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A Minority Within a Minority

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A Minority Within a Minority

That rare and unusual creature, the female Aspie... We do exist, but officially we are somewhere between only 1 in 5 or even 1 in 10 on the autistic spectrum. Does this reflect reality though, and if it does, is there a reason for it?

Females inherit one X chromosome from their mother and one X chromosome from their father, so they have two X chromosomes and that is what makes them female.  Males inherit an X chromosome from their mother and a Y chromosome form their father, so they have one X and one Y chromosome and that is what makes them male.

Research done by a Professor Skuse (2000) suggests that there are a cluster of genes on the X chromosome that are crucial to the development of a part of the brain called the amygdala, which controls a lot of stuff like recognising emotions in other peoples facial expressions etc. which is abnormal in autistic people. In women, if one of the X chromosomes is damaged there is still another one to fall back on which can provide the active proteins required for the amygdala to develop normally, hence a theory that males are more likely to be autistic than females because they do not have that back up.

Further evidence for this comes from a rare condition known as Turner Syndrome, which is when a person is born with just one X chromosome. They are still female because they don't have the Y chromosome that males have, but crucially they don't have that second X chromosome. They are 200 times more likely to develop autism than females are normally... around 5% of them do and around 30% have autistic traits.

However, that isn't the full story, because it looks like there is more to autism than just having a wonky amygdala, and there are possibly more than one set of genes responsible and maybe even more than just genetic factors involved.

Another theory is that of Simon Baron-Cohen...  the extreme male brain theory. Basically, people seem to have a pre-disposition toward either a brain that is good at systemizing (the S type) or empathising (the E type). The majority of men seem to be the S type and the majority of women seem to be the E type, but there are E type men and S type women also, so brain type is not just about your biological gender. However, referring to the brain types as Male and Female instead of S and E is being encouraged, even though it is misleading, probably just because it sounds good.

In the case of autism, because people on the spectrum are usually strong systemisers and weak empathisers (by his measure), within the context of this theory it is referred to as 'Extreme Male Brain syndrome'. This would explain why more males have it than females, if their brains are already pre-disposed to be inclined away from empathising and toward systemising. Some evidence for this comes from studies of finger length ratio, connected to the release of testosterone at a certain stage in the womb, the results of which suggest that people with autism get exposed to more testosterone making their brains more 'male'.

I have strong objections to this theory though. I think it is dangerous to go down the path of making skills and attributes gender specific... it just reinforces old gender stereotypes. People should be treated as individuals. This Male / Female brain stuff is just playing with statistics, and I am yet to be convinced that the differences being measured are entirely the result of nature (people being born that way) and not nurture (people becoming that way because of their culture, societal expectations and upbringing).

The BBC ran a documentary series and an online test about the differences between male and female brains. I took the test and my brain score was 0% - neither male or female but exactly in-between. My finger ratio was 1:1 so to it would seem that my supposed 'male' skills and attributes are at least in my case not the result of testosterone in the womb. Maybe I am one of the exceptions to the rule, but for me it's not a proper rule if it has exceptions to it.

Out of all the male and female Aspies I have spoken to I haven't seen any evidence of extreme male brainedness anyway... if anything there is more of a sense of androgyny than there is of any gender extreme. Maybe people with Asperger's syndrome are more likely to just be themselves than to conform to some invented notion of gender appropriateness. Only if you accept that empathy is almost the exclusive domain of neurotypical females does it make any sense to say autistic people are more 'male', and I don't accept that... I think this definition of empathy is narrow and culturally biased, and I think test results are skewed by the fact that more males than females get diagnosed so when studied as a group the autistic community obviously has more of what they would call male characteristics because it has more males in it.

So, there is no doubt that less females are diagnosed, but currently there are only theories as to why that might be. Presently many researchers believe that autism is more common in females than diagnosis rates would suggest, but that it simply isn't being recognised due to the different way it presents. For example, it is suggested that females naturally have better linguistic skills than males and are expected to be less outgoing, thus disguising subtle, but significant, autistic characteristics, but there are many things that could be standing in the way of females getting a diagnosis?

For a start, society does treat females different from males. I think it is too simplistic to say that society at large tolerates autistic traits in females more than males and therefore doesn't recognise any problem. I think it more likely that girls are under more pressure to conform than boys. I know lots of men would dispute that, but I am not trying to say they are not under a lot of pressure, just that maybe girls are under even more.

One of the main things used to identify Asperger's syndrome is lack of participation in social activities. This idea is based on the presumption that participation is voluntary and that an individual chooses that which suits them best. This is not the case with women and girls. You often have to be part of a social group because you will rarely be left alone if you are not, and if you are even the lowest status member of a social group, it can hide a multitude of social difficulties.

Denial can also be a factor. It was not my life's ambition to be diagnosed with a neurological condition that would explain all my problems. All I wanted was a normal life and for things not to be so difficult. I never went looking for Asperger's syndrome, I just stumbled across it. I used to feel really guilty about finding things so difficult... it was like a secret shame, a huge burden that I dragged around with me everywhere I went, terrified that people would see through me and find out. I used to tell fibs... little white lies, to try and reassure people that everything was fine and I was just like everybody else. There could be lots of girls and women who are too afraid to admit, maybe even to themselves, that they have problems and difficulties that other people just don't have. Like I was, they may be feeling ashamed, guilty and inadequate... disguising their problems as best as they can.

Men with Asperger's syndrome face social pressure too, but it is of a different kind. On some basic level society values it's females more than its males, just from a biological sort of breeding perspective I suppose. Neurotypical culture has evolved to keep it's females included in the life of the tribe. While men with Asperger's syndrome can be mocked, ridiculed or abused for their differences, they are still allowed to be different. People seem to find that easier to accept... it is a stereotype they are familiar with. I certainly think that a lot more is demanded of and expected of women starting right from childhood. If we are not being seen to be making an effort I think we are judged more harshly for it.

It also might be easier for aspie women to become involved in relationships than aspie men. Generally speaking a man's social status seems far more important to prospective partners than a females social status does to prospective partners. Being in a relationship is considered to be one of those 'normal' and 'healthy' things that suggest you can't possibly have social or communication difficulties if you have managed it... a rather naive view. A lot of men prefer to be able to feel superior to their women and would relish the social and possibly even practical dependence an aspie female could have toward them. It is just another reason for people not to suspect anything is wrong and not to take your problems seriously. I wonder how many Aspie women out there are believed to just have a bad attitude by their partners and families.

Given all these considerations it is not difficult to see how when going for a diagnosis, females could be at a disadvantage. The diagnostic criteria naturally have to be focused on the observable consequences of being AS rather than what it actually feels like inside your head. If being female alleviates or disguises some of the observable consequences then it would make it harder to get diagnosed, even though the way your brain works and how things feel for you could be just the same, and on the inside you may be struggling just as much.

One day they may find a more scientific and accurate way to look at how peoples brains work to establish what sort of difficulties they may have, and when that day comes maybe it will result in more females getting diagnosed. In the meantime only increased awareness of females on the autistic spectrum will help us not to be simply disregarded as freakish anomalies, not abundant enough to be worthy of consideration. We do exist.

Sexuality

It is generally believed that there is a slightly higher percentage of gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered autistics than in the average population, and that many more than average are asexual. How far this is true I cannot say as I have never seen any research that has been done in to it, but as far as I can tell it does seem to be the case.

An asexual is someone who does not experience sexual attraction toward either sex, and the very best explanation of it can be found at the Asexual Visibility and Education Network

Further reading available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

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