Unique Challenges for the Aspie Woman, Part 1: Navigating the Social Matrix

There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour
But yet so, yet so irresistible
And there’s no map
And a compass wouldn’t help at all

(Bjork, “Human Behaviour”)

In the last three parts of this series on stress and anxiety, I discussed causes and coping strategies which apply to people with Asperger’s in general. For the next few weeks, I will focus on specific stressors which tend to mostly affect Aspie women. I am speaking generally, of course, and offer this information with the understanding that each woman’s situation is unique. In addition to some external research, I will also be speaking from personal experience, offering examples of some of the challenges I have faced as a woman with Asperger Syndrome.

This week’s post will deal with some of the social challenges that we as Aspie women face. While social interaction, understanding social cues, and deriving the mores of one’s social climate are challenging for people of both genders on the autism spectrum, these challenges may affect women in different ways.

“Fitting In”: Navigating the Social Matrix

As you’re probably aware of by now, Aspie women have some unique challenges already when it comes to recognition and diagnosis. We have historically been diagnosed in fewer numbers than our male counterparts. Dr. Tony Attwood spoke about one possible reason for this in an interview from October 2009 on AWA radio – women and girls on the spectrum tend to very good at mimicry. In other words, we observe what is deemed to be socially correct behavior within our cultures of membership and peer groups. Once we know what that behavior is, we then try to imitate it.

What kinds of ramifications might this have for a girl or woman on the spectrum? We may spend years observing “correct” social behavior and mimicking it to the point where only we know inside that we are putting on an act. We know that these behaviors and customs do not come naturally for us – but we keep on, as Liane Holliday Willey puts it in her book of the same title, “pretending to be normal”. And if some of us dig a little deeper, we might find that we feel isolated, lonely, or even like frauds. We’ve kept up the act, perhaps since we were in elementary school – but we feel horribly disconnected from those around us.

And what if we don’t “fit in”? While the same factors that lead to our lower rates of diagnosis also lead to in some cases a greater ability to fit in socially, this is not the case with every girl or woman on the autism spectrum. These kinds of challenges become first apparent during the school years – we might have a lesser ability to mimic and understand the social behavior of other girls and young women and thus “fit in”. We don’t have the maps or may not be able to draw the maps we need to navigate the human social landscape. Thus, we might find ourselves committing various kinds of social faux pas.

Because of this, a multitude of outcomes are possible. Growing up, we might just be simply written off as “weird” or “eccentric kooks”. And depending on how tolerant or not the people around us are, it may in some cases lead to avoidance by others or outright persecution. It is generally known that children and teenagers on the autism spectrum are frequent targets of bullying, perhaps due to what appears to others as odd quirks and behavior coupled with a naturally trusting nature. One article on ABC News Nightline cited a psychologist who works with Aspergian kids who observed that up to 90% of children with Asperger Syndrome experience bullying in some school systems. Yet on the other hand, we can find friends and other supportive people who accept us for who we are. Or, our school experiences might be a mix of persecution, avoidance, and acceptance. In many cases, we grow up with the pain and trauma of being bullied, plus profound loneliness and isolation from not fitting. This could result in a few different possible outcomes for us, including a) rejecting opportunities for social interaction, b) further and more persistent attempts to observe and copy “correct” behavior, and c) judging ourselves harshly when we “fail”.

Negative Core Beliefs: How They Make the Problem Worse

In the process of either trying to fit in or finding out that we don’t, we may develop one of many cognitive distortions or negative core beliefs from which we use to judge our own actions while attempting to navigate the social landscape. By the time we become adult women, we might find ourselves trying to ascertain how well we are “keeping the act up” and then turn a lens of perfectionism upon ourselves, using these negative core beliefs to harshly judge our own actions when we fail in social situations. Two kinds of negative core beliefs most readily come to my mind as discussed in Dr. Nick Dubin’s book, Asperger Syndrome and Anxiety: A Guide to Successful Stress Management:

