Empathy and Gender Rebellion: More Aspie Links

Readers, I’m giving you a bonus links roundup this month because I’ve found some great new blogs about feminism, social justice, and the autism spectrum. Am I empathetic or what?

But seriously, I’ve been thinking a lot about the interplay among gender identity/performance, the emotional labor expected from women, and the stereotype that Aspies lack empathy. Because we neurodiverse folks have to analyze social expectations instead of mimicking them unconsciously, we have a special vantage point to notice when those expectations are unreasonable. Maybe society’s definition of empathy is problematic, and we are “failing” at something that women and femmes shouldn’t have to succeed at.

For some of us, this leads to the syllogism: “If women are supposed to do X, and I can’t/won’t do that, I must not be a woman.” Discovery of queerness, or missed opportunity to challenge patriarchal sex roles? I don’t think there’s a universal answer. Besides, they’re not mutually exclusive: you can be transmasculine or enby and fight misogyny. If it makes you feel relieved to consider that “I’m not a woman” could be true, you’re probably trans. If it makes you feel depressed, then maybe not. We have this idea that trans-ness is bad and should be a last resort when our problems can’t be solved by drafting us into current political battles. Aside from dudebros looking to pick a fight on Twitter, people are not still asking “Are you really a lesbian or do you just hate patriarchy?” Yet the older generation of lesbian-feminists (to whom I am grateful for many things, don’t get me wrong) are prone to second-guess gender identity exactly the way they were once invalidated about sexual orientation by straight feminists. The background refrain is one that Aspies know too well: “But have you really tried to be normal?”

If you’d like to read more on this topic, or share your experiences, Sparrow M.M. Rose has started a new blog, Transtistic, for folks to discuss the intersection of genderqueer and neuroqueer. Rose is a transmasculine author and autism activist whose main blog is Unstrange Mind.

When you’re interacting with or observing a neurodiverse woman/femme, also consider the likelihood that their seeming detachment is actually shutdown because of hyper-empathy. Just like sensory input, emotional input can be hard for us to filter out selectively. Naturally this is also true for non-femme Apsies, but perhaps more common or more acute for us because we were socialized as female, which trained us to absorb this input whether we could handle it or not. Male socialization gives a person more of a free pass to be oblivious to others’ feelings, if that’s how he’s inclined.

Emma at Lemon Peel and Dani Alexis at Autistic Academic co-wrote an incisive series in 2015 deconstructing a list of “25 tips” for female partners of Aspie men, the upshot of which was, don’t confuse autism with being a dick. Emma argues, “Ignoring the direct, unambiguous messages that women give them, and acting entitled to their bodies and affection, are not things that an autistic man would do because he is autistic, they are things he would do because that is how our society socializes men to treat women.” Not only does it give Aspies a bad name to conflate our behavior with general man-baby-ness, it primes Aspie women for abuse, because being partnered with a man–any man–starts to feel like the cure for our insecurity about not hitting “normal” developmental milestones in relationships.

When you teach boys and young men (autistic or otherwise) that anyone who fails to accommodate their needs is a bad person, and then turn around and teach girls and women (autistic or otherwise) that they aren’t allowed to have needs, you are helping make sure that we will continue to live in a world where women are constantly blamed for their own sexual assault, and where men are trained to be so worried about their masculinity that they are unable to admit that they have hurt others, or that others hurt them. And autistic people are supremely vulnerable to this kind of manipulation and socialization, in part because these kinds of stories and lessons about “adulthood” and “independence” fill our lives, and are not in any way limited to the sphere of relationships and dating.

When you have lived, for so many years, according to lists of behaviors, rules, and skills that you’ve been told you must do in order to deserve safety, sustenance, love, and self-determination, it sometimes is easier to feel safe (for a moment, for a day, maybe). But these lists of “rules” are always coupled with the–conscious or subconscious–knowledge that the only reason people had to tell you these rules in the first place is because you suck at following them. This is how your pain and your punishment are justified: there were rules, and you did not follow them, and the only way to teach you to follow the rules is to punish you when you break them.

