In her book Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate, Cynthia Kim talks about the experience of learning about Asperger’s and seeing how many of the signs were present in her life from an early age, leading to a question: How did nobody notice the signs back then? Asperger’s may not have been defined yet, but she definitely was different from other children her age.
She spent a lot of her time by herself– she felt most content when she could spend hours in her room playing games of Risk and Monopoly against herself, or going on long bike rides around her neighborhood alone.
When I was that age, I was likewise able to entertain myself for hours alone with just a book or a road map or atlas to study. It was hard to shift my attention to something else while I was still exploring it!
Kim writes that another reason she thinks her Asperger’s was harder to spot was an issue that I’ve written about before on this blog: for a number of reasons, boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with Asperger’s than girls are.
For one thing, nonconformity in boys seems more likely to lead to noticeable clashes with others like meltdowns or fighting due to an inability to get along with others:
The problem with being the good girl, especially if you’re a young undiagnosed Aspie, is that good girls are invisible. Boys on the spectrum tend to act out. They’re more likely to have problems with anger management or to be labeled defiant or oppositional. They’re less likely to be team players, shrinking away from competition and refusing to follow the rules.
This may be true speaking very generally, but it certainly doesn’t describe me. There are “good boys” too. I always took the approach of avoiding confrontation and trying to hide in the background when I didn’t feel confident in a situation (which was often!)
During recess at my school, the boys usually played either kickball or football, which were games with rules I didn’t understand. I could hear them yell at each other when someone did the wrong thing in the game, and I didn’t want to put myself in that situation. I much preferred to either play a simple game like tag or stay in the playground area, which was where most of the girls played. For my first couple years of elementary school, one of my favorite things to do was jumping rope! I didn’t care that me and my best friend were the only two boys who jumped rope; it was a simple game that I could understand.
I know Kim is speaking in general, not trying to say that everybody fits this pattern (there are also Aspie girls who did exhibit their frustration with social demands by “acting out,” including Kim herself if you read a bit further!), but it’s really interesting seeing how people’s stories are different. More on that later.
The second reason Kim suggests for why Aspie girls often go unnoticed is that their obsessive “special interests” often don’t stand out as much as being unusual:
For example, boys are more likely to have a special interest in something mechanical– like trains, engines, or elevators– usually at a level far more intense than is age-appropriate.
Girls, however, are more likely to develop a special interest in something that doesn’t stand out quite so much, like music groups, television shows, or fictional characters or worlds. A five-year-old girl who collects Barbies or a ten-year-old girl obsessed with Narnia may not seem that unusual until you look more closely.
Kim gives some good examples of “special interests” she had as a child that at first glance might seem like normal “girl stuff,” but that actually revealed her very rules-oriented mind:
- She had a collection of Barbie dolls, but she spent a lot more time organizing them into categories than actually playing with them.
- Her Nancy Drew books were always lined up in numerical order on her bookshelf.
- She loved to spend hours cutting out and sewing together clothes patterns, but she rarely wore them. It was the fun of “putting everything together like a big cloth puzzle” that she really enjoyed.
She also enjoyed collecting things like stamps, coins, and baseball cards, which she says were “somewhat unusual hobbies for a girl my age.” I think that’s probably less the case now than it used to be, though. One thing that I think has been a really positive development is that it’s become more common and acceptable for girls to be “nerds” as well as boys. It’s a good thing in general for people to feel more free to pursue their interests and be themselves. And it’s good in a more selfish sense for me, because I happen to really like so-called “nerdy” girls.
(Oh, I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying that!) ; )
A third reason Kim identifies for Aspie girls being overlooked is differing cultural expectations tied to gender:
Social expectations may contribute to the underdiagnosis of girls. It’s socially acceptable (or even desirable) for a girl to be shy or quiet. The same passive tendencies in a boy are perceived as lack of assertiveness, an unacceptable trait for males in our society.
Hmm. This is something I still struggle with. I didn’t really ever feel pressured not to be shy when I was a boy. I kept to myself, and for the most part, my classmates let me be by myself, where I was most comfortable. I still tend to be very passive and indecisive, and sometimes I worry that I need to be more assertive in order to take on the role of an adult man the way that either the world, or that God expects. I heard a lot of chapel messages about how God wanted me to be a leader, and I was always more comfortable being a follower. (Interestingly enough, in the Bible, Jesus first went looking for men who would follow him, even though they all became leaders later on.)
