Intersectional Collisions: “But what if he’s autistic?”

Content note: This entry deals with sexual harassment and predatory behavior, as well as with the experiences of autistic or otherwise neurodivergent women. It will contain discussion of ableist, sexist, and silencing treatment of autistic women, as well as mention of abusive therapeutic methods. As a result, some material may be triggering or distressing to readers.

Intersectional Collisions: “But what if he’s autistic?”

So I’m just going to give you a brief recap here of what intersectionality is. It’s the concept that there are a lot of different ways to be privileged and marginalized in a society, and that they don’t cancel each other out, or form a clear hierarchy, or act independently of each other. Instead, they interact with each other, with complex outcomes. So while it’s fairly obvious that, for instance, a woman who is white and queer will have a different set of experiences from a woman who is brown and straight, it is somewhat less intuitive but no less true that they will also likely have different experiences of being a woman that are connected to their respective races and sexual orientations; sexism will act on them differently, because it is intersecting with racism and with heterosexism. In this entry I’ll be talking about the intersection between neurodivergence and gender, specifically discussing how male privilege interacts with ideas of neurodiversity and disability in the context of harassment.

Let’s discuss a situation all too familiar to me: A woman is talking about an incident in which she was approached by a man. He was inappropriate – he was intrusive – something was off, his advances felt creepy. And someone, sometimes well-meaning and sometimes transparently not, throws out the question: “Yeah, but what if he was autistic/had Asperger’s/was just ‘socially awkward’?” The smug triumph, and the accompanying sense of vertigo as the world turns momentarily upside down, can be fairly nauseating. The woman in question is no longer a cautious, alert person trusting her instincts, knowing her boundaries and understanding risks, trying her best to get out of a potentially dangerous situation safely. She’s a bully, she’s Picking on the Disabled. May God have mercy on her soul.

This excuse is, perhaps obviously, fairly patronizing toward autistic men. I’m not qualified to speak for them, and they can speak for themselves; all I can say is how it makes me feel. All I can tell you is that it stirs me to a white-hot fury to see these friends, these allies, these brothers of mine trotted out triumphantly as though they are hapless and helpless objects of pity, these men who have stood solidly beside me, many of whom have gone fiercely and furiously to bat for women’s rights to have and enforce boundaries, being cast as so self-evidently incapable of respect for other people that expecting minimum standards of decency from them amounts to vicious bullying.

But enough about the dudes.

Here’s a question no one seems to consider while they’re flinging around their speculations on the neurology of complete strangers based on single anecdotes: What if she’s autistic?

I know there’s a lot of bad information out there, but at this point society at large really needs to get it through their collective head that dudes aren’t the only ones who can be neurodivergent. Specifically, women? We can be neurodivergent too. And you can’t always tell just by looking at us. We can get approached by guys – inappropriate, creepy, sometimes dangerous guys – too. (So can people who are read as women but aren’t, actually.) And those people who throw out “but what if he’s autistic” like it’s a trump card, who are willing to burden women with the protection of the feelings of the men who are harassing them, are remarkably unlikely to consider what that burden can mean for a woman who’s maybe a bit, cough, “socially awkward” herself, who has some trouble reading social cues, who isn’t great at navigating novel social situations. This means that, with crushing irony, “But what if he’s autistic?” can even be used to fault autistic women for not rebuffing neurotypical predators with sufficient gentleness and tact.

See, the thing is, neurodivergent women get the same messages most women, and other people who are socialized as women, do. We get the rules and the catch-22s and the shaming. But we also get to hear the constant refrain, repeated at different volumes and frequencies and intensities, that when it comes to social situations, our instincts aren’t good enough. We are taught, with even greater intensity and fervor than neurotypical women, to doubt ourselves.

Many are trained, both explicitly and by often-painful experience, to discount our own readings of social cues, cues which can be absolutely crucial in determining whether a situation is safe. Many have been bullied and shut out, leaving us with little experience of healthy friendship and socialization; while some are wary and alert to danger signals, others are open and trusting, painfully vulnerable to predators who disguise their intentions with the appearance of interest and kindness, some of whom deliberately target women perceived to be disabled.

Some of us have been trained to act as conventionally neurotypical as possible, suppressing responses that deviate from a narrow definition of normality which, especially for women, entails docility and quiet, often requiring modes of indirect and passive communication which are particularly difficult for many neurodivergent people. Some have been subjected to outright obedience training in the guise of therapy that can effectively serve as pre-grooming for abusers, taking away the word “no” and the sense that we are entitled to even the most basic bodily autonomy. Many have been abused.

Obviously, we’re not a monolith, but it is quite often the case that an autistic or otherwise neurodivergent woman who asserts her boundaries must, in order to do so, overcome a chorus of influences and experiences which are telling her she can’t. In addition to this, she may be dealing with obstacles directly related to her neurology, such as communication difficulties or cognitive impairments exacerbated by stress.

In the context of harassment, though, the possibility of neurodivergence is almost solely deployed in order to protect men and absolve them of responsibility for inappropriate and harmful behavior – based on the intensely ableist, patronizing, and incorrect, but nonetheless potent and common, assumption that an ASD would render the man either incapable of acting appropriately or requiring/deserving of protection from any consequences for invasive or harassing actions. Meanwhile, women are assumed to be not only capable of, but actively responsible for, either giving up their boundaries or enforcing them in a way that protects the feelings and dignity of the person who is violating them. The possible impact of neurology or disability on their own methods of handling the situation is not considered. As a result, “But what if he’s autistic?” leaves the neurodivergent woman doubly burdened, both by a male-privileging culture which excuses misbehavior and protects harassers in any way possible including baseless speculations on neurology, and by the erasure and denial of her own experiences as a disabled woman.

About the Wasp: Though often misunderstood due to her fearsome exterior, the Wasp may be a friendly and beneficial insect, as well as an excellent neighbor.

Maybe.

All the same, it’s probably best to avoid any sudden movements.

One Thought on “Intersectional Collisions: “But what if he’s autistic?”

  1. I’m probably a bit of an Aspie; so what? Disability is not a get-out-of-doing-your-homework card, folks; nor is it an acceptable cloak for sexism and the like.

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