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.

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Bullying, Chasing Pavements, and Asperger Syndrome

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
– John Lennon, “Imagine”

Over the weekend, I saw a headline about Lynda Frederick, a 42-year old woman bullied during her time in high school who wrote a poem to her classmates about being bullied on the Facebook page for her high school class reunion. This morning, I investigated further and read this story in the Huffington Post, as well as a few other articles online about her and her poem. Her former classmates were so moved, some coming forth with apologies and raising money for her to travel and attend the reunion.

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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”.

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Women, Autism, and Social Mimicry Survey

Greetings WWA Readers!

Despite recent events, I am carrying on with an effort to research the issue of women, autism, and social mimicry. As I have mentioned before, Dr. Tony Attwood suggests 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. I am curious about this phenomenon of social mimicry amongst women on the spectrum and would like to find out how common this is.

I invite women on the autism spectrum (both officially diagnosed and self-diagnosed) to take my Polldaddy survey. It is a short, ten question survey intended, and both cis- and trans- women are invited to participate. Please click the link below to go to the survey (which will pop up in front of your browser window). If the button below does not work, you may link to the survey directly at: http://womanwithaspergers.polldaddy.com/s/new-survey.

Please pass this on to other autistic women! My goal is to find at least 100 to take the survey.

UPDATE: I’m keeping the survey open until midnight on December 10, 2011 to give more people a chance to take it. There’s been a rather large response to the survey — thanks to Autism Women’s Network, Autism Blogs Directory, The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, and Canddi on Facebook for helping to spread the word.

Take the Women, Autism, and Social Mimicry Survey

-Nicole

Bullying Awareness Week

This week is Bullying Awareness Week.  This week is dedicated to raising awareness about the problem of bullying.

A few things to think about this week:

  1. Bullying is a widespread problem and can affect anyone regardless of race, class, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or ability status.
  2. Bullying is a common problem for autistic children. Estimates of the amount of autistic and Asperger children who are bullied run anywhere from 40% to as high as 90%. (See this story in the Boston Herald and this citation by the National Autistic Society UK.)
  3. Bullying does not only affect children. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, around 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand.

I’d also like to mention some of my writings about bullying: “Workplace Bullying and the Autistic Employee” and “Why Me?“, two parts of a to-be-completed series I authored about autism and workplace bullying.

I’ve also had my own experiences with bullying, mostly encountered as a child and teenager. One of my earliest memories of being bullied is from third grade. I attended a school in the district that had more special education offerings than the rest of the schools, and I needed speech therapy due to a bad ear infection which made me mispronounce the diphthong “th” as the letter “d”, amongst other things. Oddly enough, that’s not why I was the target of bullying, and to this day, I can only guess why the kids in question chose to pick  on me. At that age, with less than average experience being around other kids (due to our frequent moves) and no other siblings, I lacked social experience with other kids. That, plus the social foibles and difficulty reading other kids that Aspie children are prone to, were likely a recipe for disaster. I was singled out as the “weirdo” and was constantly asked if I was retarded. I never knew how to answer my tormentors — I simply froze in fright and said nothing. After one disastrous incident where I was teased and provoked until I bit the kid who bullied me, I chose to play alone for the rest of the school year with the exception of one boy, Lance, who I still felt comfortable around (and looking back in time’s mirror, I half wonder if he was also an Aspie too — but that’s a whole ‘nother post).

That summer, we moved to another city, and I encountered bullying again in the schools I attended. This happened again when we moved across the country and I attended yet another new school for fifth and six grade. But the worst of it I encountered during junior high and high school. As I look back, I consider it a bit of a miracle that I not only survived, but that I do not carry more scars than I do now.

After my parents separated, my mother and I moved to Middletown, Ohio, where I attended the last half of sixth grade, junior high, and high school. It is small town with a large steel mill, a small population (I believe in the 40,000 range when I last lived there), and a rather cliquish atmosphere at the time — everyone had known each other since their youth. To make matters worse, I was a multiracial kid in a town which was rather segregated socially in terms of race — white and blacks usually did not socialize together, and the other multiracial kids simply identified as black; but I’d been used to growing up in neighborhoods where whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and First Peoples lived side by side. And I had undiagnosed Asperger’s and displayed many on the laundry list of Aspie traits: social difficulties, inability to read people, narrow interests, and higher than average vocabulary.

