by Seren Guinness
G for Gender
[CN: Ableist slurs]
“The word gender has been used since the 14th century as a grammatical term, referring to classes of noun designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter in some languages. The sense ‘the state of being man or woman’ has also been used since the 14th century, but this did not become common until the mid 20th century. Although the words gender and sex both have the sense ‘the state of being man or woman’, they are typically used in slightly different ways: sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender refers to cultural or social ones.”
– Oxford Dictionary
There are numerous and excellent articles and blogs discussing many aspects of gender and autism, which set out perspectives that I can not. Here, I’m hoping to briefly open up the issues around autistic females ‘passing’ (and any ‘passing’ done by autistic people who are non binary, trans, males not of the Baron-Cohen ‘extreme male brain’ model), specifically relating to the fear and lack of confidence in *being* something you are told from birth you are not. A selection of articles and blogs on the general subject can be found in the following links:
- Alyssa Hillary (Academia)
- Autism Women’s Network
- Silence Breaking Sound
- That Crazy Crippled Chick
- The Art of Autism
- The Artism Spectrum
- The E is for Erin
- Musings of an Aspie
- Un-Boxed Brain
- Yes, That Too
- Yes, That Too
So I picked G for Gender. Despite having a gender, I feel utterly, terrifyingly unqualified to talk about gender in the context of neurodiversity- actually in any context at all. I’m terrified to talk about anything so publicly.
I’m an imposter, you see. Or I feel like one every day. I know from speaking to others, particularly autistic women, that I’m not alone in this.
Some people have referred to it as ‘masking’. Others object to the term as they feel it implies intentional deception of others; a repetition of the Biblical Eve and Mary Magdalene role.
I just call it not knowing who I am. Four decades on this planet and yet, with the growing realisation in recent years that I am autistic, it’s like I’ve just arrived here (but the baggage, oh the emotional baggage…).
The sheer terror of writing this guest blog is really a metaphor for how it felt growing up an undiagnosed autistic woman:
- I’ve been trying to second guess what a thousand (known and unknown) people’s responses will be so that I can be safe;
- I’ve tried to crowdsource opinions and perspectives for fear of offending someone or presenting a [something]-ist view unintentionally, or because I feel their views are more important than mine;
- I’ve tried to avoid talking about the real issues, my real issues by redirecting the subject somewhere else;
- I’ve criticised myself for having nothing new to say that hasn’t been said already;
- I’ve tried to ensure I’m someone that fits within the new community I’ve found despite the fact that this community is the fit for me;
- I’ve been afraid I’ll be found out as an imposter- not really a writer, not a true representation of female, not autistic like ‘they’ are autistic;
- I’ve been terrified that my voice will mean I’m thrown out of any old communities I managed to belong in;
- I’ve been casting about for intellectual anchors to help me gain traction;
- I’ve completely ignored that blogs offer a uniquely individual point of view and that MY point of view counts.
But I’ve burnt out. I can’t use the tools I used to have to protect me and keep me from being found out. So I have to use my own voice now and there are many people who don’t like it.
Despite having a front as a confident, educated woman, I’ve come to realise that my greatest fear is rejection and getting things ‘wrong’. I learnt at a very young age that what I am and what I do is not acceptable- my survival depended on being something/someone else. I made a good living out of those skills during my twenties but I also got into many dangerous and unhealthy situations due to certain types of people knowing how to spot someone working so hard to please. Self-autonomy, the conviction of your own feelings and opinions and the right to be in control of decisions, is something I faked to the point of breaking. All the while I had no idea how to ‘self’ at all. For my son, this has been the one thing I’ve tried to ensure he has – his sense of self- so that he can navigate this life in a way I couldn’t and still can’t. This means trusting his first feelings, accepting he has a right to change those feelings and change his mind, the right to say no and have it respected, the choice to drive his own care and education at the pace and level he deems right at that time.
I always feel like an imposter…. I really genuinely feel like a fake in a word of successes, like nothing I ever do is genuinely good enough and that I’ll always be the underqualified unemployed poseur trying to make it in a world of Proper Adults
I keep coming back to Imposter Syndrome when I examine (mostly anecdotally) how gender intersects with autism, whether talking about autistic females, atypical males, neuroqueer, nonbinary persons – the idea that we fake it til we make it, but never really truly believing in who we present to the world. Oh the terror in this. This then leads me to the existential issue of what is actually left behind when you strip away the layers of what has been trained into us, the protective layers we’ve taken upon ourselves to survive in a world that is a daily onslaught. But the word imposter has sinister overtones and implies deception for gain. Conformist syndrome feels a better fit and leads to deep-seated dysphoria and mental health issues.
