Female Aspies Explained
By Jessika Endsley
Photo of the author. © Jessika Endsley
In the few short years since receiving my diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome at age twenty, I have grown more and more active in writing and speaking about being a female on the Autistic Spectrum. Many people have been shockingly supportive and I have made connections with them, but alternatively, many wonder why I don't hide it. They don't understand why I would "advertise" it but also demand to know why I am the way I am. Once cannot have it both ways, and while no Aspie owes an explanation to the world, understanding the diagnosis and what it means while being a woman can cause a tremendous shift in daily functioning and in world-view. When this happens, it can be impossible not to acknowledge.
Having Asperger's Syndrome as a female is to live in a world that is aggressively and consistently assumptive. Our peers assume incorrectly and so do the mental health professionals that we work with. Imagine every time you spend time with others, or even leave the house, you do something odd or "wrong," and people assume you're doing these things for very different reasons from what is true. To try and avoid the negative attention, you spend every ounce of energy you have doing constant improvisational acting. Dealing with the Neurotypical world on a social and sensory level each day is incredibly tiring for an Aspie, and it may be intensified for a female. Very different, highly advanced social-communication styles are expected of a woman, especially if the woman has a normal physical appearance. We even fool ourselves. There is still a shortage of information both for and about Aspie women, but as long as there exists biological and psychological differences in gender, Aspie females will live in a different world from Aspie male peers as well as Neurotypicals. While Aspie ladies can walk by any magazine rack and learn "50 New Ways to Please Your (Neurotypical) Man," we cannot readily find pertinent information for dealing with your Neurotypical world, nor can Neurotypicals readily be encouraged to understand or deal with us.
Social Exhaustion and Hangovers
I have read that female Aspie children are often "nurtured" by other girls and it helps them adapt to social situations better. I think that's a load of shit. It certainly was, in my childhood; I couldn't get along with other girls at all because I was odd, while the boys (while acknowledging that I was odd) would still be my friends because I had something to offer as a playmate. I think that Aspie girls who do manage to make friends with and learn from other little girls do so out of a need to survive; you won't beat them, so join them. As a child, I quickly learned from the boys that assertiveness was key to survival, and beyond that, I would pick up on what was for "losers" and what wasn't, and not much else. Not much else was required; if I had wanted to fit in with the girls, I would have needed to learn a much more elaborate social dance that I still have not mastered at age twenty-two. Since a lot of it involves manipulation and tiny cues I have no interest in, I never plan to get involved.
Hiding social- and behavioral oddities was easier as a teenager than it is as an adult. Teenage girls often act out, behave strangely, and dress oddly as a way to "express" themselves, so it can be amazingly easy to go undetected as an Aspie. But it still took a lot of energy and it still does, except I'm no longer forced to socialize every single day. When I do need to socialize, though, I tend to avoid other women if at all possible. This tendency resulted in much speculation once I was too old to just be a "tomboy" but, as usual, the assumptions were wrong. Men are just easier to deal with. Women will become unnerved very easily by lapses in social judgment, lack of affective empathy, and by peculiar interests and hobbies. Try answering a group of women at a party when you're asked what you spend your time doing with "studying serial killers with my cat" or any variation thereof. Women are simply more socially advanced in general and therefore very tiring to deal with when trying to avoid the reactions and attention that Aspie behavior can lead to while men may find it easier to ignore, if they don't find it somewhat endearing. But, when I was younger, I did try a bit harder out of frustration. I even spent a lot of time when I was younger (and still had more of a desire to fit in) studying popular womens magazines to learn what was and was not "normal" for appearance. While much of what I discovered was asinine, fickle and removed of all personal identity, what I learned then has helped me tremendously with blending in as an adult. Still, it does not take long for Neurotypical girl friends to pinpoint that I am not, indeed, normal.
The few highly-empathetic and non-judgmental girls I have dealt with tended to make great long-term friends that will be impossible to replace.