  1. Other directness (I am worthless without the approval of others). Basically, we use the reactions of others to gauge whether we have “behaved correctly” and berate ourselves when others react negatively to our actions (“They’re laughing at me. I must have been a real fool to say that.”) Or even if they don’t react negatively, sometimes we tend to mistrust others and don’t take their reactions at face value (i.e. someone reassures us that we did not offend them, and we think that they’re saying that to “be nice”).
  2. Over-vigilance/inhibition (the world is unpredictable). I discussed this domain of early maladaptive schemas in my last post, but I’ll expand it to apply to social situations. We become afraid of the outside world, and even of our own selves and our reactions. Again, perfectionism may set in and we become terrified of making social mistakes; as a result, we may become timid and inhibited in our interactions with others while we find ourselves following an inner “rule book”. This further adds to our isolation and loneliness – and if we had others in our lives that enforced shame and guilt for making social mistakes, our degree of inhibition and perfectionism may become even more heightened.

My Own Personal Experiences

I know this, having experienced isolation and loneliness for myself. You see, I’ve known since I was about six that I was different from others. The first time I felt this way was an incident in vacation bible school when my family living in Phoenix. Our VBS teacher was trying to elicit responses from my classmates during an activity as to how to describe nervousness…she then suggested the “butterflies in the stomach” metaphor. I took her literally and then suggested cockroaches in the stomach. Being grossed out and surprised, my classmates laughed. I remember my cheeks growing hot with embarrassment and my heart dropping to the bottom of my chest like a broken sun. I knew I’d gotten it wrong.

During my childhood and preteen years, my family moved around quite a bit. As a result, I’d attended eight different schools before I was twelve years old. Every few years, I was the “new kid”, trying to adjust to a brand new environment, a brand new set of classmates, and a slightly different set of social mores and a new cultural climate. I had social challenges nearly everywhere I went, and various things would get me teased: a meltdown, the rendering of a literal answer to a question, my tendency towards reading beyond my grade level and always having “my nose in a book”, my special interests, and so forth. And I kept “getting it wrong”.

After our family’s last move when I was nearly twelve, I was pressured by the aunt who raised me after this point to try to fit in. “Why can’t you be normal?” “Don’t you want friends?” And so forth. I remember feeling so afraid and alone during my teenage years – and with the teasing at school, I just felt worse. I left for college bearing a lot of inner scars than I am still trying to heal now.

How did I cope? First, I learned to fit it – at a price. After a lot of the social mistakes I made, I watched the behavior of others and simply figured things out on my own. This in and of itself was not a problem, but I always felt like I was pretending. It wasn’t until I understood that I have Asperger’s that any of this began to make sense for me. I now understand the social landscape, but I look at this information more as a guide, or a “tool” if you will to getting around and getting along with people. I am trying my best not to judge myself how I do in terms of how well or how badly I do and just learn from my mistakes instead. It is hard for me, considering all of the pain and trauma I underwent, but I still keep trying. It’s the only thing I can do.

Gender Expectations: Why This Discussion Is Important

It has been my observation that in Western cultures, especially in the United States, there is a set of certain social expectations for females. These expectations can vary between cultural and ethnic groups, but what I’ve noticed is that females are assumed to:

  • be empathetic
  • be comfortable navigating the social landscape
  • be interested in people rather than things
  • have an equal, if not greater, interest in clothing style versus comfort
  • have an ability to listen to and carry on multiple conversations at once
  • behave “lady-like” (this can have many connotations for many different people, thus I refrain from defining it)

When I look over this list, I immediately know that I don’t completely fit these expectations – and judging from the responses that I’ve seen from other Aspie women around the interwebs, they don’t either. The biggest exception to this seems to be empathy – I argued in an earlier post that many of us do possess empathy and that the standard assertions of people on the spectrum lacking empathy are incorrect.

