SEXISM IN AUTISM DIAGNOSIS AND RESEARCH

Tristin Carey | Staff Writer

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is believed to be more common in men than women. This appears to be backed up by diagnosis rates. However, the extent to which this is true may be overestimated. Although the ratio of autistic men to autistic women in child and adolescent autistic clinics is five to one, the ratio in adult clinics is only two to one. There is clearly a problem with the diagnosis of autistic women, and the root of this problem is sexism. Social expectations of girls result in many overlooked cases, and this is made worse by the neurosexism inherent in autism research.

In neuroscience, the term neurosexism is used to refer to the practice of using flawed scientific studies in order to prove that there are sex differences in the mind. In autism research, perhaps the clearest example of neurosexism is the extreme male brain (EMB) theory of autism. Instead of having a consistent explanation for autistic behavior, EMB theory is only able to describe it. In their paper, Rosalind Ridley explains the concept of gendered brains. To summarize, male brains are more systemizing than empathizing, and female brains are more empathizing than systemizing. Autistic brains are also more systemizing than empathizing, leading to them being described as “extreme male brains” regardless of the person’s gender.

Describing autistic brains as “extremely male” is inappropriate for two reasons. First, many autistic people take issue with the idea that they are low empathizers, with some stating they experience normal levels of empathy, and others experiencing hyperempathy. The fact that around half of all autistic people have alexithymia further complicates the conception that autism equivalent to low empathy. Alexithymia is just the difficulty in understanding and recognizing emotions, so even people with alexithymia can have empathy. While this may refute the empathizing aspect of the extreme male brain theory, there is still another problem with it outside the purview of science –the term has penetrated society. Teachers and parents regularly overlook the possibility of a girl being autistic due to the belief that autism is a boys’ disorder. This belief has also influenced how professionals think of autism.

Sarah Bargiela, Robyn Steward, and William Mandy performed a study on fourteen autistic women and found several negative effects that could likely be attributed to being undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or diagnosed much later than autistic males. Of the fourteen women, twelve women ran into major hurdles with getting diagnosed. One woman reported being diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder instead. Another was laughed at by her psychiatric nurse. Diagnosis of women certainly isn’t being helped by harmful stereotypes of femininity, either. As children in school, many of the women were quiet and passive. Rather than this being seen as a symptom of autism, this was instead seen as being in line with social expectations of girls.

Not being diagnosed tended to have severe consequences for the women in the study. Nine out of fourteen women were sexually abused, and this can be partially linked to not being able to recognize their autistic behaviors that could put them in danger. Many autistic women use social mimicry, where they copy speech patterns and body language. Sometimes, this led to inadvertently copying flirtations. Since autistic people often have difficulty reading people, sexual attraction was sometimes mistaken for friendliness. One woman is quoted in the study as saying, “Had I known about Asperger’s I think I’d have known that I’m more suggestible.”

The failure of the medical community to see autism as more than just a boys’ disorder has led to unnecessary suffering. The “extreme male brain” theory of autism needs to be retired, and professionals and teachers need to be reeducated on what autism is if we want to improve the lives of autistic women.