In a lot of ways, my girlfriend Megan is a lot more adventuresome than I usually am. She’s lived on two other continents. While she was living in the Washington, D.C., area, she decided to join the crew of a sailboat because she thought it would be interesting! She’s currently navigating the daunting and confusing world of the workplace (especially draining for an Aspie) while I try to keep up with my copyediting job which mercifully allows me to work from home and set my own hours.
So maybe our relationship seems a bit backwards. But maybe that’s okay, because we both know we’re not “normal” anyway. We seem to make a good team, at any rate. : )
Let’s look at one more thing Cynthia Kim points out as a possible explanation for why Aspie girls tend to be overlooked. It has to do with the role of play in the development of both boys and girls, and I think it’s a really interesting observation:
Unlike boys’ games, where there tend to be winners and losers, girls’ games are often based on how well a girl cooperates with the group to create an enjoyable role-playing scenario.
Kim observes that competitive events like sports and video games offer the possibility of fitting in by becoming good at a specific skill.
For a boy, a specialized skill that’s valued by peers may allow him to get by without learning the nuances of building and maintaining friendships.
I was never good at anything athletic, but I did eventually become a big sports fan around the time I started college. I was fascinated when I began to learn the rules of games like baseball, football, and hockey that had once baffled me. I found it even more interesting to study the histories of each team and its rivalries, and to puzzle out things like the complex NFL tiebreaker rules that create such complicated scenarios each year for teams to make the playoffs.
This gave me a window into a common “small talk” topic among guys– I could have a “Hey, did you see the game yesterday?” conversation or spend a couple of hours watching a game with a group of guys, since I now understood the significance of each play and how to react to it. The only problem was that this ability to talk sports didn’t easily transfer into forming an actual friendship. I would sometimes run into one of the guys I had watched the game with, but until he mentioned watching the game with me, I couldn’t recognize him outside of that context! And our conversation would never be about anything but the next game.
It was fascinating comparing experiences with Megan on this. While it was nice to be able to connect with someone easily and casually just by bringing up sports, the downside was that I found myself longing for a more meaningful friendship.
Megan told me that the challenge for her was that she felt like the other girls she was around shared so much, and with such deep emotion, that it overwhelmed her. She just wanted time to process the information her friends were sharing, but she never felt sure that her reactions were as supportive or natural as was expected.
Kim suggests that this expectation Megan struggled with to be more social is one that is placed on girls from an early age:
From their earliest social development, autistic girls have more innate incentives to learn social skills– or at least learn to fake them. This may be another reason why it’s easier for girls on the spectrum to stay under the radar as they make their way through the school system and into adolescence. Their social survival depends on it. Perhaps it’s the girls who fail to adapt who are most easily diagnosed.
This is again definitely a generalization. I grew up as the oldest of three brothers, and a great deal of our play involved cooperation rather than competition. We’d all make believe that we were space explorers on a mission to find aliens (our dogs) in the backyard. Or we’d put together an elaborate scheme using plastic swords and shields, Legos, and stuffed animals to let my youngest brother take on the role of Link in the Legend of Zelda game series, with one of us playing the enemy swordfighter sparring with him and the other throwing “power-up” items down from the top of our bunk bed. We got along pretty well as brothers.
But I can definitely see how the expectation of girls to be more “social” could be a double-edged sword. An autistic girl might learn more social skills than an autistic boy out of necessity, allowing her to blend in more easily. But at the same time, it takes a lot of work to try to get all of the social rules right, and that expectation could be a very heavy burden to bear.
I’ve learned a lot from my discussions with Megan about growing up. I confessed to her that when I felt lonely, I sometimes wondered if I would have had an easier time making friends if I had been a girl, because I had read that girls had “social” brains, and from my point of view, the girls in my class seemed to have close friendships that allowed them to be open with their feelings.
What I had overlooked was that there were girls like Megan, who struggled with social skills just as much as I did, only she felt that she was expected to live up to a standard of females being socially adept, supportive, empathetic, and able to communicate these things clearly. It felt like an impossible standard to reach.
It’s funny how our struggles were so similar, just on different sides of the issue. The thing is, I have witnessed that Megan is incredibly thoughtful, supportive, and empathetic. Not only that, but she’s smart, capable, and witty, and has a lot to offer to any conversation for anyone who will just listen!
Hopefully we’ll continue to learn more about how Asperger’s presents itself in both boys and girls, but it’s also crucial to keep in mind that every Aspie has their own individual personality.