Posted in Autistic Identity, Identity, intersectionality, Parenting

I Can’t vs. I Don’t Want to: How the Expectations of Being Female Smother Autistic Women

In Western culture, as women, we are expected to do it all.  We are expected to work outside the home full-time because if we don’t, we’ve betrayed the feminist cause.  We’re also supposed to be perfect mothers, raising our children in perfectly clean homes being fed perfectly balanced meals or we’re a bad mother.  When we get tired about all this and ignore our husbands, we’re bad wives.

The rules also tell us we really ought to be going onto school to get a degree, then an advanced one.  This will not only empower us, but we will advance in our careers.

But if we advance in our careers, who will care for our homes, children, and husbands?

In this way, women in general are overwhelmed in our culture.

[Image: a white, middle-aged woman sits with her head in her hands. She wears a red shirt, and has brown hair. She looks overwhelmed.]
But let’s add Autism into the mix.

As an Autistic mother of an Autistic child, I had a lot of problems when I dragged my kid in public because that’s what you do.

I worried that he’d run around.  I worried he’d run away.  I’d worry people were judging me because of my kid and whatever it would be that he’d do.

And I’d get insanely pissed off at things like how the library has all these self-checkouts which are supposed to be “helpful” but unless you have a kid who wants to help you check out books, you cannot both mind a child AND do your own checking out.

Unless you let watching the child go.

That seems to be the path neurotypicals around me were taking.  They just figured, they were kids and they’d do what they did.

Of course, their kids running around doing whatever they want annoyed me, giving me sensory overload, while I was trying to manage my own son’s sensory overload because of their kids running around causing all the drama.

But for some reason they didn’t ever seem to worry about what people thought about their kids running around like little monsters.

They didn’t seem to, or have to, worry that someone might come to their home to take their child away because their child was being raised by a Disabled parent.

That is a thing, you know.  In some states simply being Disabled is enough for child welfare to take your kids from you.

And they could move on after the wretched experience at the library and not obsess over it, thinking and planning about how it would be better the next time if I only…

See, one of the gifts-that-can-be-a-curse about Autism in women is we’re super-empathetic.  Many of us can literally sense all the feelings around us and we cannot shut them out.  You know all the old people at the library by which I mean all of the adults who do not have kids with them?  They’re all judging you because you’re not minding your kids and letting them run around.

We feel that; neurotypicals shut it out.

Unfortunately we also obsess over things: we plan conversations for hours before we have them, and we mull over things that happen to us over and over again, trying to figure out what it was that we did wrong.

Because we learned a long time ago, that WE did wrong.  It’s always us.

And when you add into all that obsession, worry, and heightened empathy an awareness that society already thinks Disabled people like you oughtn’t have kids in the first place, it can be crushing.

It got better for me when I realized my child did not, in fact, really want to go to the library.  He wanted me to get him books and give them to him, and if he had requests, he’d let me know.  I stopped forcing him because that’s what you do, and started listening to what he really wanted.

I shut down the “good parenting rules” and started actually listening to my kid like he was a real human being.

Pro-tip parents-of-Autistics: start by listening to your KID over what society tells you to say or do.  It gets tons easier.

That solved the problem for him, but it doesn’t stop the fun of still being judged as a parent because you’re not perfect.  Though he is now less obvious because he only leaves the house when he wants to, which seems to coincide with days he has a lot of spoons at the ready so he is less observably Autistic and thereby his Dad and I are also less observably Autistic.

The more spoons you have at the ready, the easier you can “mask” your Autism in public.

We have to be selective about when we reveal ourselves as Autistic people.  Just yesterday, someone I knew from high school asked me if my son was in my school.  I said he wasn’t, and said he was homeschooled with my husband because he is Autistic and prefers it that way.  She tells me about someone in her class who got this special therapy for her son (at least it wasn’t ABA) and he’s a lot happier out in public; he even drives now (etc.).

I am in no way worried about my son driving.  I am, however, worried about people who are worrying about him.  Do they not know about work-at-home?  Do they not know self-driving cars are coming?  Do they not know my kid can learn to drive if he has somewhere to go, besides?  Because given his gaming talents, I am not worried about him driving if he wants to drive.  But he is 10, so I am not yet concerned about this.

I am concerned about bigger picture things such as when he will learn that “Autistic,” an empowering word at home, is regularly used as an ableist insult by people online.  That some people think that being Autistic means “serial killer.”

But I had to smile and nod.  She had no idea she was talking to an Autistic mother.  She thought she was helping.

