of imitating celebrities and other famous individuals. I can relate to all of this because growing up, I did occasionally imitate classmates – however, I imitated fictional characters and celebrities more often. For example, I was a big fan of the television show “Punky Brewster” and when I was around ten or eleven, I began to imitate Punky, down to the way she dressed. Among other models I chose were both Pipi Longstocking, Denise and Vanessa Huxtable from The Cosby Show and Michael Stipe, the lead vocalist of R.E.M.

A few interesting responses regarding gender manifested themselves in explanations of those who selected “other”. Some reported identifying with males more or exhibiting what is generally considered male behavior. One woman had this to say:

 “As an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome and having only the occasional companion through my life who always tend to be male, I mimic male behavior and really struggle to learn femininity or how to identify myself as ‘female’.”

 Of course, statements like these raise more questions. I’m a strong supporter of being oneself and not conforming to behaviors expected for one’s gender if those behaviors are not naturally native to oneself. I believe that part of the problem autistic women encounter (and which I have encountered myself) is that we are confronted with gender norms and roles of which we may be unaware of or with which we cannot or do not wish to conform. I know I have found it difficult to find my own identity as a woman for these reasons. I find this particular issue intriguing and will be dealing more with it on this blog later.

Who Are We? Women, Autism, and Social Mimicry, Part I

Introduction

Recent events and some self-reflection have led me to ask some serious questions about women on the autism spectrum and the phenomenon of social mimicry. Throughout my life, I have found myself using “scripts” for social interactions – and what I mean by “scripts” are those habits, practices, and routines that I use within various situations. However, I have never found any of them to be natural and even as I have gotten older, nothing in this arena has become natural – these habits, practices, and routines still feel like “scripts”.

Continue reading

Poetry for Autism Awareness, Acceptance, and Understanding

Since I self-diagnosed myself in early 2010, I’ve been writing poems about autism and Asperger’s in order to understand them, as well as myself, and to make sense of what being autistic means. As part of both Autism Awareness/Acceptance/Understanding Month as well as during National Poetry Month, I’ve written some more poems about autism and Asperger’s.

You can read these poems over at Raven’s Wing Poetry, and I’ve gathered them all in one category to allow for easy finding.  Some of these are password protected, so you’ll need to hit me up either via comment moderation, Twitter, or the contact information on Raven’s Wing Poetry if you’d like the password to read them (I did this so that they are not considered “published” and thus I would still be able to submit them to journals or other markets).

Happy reading!

-Nicole

Autistic Adults Speak on Rethinking Autism

Please check out the new “Our Voice” page on Rethinking Autism’s website. Autistic adults have lent their voices — advice and insight — on what they would like parents of autistic children to know. I have a quote there as well, as well as Sharon daVanport and Tricia Kennedy of Autism Women’s Network and Kat Bjornstad. There appears to be a video in the works — stay tuned! (And have I mentioned that I think Rethinking Autism rocks?)

-Nicole