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:
- 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”).
- 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,