LET’S TALK

Making Space for Women on the Spectrum

Someone once told me that Asperger’s Syndrome is an exaggerated form of maleness. I don’t remember if this was a psychiatrist, therapist, or some other professional expert on ASD, but it stuck with me for a very long time. As a female-bodied person who has struggled with their gender identity, this was an especially pertinent revelation. In fact, girls are disproportionately under-diagnosed when compared to boys. One theory, purported by Simon Baron-Cohen, suggests that females are more inclined to “empathize” while males are more likely to “systemize”. Ergo, autism, whose key feature is a lack of empathy, is an extreme form of this male behavior. This is known as the Extreme Male Brain Theory. But the issue with this theory is that females on the spectrum do exist and not all of them identify their gender differently than the one assigned at birth.

Because men are more prevalent in the autism community than women, it creates an imbalance of power. The needs of men, both clinical and social, are catered to, at the expense of the needs of women. Doctors and specialists are often more equipped to deal with men. Social groups for individuals on the spectrum are male-dominated spaces. As the minority in these groups, it is easy for women to feel left out. Activities are geared more toward male interests. These spaces can also be uncomfortable for women, who, as rare as they are, may be the victims of unwanted sexual attention. That is why it is important that a place like Felicity House exists.

Felicity House “…is a non-clinical program just for women with autism”. It is a social space where women can feel comfortable connecting with other women. The program is fully funded so there’s no fee to join. As a member myself, I can attest to how wonderful it is to have a space free of the domineering presence of men. It’s a calm space free of conflict, with plenty of activities to participate in. I spoke to some of the members about their own experiences, as well as the staff members of their role in the organization.

One of the members talked to me about how Asperger’s tends to be a “male disorder.” She noted how people would be surprised when she told them she had Asperger’s. She doesn’t consider herself to be masculine at all. While I was talking to her, she was actually crocheting; another woman there noted how she likes things like sewing and wearing skirts, and also noted how there are “icky” assumptions about women on the spectrum. While I disagree with assigning such activities to women exclusively, there is a valid point in even having these activities at this location. Creative, crafty projects are common at Felicity house and the female environment probably nurtures that creativity to an extent.

Felicity House also provides a sense of community, I was told. It felt a little cliquey at first for her. This was probably because Felicity House originally consisted of one pilot group called Ladies on the Spectrum, who obviously knew each already pretty well. Still, it eventually felt more welcoming and just turned out to be a nice place to have fun. Another woman told me how accepting the space is, and it’s a fun place to go to. She additionally noted how she feels more comfortable in single-sex spaces. The third woman I interviewed talked about how it’s a good place to meet new people and try new things. As opposed to gender integrated spaces, she said Felicity House offers the opportunity to connect with more women instead of being mostly guys, and they offer different opportunities.

The staff expressed the necessity of the space in terms of having a female space where most spaces are male-dominated. Women have different needs from men; they should have a space that’s pressure-free. One staff noted how women everywhere should have separate spaces from men; they “especially seek out and crave safe spaces.” They are sometimes the victim of unwanted sexual advances in these male-dominated spaces. One staff mentioned how women in male-dominated spaces often become the “token woman” and are expected to be the spokesperson for women. Another of the staff indicated that some of the members who attend co-ed spaces would experience conflicts with dating among the group, which created tension. Obviously, that is taking into account a heteronormative context, but it could also be that the nature of heterosexual relationships cultivates competition and pressure. This staff member also noted that Felicity House is focused more on the friendship social aspect of relationships. Another staff member indicated that women are more interested in that social aspect. A different staff member noted how women are held to a different standard when it comes to socializations as a whole; navigating the social structure is a little bit more complicated for men.

One staff talked about creating an experience at Felicity House; that you can go to this safe space and experiment with different activities, as opposed to simply going out on your own to an art class or a lecture. Another staff member mentioned how the space doesn’t force women to act in a certain way. As a non-clinical space, there’s no correcting of social behaviors or psychological analysis of situations. This staff member noted how there’s no “hidden agenda” or integrated therapy; “it’s purely social…come, hang out, eat pizza, do an event.” A different staff member talked about how having actual social relationships as opposed to just reading about how to socialize or taking a class can be more helpful. Felicity House is a place where you can have “safe, structured, positive, on-going conversation and contact with folks.”

What I gleaned from these conversations felt somewhat gender essentialist. But I don’t necessarily feel that’s a bad thing. For one thing, even though I disclosed to one of the staff that I am genderqueer, I am still welcome in the community. For much of my life I have been surrounded by men and been friends with men. My closest friends have long been men. But coming to Felicity House made me realize that being around men 24/7 isn’t always a healthy thing. In elementary school, my “friends” would constantly tease me and I would sometimes be left out of social gatherings, like sleepovers or dinners. While I often feel like I can relate more to men, I also feel like that feminine side of me deserves to be nurtured. It feels nice to be around a group of people who aren’t going to make fun of you. And that aspect of focusing on friendship takes the pressure off in terms of other kinds of relationships.

Disabled women are vulnerable, especially when that disability is invisible like autism. Having a space for those autistic women to be themselves without the pressure of the outside world is such an important resource to have. This model should be replicated all over the world, for autistic women everywhere to know they are not alone.

Allison

Allison is a college student with Asperger's Syndrome and a member of Felicity House. She is an avid writer pursuing her BA in English. Her other interests include board games, Doctor Who, and Android: Netrunner.

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