Girls on the spectrum

Girls with autism are often seen as something of a rarity. A lot of writing on the subject, unless specifically about girls and women, focuses on traits more common in men on the spectrum. Then again, that might just be linked to the patriarchy. But still. The popular statistic is that autistic men outnumber autistic women – 4:1.

Is that actually true? I don’t know. It is a popular belief that an autistic brain is an extreme version of a more average male brain. But that doesn’t explain why women on the spectrum exist at all. There probably is some genetic influence. I mean, colour blindness, left-handedness, and ADHD are more common in guys. Yet others would argue that autistic girls slip under the radar. Why is this?

For a start, girls are thought to be better protected among their peers at school. Maybe up until the teen years*, anyway. Girls with it tend not to care how they come across. Girls without it aren’t too worked up yet about their social image. To them, that girl who needs help in lessons and who still carries toy animals everywhere by 11 years** is in need of social salvation. Who better to take under their wing?

Meanwhile, autistic boys are apparently more vulnerable from day one. Most boys run on dirt, chaos, physical competition and other autism nemeses. Boys who don’t may very well find themselves at the butt of all that. And men who don’t are often presumed to be gay.

But boys on the spectrum still have those surpressed, testosterone-fuelled emotions. Combine that with being in a world where your peers use you for target practise and nothing at school makes sense, you can see why some are prone to angry outbursts. This isn’t unheard of in girls, but it is less common. For one thing: sorry guys, but girls do tend to be more in tune with their own emotions on average, and more likely to worry about how their actions affect others – even if their judgement here is poor.

On the flipside, this makes them less prone to emotional outburts. Which sounds like a good thing. It’s easier for those around you to deal with, and who wants to (figuratively) explode under pressure anyway? But keeping inner turmoil under wraps all the time is like being unable to expel poison. It goes unnoticed, and unaided.

Which is why we need more awareness. As far as autism is concerned, men and women aren’t always polar opposites. But, like neurotypicals, there are differences. Guys might be fascinated by Maths, Physics, computers and the like. Or they might be more creative. Girls may err towards art, literature, and animals. Or they might have a head for technical stuff.

Whatever you have learned about girls, guys, and the autistic spectrum, keep on learning. And what better way to learn than by getting to know an individual as the unique person that they are?

 

 

*Don’t even go there. Actually, please do. Right here.

**Not mentioning any names. Especially not mine.

 

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Injuries and the like

My dyspraxic difficulty in predicting where oncoming people – particularly cyclists – are heading is an accident waiting to happen. Last Thursday, it happened. Barely two minutes after work, I went to cross the road from one corner to the opposite one. An approaching cyclist on the road at 12 o clock* looked like he might be cycling past me. The sensation of forcefully hitting the ground confirmed that he had actually tried to turn the same corner that I was heading towards.

New bruise collection? Check. Bandaged foot? Check. I’d also like to thank the passer-by from the hospital who wouldn’t let me go until she was sure I didn’t need medical attention. Anyway, I did what most self-respecting women would do: cry a bit, take a bath, eat chocolate and complain to anyone listening.

And reminisce about mishaps gone by. Namely a near-identical incident at a holiday/retreat centre when I was six. I was playing outside, didn’t see the girl on a bike in time and consequently got flattened. My sister likes to think I was re-enacting that moment. I like to think it was foreshadowing what was to come 17 years later.

Another time, I went on a trip with the Brownies to a rollerblading arena. I fell down. I got back up and kept trying. I repeated this until I went face first and sank my teeth into my lip. Blood was spilled and a dislike of slippery surfaces was ignited.

Then there’s my nearly-ten-years-old bread-knife scar. I don’t know what sort of bread that knife was made for, but definitely not the sort that displays resistance to pressure. In fact, it skidded wildly and took a pound of flesh from my finger. Which had to be strapped to my other finger. I distinctly remember showing my sister the used dressing the next day, and her responding “you’ve had your period on it.” Brilliant.

Medical issues have demonstrated two things. One: I over-react to touch. Back in Year 9, what started as an irritated eye landed me at the doctor’s, then the optician, then the walk-in centre and finally the hospital’s eye department, where I was diagnosed with a simple eye infection. I don’t know how the medics got the eye drops into me, but Mum had to pin me down, unable to move, and hold both my head and my eyelid. Eight times a day for at least a week.

Two: I under-react to pain. When I was 15, I found what looked like insect bites on my tummy. Three weeks later, I realised they may be infected, and went to the doctor. Following several ineffective antibiotics, I carried on as normal, until my parents got one look at my weepy, burning skin and took me to the walk-in centre. Turned out I had an extremely rare staphylococcal infection, was at risk of blood poisoning, and had been running a fever without realising. Yikes.

Yet somehow, I’m still alive. If I go a month without writing a blog post, you may rectify that statement. Until then, fingers crossed!

 

 

*Meaning he was directly ahead. Not to be interpreted as the whole thing happening at midnight.

 

Kind or patronising? Just ask

One of the things that I had no idea how to deal with at school was when people spoke to me as if I was a toddler. I would be muddling through a lesson with as much difficulty ease as the next kid. Who, if they weren’t ignoring me, would be trying to do stuff for me, explaining the simplest things, and telling the others “it’s not her fault she’s slow.” Or weak. I even had one person ask me – completely innocently – if I had brain damage. Seriously.

And it wasn’t just kids. I remember a teacher talking about our latest homework assignment, and mentioning how I’d been allowed to skip certain parts because they were too hard. Or classroom assistants who would follow me like a shadow in front of other kids, when all I needed was to ask a few extra questions.

What I found hard was knowing what to say. For the most part, I’d internalise the inner conflict between not wanting to offend and hating feeling patronised. Very occasionally I’d speak up, but the other person would act like I’d just karate chopped them! So much for not offending.

It’s hard to know where to draw the line here. If you have a disability or illness – whether physical or mental – you will probably have extra needs that require accommodation. And you don’t want to be ungrateful to someone who wants to help. Don’t wait until you feel like exploding. Just explain to them the nature of your needs – and be sure to add what you don’t need.

And if you are someone who wants to help, you might want to look at these pointers.

Don’t be afraid to ask your autistic/partially sighted/depressed (etc.) friend what sort of help they need. Do be discreet, especially if they are with other people – you don’t know how open they are about their needs, and they will appreciate you trying to learn without embarrassing them. One of my new discipleship course leaders took me aside recently to ask me about my Asperger’s and how it may show itself on the course. I gave a brief explanation, told her about my blog, and later brought in this letter. Both parties were happy.

Don’t make assumptions about their abilities. Any writing about their condition only describes exactly that – the condition. Not an individual who has it. Just give them the help they ask for. No more, no less. I find I’m more comfortable asking for help if I know it won’t make the other person act like I’m stuck in a burning building. Trying to help always comes from the best of intentions, but when repeatedly done unnecessarily, tells them “I don’t think you are capable.”

Note the difference between sympathy and pity. Pity is when people say “I feel so sorry for *insert name* because of that thing he/she has.” Sympathy is paying attention to what someone is actually struggling with, and offering moral support because you care. As for words like “cute”? Babies are cute. Pets are cute. Mature adult humans? Forget it!

And finally…remember that not every aspect, or even hardship, of a person’s life is linked to their condition. Special needs or not, anyone appreciates friendship from someone who takes them as they find them.