I notice this unsettling feeling of being utterly alien, not female, not Adult, not grown up, not anything, just out of sync with the entire world
Dysphoria and Disconnect
Given many autistics have alexithymia (a disconnect, delay or difference in processing feelings and emotions), knowing who you are can be tricky.
Identifying non-binary when you can’t really understand your own inner states is really frikking challenging. And involves a lot of looking at media, looking at other people, and trying to work out what’s wrong with you. You know that you don’t feel ‘like a woman’ or ‘like a man’. But it’s super unclear what that even really means. Or how much other people do. So if you’re already something of a social oddity and outside of the norm in many ways, it’s difficult to tease these things apart.
As a woman with the societal expectations of compliance, selflessness, sociability this is terrifying: a lifetime of being told your emotions are inaccurate, too loud, just acting (because no-one normal could really feel that way, could they?); a lifetime of being trained (and then training yourself) to hold your body so carefully in an acceptable way (‘don’t wriggle’, ‘stop tapping’, ‘put your hands away’, ‘you look ridiculous’); meticulously preplanning and desperately searching for the words that elicit the acceptable and safe response from those around you (‘you’re rude’, ‘come here and say that, darling’, ‘you’re fired’, ‘*smack*’). And you still can not get it right. No matter what you do, you trip up eventually over your carefully wound camouflage. ‘They’ will find you out – but they still won’t accept you as you are.
Ice-queen, Lazy, Stupid, Crazy
It’s crushing being surrounded by people and society explicitly and implicitly telling you who you are when you often have huge difficulties identifying your own emotions and feelings til some time later and this can lead to a painful break between the internal and external.
There’s this disconnect present, either in the past before finding some sense of genuine identity or in the present, for many autistics- between who they have become and who they feel they really are.
I still don’t know who or what I am. I fit in nowhere and yet everywhere (except that’s a masked ruse). I never feel like I’m good enough. In regards to ‘gender’. Biologically female body, male brain, child soul, attracted to men and women and artworks of humanoids. I feel like I’m in the wrong world/town. I don’t understand people and I feel like I should.
For those who do not identify their gender with their sex or who discover their sexuality late, that disconnect is compounded. In that case there are multiples of bindings which silence and hide autistic people, especially when you consider that research shows higher rates of gender non-conformity in the autistic population than in the rest of the population.
I identify as non-binary, but I’ve never really felt any kind of imposter syndrome associated with that because I have just gone with it – I’ve never tried to pass as ‘more female’ or ‘more male’. I did feel a degree of imposter syndrome associated with ‘being straight’. I’m sufficiently poor at interpreting my own feelings that it’s taken me far too long to work out that this is because I’m gay. Which has catapulted me into the position of trying to work all this kind of thing out from more-or-less scratch in my late 20s… So less imposter syndrome, more ‘way out of my depth’.
There is a possibility that being an ‘outsider’ leads to you associating with more outsiders and therefore gives you the language and culture to more freely look inside yourself.
If you accept that you’re neurodivergent then it is likely you feel less constrained by social norms. Which allows you to explore outside of them.
Like many people undiagnosed for much of their life (and many who were diagnosed and subject to ‘therapies’), I have developed mental health issues, some trauma responses so deep that I last month suffered full body paralysis which was later diagnosed as conversion disorder- mental distress transferring itself to a physical expression in the body. Suppressing my own needs is such a way of life for me that while I unpack this I get physically sick. Stripping away the bindings is not some act of bravery or a choice – it is a matter of life and death for many. A recent publication by Autistica revealed that autistics are statistically at risk of much earlier death than those not diagnosed as autistic, often because of suicide.
The terror of the wrappings disappearing completely and finding what’s underneath is profound and existential, but moving forward in this way is not a choice, its survival.
This is part of a series of posts addressing themes from the neurodiversity movement and paradigm which will be published during the course of April 2016. To read the rest of the posts, please click here.