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”.

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,

Nicole

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20 thoughts on “Who Are We? Women, Autism, and Social Mimicry, Part I

  1. Ehm… I would like to remind you that you can’t draw quantitative conclusions from a survey like this, because it doesn’t live up to the statistical assumption of random selection of the sample.

    Quantitative conclusions = percentages, assuming sample numbers reflect proportions in the actual population. The actual population being women who identify themselves as having Asperger’s/autism.

    The problem is that people who visit a specific website are people who like to visit that website, and not a random segment of the population. E.g., maybe aspie women who like to visit blogs by other aspie women and do a survey about mimicry are the ones most likely to use mimicry! or most likely to be self-diagnosed! or within a specific age range! or similar.

    So therefore you can’t know how representative the numbers are, and they can’t tell you ‘how widespread’ something is. A survey that doesn’t comply with the statistical assumption of random selection can’t give reliable quantitative information (numbers, proportions).

    However, the survey can give qualitative information including when the mimicry began, who the women mimicked, and why, all that is fine – as long as it isn’t assumed to represent specific percentages of the overall population (as defined above).

    • Hello Mados:

      While I understand your caution about drawing larger conclusions from this type of survey, please understand that what I’m trying to do here is “take the temperature”, so to speak. I know that the respondents are only a small subset of the population of autistic people and again, as I said in my post, I’m curious to know how much of the wider community the respondents comprised. You’ll notice that my conclusions drawn are ONLY on the 209 respondents to this survey.

      This survey, and this exploration, is a beginning. I’d like to see this kind of investigation done on a much larger scale…which would include more sophisticated methods of surveying and data collection. My logic follows a bit like this: “if we find that certain things are true for THESE groups of respondents, then what about X…and how widespread is it?” We have Dr. Attwood’s statement, which I believe is based on his own observation of autistic/Asperger women, but I want to go beyond the behavior itself. This survey was just a beginning to try to get a better idea of what might be going as to the mimicry phenomenon.

      The concept of women and the need for social acceptance fascinates me, as well as the question of social skills as simply skills vs. social skills as part of one’s nature and personality. I invite you to stay tuned and read further. I look forward to more conversations about this.

      -Nicole

      • Thank you Nicole, and thank you for your initiative and effort.

        the question of social skills as simply skills vs. social skills as part of one’s nature and personality.

        That is an interesting question.

      • Hello Mados:

        Indeed that is an interesting question. If they are simply learned skills that are no different than learning the skills, to say, enable one to build a house, then would it be a case of whether or not one has a natural aptitude that allows greater success in using those skills?

        Also, if skill can be separated from desire, then it would follow that the desire to be social does not necessarily mean that one would have the skills to be social…true?

        I think that being social is a skill that is prized in, if not expected, out of women especially in Western cultures (I can’t speak to social expectations in Eastern cultures, but if there are any Asian/Indian/African Aspie women reading this blog, please feel free to speak up!), so that also complicates matters in this issue.

        Thank you for stopping by and for the encouragement.

  2. “If they are simply learned skills that are no different than learning the skills, to say, enable one to build a house, then would it be a case of whether or not one has a natural aptitude that allows greater success in using those skills?”

    I don’t think it is a yes or no question. Usually when people are good at something, then they do it a lot… get more practice… become better… like it and do it all the time… get more practice… etc etc. I think that is the case for ‘great people persons’… They probably were good at it from the outset, and on top of that has a vast ocean of practice.

    “Also, if skill can be separated from desire, then it would follow that the desire to be social does not necessarily mean that one would have the skills to be social…true?”

    I personally know people who I struggle to tolerate because they are social and talkative but don’t have the social sensitivity to balance the interaction. So they are like social bulldozers… with their words, their voice, their body language, eye contact, timing, lack of listening skills, lack of allowing breaks in the conversation, no understanding if I want to be left alone … intrusive, insensitive, intolerable. I just want to run!

    That is social desire minus social abilities (and self-awareness).

    “I think that being social is a skill that is prized in, if not expected, out of women especially in Western cultures”

    No doubt. Men can better get away with being ‘mysterious’, ditto women are looked upon differently.

    • Hello Mados: I thought when I read your comment that skills we excel at would be the product of practice, fueled by enjoyment and feelings perhaps of accomplishment. That is, the more successful you are at something, the greater likelihood that you will enjoy it and continue to do it.