Just as autism itself is a spectrum of conditions with each person affected in varying degrees, I also think Aspie women come in a spectrum too. We are all different, and we are all unique. So the first and foremost thing that will help us the most is self-acceptance – each of us has to acknowledge who we are, what we are, welcome our strengths, and be honest about our weaknesses. Everything else we do to help ourselves and relieve our stress and anxiety will work in cooperation with self-acceptance, else it will do us little good: it’s like plugging leaks in a dam while its structural integrity weakens. This is especially true in light of the fact that many of us don’t fit the conventional social expectations of girls and women in our culture: we cannot afford to spend the rest of our lives either berating ourselves for not fitting in, trying to fit in and failing, or fitting in and feeling as if we are not remaining true to our own spirits.

Secondly, if the social dimension is important to us (I say this to respect those of us who prefer limited or no interaction), then we need to reframe how we think of that dimension and where we would like to be in terms of our level of comfortableness and skill. If we wish to improve our skills, there are resources out there to help us do it – we need not navigate these waters alone. However, in the end, I think we need to look at having these skills in terms of a proverbial “tool in the tool belt” versus trying to pretend to be something we are not. And whatever level of social adeptness we end up at, we need to accept our limitations and be confident in our abilities.

Again, thank you for reading and staying with me for this extensive series on stress and anxiety. I will continue to cover more factors that affect Aspie women in the coming weeks. In the meantime, please talk back to me. What have been your experiences navigating the social landscape? Have you been pressured to conform to gender expectations? I’d like to hear from you.

Until next time,

Nicole

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10 thoughts on “Unique Challenges for the Aspie Woman, Part 1: Navigating the Social Matrix

  1. Oh boy, I could write an entire blog post myself on this topic! As you say, this experience is more-or-less universal to women on the spectrum.

    I exhibited a completely different negative core belief: outright rejection of social expectations altogether. If ‘the crowd’ was doing it, I wanted no part of it. Peers were not potential friends, but potential bullies. It was the whole “get them before they get me” shtick. Obviously, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even today, I struggle to see the value of fitting into a society that values conformity so heavily. I know I’ll never, ever be like them, so why bother, y’know? And yet, at the same time, I feel intense desire to belong. Perhaps it’s really about acceptance for myself as I am, not what someone else thinks I should be.

    And gender expectations… that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms there. One advantage I think Aspie women have over Aspie men is that there’s much more outright ‘instruction’ on how we’re supposed to behave. We’ve got magazines and TV shows devoted to fashion and hairstyles; talking heads giving advice on the best way to do your makeup and your hair, how to attract members of the opposite sex, etc. When I was a teenager, my parents got me an entire book on “How to be a lady”. *snoooooort* Well, I guess it was helpful in some respects – I do remember quoting it from time to time – but the rub is that I’ll never be the lady my mother wanted. I don’t like shoes and only shop when I need something specific. I don’t wear makeup. I keep my hair short so I don’t have to fuss with hairstyles. And attracting men…well, let’s not even go there.

    I think you’re onto something when you say that we should view social skills as ‘tools in a tool belt’ rather than pretending to be something we’re not. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found a way to use these tools without compromising who I am to some degree. I hope I can. Every day is a learning experience!

    • Hello outoutout:

      Thanks for stopping by again and commenting.

      I think there is a fine line here: how much do you adopt out of sheer utility’s sake, and when do you begin losing yourself? That’s the tricky part. My first, off-the-hip thought is that beyond basic manners and learning the decode the basics in social interaction, everything else is optional. But I do think Western societies do value conformity too much, as you mentioned in your comment, and we’ve no obligation to fit in if it will at a basic fundamental compromise who we are. In the end, this is not an easy question and each person, whether he or she has Asperger’s or not, has to find his or her own answer.

