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Autism and GenderFrom Refrigerator Mothers to Computer Geeks$

Jordynn Jack

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780252038372

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252038372.001.0001

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Inventing Gender

Inventing Gender

Neurodiverse Characters

(p.181) Chapter 5 Inventing Gender
Autism and Gender

Jordynn Jack

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter studies how individuals may invent alternative gendered identities from available gender topoi. Memoirs by Donna Williams and Dawn Prince-Hughes, along with blogs and online forum posts, reveal that autistic individuals offer alternative understandings of gender, using and combining disidentificatory or idiosyncratic terms such as nongendered and third gender or combining terms such as trans, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and androgyne. Indeed, when autistic individuals write about feeling nongendered or ungendered, they contest hegemonic genders and develop new types of gendered characters with which to present themselves and their experiences. Thus, genders can be invented using available terms, in that some autistic individuals employ a gender copia, or multiplicity of gendered topoi, to understand themselves and their roles in the world.

Keywords:   alternative gendered identity, gender topoi, nongendered, hegemonic genders, autistic individuals, gender copia

As a child, Jane Meyerding found girls confusing. She simply did not understand “girltalk”—the giggling, gossiping, and secret-sharing that marks young girls’ socializing.1 “I was sailing blind,” Meyerding writes, “through a world full of gender signals invisible to my genderless self.”2 Though she did not desire to be a boy, Meyerding did not readily identify as a girl, either.

An autistic biological male named Shiva writes, similarly: “When i see ‘gender’ as a tick-box category on a form, i feel similarly to if, on a form asking for details of a vehicle, it asked for ‘miles per gallon’ when my vehicle was powered by something completely different (and that can’t be measured in gallons), like say solar electricity—i just don’t really consider myself to belong to the category of beings that have gender.”3

Thus far, I have examined how gendered characters emerge in discourse about autism—either in terms of the theories about what autism is, what causes it, and how it should be treated, or in terms of the people who emerge to speak and write about it. In previous chapters, these characters have mostly conformed to hegemonic norms of male and female, masculine and feminine. For Becky Francis, these gendered characters are (to borrow Bakhtin’s term) “monoglossic.”4 That is, they conform to a traditional binary gender system in which one is either male or female, masculine or feminine, and performs a gendered role that corresponds with one’s sex. Yet when it comes to (p.182) accounts written by autistic people, we find a different set of characters and commonplaces: a more heteroglossic system, which includes “plasticity, contradiction, and resistance.”5 This heteroglossic system embraces multiple configurations of sex, gender, and sexuality.

As Kristin Bumiller has noted, a remarkable number of autistic people identify themselves as gender-neutral, androgynous, or otherwise nontraditional in their sense of gendered identity, a factor scientists have begun to explore.6 Although researchers have not yet determined, definitively, what proportion of autistic people might fall under this category, one study by the psychiatrist Annelou L. C. de Vries and her collaborators found that 7.8 per cent of autistic individuals surveyed could be categorized as gender defiant.7 Going even further, the psychiatrist Susanne Bejerot and colleagues posit that ASD may itself constitute a “gender defiant disorder.” They found that “women with ASD often display less feminine characteristics than women without ASD, and that men with ASD often display less masculine characteristics than men without ASD.”8 The men and women they studied were likely to have androgynous features. Bejerot et al. argue that this evidence contests the extreme male brain theory and could point to effects of chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system.

While scientists may continue to explore autism and gender from a biological perspective, here I examine how nontraditional gendered characters form and circulate in writing by autistic people. An autistic perspective points to the usefulness of a rhetorical model for understanding gender, one that considers it as providing a range of available topoi through which individuals make sense of, model, and perform a gendered character.

In this chapter, I examine accounts written by autistic people through the lenses of rhetoric and neurodiversity. The latter refers to a movement that argues that the “discourse of individual rights,” usually applied to race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, “ought to apply to individuals whose neurological predispositions are not typical.” In an analysis of the term neurodiversity, Micki McGee notes that people on the autism spectrum have been especially active in this movement.9 Drawing on social models of disability, activists and practitioners argue that autism becomes apparent owing to social norms requiring certain kinds of communication and behavior that may be difficult for those who process information differently.

Autistic individuals describe a range of differences they experience in navigating the world, which may range from sensory differences (p.183) (such as high sensitivity to light or sound), synesthesia (the blending of one or more sensory inputs, such as colors with sounds), difficulty processing multiple inputs (such as speech and vision), or trouble recognizing faces. For instance, in her book Songs of the Gorilla Nation, the anthropologist Dawn Prince-Hughes describes autism as “a beautiful way of seeing the world,” describing the thrill she gets when she encounters symmetry, as in the “lines and color of tennis courts” or the roundness of tunnels, as well as the “sense addictions” she attaches to everything from purple irises to the smell of tin boxes of Band-Aids.10 Some autistic people also point to a greater attention to detail, an ability to focus intently on a topic, or the ability to remember visual and aural information. From this perspective, autism constitutes a different neurological make-up, one that carries with it considerable strengths even if it can present difficulties navigating a world designed for “neurotypicals,” or those whose neurology accords with that of most other humans.

In terms of gender, a neurodiverse perspective may denaturalize gender norms and offer novel insights into gender as a social process. Examining gender from an autistic perspective highlights some elements as socially constructed that may otherwise seem natural and supports an understanding of gender as fluid and multidimensional. Rather than positing a single model of gender that accounts for these experiences, I show instead the range of gender theories that inform self-understanding for autistic people who identify as something other than their biologically determined sex or gender, or for people who find gender confusing or inapplicable to their experience.

