Are autistic women disabled?
The answer seems so obvious that this sounds like a trick question. Autism is a disability; autistic women have autism; therefore autistic women have a disability. Right?
K’s recent post on why autism meetups are not places to shop for a date addresses another of the myriad specific examples of the ways in which autistic women are expected to do the emotional labor expected of non-disabled women, often to accommodate the disabilities of autistic men, despite the fact that autism itself is positioned as a deficit in emotional labor capacity. (As you can see, I’ve written about this a little bit before.)
For example: autistic men (or worse, their mothers (!)) use events like autism meetups to cold-approach “dates,” but the offer isn’t for a partnership – it’s for a role as caretaker who also addresses pantsfeels. Or, as K puts it:
“I am a boy, you are a girl, can I make it any more obvious?” is not a basis for a relationship. At all. You have no business “getting a girlfriend” if you can’t manage to be friends with people who happen to be girls.
Frankly, being treated like an object someone else is entitled to date sucks, whether you’re autistic or not. But the extra fun part is this bizarro double (triple?) standard:
- Boy (or boy’s mom) is at autism meetup to meet autistic girls to date.
- Boy (or boy’s mom) chose autism meetup because girls there were more likely to be autistic.
- Boy (or boy’s mom) assumes shared autism-ness increases the chances girl will want to date boy.
- Boy (or boy’s mom) seeks girl who will do things boy cannot do for himself.
- Boy (or boy’s mom) scoffs off, shames, or simply never considers that the thing that makes certain tasks tough for boy (i.e., autism) might also make those same tasks tough for girl.
(Yes, an astonishing number of moms try to play Yente at these things. Except Yente actually knew the people she was trying to match with one another, and didn’t cold-approach folks for no better reason than that the folks were (a) present at an autistic meetup and (b) looked girly.)
Autistic women at these things are autistic, so they’ll take pity on the poor boy, but they’re not disabled, so they can actually do the work of looking after him.
This kind of tending to autistic men’s emotions isn’t, of course, restricted to meetups – nor is it restricted to autistic women. More than once, I’ve run into the argument that one or another female-presenting person should have been nicer to a guy whose advances she turned down, “because what if he’s autistic?!” Autism has become the handwave to eliminate any number of women’s standards, from “he brought nothing to the table” to “he was creeping me out” to “he actually assaulted me.” Just give the poor guy a chance, ladies, he might be autistic!
Never, in these conversations, does it come up that the woman in question might also be autistic. That she might also be socially awkward, have trouble understanding or articulating her feelings, or not know what to do when under pressure except to explode. A diagnosis that aggressively foregrounds difficulties in finessing other people’s feelings isn’t an excuse when the person who has it reads as a girl. The mere possibility that a male-appearing person might have autism is used again and again to override the perceptions of a female-appearing person – even if she has an actual diagnosis.
The sexism inherent in autism diagnosis, “awareness,” and treatment has been well-documented. That it bleeds into ordinary life, even into the lives of people who don’t have autism, is hardly surprising. But it is enraging. In situations like these, the disability itself becomes a luxury, a form of privilege – a privilege given to men who have it (or whom it can be suggested have it) to demand the flattering attentions of women whom they find attractive, and denied to women who have the temerity to say “no.” Men with autism are expected by the diagnostic criteria themselves to be unable to finesse social interactions like flirting, but women with autism are expected to have mastered the fine art of letting male egos down intact.
“But he’s autistic!” is an affirmation of disability, a cry for pity – and a demand that the target of the cry overcome or ignore whatever disabilities she has in order to respond to it.
That is, of course, not how it works. If I’m at an autism meetup, chances are good I’m autistic, and if I’m autistic, chances are good that the same problems with language, executive function, and motor management your young man has are problems I also share. Asking me to step in as his surrogate mother is a terrible idea for everyone involved.
This isn’t to say that autistic/autistic relationships don’t work. They often do, just as non-autistic/non-autistic relationships, with their shared patterns of deficits (and yes, non-autistics, you have deficits; they just haven’t been pathologized into a set of diagnostic criteria in the DSM yet), often work.
But what both these types of relationships have in common is that, when they succeed, they do so because the people in them work as partners. Each person’s specific strengths and deficits are considered. The two people work together to share the load. No relationship succeeds when one partner has to be the strong one who carries everything all the time.
When women like me are asked to bear the load for someone else “because he’s autistic,” ignoring that we too are autistic? That’s not a partnership. That’s a job. And offering us a partnership in the form of “dating” when what you’re really looking for is someone to do the job is a bait and switch. Be upfront about what you’re shopping for, and don’t be surprised when a woman tells you that’s not what she’s shopping for. “Mom who has sex with me” isn’t everybody’s kink, after all.
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