      Take me, for instance. I am multiracial, of African, European, and First Peoples/Native American ancestry. The small town I spent my pre-teen and teenage years in was somewhat racially segregated when it came to its social dynamics. And if you were “mixed” with one Black parent you were considered de facto Black. I didn’t agree with this at all: before this I’d grown up in many different cities and towns that were very racially diverse, and black kids mixed with Hispanics, whites, and when I was in Arizona, with Native Americans. But I didn’t “understand the code” when I got to that town and kept doing and being what I was used to: associating with people of all different backgrounds. Did it get me into a lot of trouble? Yes. Did I fail to understand the racial dynamics, possibly because I failed to read those social codes, because of having Asperger’s? Possibly. Do I regret doing what I did? No.

      And your observation about Aspie women being given more overt instruction on our expected roles and behavior is spot on. It is true: there’s a lot of TV time, written material, and other things devoted to giving women this kind of information. I don’t wonder if some of us pick up “the rules” and that’s how we get along, besides watching what our peers do.

      As for attracting the opposite, or even the same gender: you’ve given me a fantastic idea to write about that in a future post. That is a full issue unto itself.

      Again, thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you around.

      -Nicole

  2. Your blog makes me think of an old “Night Gallery” episode where the ‘spaghetti head’ kid on earth is the subject of teasing and ostracism. Then they have this first contact with some aliens, who propose an exchange, and they decide to send him. When he gets to the other planet, he first meets a ‘normal-looking’ kid, and feels as if he’ll always be a freak, but at least he thinks he will be accepted as the ambassador from earth. Then he meets the aliens, and they all look like him. In fact, they think he’s downright cute. I’m the spaghetti-head kid, so to speak, just getting a glimpse into a world where the other people are like me.

    As for trying to fit in, I’ve always felt there’s an invisible barrier between me and everyone else, as if I really were an alien in disguise. Ever since I got my diagnosis, I’ve been more inclined to avoid gatherings when I’m feeling especially Aspie on a given day. On one hand, I avoid the stress of trying to fit in, and the disappointment of yet another failure to connect, but on the other, I’m perhaps not giving it enough effort, or making myself available. There’s something about me that generally keeps other people away from my table at church coffee hour, but there’s something about them that keeps me away from theirs, too.

    In your experience, do Aspies tend to relate to and get along better with other Aspies than with NTs? Where I live, I’ve yet to meet another Aspie woman. I know of some men (including my husband) and some students at our high school, but so far, I’ve not met another lady Aspie.

    • Hi Tabitha: never heard of that story but it sounds very intriguing and I think it’s a good analogy for what many of us go through as Aspies/autistic people. I have felt sometimes like how you describe…in my case, it’s a bit of trepidation as to whether the social encounter in question will turn out ok. But on the other hand, when I was younger I did not have any fear or trepidation. A lot of my own came from an aunt (who I have written about in other posts) who kept reinforcing negative messages that I was weird, socially inept, and so forth. But without that, I’ve encountered what so many other Aspies have too — the uncertainty on my end, the misunderstanding, etc.

      I guess I try harder when I’m feeling comfortable. Either that or I think about it less when I’m happy or comfortable. I’m not quite sure which it is yet.

      I’m fortunate enough to live in a major metropolitan area where there are groups for people with Asperger’s. I haven’t really attended or done any major socialising with them, but knowing that they are there is good. Mostly, though, I keep running into other Aspie women online. As was discussed a lot in the days leading up to both Communication Shutdown Day and Autistics Speaking Day, many of us are more comfortable communicating online, and I happen to be one of them. Unless I am really close to someone or if I know that person on some fundamental level, I’m better online. Also, since my written communication abilities outstrip my oral communication abilities, that is also why.

      And in the question of whether Aspies get along better with other Aspies, my honest observation is that your mileage may vary. For me, this is how it works: the more open minded and the less concerned that a person is about conventions or norms, the more likely it is that I will get along with them okay. It doesn’t matter whether they are Aspie/autistic or NT. I will say that the leg up that the autistic person will have with me is a common understanding/common characteristic, and probably they will be less likely to have any preconceived notions or expectations about behavior/eye contact/etc (because they encounter the same issues, of course).

