My Personality Is Not a Sub-Type Presentation

When I was first identified as autistic around 2001, very little had been written about autistic girls. There was a page or two in Tony Attwood’s book Asperger’s Syndrome, but there were very few books and articles that focused specifically on how girls experience autism. Today, that is changing. I wish I could be happier that more professionals are realizing autism isn’t a “male” condition.

Unfortunately, there is very little “autistic girl” literature written by professionals that I can read without cringing. All too often, these books and articles combine sexism with ableism.

Image has the text “To my fellow autistic girls: never let anyone convince you that your interests should be toned down, hidden, or exchanged for something more ‘mainstream’. – C.L. Bridge” over a photo of multicolored plastic building blocks

For one thing, many of these authors seem to think there is only one “typical” way to be a girl. Any not-so-girly interests or preferences an autistic girl has are attributed solely to autism. One widely-read example of this is the description of autistic girls and women on Tony Attwood’s website. Dr. Attwood makes sweeping generalizations about girls in general, and autistic girls in particular. He mentions that autistic girls may prefer “gender-neutral toys such as Lego”, but fails to mention that many non-autistic girls love Legos too, and that a girl’s love of Legos may have less to do with gender than it has to do with the fun of building. Is the fact that some girls like Legos better than dolls really so remarkable that it can be used as a diagnostic trait? Attwood seems to think so. He also scrutinizes autistic girls’ clothing choices. I know many non-autistic girls who prefer “comfortable clothes with lots of pockets” rather than “fancy, frilly clothing”. According to Attwood, however, not liking frills is just another sign of an autistic girl’s inability to understand social norms. He very clinically refers to tomboyish girls as having “an aversion to the concept of femininity”. Would he refer to a non-autistic tomboy in such pathologizing terms, or would he respect her interests and clothing preferences as valid choices? In addition, his black-and-white ideas about gender expression don’t even acknowledge girls who like Legos and dolls, or cargo pockets and frilly dresses.

Attwood is not the only prominent author to reduce all of a girl’s interests and choices to diagnostic features. Tania Marshall’s Aspiengirl infographics, which can be viewed on her Facebook page, are beautifully designed and informative, but they also contain subtle ableism and sexism. (I have not read her books, so I can’t say anything about them.) One graphic is entitled “Do You Know the Common Sub-Type Presentations of Asperger Syndrome in Females?” This graphic divides autistic girls into categories such as “tomboy”, “fashion diva”, “quiet one”, “extravert”, “bookworm”, or “nature girl”. While the graphic may technically be accurate, and its purpose of showing that autistic girls are all different is admirable, I think it is unfair to call these differences “sub-type presentations” of autism. After all, non-autistic girls can also be introverts or extraverts, tomboys or divas, bookworms or animal lovers, or anything in between! But we don’t call these differences “sub-type presentations of neurotypicality in females”. We call them personalities and interests, because “sub-type presentations” is way too clinical and pathologizing. Of course girls (on or off the autism spectrum) are different from each other—we’re human, after all! Perhaps the infographic would be better titled “Every Autistic Girl Is Different: Here are Some Common Personality Traits”, or a similar title. (This graphic’s remark that autistic girls have a “misguided sense of social justice” is worrisome too. While this may be true in some situations, most social justice advocates throughout history were considered misguided by those who disagreed with them. This remark, which is presented without any context, could easily be used to discourage or silence young autistic activists. But that‘s a discussion for another time.)

So, if these authors mean well and their works contain useful information, why am I worried about the way they choose to word their ideas? For one thing, their words promote a double standard. NT girls like Legos and comfy clothes; AS girls prefer gender-neutral toys and are averse to femininity. NT girls have personalities; AS girls have sub-type presentations. Wording things this way could make it harder for parents, professionals, and even autistic girls themselves to realize that autistic girls are people whose likes and dislikes matter.

Implying that our preferences are just “symptoms” could also encourage parents and professionals who haven’t yet embraced the idea of autism acceptance to be even less accepting of the autistic girls in their lives. They may try to change a girl’s interests and fashion choices to make her appear more outwardly typical. When I was a child, and even when I was an older teen, adults tried to do this with me; sometimes subtly, sometimes not-so-subtly. The result? Extreme social anxiety and years of emotional pain.

And I’m not the only one who is concerned. I recently shared Attwood’s essay, and my own letter to Attwood, with Dr. Christia S. Brown, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies how gender stereotypes affect kids. Dr. Brown agreed that “many, many girls like Legos, and comfortable clothes, and are not interested in gossiping with friends. There is nothing unique, unusual, or in any way wrong with any of those preferences. Those are really just stereotypes about girls that exclude many girls, regardless of their neurological background.”

I’m not saying that autism doesn’t influence our interests and personalities. Of course it does; after all, autism is how our brains are wired. And I’m not saying that being associated with autism makes any interest or personality trait “wrong”. I am proud to be on the autism spectrum, and I am proud of my special interests. But I want others to know that autism isn’t the only thing that determines what we like or don’t like, and that using pathologizing language to describe our interests can make people forget that our interests are as valid as theirs.