      Of course, what you point out about the “social bulldozers” may mean that this does not always follow. In those cases, either they aren’t receiving enough negative feedback or they choose to ignore what negative feedback they receive which continues to perpetuate the incorrect idea of thenselves that they are successful at social skills.

      As far as gender expectations are concerned: I have seen some variations in this as of late, but the general assumption tends to be that women should be successful spcially. I have seen what you speak of – men who are not so social or introverted being endowed with a more “mysterious” quality. Insofar as social gaffs are concerned, I have noticed men are generally allowed more leeway withbeing socially inept – they’re sometimes seen as just eccentric. With that being said, I would also invite any male readers to speak to whether they encounter this phenomenon or if they also encounter flack for being socially inept.

      -Nicole

  3. Fascinating info so far in both the post and the comments – I am looking forward to hearing more of what you learned from this survey, as informal as it was.

    I have noticed and also heard Tony Attwood talk about the idea of people having a natural aptitude for other skills, such as mathematics or some other area, as opposed to reading facial expressions or non-verbal communication, and how many of them cannot explain “how” they do it. So just as an NT can’t readily explain how they read someone’s expression, my son has difficulty explaining how he calculates an equation.

    The frustration I run into is when someone wants to view it as a negative that you can’t read their expression and also as a negative when you can’t explain a skill that you have a natural aptitude for, while not seeing it as a negative that they find my skill harder to do and also can’t explain how they read faces.

    I realize this is a very simplistic example, but it’s something that has really helped me to shift my perspective on the whole question.

    • Hello Apergirl Maybe: very interesting point you make about aptitude. I couldn’t explain my process for creating some of my poetry (until I realised I was a visual thinker, thought more about my procedd, and observed myself in action). If it’s a natural aptitude, there’s less thought and more action. I think what you point to takes away negative connotations and value judgments and simply regards skill and ability for what it is.

      -Nicole

  4. Somehow I overlooked your intro with the puppy experiment when I first read this post, skipping directly to the part about the survey & the numbers.

    I am shocked and disgusted about the experiment, but not that 100% of the females chose to continue to shock the puppy, because I don’t think they represent ‘normality’ anyway due to the character of the experiment. I am shocked that the researcher was allowed to undertake animal abuse prove his point, and that anyone at all chose to participate, perceiving that they were to give a puppy electrical shocks.

    On the quality of the experiment: the outcome is likely to be highly biased and unsuitable for quantitative statistical analysis (like, drawing out percentages), because:

    Most empathic persons would not accept to participate in an experiment where they are to give a puppy electrical shock (presuming they participated voluntarily). Therefore, the respondents likely fail to represent emphatic persons amongst ‘normal persons. They are most likely biased towards cynical and careless personality types.

    There could even be a pattern in that as well, so that a higher proportion of females amongst cynical/careless people are more cynical than their male counterparts. Who knows? Certainly, the researcher doesn’t… so the result is useless, and shouldn’t be taken as ‘representing’ normal behaviour.

    The only viable conclusions that can be drawn from the puppy experiment are that

    1) The researcher lacks empathy

    2) The persons who accepted to participate lack empathy. Alternatively, they have a strong respect for authority and didn’t initially know what they signed up for

    3) Animal Protection Laws aren’t strict enough …

    and I wouldn’t respect any researcher who rely on that experiment to prove a point… it just shows that they don’t understand statistics.

    Ps. I am aware that attitudes were different back in the 70s, and probably the respect for authority much higher than today, but then again… if they were that different, why assume the outcome represent ‘normal behaviour’ as of today?

    • Mados: Those points you raise are what was so problematic about the experiment. Gods forbid that the same experiment would be carried out today: I’m inclined to think that we’d walk out, refuse to shock the puppy, and probably report the researchers for animal abuse.

      Dr. Zimbardo was pointing to it, and the Milgram electric shock experiments, to prove his statements about situations causing normally good people to act in evil ways, which is the premise of the book The Lucifer Effect. He also referenced the Stanford Prison Experiment and the horrors of Abu Gharib prison and Guantanamo Bay. And these incidents do lead to wider questions of the nature of empathy and human cruelty, questions to which religion, psychology, philosophy, and the average human being have been trying to find answers to for milennia.

      -Nicole

      • Hello Nicole.

