Are male and female brains innately different, or is this ‘neurosexism?’
It seems that half the internet believes men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and the other half believes our differences are learned-expectations from our gendered culture. Both sides seem believable; both sides are researched and written about by creditable scientists and psychologists. Personally, I believe male brains are inherently different to female brains, but that’s just my instinct.
What puzzles me is, if our brains are ‘wired’-differently from birth, why is the diagnostic criteria for brain disorders the same for men as for women?
It is well known that approximately four times as many men and boys have a diagnosis of Autism than women and girls. Psychiatrists Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, (famous for their work related to Autism in the 1940’s,) based most of their research and studies on young boys, and their deficits in social interaction, social communication and social imagination.
Since then, the definition of Autism has broadened and there is more understanding. But still the procedure for assessing Autism Spectrum Disorder is based on findings from the study of boys.
If our brains are ‘wired’-differently from birth, why is the diagnostic criteria for any brain disorder, the same for men as for women?
There are many reasons why Autism is under-diagnosed in females, aside from the assessment being geared toward the ‘male brain.’
I believe my diagnosis was so late because I am average-bright, quiet, eager-to-please, self-conscious, have clinically-diagnosed mental health difficulties and, from pre-school, developed the art of mimicry in order to hide any differences I had from my girl-peers. When I was growing up, nobody knew about Autism, nobody considered it. People thought ‘high-functioning’ Autism affected super-sonically clever, anti-social boys who were obsessed with trains or Lego, and that they would grow-out-of-it before adulthood.
That is why people call us the ‘lost girls.’
Everyone bundles out to the playground like they love it. Most of the boys play football or bumper cars for the whole time, but the girls flit from one-thing-to-the-next without a thought. One minute they are sitting in circles “chatting”, whilst doing each other’s hair, next they break off into pairs, holding hands and doing clapping games, or chasing boys, or whispering behind the bins, or playing ‘mums and dads’ with dolls. I have learned to “play” near them and look busy. If I make it look like my hopscotch is exciting, maybe they will see me “playing” and want to join in. I cannot ask to join their games because I don’t know how to ask, and I don’t know the rules, and girl-pastimes all seem to be based around verbal-communication and touching. I won’t sit on my own like the awkward-boy in the next class, because the teachers try and help him join-in, and I don’t want that pressure.
I hated feeling different, but my six-year-old self coped well in public because I wanted approval.
I could just about fit-in by subconsciously copying, I thought that was ‘normal.’
I trained myself how to speak ‘girl’ and I trained myself to always behave in a way that was socially acceptable, based on my observations and the direction of adults. But I was most content on-my-own, where I could have control, observe, and think deeply about things. I did not want to look lonely, but I was happiest doing a repetitive activity like organising, tidying, skipping, cartwheels, or daisy-chains, whilst tapping into an imaginary world in my head, and everything there was far too precise and intricate to be shared.
It protected me from the chaos and confusion of the ‘real’ world.
In class, I learned to blend-in, the way a chameleon camouflages with the colours of its environment. My mum was the only person who would see the extent of my built-up, sensory overload and mental exhaustion from the day. To her, I was Jekyll and Hyde; to my teachers, for the whole of my education, I was just a conscientious girl; to myself, I was false, different and less.
I am in Junior school but my infant teacher, Mrs Blott, said I can still write her stories. I have been in trouble a lot lately when misreading social cues, but I have discovered music. I am good at it, I know it, but I don’t know why. I can read music but it’s like I don’t have to, my psychic fingers just know what to do by magic. I am addicted to it. I am addicted to reading Charlotte Bronte and Frances Hodgson Burnett, over and over. I listen to the same song, the same audiobook. These things are accidental comforts, obsessions. I fell-out with a girl called Lucy because she said you don’t spell the word ballet with a ‘t’ but I know that you do, because I actually do ballet every Tuesday. Our mums organised that I would go to Lucy’s house for tea and to “play,” and my screams got-out and got-me-into-trouble: I have never been so scared in my life.
Autism in girls differs slightly to Autism in boys, which is why some of us get missed.
Girls cover-up their deficiencies in social communication, participation and imagination by mimicking other girls because they want to ‘connect’ despite Autism. Even neuro-typical girls have to do this occasionally, because of the social-pressure girls put themselves under. It is called masking, a suppression of the authentic autistic state. It is exhausting and commonly causes burnout and prolonged mental health issues. Many autistic girls are misdiagnosed with bipolar, anorexia and personality disorders before their Autism is discovered. Some girls might never be diagnosed with Autism, because they function confidently within their means, so it only effects their lives positively.
A diagnosis is not essential for everyone.
Girls that receive a late diagnosis of Autism, like me, often do so following a mental-breakdown of some kind, which is why I am compelled to raise awareness about it. Many girls are diagnosed in their 30’s, whilst boys are often diagnosed under the age of eight.
I am in secondary school and it is all girls. At break times I find myself wandering around the school; the same circuit, every time. The hall is too noisy, and filled with circles-of-girls chattering, eating comparing, competing, the cafeteria is too packed. The library is tempting. I really like just wandering. It gives me a bit of time to digest the previous lesson, visualise the next. I crave these solitary moments: I can count the stairs, the bricks, and the lockers I walk past. I am not unhappy, but safe: people know that I am good at gymnastics and that is enough. I need this alone time to get through the day, and people don’t notice that I am alone when I am wandering, they think I am actually going somewhere.
I am not so good at ‘chat,’ I think that’s why I love my cat.
I have always masked my autistic differences to fit in with other girls and this has had a detrimental effect on me, but it also allowed me to get a degree, and work as a teacher for ten years. I am exhausted. I am rather more like a cat than a girl: I am calm, cautious, curious, observant, independent-to-a-fault; I like my own company; I think in real images; my main emotions are fear and affection; I have heightened senses and I am a creature of habit. I need cat-naps but I never get them. I battle compulsions to stim, repeat, touch, lick, play, imitate, press my face against the freezers in a supermarket or lay face down on the floor on a train and scream to regulate the sensory-chaos.
Despite my diagnosis, I am still trying to live like I don’t have Autism, which means I have phases of success, followed by phases of burnt-out-isolation.
Writing helps me be more open about who I am. “It is a solitary [hobby], for introverts that want to tell you a story, but don’t want to make eye-contact while doing it.”