To my fellow autistic girls: never let anyone convince you that your interests should be toned down, hidden, or exchanged for something more “mainstream”. And to parents and professionals: let autistic girls be themselves! Whether we want to dress up, build robots, care for animals, or read for hours (or all of the above), don’t ever try to change who we are. When you write about us, think carefully about whether your words truly promote acceptance—because autistic girls deserve better than stereotypes.

About C.L. Bridge: C.L. is an autistic person who enjoys art, games, and aquatic animals.

11 thoughts on “My Personality Is Not a Sub-Type Presentation”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this.

    Growing up I would take my tricycle apart and put it back together, to learn how to work it.

    I helped my Dad build dog and cat shelters.

    I would sit in the woodsiest part of our yard and hang out with the Nature Beings!

    We have many diverse ways of enjoying and expressing our beautiful selves!

  2. This professional has noticed some common phenomenon among autistic females. They are willing to prioritize differently to males, in that they do seem to be more relational in their preferences. The problem for us professionals is we often delude ourselves into thinking we are “experts”. You, however, are the best expert in you!

  3. Pingback: My Personality Is Not a Sub-Type Presentation — Autism Women’s Network – Cambria's Big Fat Autistic Blog

  4. The only difference I can see, in my experience, is that autistic girls are more difficult to diagnose because they observe and imitate their peers or model.
    Regarding the rest, I think we can agree that they are more vulnerable to abuse as they try to please, which is pretty much a female trait; however, this is taken to the extreme when the girl is autistic.
    As someone, who is probably an undiagnosed autistic and an elder… I am angry that we are still fighting for recognition and help because we get ourselves into situations we don’t understand and are taken advantage of in all walks of life.
    BTW – lousy at math great at literature because I research extensively to understand the what, where, why, how and who…

  5. Bravo!! Well-stated. I truly had not thought that before, but it makes so much sense! Especially the double-standard of “sub-types” (of/for the spectrum) vs “personalities” (for “everybody else”). You’re right on! Thank you for writing this 🙂

  6. I feel Tony Attwood truly appreciates the autistic and is learning about the autistic female. He may make some mistakes, but I feel he is one of the greatest allies to autistic males and females. His writing helped me understand a lot about myself and gave me hope that my non-autistic partner might too. My childhood play was either scripted or me being the authoritative figure. I wanted my cousin to play the “boring, scripted” parts of school while he wanted to play show and tell and recess. I also collected popular dolls. There were many but I collected two types. When people would assume I liked all dolls in that category and give me a blanket or different sized doll, I would keep the gift but they never fit in with my collection and I wanted to throw them away. I could also see how people would not understand that I would not like a blanket with the same doll. I realize now that it looked like a very typical girl to collect dolls, but no one truly understood. It became this weird thing I collected but didn’t really understand why but was troubled when I collected something that didn’t match. I lined them up. What was I to do with this soft face doll when the others had hard faces or this ceramic doll that was taller than all of the others. I truly believe Tony Attwood means well. I don’t think there is anyone else who speaks more to bridge the gap between autistics and non-autistics. There are not many non-autistics trying to understand autistics. I understand how hard it can be to have someone who almost sees you but gets some things wrong…however, he is one of the few even trying to see female autistics. Besides other female autistics, Tony Attwood, is the only other person I thought might see me and my autistic value. I think he is trying to say that just because a girl fits whatever idea you have of girl, watch what she does with it. I looked like a girl who liked dolls, teaching, and being a mom, but I was playing scripted female roles without even realizing it. To me he is highlighting your autistic girl might be hiding in plain sight…like I was.

  7. Perhaps there are more of us that follow our heart’s desires rather than societal norms as compared to neuro-typical, simply because we don’t feel the same need to bond with other girls our age, doing “appropriate” girl things?
    I never got “playing” Barbie’s, or playing house. I had no idea what my doll would say if it could talk, and I felt incredible pressure because I couldn’t reciprocate in that type of group play.
    I was so grateful for the Christmas when I got the Hot Wheels racetrack set instead of more dolls. Sadly, when I was around 14, my request for woodworking tools was ignored or not taken seriously and I ended up with boxes and boxes of clothing, especially dressy items, that were never worn.
    My parents encouraged me to study accounting, but I dropped out of college one semester short of graduating. I maintained a 4.0, but was so discouraged with the idea of being stuck at a desk crunching numbers for the rest of my life that quitting before I got my degree seemed the only option.
    My desire to build things eventually turned into a profession of homebuilding, where I was very successful for about five years until the end of a brief marriage and IRS troubles took that away.
    At that time, a female contractor was an oddity, and I had some difficultly with being taken seriously until I’d proven myself.