        “Dr. Zimbardo was pointing to it, and the Milgram electric shock experiments, to prove his statements about situations causing normally good people to act in evil ways, which is the premise of the book The Lucifer Effect.”

        I know, but using biased statistics (statistics that measures something, but not necessarily what it is supposed to measure) doesn’t prove his point, it only appears to prove his point. Sorts of ‘fiction masquerading as science’. It undermines Dr. Zimbardo’s credibility as a researcher, I think. It shows that he is not a scientist, but happy to look like one.

        That doesn’t mean his book is not interesting (can’t say… I haven’t read it).The question itself is fascinating and important: ‘situations causing normally good people to act in evil ways’. It never seems to expire… (unfortunately).

        I would like to recommend 2 books about the topic ‘the psychology of evil’:

        ‘The Psychology of War: comprehending its mystique and its madness’ by Lawrence LeShan, and ‘The Exception’ by Christian Jungersen.

        ‘The Exception’ is fiction. What’s intriguing about it is the way it places ‘evil’ into an everyday office context and shows how the characters are blind to their own evilness, but shocked about the evil acts of others outside of their own ‘ingroup’. I didn’t like the writing style, but I loved the story and idea.

  5. On the ethics of the puppy experiment: so, the puppy was in reality only given ‘light’ electrical shocks. However, if the shocks were strong enough to make the puppy display a reaction (and why given them at all, otherwise?) then they would likely traumatise it and cause potentially lifelong anxiety issues.

    It would also momentarily cause the puppy to display confused, anxious, sad e.t.c. behaviours, which should trigger an emphatic reaction is most normal people – feeling sorry for it, wanting to help, wanting to stop it. I do realise that was the reason for choosing a puppy as victim in the first place. However, it also undermines the representativeness of the survey (as it would filter our caring and empathic persons in advance) – and therefore the point of doing it as science in the first place. Except maybe to gain publicity for the shock effect, and be quoted by populist researchers who don’t care about bias.

    • Mados: again, some good points about the ethics of the experiment and empathy. Dr. Zimbardo used this, as well as the Milgram experiment, the Stanford Prison experiment, and the horrors of Abu Gharib and Guatanamo Bay to illustrate his premise in The Lucifer Effect, which was that situational forces can cause good people to do evil things.

      What I thought of in regards to the behavior of the participants was this: how mindful are we of our actions? How much are we willing to “follow the crowd” to gain acceptance or approval, even to the point of doing things to the detriment of ourselves or others? It also caused me to return to some observations I’ve had — I’ve noticed in my own life that women tend to look to the behavior of others or for approval from others more often than men. While I realise that women are not the only ones who do this, it did make me ask why. Now, another question which applies here is whether this is a result of nature or nuture, and that requires more exploration.

      It also made me question my own behavior. I prize individuality and have been trying to understand myself and who I am for most of my life (I know this is the Enneagram type 4 in me), so it made me question how much of my behavior is original and truly me.

      -Nicole

      • “How much are we willing to “follow the crowd” to gain acceptance or approval, even to the point of doing things to the detriment of ourselves or others?”

        I don’t think it is right to say ‘we’ here… We are all human, but extremely different in terms of propensity to ‘follow the crowd’. Personally I hate crowds! It also can’t be assumed that gaining acceptance and approval is the only/key motivation – it might, but it is a guess. Most likely there are many explanations at once, with some being more relevant for some people than others.

        As for the puppy experiment, I still suspect there was a selection bias due to the controversial (I suppose) character of the survey, and that the respondent who accepted to participate were more cynical & merciless than the average ‘good person’. And therefore the quantitative output (like percentages) is likely to be misleading.

  6. “Scripts”, my whole life has been about perfecting them to meet everyone else’s ideal, though I didn’t realise that until I ended up with a thyroid condition, son was diagnosed with autism and I nearly lost my marriage. I no longer had the energy to “play the game” and the true me arrived unannounced. While it has been a struggle to find out what I have lived with all these years – I have come out the other end excited by the new me. Scripts are now viewed to me as a way of being polite and when I forget or don’t use them (yes with intent), well I love who I am and excited by the skills, talent and knowledge that AS has given me! On the positive side I don’t have any superficial friendships anymore, ones that I gave up me to be with.

  7. Interesting. I’m one of those middle-aged women (diagnosed with Aspergers) seeking connections with other females with Aspergers. My middle son has Aspergers as well. Very well done survey! Impressive.

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