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Autism and Diversity: Sex, Gender and Sexuality

Category: Blogger's Corner, Women, diversity, gender, equality, Autism

Autism and Diversity: Sex, Gender and Sexuality

Too often, media conceptions of autism assume all with the condition are white, middle-class men and boys, either asexual or presumed heterosexual; and while this is true of many with autism, it is not the whole story. Anyone, from any background, can be autistic, but the marginalisation of minorities with autism mean they are too often ignored. Here, I focus on women and LGBT people with autism, dispelling myths than negate or minimise their lived experiences.

  1. Autism affects women in tiny numbers

Though the myth that autism cannot affect women is thankfully far less prevalent now than it once was (though still there!), there is still a conception than autistic women and girls are a rarity. With some surveys reporting just 9% of people diagnosed with high-functioning autism/Asperger’s are women, it can be tempting to assume this is the true number. But equally, there is plenty of evidence that girls tend to be under-diagnosed far often, whether due to being better at masking their autism, or because of male-centric diagnostic criteria.

For example, 33% of those with classic autism, who find it far harder to mask their difficulties, are women, and there has been no real answer to this discrepancy. Some have theorised than women may be more “resistant” to autism-causing mutations, meaning that girls who, were they male, would have mild autism are instead protected, and only mutations strong enough to severely affect them “break through”. But equally, it may simply be that more women with “high-functioning” autism hide their differences, and so go under-diagnosed; a growing amount of research suggests this may be more likely.

  1. Autism affects women in exactly the same way as men

It’s tempting to assume autism affects women identically to men, but this isn’t the case – women tend to be affected more severely (though this may be because women with mild autism are better at concealing it, as discussed above). With high-functioning autism, women tend to have more interests focused on animals or people than men, and rather than having one, specific special interest, are more likely to be interested in several things – sometimes all at once, or sometimes their special interest will “jump around” every few years. They’re also more likely to have special interests that don’t break gender norms, and while the voices of men with autism can be monotonous, women’s are more likely to be high-pitched or hoarse.

It’s also important to remember that with more women with autism being undiagnosed (and mis-diagnosed) than men, they are often less aware of why they are different, but no less aware that they are different (and often more so, given the added social pressures on women who don’t conform to stereotypically feminine behaviour), which can cause greater anxiety. It can also prevent, or at least hinder, the forming of coping strategies, or other efforts to move past difficulties, since they can’t pinpoint them.

  1. Autism does not affect LGBT people

The media has a tendency to view autistic people as either asexual (as with disabled people in general), or implicitly heterosexual, and the silence around LGBT autistic people is often interpreted as meaning they don’t exist. This couldn’t be further from the truth; numerous studies report autistic people self-identifying as LGBT in higher numbers than non-autistic people, with many autistic children reporting gender dysphoria and the number of people with autistic traits self-identifying as transgender being particularly high, particularly among  female-to-male transsexuals/transmen.

A number of autistic people also self-identify as pansexual, non-binary, or genderqueer; and the social pressures of being LGBT often cause added difficulties. The correlation between autism and alexithymia – a condition which impairs peoples’ ability to recognise their own emotions and feelings – may well mean autistic people are also more likely to question, and be unsure of, their sexuality (and for longer) than non-autistic people, often causing anxiety and fear over their deeper identity.

And these are just some of the sub-groups autistic people fall into – the diversity and intersectionality within the spectrum is wider still. In my following posts, I’ll be looking at autism and class, race, age and other differences – it’s vital to remember that people from all sections of society are autistic, and not to ignore, or brush over, any of their lived experiences.

VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please call 02037405973 or email info@vercida.com for more information.

We are also officially recommended by Disability Confident as a step on achieving Employer status, please click here for more information.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email info@vercida.com for more information.

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