  8. Hmmm,

    Sitting and contemplating why I move through life without collecting people as others do. Friendships are transitory exchanges where my intensity gets something unstuck in others. I identify with all the sub-types as aspects of self, yet am fundamentally aware of my efforts to connect with others when I dress purposely in a feminine way. Empathy isn’t a problem, its emotional life that is the road map to everything for me. For a long time there wasn’t “a separate world” and “me”. Its taken a long time to find those boundaries. Frivolity and silliness to me are a waste of time and deceptive, society niceties seem to manifest and prolong dishonesty and suffering.

    I work towards congruence, don’t do small talk and am lonely. Relativity woman, is how I think of myself and have learnt kindness to self and others. Not making sense of the world and people for so long, watching and learning that words, are just that for many and actions can be incongruent. Having my open honesty being misconstrued and flirtation has left many a bad experience with both women and men. Only this evening have I considered, autism. I have read neuroscience, pyschology and eastern philosohy to find connections between the inner and outer worlds. The idea of equality between men and women is thrown around alot, as the pendolem must swing away from patriarchy, yet our hormeonely developed brain is fundementally intrinsicaly different, statistics on many a focus can attest to that. Autism may be why I have been labeled weird by those who know me or say my brain is different. I am ok with that, its something to work on.

  9. I don’t know if he ever updated things. But I remember for awhile… it was like right after Pretending To Be Normal came out, Tony Attwood suddenly started writing about women with Asperger’s in a generalized way. But it was very clear that his descriptions of “women with Asperger’s” were actually descriptions of Liane Holliday Willey, written in the plural form instead of singular. Some of them were extremely specific elements of her life story that had just come out. It was like he took everything about her that differed from male aspie stereotypes and tried to claim those things showed how autism “presented differently in women” as if she represented all or most autistic women. Like he basically created a female aspie stereotype out of one person. As far as anyone could tell at the time, anyway.

    I’m sure that her experiences are not unique to her. I am not so sure that her experiences are representative of autistic women in general, or that the way they differ from the aspie stereotypes that existed before her, were all due to her being female. I have to wonder, had she been male, what they would have said about those same things.

    Also I think it’s unfair to expect any one person to be representative of all autistic people. When I was in the news a lot for awhile, people would argue about whether I was representative or not. And I have seen people do this to other autistic people who either write books or get in the news some other way (in my case through making a viral video that wasn’t even supposed to be specifically about autism, but that’s a long story). I also think it’s unfair to blame a person for the way other people represent their life. So don’t get me wrong — I am not blaming Liane Holliday Willey for the fact that Tony Attwood seemed to be taking her individual traits and generalizing them to all female autistic people. I’m mentioning her because his descriptions of “female aspie traits” used to seem to be taken, sometimes verbatim, from her own descriptions of herself and her life.

    I also often have wondered, when people write lists of female autistic traits, what they think about autistic women who actually fit the supposedly “male” autistic traits, and autistic men who actually fit the supposedly “female” autistic traits. Because those things happen all the time. I know tons of guys who fit these “female autistic trait” lists way better than they fit stereotypical autistic traits. It seems like if a woman varies from autism stereotypes (and every autistic person varies significantly from stereotypes in at least some ways) people assume it’s because she’s a woman, and they don’t assume that if a man varies from autism stereotypes.

    And — yes — people are always confusing personality variations among autistic people for “different subtypes of autism”.

    I won’t get into how I see autism, or how I see subtypes, or anything else, because those would all require way too much space and probably bore people and is veering off of the subject and argh words and stuff. That’s a whole new several posts, or a book, or more than a book, or something. Also while I can bring myself to say ‘autism’ and ‘subtypes’ I for some reason balk completely at ‘presentation’. Maybe because someone once did one of those misplaced rants at me and in it mentioned that my ‘case’ does not ‘present’ like someone else and I was thinking something like like… “I’m not a case and I don’t present I’m a person and my experiences are a lot like someone else regardless of how either of us ‘present’ and you’re not a doctor let alone my doctor so please don’t talk about me in terms most doctors reserve for their patients.”

    1. This is so refreshing to read, I’m late a forties female and one way or another realised I am very likely autistic about a month ago. So… I’ve been reading everything I can find on the net and some books. Blogs and comments have led to recognition, tears, hope and despair in equal measure and then a feeling of cliques, or cult of personality as I’ve seen the same people quoted again and again in different places. It seems like a few years ago some women navigating possible AS/ASD started blogging to make sense of their experience and a genuine supportive community grew, but as far as I can tell, through no fault of their own it got too big. Too few autistic voices, picked up by experts with genuine intentions representing all experience of women with autism.

      I feel the need to read more male voices now as I’m not sure we are so different and not sure it’s helpful to differentiate so starkly, in fact the strength of the blog posts I have read is not the post so much as the comments, plenty by men, where understanding, kindness, recognition and difference shine through. I think in condensing these blogs into books that some value is lost from the multiple voices. The act of writing/filming/making public is brave and needed to open debate, but intensifies an individual personality and risks creating more stereotypes, whilst putting what I would find intolerable pressure on the individual.

      This probably isn’t saying what I mean as it’s the first time I’ve put finger to keyboard on this subject and my head is still spinning at the whole concept.

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