Mimicry and behavior-alteration/hiding can be a double-edged sword when I have been out too long and you start melting down. Noise, lights, smells, and social interaction inevitably make an Aspie feel extremely drained of resources. Then, the coping mechanisms stop being enough. I stop my less-than-skillful eye-darting and just stare at the floor, my voice stays in its natural monotone, I may begin rocking a bit, and I can become quite unresponsive verbally. That means it is way beyond time to go home. But, this is often when people notice that I am actually abnormal. Neurotypical friends will demand to know "why" I do something or do not, and if I refuse to discuss it, I'm assumed to be a bitch, or angry, or depressed, or possessed, or on drugs. The more I (and many other Aspies) become over-stimulated, the more we will need to "stim" or even shut down. Common "safe" in-public stimming can include, for me, scrolling on my phone and tapping my fingers making me look like a rude and impatient bitch. Looking rude and impatient can actually bring in less attention than just being a bit odd. The brighter and louder it gets, the more like a rude, impatient bitch I am going to look. I should be really thankful that I have a low need for friendship, because it can surely be off-putting, but not all Aspie women are so lucky. Some women with Asperger's want to have friendships and are very upset to learn that they are being seen as rude, reserved, angry, or anything else that is "negative." The lucky few times that the Neurotypical knows what Aspergers is, I may hear "but you look normal, you take care of your hygiene, you were just smiling earlier, I heard you laugh at a joke, you don't seem socially clueless." Well guess the fuck what? I got really tired of making tons of tiny adjustments to my behavior in order to make the people around me more comfortable, and now I am all out of improvisation-power, and I need to go home. You would not be so chipper if you had a hangover, now would you?
Professional Morons, Psychology, and Misdiagnosis
It may be true that many Aspie women are actually closer in social-adeptness to Neurotypical males than to the expected awkwardness levels common in men with Aspergers Syndrome. That doesn't really make us seem less odd, just less classically "Aspergian," and therefore out of sight for many professional idiots. Professionals and society have ignored the sexual aspect of the Autistic Spectrum, often telling many blatantly Aspie females that because they have made smalltalk or maintained a bit of eye contact, they must not have Asperger's. Females are more adept and socially advanced biologically than males - this does not exclude females on the Autistic Spectrum. I don't quite understand how someone obtains advanced degrees in psychology and neurology without it clicking in their heads that there can and will be diagnostic differences in the sexes, but low and behold, here we are.
A common theme I've encountered when talking to other women with Asperger's is that we are often diagnosed as adults, and only after a long string of misdiagnosis. Aspie women often do seek out counseling and other forms of psychological help prior to knowing what we are because having Asperger's can lead to severe anxiety, social isolation, and depression. We can also be so good at mimicking behaviors to cope that we actually develop Personality Disorders as a maladaptive coping mechanism! I have encountered many women who were diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder before they were discovered to be Aspies, as well as Schiz-spectrum disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (with and without any identified trauma) as well as the dreaded "Social Anxiety Disorder." While many Aspies of both genders do develop Social Anxiety Disorder, professionals tend to hand the diagnosis to anyone who has anxiety in social situations. Aspies often feel anxiety due to sensory issues and the disorientation that comes with social situations; it's loud, people are talking and wanting responses, it may be bright - that is not the fear-of-embarrassment-based "Social Anxiety" that many women are diagnosed with as opposed to Asperger's Syndrome. It can take a ton of doctor-searching, failed analysis, and money to get a correct diagnosis, and even more difficulties in getting the old, incorrect diagnosis removed from official records.
One of the many unfortunate side-effects of being misdiagnosed (other than receiving no help) is being over-medicated and gas-lighted (psychologically manipulated) into believing we are crazy. Autistic Spectrum patients rarely react well to medication; it can make us sick, give us psychosis, make us nervous, or any other negative effect that can accompany the medication they give us to treat something we probably don't have. Then the psychiatrists proceed to be shocked by our reactions and why the medication is not "helping" us, and after several medication switches, they may conclude that we are lying about the effectiveness of the drugs. It couldn't possibly be that they're wrong; we must be lying! Some of us have been drugged for years and have questioned our own sanity. I've even been told, after mentioning to a counselor that I was having a hard time sleeping due to noisy neighbors, that I was probably experiencing auditory hallucinations. I was not; our neighbors just fought a lot. But, psychiatrists do have an agenda, and they do make money while pill-pushing. We are often shocked when learning that the people who dedicated their lives to "helping" people are actually causing harm left and right. When I did finally receive my diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome (after seven yeas of misdiagnosis and over-medication) I was also diagnosed with ADHD. This is not at all uncommon for Aspies, but since I do not respond well to drugs, I have instead opted for using coping skills such as writing tasks on whiteboards and sticky notes to keep my ADHD behavior in check. It isn't easy, but there is no accompanying jitters or nausea from using sticky-notes.
It is not uncommon for a female with Asperger's to become interested in, or obsessed with, psychology. Not only do most of us have experience dealing with psychologists, psychology provides us with a very clear guide to human behavior, complete with definitions and manuals. Alexithymia is not uncommon for Aspies, and as women, we are told very early on that we are supposed to feel more than our male counterparts. Many female Aspies do feel a lot but have no idea what is being felt; the emotional spectrum can be very perplexing, and it is common for Aspie girls to have temper and depression meltdowns. Much like sensory overload, emotional processing takes a lot out of us and so much can happen quickly and send us over the edge, making us look like drama queens. Learning about processes of the mind and psychological terms helps many of us feel more confident in our social abilities, lie-detection skills, and in understanding ourselves.
