Autism Awareness Month, Day 5: Girls and Gender Roles


Anything you can do, I can do better. ~from “Annie, Get Your Gun”

Today, I’ll be writing on a subject near and dear to my heart: girls with AS and gender roles. Just to give you an idea as to how deeply entrenched these stereotypes are in our society, while looking for a suitable image of “girls playing football” through Google, the first thirty or so were unsuitable for my PG-rated blog.

I suppose I have to qualify all of this by saying that I don’t consider myself a feminist; I only think boys and girls should be able to define their own identity without feeling guilty about it. Nor am I a lesbian. I like women; I just don’t want to marry one. I’m a straight woman with Asperger’s who finds most expected gender roles perplexing.

What? This isn't normal?

I’ve heard it said that Asperger’s is a kind of extreme male brain. By logic, then, a female with AS *should* act more like a normal male might. But it just isn’t that simple. Each girl or woman has her own unique blend of hormones, experiences and personality traits. I’ve met straight women and gay women, tomboyish and ultra-feminine women on the spectrum. Some of them wanted desperately to be male (I’ll confess, this was me growing up.) Others seemed quite happy in “traditional” female roles like marriage and motherhood. Again, as in all these posts, I stress that there is no perfect answer that works for everyone.

It’s difficult for AS girls who don’t want to conform to gender roles. When I was a kid, it seemed more acceptable for girls to play with G.I. Joe rather than Barbie if they wanted to. Today, even at McDonalds, kids are roughly shoehorned into either blue or pink boxes whether they want to be or not. Granted, I might think a little boy past a certain age wanting to play with My Little Pony was a little strange, but what about an AS girl who prefers Transformers to Disney Princess?

A wise parent or caregiver knows that nurturing kids is the best way to go. Telling a child, especially an AS child, that their special interest is somehow “wrong” is one of the worst things that can be done. It’s also a good idea to shy away from blanket statements such as “Girls don’t do ‘x'” or “‘Y’ is only for boys.”

And none of them know kung fu

One of the insights I’ve gained over my life is that girls, especially sensitive AS girls, may bristle at the trappings of traditional femininity. Think of the makeup, perfume, uncomfortable shoes and dresses, and unwritten social rules girls are expected to embrace by the time they’re pre-teens. For an AS girl, just getting through the day without tripping over herself or saying the wrong thing is a challenge. Having to learn a whole new unwritten code by the time she’s 11? Fuhgeddaboudit.

I’ve also found that most AS girls, especially the tomboys, appreciate the simplicity and straightforwardness of traditionally male pursuits. When you play cops and robbers, the cops always win. If your dad takes you fishing, even if you don’t catch anything, you have a good time. At football games, someone always wins, and there’s a lot of hard tackling. Ditto for male clothing. I like wearing a t-shirt in a solid color and a familiar pair of shoes. All this talk about hemlines and color schemes and European fashion gives me a headache just thinking about it. Men’s stuff is just easier.

In fact, some of the biggest fights I had with my mom growing up were about pre-expected gender roles. Mom, God bless her, is a traditional type who loves fashion, cooking, and romantic comedies. What she did to get a daughter like me is a mystery, but we always fought like cats and dogs over what I would or would not wear, having my hair brushed, or whether playing Boba Fett at school was appropriate.

My kind of female role model

My advice to parents of AS girls would be as follows:

1) Let your daughter be herself. If she shows a special interest in insects or dinosaurs, encourage that interest. Many a gifted scientist started out as a backyard explorer. There are enough spoiled housewives in the world and not enough scientists.

2) Watch movies and TV shows together that depict strong, confident female characters. Sadly Disney and their Princess franchise has lagged behind Dreamworks (Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon) in this department. Not every girl will be a warrior, but every girl can learn the values of self-sufficience and bravery.

3) Role-play if your daughter shows interest in play-acting. What would a helicopter pilot do all day? How do you think a woman could be the coach of a sports team? This is a good way to get a shy girl talking.

4) Don’t force a girl to play with things (or other girls) if she’s not interested. If you have relatives who want to buy your daughter dolls, swap them for stuffed animals or action figures if she shows no interest in playing school or house.

5) Reassure her. There may be days when the Mean Girls, or the boys, try to marginalize her and make her feel worthless. Tell her that you love her and that she is fine just the way she is.

6) Introduce her to books about pioneering, non-traditional women like Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman, Madame Curie, or Pat Summitt. Most AS girls are bibliophiles and will easily get lost in reading.

7) If she has other female role models (teachers, coaches, tutors, clergy, etc.), make sure they know about her diagnosis.

8) Remember that she is unique and wonderful…and she may never grow out of her eccentricities, so be patient.

Enjoyed this post? Be sure to click “Like” and add P&Q to your subscriptions. More Autism Awareness Month posts in celebration throughout April.

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on April 6, 2011.

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