Dani’s post “Emotional Labor, Gender, and the Erasure of Autistic Women” theorizes that autism is under-diagnosed and under-supported in people who aren’t cis men, because girls are more heavily pressured to make the effort to fake neurotypical social functioning (i.e. functioning according to patriarchal demands of availability, unselfishness, and pleasantness).

…autism in general and Asperger syndrome in particular are portrayed as deficits in emotional labor, specifically.  The DSM-IV criteria for Asperger Syndrome (which differ from the criteria for autism only in their willingness to allow for a broader range of features in speech development) specifically target certain differences, difficulties, or absences in expected displays of emotional labor:

  • marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction,
  • failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level,
  • a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interest or achievements with other people (e.g. by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
  • lack of social or emotional reciprocity.

The last criteria in this section, “lack of social or emotional reciprocity,” is a demand for emotional labor, full stop.  Emotional reciprocity is the one thing all forms of emotional labor have in common.  The other three are more specific examples of emotional labor: using nonverbals that make the other person feel noticed and attended to, energy invested in “appropriate” relationships, and “sharing” (the ambiguous construction “of interest to other people” in the list of examples, implying “of interest to the patient, pointed out to other people” and “of interest to the other person”, is particularly telling)…

…we “miss” autistic girls and women in diagnosis because girls are taught and socialized, from birth, to perform emotional labor.  When the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder still emphasize deficits in emotional labor, clinicians are looking for lack – not for difference, which is more likely to appear in girls who have been socialized to perform emotional-labor rituals without being given any insight as to their meaning or purpose.

I truly saw myself in this post from April, “Autism’s Love”, at the blog Autism and Expectations (the thoughts of a late-diagnosed autistic woman). She’s reviewing a talk by Susan Kruse, whose research suggests that

…our brains light up in the same way for objects as they do for people. Rather than proving that Autistics see people as unemotionally as they do objects, Susan suggests that it proves the opposite. It proves the great love we have for things as well as people.

The blogger observes that she has extreme empathy for stuff–especially pre-loved, dinged-up, tag sale stuff, or odds and ends that most people might throw away. My storage room hoard of old math papers from 1985 proves our similarity! As a child, I would usually buy the toy that was a little bit irregular or damaged, because what if nobody else loved it? I have trouble discarding worn-out clothes because it feels disrespectful towards their faithful service to my body. The advent of clothing recycling drop boxes makes this easier, finally. So does cellphone photography. I can virtually hoard things that embody memories for me, without having to keep them lying around. The blogger writes:

It turns out that I am twice-cursed. Cursed by an upbringing that taught me to always ask, “But what if one day you need three inches of string/an empty yoghurt pot/this scrap of fabric?”, alongside a deep love for ‘things’ and a problem-solving brain that will find a logical space for them in my life…

…[But] No matter how much I love things, clutter makes me unhappy. It fills me with thoughts and variables and agitations. The choices spiral and fishnet and catch me up in their tangled web. Sticky as sap, they cling to me. Weigh me down. Make the world a little heavier to trudge through.

There is a lightness in letting things go to the right places. There is a lightness in saying goodbye at the right time. Knowing I have the choice. Knowing it is me choosing.

My philosophy in life has always been that when things or people leave it, for whatever reason, that doesn’t mean they are gone. No one can take away their past presence from you…I did not need to people-my-things to make them loveable, I was already connected to the world.

For the best of feminist and queer Aspie Twitter, follow @amysequenzia, @autselfadvocacy, @autism_women, @eremitpurpur, @rsocialskills, @theoriesofminds, @erabrand, @flappyhourcast, @riotheatherrr, @barkingsycamore, and @autpress. This latest post by Dani Alexis also has a list of blogs for newly diagnosed or self-diagnosed adults to start getting the hang of autistic culture and find the right community.

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