      Thanks for stopping by. Your comments are always welcome.

      -Nicole

  3. I can’t help but think that those expectations (to women) are also way to tight. There are heaps of women who can’t live up to them – who are not on the spectrum. Perhaps women who honour those stereotypes naturally and intuitively, without faking it, is even a minority.

    If even women with an autism diagnose can learn to fake it, then who knows how many women in general have learned to imitate expected stereotypical behaviours without it being their natural behaviour.

  4. Hi – I am a 33 year old woman who has finally realized what has been wrong with me my entire life: nothing. In fact, the only thing wrong about my life has been me trying to hide something about myself that is so unhideable. I have Asperger’s, and never knew (until recently, when divine ordination brought me into light of this interesting diagnosis). I feel grateful. Relieved. And also immensely curious to find out about this world which I belonged in yet was never made aware of until now – my experiences are vastly different on the outside of my life but the landscape of my emotional world is fit descriptively perfect by the symptoms of an “Aspie” world: I’ve overcome much of the stresses of my youth through mimic. The “fantasy world” I built around my reality world consisted of supermodels from magazine (who taught me all I needed to know about how to be the most beautiful woman anywhere in the world – not only would I gain access to the upper echelons of celebrity lifestyle I also learned how I would be immune from rejection automatically because I am physically beautiful and have learned how to turn that into my biggest defense from judgement in a world that I knew I would never fit into) – I danced with Victoria Secret models in the rooms where Madonna and Valentino would walk by, and my “eccentricies” were passed over as cool or “drug-induced” since so many people in that world do drugs: I’ve never been able to enjoy “the wonders” of cocaine and this is where I’d often get “outted” quickly. That drug does nothing for my pleasure centers in my brain and in fact makes it hard for me to keep my act up: everything Asperger about myself comes out in these times (and I can count on my two hands the times I’ve done it – more as a need to “fit in”) – I become mute and unable to maintain my “eye contact” (this is obviously a learned behavior), and my clumsiness and inability to communicate orally is unmistakable: I’ve had friends look over in fear and horror at “the monster” (in my own mind) I become during those times and told me I need to go: I see these moments now as divine intervention (I do believe in a God) that was revealing itself to me in these moments of utter embarrassment. My meltdowns occurred so suddenly that there were no more words for the total shock of the company I’d been in. I had no idea all my life it is simply because God gave me a different kind of brain, and that brain is good just the way it is. I do not need to hide it – I have incredible writing skills, photographic memory that goes back to being in the crib, ability to draw and create art, and most of all I can imitate anyone to a perfect nuance. Including voices and songs – the echolalia. I had no idea this was from Asperger’s – nor did I know all the times I’ve sprained my ankle as a child, or tripped, and made a mess somewhere or bumped into somebody or pushed my mom away when she came to hold me was also from something there is an actual term in normal society that can share these experiences with other humans so that they would get the world inside my mind is very different than the world I have viewed since birth and seen in others around me. I’ve enjoyed your blog tremendously, and shared this on my Facebook page: I look forward to hearing from you about more of your experiences in life. Thank you.

    • Hi Anonymous: I am way behind in responding so comments so please accept my apologies for the lateness in my response. After reading yours comments, I have to say you rock — for your honesty, self-awareness, and willingness to accept yourself for who you are. Achieving this often happens after a long and painful struggle. In some ways, I see some of myself and my own experiences in your comment: I also constructed a fantasy world, I also have photographic memory which began early in life (my first memory occurs around my first birthday), and I found out I had serious writing skills at age 12. In (one of) my fantasy worlds, I was a bohemian artist and was seen as “cool” because of my eccentricity.

      I also have a strong belief in the Divine and share your idea that we were made this way. They are incredible Artists, aren’t They?

      I think we are all different shades of awesome. I’m glad you found WWA and that you gain some real value from this blog. Thank you for your visit and I hope to see you here again.

      Cheers,

      Nicole

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