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”.
Two things caused me to question my use of “scripts”. First of all, while watching Phillip Zimbardo’s presentation at Harvard University on his book, “The Lucifer Effect” (WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES AND TRIGGER-POTENTIAL MATERIAL ARE IN THE VIDEOS), my fiancé and I encountered a startling fact during part four of the presentation: in an experiment in the early 1970’s in which students were told that they were to give electric shocks to a puppy to aid him in learning, 100% of the female students continued to shock the puppy all the way up to perceived dangerous levels (I say perceived because as Zimbardo reveals during the presentation, the puppy was only being given a light electrical shock). In contrast, 50% of the male students in the study continued to shock the puppy up to the perceived dangerous voltages. I was disturbed and taken aback for two reasons: 1) this certainly might challenge the notion that women are more compassionate and caring and thus would NOT shock the puppy, and 2) what this might reveal about women, conformity, and any tendencies to consent to following perceived expectations even if harmful to oneself or someone else. Dr. Zimbardo went on to say that the high rate of compliance was possibly linked to the tendency of women of that era to obey male authority (as they were conditioned to do even decades ago). However, the question remained with me: do women, autistic or otherwise, tend to “go along with the crowd” and cave into perceived expectations to receive favor or acceptance?
My mind immediately turned to my thoughts of social mimicry, my “scripts”, and the reasons I use them. Before this presentation, I had been wrestling with questions of self-acceptance as well as trying to gauge my own perceived need of acceptance by others. These imperative questions included:
- Do I really need to fit in with others or be accepted by them?
- Is it in the best interest of an autistic or Asperger women to learn how to be socially “normal” or should she simply be the person that she is, even with the social awkwardness?
- Are social skills simply tools to achieve a desired result, or are they part of one’s person, heart, and/or identity?
- How genuine can using “scripts” be if they are not the natural behavior of the person in question?
Secondly, I remembered all of the conversations I’d had with my fiancé about habit and mindfulness, as well as our observations that the women in our lives had often “went along with the crowd”, going along with friends, coworkers, classmates, or even other family members and often failing to stop and think about the reasons for their actions. What also brought this point to bear recently was this post from a former classmate of mine about ritual, habit, and the importance of stopping and thinking about one’s action. All of this has really caused me to stop and ask serious questions, including:
- Are women more prone to seek social acceptance?
- Is this true of autistic/Asperger women, and if so, why?
I then recalled that Dr. Tony Attwood had suggested that women and girls on the spectrum have a tendency to attempt to fit in social by observing the accepted behaviors of their group or culture, and then imitating them. Now, my curiosity was certainly aroused and I decided to begin investigating these questions in order to find answers – which not only pertain to myself and my own life but may pertain to other women in the spectrum. You could say that the big, burning question in my mind is: WHY?
To begin my investigation, I asked women on the spectrum last month to take this survey about themselves and their social mimicking tendencies. 209 women responded before the survey closed at 12:00 AM EST on Saturday, December 10. I would like to extend a heart thanks to those women for their generous participation and their willingness to reflect on these questions regarding their own behavior.
The Results, Part I
In this post, I am releasing the part 1 of the results of the Women, Autism, and Social Mimicry Survey. I will reveal the general demographics of the respondents, with the data about social mimicry in the next post to come.
Q1. Type of Autism
The majority of respondents — 86.12% — reported that they had, or thought they had, Asperger Syndrome. Other responses are as follows:
PDD-NOS – 4.78%
Classic Autism – 4.31%
Other – 3.83%
Other type of Autism –0.96%
“Other” write-in responses varied but included items such as “unsure – somewhere on the spectrum” and “atypical spectrum disorder, Asperger-like”.
Q2. Age of Respondents
There were nearly equal numbers of respondents in the 35 – 44 year-old group and the 45 – 54 year-old group (32.54% and 30.14% respectively). Other responses are as follows:
18 – 24 years old — 22.49%
55 – 64 years old — 9.09%
65 years old and above — 5.26%
13 – 17 years old — 0.48%
Q3. Diagnosis Status
Many of the respondents — 50.72% — indicated that they had been diagnosed with autism, Asperger Syndrome, PDD-NOS, or another type of autism spectrum disorder by a professional.
29.19% of respondents indicated that they had diagnosed themselves with a spectrum disorder.
14.84% indicated that they were considering the possibility that they have an autism spectrum disorder but have not yet been diagnosed nor have they self-diagnosed.
5.26% responded with “Other” and indicated a variety of situations, including: an inability to obtain a professional diagnosis due to health insurance issues; conflicting diagnoses; comorbidities in addition to a possible autism spectrum diagnosis; and belief that they may be on the spectrum based on the diagnoses of their own children.
Q4. Age of Diagnosis, Self-Diagnosis, or Consideration of Possibility of an Autism Spectrum Condition.
Many of the respondents — 33.49% — indicated that they were diagnosed or self-diagnosed between the ages of 25 and 34. 27.27% of respondents indicated that they were diagnoses or self-diagnosed between 35 and 44 years old
Other responses include:
45 – 54 years old — 12.44%
Below age 18 — 11.96%
18 – 24 years old — 11.48%
55 – 64 years old — 3.35%
Interestingly enough, none of the respondents indicated that they were diagnosed or self-diagnosed at age 65 or older.
Basic Profile of the Respondents
Based on the responses above, I’ve constructed a general profile of most respondents who took the survey. Again, we have the caveat: if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. However, the results indicate a few general patterns and some information about typical respondents.
Mostly, they were women with Asperger Syndrome: many had an official diagnosis with a significant amount of self-diagnosed who responded to the survey. Typically, they were middle-aged women, with about even numbers of Generation X and Baby Boomers (please forgive the terminology – I am aware of the debate as to where these generations begin and end). Finally, many of the women were diagnosed or self-diagnosed between ages 25 and 34, with an almost even number diagnosed in the beginnings of middle age (35 – 44).
One question I pose about the respondents is why these particular kinds of autistic women responded to the survey. I would propose that like myself, they are middle-aged women with Asperger Syndrome diagnosed in recent years who have sought community on the Internet to connect with each other and understand their own experiences. I am also curious to know how much of the autism community these women comprise and am interested in the results of further exploration.
A Few Other Notes
The limitations of my type of Polldaddy account did not allow me to ask more questions, so this survey is to be taken as an informal attempt to find out how widespread the phenomenon of social mimicry is amongst autistic and Asperger women, when the mimicry began, who the women mimicked, and to elucidate the reasons why.
As you can see, I collected a basic amount of demographic data to in order to compose a picture of respondents. Due to the international nature of this survey, I did not ask for racial/ethnic/nationality data. However, at some point, it would be interesting to survey different autistic women from different racial, ethnic, and national groups to see if the results differ from group to group, as culture can play an impact on this kind of behavior. I also did not ask about differences between cis- and trans-women, as I feel that this may also require a follow-up study to determine what, if any differences exist between the two groups.
Coming Up Next
In part II, I will post the results of the remaining six questions of the survey. In future parts of this series, I will offer some analysis based on the results and further research. Please stay tuned as I continue on this fascinating journey.
Until Next Time,