In these times, my role as an activist conflicts with my role as a woman.  Females are expected to be nice to each other in this situation.  They are supposed to act interested, even if they are not, in whatever this therapy is, and to use it to “fight the Autism monster” in their kid.  My kid doesn’t have an Autism monster, society is the monster, I want to say, but I cannot, or I will be hard to deal with, which is not okay in a woman.

Since learning that I was Autistic nearly three years ago now (seriously?!  January 2018 will be starting my THIRD year.), I am still working on being as at peace with myself and my own needs as I am with my child’s needs.  Society accepts a child can be Autistic, but not a woman, and when they do know that I am Autistic, I am the representation of Autistic womanhood everywhere, to all that I see, because I am likely the only Autistic, adult woman they know.

And, yeah, if they know I’m an Autistic, married to an Autistic and we are raising an Autistic, in some states, they can take our child away, so there’s that.

This is not, for me, a realistic fear.  I’ve got a master’s degree in Education. I can talk neurotypical school.  I know the right words to say.  My sister Autistic moms aren’t always so lucky.

For some reason I find all that stressful.

The Autistics who are not super empathetic sometimes have it easier, I think, but then I realize they carry their own burden.  If you can’t read emotions then people will call you a robot and do horrible things like make fun of you, in front of you, and you’ll laugh, not realizing that you are the joke.  You know, those horrible horror stories about Autistics being harassed, not getting the joke at all.  So even if I think for a minute I’d trade places for that, I realize, not reading emotions so well comes with its own set of struggles.

So, here I am, totally accepting of my son’s needs, and unsure of my own and even then I am concerned that if I am not at least a little selective about to whom I reveal my identity, my family might be at risk. So I cannot self-advocate effectively.

See, like many female Autistics who survived so long until becoming aware that they are different, and putting that whole thing about the government taking my kid away, I have to try to figure out what on earth it is that makes me happy instead of what I did to please other people.  I have to reteach myself to know when my body is telling me that it’s overwhelmed because I have learned to shut my body’s warnings down.  The funny thing is, I used to do all those tests: enneagram, numerology, Myers-Briggs, etc., to “know myself.”  I studied them like a book and all I think it did was teach me to double-down on the representation of myself I’ve decided is the most socially acceptable.

And once I figure all that out, I have to ask for what I need.

See, I work for a place that understands the need for free time and introspection.  And despite that, I never ask for any time because I’m afraid of screwing everything up if I take it, and/or the judgments of others if I do what I need to do.  One of the advantages of taking these lower-paying non-profit gigs is that they do allow more time, more space, etc., because they see their staff as human beings, not numbers.  I am not a cog in a machine.

But that is all well and good…if I can figure out 1) what I need, and 2) that it’s really okay to ask for that.

Because in the end, we all live in the same cultural smog, and our smog tells us women have to be perfect at being a wife, mother, employee, child, etc., or else we’re judged and found wanting.

Interestingly, our Bishop recently asked students who was better, men or women, and he told us women were because Mary was the only perfect totally human woman that ever existed.  But God made sure Mary had someone to help take care of her (Joseph), then when Joseph was gone, Jesus and when Jesus returned to his Father, to Peter.  Someone always made sure she was okay and she was the perfect woman.  Today, we women usually take care of ourselves and our families and are told not to rely on anyone else to help us because we can’t rely on anyone else.  This makes me wonder if we’ve somehow inverted how things ought to be, in trying to be superwoman.  Maybe we all, Autistic or allistic, were never meant to do all of the things we’re doing.

And if that’s the case, maybe the reason Autistic womanhood is so hard is because womanhood is so hard.  If that’s the case, why aren’t there more Autistic (or Black or Muslim or…) voices in the current feminism movement?  Intersectionality would help us all out here, I would think, since we could talk about the commonalities of being female instead of obsessing over how to scream at the pro-life feminists in our midst (honestly, people, if y’all think feminism turns on being pro-choice, you really don’t understand what choice means…but that’s a blog for another day).

And maybe once we figure out what realistic expectations of being a woman are, then we can talk about whether or not I can do those things as a Disabled woman, or if I need help.  Or even if I want to do it in the first place.

This is one of the major problems of the stereotypical white, middle class male depiction of Autism.  Society is already made for white, middle class men, so that they are raised to believe their needs are important and ought to be respected.  Once they learn they are also Disabled, they assert their rights to these needs with vigor.

And they generally get what they want.

But what of those of us who are Disabled and not white, middle class, men?

What about those of us who learned to mask our identities because the stakes were too high if we did not?

How do we untangle our various masks we learned to survive from who we really are?

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