It wasn’t long before I was the target of bullies. It mostly began in seventh grade and persisted until my senior year of high school. In my case, it was a few individuals who persisted in making my school life a living hell throughout those five or six years of my life. The black bullies made fun of me for “acting white” or “talking white” because of my vocabulary. The white bullies made fun of me because of my hair (or lack of interest in styling it), my narrow interests, and even my patterns of speech. I was shoved into water fountains and lockers; provoked to cursing one of them out in front of a teacher (which landed me into in-school detention); played tricks on; and excluded. I sought solace in my books, my writing, and my inner fantasy life and tried my best to hold on until I graduated and left.

As an adult, I have tried my best to heal from both the bullying at school and the bullying/abuse I experienced at home. Sometimes, thinking about these memories is like pulling shrapnel out of my skin — it hurts, and I can see the visible wounds that each piece leaves behind. Writing about this pain is one way I try to reckon with it. I am slowly healing, but it has only been recently that I have been able to begin *truly* conquering my suspicion and fear. My goals are to be less paranoid about what people think and say about me and less likely to wonder if tricks or plots are being executed behind my back; these fears generally fall into the “disconnection and rejection” domain of early maladaptive schemas that I discussed in this post (part of a continuing series on stress and anxiety), which include beliefs that the world and most, if not all, people are generally untrustworthy, cruel, and will only purposely hurt or reject.  Unfortunately, the kind of bullying that autistic and Asperger children encounter commonly help form and/or reinforce these kinds of negative core beliefs and the distrust, fear, and paranoia that accompany them.

I offer this poem, “High School Jungle“, as an impression of my experience of having been bullied. I sincerely hope that during this week and beyond, awareness can continue to be raised about the problem of bullying. Too many hearts have been broken and too many lives have been lost to bullying, and it needs to stop.

-Nicole

Why Me? More About Workplace Bullying, Office Gossip, and the Autistic Employee

First off, I want to thank my readers for being patient with me during my hiatus from the WWA blog due to illness and other personal issues. Rest assured, readers, I am back and here to stay. On that note, I’d like to pick up where I left off with this series on workplace bullying and the autistic employee.

Last time, I discussed the basics of workplace bullying: what it is, why bullies do what they do, and the effects that bullying has on employees. This time I’ll be talking about how bullies select their targets, why they may target autistic individuals, and the role that office gossip can play in both bullying campaigns and the everyday work life of an autistic employee. Continue reading

Aspies and Workplace Issues

Normally when I’m presented with a news story about Asperger Syndrome or that in some way covers autism spectrum disorders, I choose to read it and then pass along the information to my friends and subscribers. If you’ve been following WWA, you know that I’ve been systematically tackling topics that affect the lives of many Aspies, especially Aspie women – topics that affect my own life as well. Given that, it seemed appropriate that when this article appeared on the front page of Monday’s Columbus Dispatch, I should not only comment on the article but write about my own experiences in the employment world and with trying to find a job. Continue reading

Unique Challenges for the Aspie Woman, Part 2: Functioning in a Love Relationship

I consult the dictionary of human behavior every day.
I had to load it into my brain and make it learn
that you open doors with hello and
that you close them with goodbye. I had to learn
the mechanics of when to smile, when to laugh.
(From my poem, “You Don’t See It”)

As a woman, I have been aware (painfully at times) of the expectations that Western society and culture has placed upon us, both past and present. I mentioned some of these expectations in my last post when I talked about Aspie women and our unique challenges navigating the social matrix. Some of those expectations are also applied, along with a few others, to women in the realm of romantic relationships. This week,I will discuss those expectations and the challenges that Aspie women might have meeting them when involved in a close relationship.

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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.
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