Psychological knowledge can also make us a bit paranoid about our own behavior. Psychological studies shows that people (inaccurately) assume that if you don't make eye contact, you're lying. I'm not lying. I'm listening; I can't look at you and also process what you're saying. You can have one or the other, and me staring at you will rapidly becomes uncomfortable for both parties.
Female Aspie Interests and Isolation
Asperger's Syndrome is accompanied by intense, restricted interests. In boys, this is often extremely obvious, often due to the odd nature of the interest as well as the level of intensity. Girls may be fascinated with things that are more typical of a female, even in childhood, such as animals, fantasy, reading, or dolls. When an interest is intense, we find it easy to abandon everyday needs and things that most people consider an essential part of their well-being. I have forgotten to eat on many occasions throughout my life while spending hours engrossed in research or writing, or, as a child, collecting and caring for tadpoles and frogs. We can neglect our hygiene and fall out of touch with friends and family while obsessing. Others do not often know how to handle this, and sometimes we don't either.
Having Aspie-level obsessions can lead to long periods of isolation. Many Aspie women are introverted as it is, and our hobbies may be solo activities that we can focus on for long periods of time. This doesn't leave room to socialize. While in the thick of obsessing, this is fine, but days or weeks later when we pull our heads out of whatever it is we're doing, our social group (if we even have one) may have become annoyed, offended, or cut off contact with us altogether. This has happened to me so many times that I have become very comfortable with being isolated. I know for a fact that I am always just around the corner from going into Aspie-mode and obsessing about murderers and psychological disorders and that I will be unwilling to talk about much else. Neurotypical friends (and even other Aspies) can end up feeling ignored or they get sick of repeatedly being blown off. I have noticed that, while many people do not appreciate (or even understand) the response of "that does not fall into the interest spectrum"" when inviting me to do something with them, saying "that sounds really fucking boring" brings about even more irritation. Male Aspies seem to be much more capable of adjusting to isolation (even with some discomfort) than we are, so many female Aspies become depressed when they realize that they accidentally burned all their bridges by requiring so much alone time. Remember, Neurotypical friends - we are not ignoring you, we are just focusing, and we cannot help it!
The misconception about what we are doing by spending so much time alone is depressing in itself. I had to be pushed to socialize as a child, and I still do. Although I have enjoyed having friends in the past, I am very comfortable being alone or spending time with one other person. I can go days without speaking to another human being, and I can go months without ever "hanging out" with someone. If you're a psychologically healthy Neurotypical, this may sound obscene to you. I do not spend time alone because I am depressed; I am actually extremely happy while obsessing over my interests and pacing around, daydreaming. I do not go days without talking because I am anxious; I really have nothing to talk to you about other than my interests. Many Aspie women wonder if they are depressed and have just hid it from themselves. Don't try to talk us into being depressed because you would be under the same social circumstances.
Being Gifted, Processing Differently and Education
It is extremely common for Aspie females to be quiet children who are extremely intelligent in most subjects and fail drastically at another. This pattern does not end in adulthood. Aspies are often self-taught readers who become experts in any subject that interests them. A young Aspie girl may be able to recite entire, complicated verses from books about the Renaissance but be unable to tie her shoes. When I received my diagnosis of Asperger's, I was also diagnosed with Discalculia (math disorder) because my brain does not work well with numbers. I am, however, hyperlexic and was reading at a college level in the second grade.
Many women who are diagnosed with Aspergers have an above-average to genius-level IQ, and we may be more inclined than our male peers to be artistic and musical. There is a good chance that an Aspie girl did great on standardized testing in school but bombed regular classwork, leading teachers and parents to think we did not try. We may have an IQ similar to that of Einstein, but we fail out of college or cannot cope with the workload or the sensory issues that are involved with being on campus. I have made attempts at college several times, and it is taking me much longer to complete classes than less intelligent peers and it has absolutely nothing to do with how hard I am trying. It is very uncomfortable when such is assumed, simply because others have no problem dealing with the florescent lighting, the noise, the amount of people, and worst of all, the auditory instructions and lectures involved with taking classes. It is not out of the ordinary for an Aspie to need to ask things to be repeated many times before we "get it" due to our processing differences. It is much easier for us to take our classes online, or to take one class at a time. Others may benefit from being placed in "gifted" or "advance" classes to alleviate the boredom.
Receiving disability help while in college can be extremely difficult when you walk in looking like every other girl on campus who has no problem functioning in class after a long night of partying. Even after bringing in my diagnostic papers that specifically state my odd needs (I need to sit in the corner of the room for class and should be allowed to keep earphones in to block some of the extra noise) I have encountered a bit of doubt. So, even as we do everything we can in an attempt to do well in our lives and to not disturb the class while learning, it's hard to be taken seriously. By college age, most Aspie girls have learned to be polite and to blend in a bit, and this is another case of mimicry being a double-edged sword. I suppose the professors think that we just want to draw attention to ourselves by sitting in the corner to avoid a sensory-induced meltdown!
Aspie Women and Relationships
There is an unfortunate misconception that Aspies are asexual and do not want or need relationships. While it is true that there are asexual Aspies, we are not all seeking celibacy. Even the asexual Aspies I know have desires to have some form of a romantic relationship, and a large amount of Aspie women are highly sexual beings who want companionship and even marriage.
There was no period of my own life where I decided that I would be happy alone. Is being alone easier? Somewhat. Relationships require learning a whole new set of social rules, skills, and it can even be recommended to be somewhat manipulative (playing "hard to get.") The inherit honesty and bluntness that comes with being an Aspie, while sometimes startling to Neurotypical men at first, can actually be welcomed and refreshing after years of probable mind-games from Neurotypical women. The downside to our honesty and loyalty is that we expect it in return; Aspies hate lies. We make an effort to learn your little social dances so that we can be in a relationship with you, and if you betray us, we will be very confused and some Aspies can be very vengeful. We have an extremely strong sense of justice. Some Aspies of both genders are eventually so jaded by the dating world that they settle into life alone. Many are not happy like this, and the women seem to develop severe self-esteem issues with it. So be careful with your Aspie; don't be an asshole and be loyal because you are unlikely to find a Neurotypical with the same level of faithfulness.
Living with a partner, married or not, can be great for some Aspie women. We are provided with a small amount of constant social interaction which, after dealing with the initial confusion of having a cohabitant, can alleviate some isolation-based depression. I much prefer it to living in a house full of people and I also prefer it to living alone (where I can easily slip into severe self-imposed isolation.) There is a lot involved with altering our habits to be with someone else and there is a lot involved with dealing with us. I don't allow many lights to be on at once, the television cannot be up loud, there cannot be people over, and never try to change my routine. Being with an Aspie woman may require you to be sucked into her world a bit and to get rid of any loud, smelly habits outside of what is entirely necessary. Repetition is calming for us and you will be much better off by accepting that rather than by trying to change your Aspie woman I only like a few television shows and I will watch them repeatedly. Anyone I have ever dated quickly learned all the words to the shows I watch and I am often not open minded at all to watching new things, especially if it is not horror. Our rituals are very important to us, so feel honored if we include you in them, rather than offended that we won't alter them as much as you would like. I don't plan on altering my own rituals until my baby is born, and even then, I want to keep it as close to "normal" as I can.
Don't confuse our apparent aloofness and low level of social understanding for disinterest and bitchiness. If we have actually agreed to remove ourselves from our comfort zones to meet you, likely in a place full of strange smells and loud noises, we must have a level of interest. When I have taken a break from research in order to go spend time somewhere I probably did not want to be, it was because I was very interested in getting to know the guy. An Aspie girl is not going to go meet you just because. We are listening and observing even if we do not look directly at you, and please remember that our emotions rarely translate properly to our faces. Your Aspie lady will eventually show more range of emotion, and please do not be offended if she does not immediately hug you. We are sensitive to touch and being expected to touch a new person with no warning can be very upsetting, even if we do want physical contact. Give us extra time to respond and you will not regret it.
Out of the Aspie Closet
As aspie women, we have undoubtedly spent excessive time learning to fit into your Neurotypical world and to avoid meltdown-inducing attention that our natural odd behavior can bring. We can come off as childish well into adulthood, our voices can make us seem either infantile or pissed off, and we have a habit if looking like bitches no matter how happy we are. We have either adapted to looking decent in clothing that is often designed to be uncomfortable and aggravate our sensory issues, or we have learned to make unattractive clothing work for us despite what is expected of our gender. Constantly walking a tight-rope between functional woman and Aspie alien is tiring if done correctly, and we don't expect much in return other than basic respect and the same opportunities our Neurotypical friends get.
It takes a lot of courage to go through being mentally dissected as an adult to get a diagnosis after years of being under the radar, so when we decide to be open about it and educate others, it would be very wise to listen. We have jumped through many hoops to look normal, even before we knew exactly what was different; the last thing we want is attention for no good reason. No one is harmed by learning about Asperger's, but a lot of harm comes from misunderstanding or ignoring it. I have spent much of my life understanding the world around me and the Neurotypicals in it, and when a female Aspie is willing to let you into her world, try to understand the Aspie in it.