As Joanne Meyerowitz points out in her study of the history of trans-sexuality, How Sex Changed, individuals “articulate[] their sense of self with the language and cultural forms available to them,” using available “labels, stories, and theories to understand [one]self.”11 These components form part of what Aristotle would call the “available means” of rhetoric, the source materials that rhetors consult in constructing an argument.12 In the case of contemporary gender forms, these topoi include scientific, feminist, social constructionist, and transgendertranssexual theories, along with public representations of gender in images, fashions, media, and the like. Autistic understandings of gender support this rhetorical model, in which individuals draw on available commonplaces in order to understand and present themselves as gendered (or alternatively gendered, or nongendered) characters. Yet, as Victoria McGeer argues, the language available to us is mostly (p.184) geared to typical psychological experiences. Those whose experiences do not conform to the type must “adapt, manipulate, and perhaps outright distort the common meanings of our words in order to convey something of their own subjective experience.”13

In order to better understand how autistic individuals use and adapt gender discourses as tools for self-understanding, I culled accounts from internet forums, blogs, and published memoirs, all of which imply not a binary concept or even a view of gender as a continuum, but something more like a copia, the rhetorical term Erasmus used to describe the practice of selecting “certain expressions and mak[ing] as many variations of them as possible.”14 Copia refers to a strategy of invention, a rhetorical term for the process of generating ideas. To be specific, it involves proliferation, multiplying possibilities so as to locate the range of persuasive options available to a rhetor. I find invention a fitting concept to describe autistic gendered characters.

Individuals who find themselves searching for terms with which to understand themselves now face a wide array of choices such as female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF) transsexual, gender-queer, transgendered, femme, butch, boi, neutrois, androgyne, bi- or tri-gender, third gender, and even geek. In addition to these gendered characters, individuals may add on terms related to sexuality such as straight, gay, lesbian, pansexual, and bisexual. These terms, along with theories that inform our understandings of gender itself, form part of the available means for gender identity that autistic individuals may use. Each of these terms embeds a discursive history or genealogy and provides rhetorical options for self-expression.

Of course, not all autistic individuals identify according to a nontraditional character; many people with autism identify unproblematically as male or female (or masculine or feminine). I do not mean to suggest that the examples considered here are in any way representative of the entire population of autistic people. Some scientific studies posit that a slightly higher than average percentage of autistic people have nontraditional gender identifications and sexual preferences. However, the data drawn from these studies make conclusions problematic, in part because they each use different categories (sexual identification, gender identity, and so on) and sometimes employ problematic discourses—as in studies of Gender Identity Disorder (GID) or “gender dysphoria.”

In the first part of this chapter, I examine how gendered characters serve an inventive purpose for autistic individuals: as disidentification, as a social code, as a performance of a role, and as an idiosyncratic (p.185) identity. My goal is not to weigh in on whether such modes are indeed more prevalent among autistic people but to argue that their experiences are interesting because they contrast so dramatically with the binary model of sex and gender that informs the gendered theories and performances explored in earlier chapters. These texts also show how autistic enactments of gender do not simply represent disordered identifications or symptoms of autistic impairment, as psychiatric experts might have it, but may be understood as rhetorical acts. Creating gendered characters on the basis of which to act often serves a vital function for autistic people seeking a means to interact with others.

I then explore the ways scientific research, advice literature, and popular films about autism tend to close off this range of characters and reassert a binary model of gender. This section furthers John Sloop’s argument that “gender/sexuality difference is persistently reaffirmed and returned to ‘gender normality’ on a mass cultural and ideological level.”15 In short, understanding how autistic people think about gender can offer potentially transformative insights into how gender works, but these insights are often dulled by practices of gender remediation that seek to shoehorn people into a small set of normalized gender categories.

Inventing Gender Identification and Disidentification

Autistic individuals may understand gender as a sort of disidentification. From this perspective, one relates one’s own sense of gender identity to observations of available gender roles or performances and finds a lack of coherence. Such a perspective squares with the Burkean notion that ‘‘identity is not individual … a man ‘identifies himself’ with all sorts of manifestations beyond himself.”16 Gender provides one of these manifestations. Traditionally, “proper” gender identification has been considered a marker of a person’s social development, and children were expected to identify unproblematically with their biological sex by the time they reached school age, although attention to alternative gender identities has lessened this expectation somewhat. We now understand that gender identification is a process that happens incrementally, and not always without conflict. The gender theorist and molecular biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling argues that gender identity is a “set of systems moving through time,” one that “varies in its relative stability.”17 The experiences of the autistic individuals considered in this chapter highlight the rhetorical and fragmented nature of this process.

(p.186) For some autistic people, though, gender does not easily serve as an available resource for identity. In “Growing up Genderless,” Meyerding describes her “inability to identify with other women.”18 Rather than identifying as a man, as some might assume, or as a lesbian (a position Meyerding tried out in the 1970s), she finds gender incomprehensible and inapplicable to her experience. Another autistic woman, Amanda Baggs, writes on her blog that “gender is a concept that, while I understand intellectually that it is greatly important for other people, is entirely absent and incomprehensible to me.”19 Meyerding and Baggs both note a general “genderblindness,” a tendency that shapes not only their perceptions of others but their own identities.

For these writers, a known disability, blindness, serves as a metaphor with which to understand an unnamed and unrecognized disability. Of course, some might object to the use of blindness because it is used to connote “lack of knowledge, randomness, and primitive reasoning,” in the words of disability studies scholar Simi Linton. Such usage can alienate people with disabilities and also “perpetuate inaccurate information about disabled people’s experience.”20 The use of “genderblind” here is somewhat ironic, given the problematic ways autism is sometimes used metaphorically to connote self-involvement or immorality.

Nonetheless, these understandings of gender—the notion of living in a nongendered way—might strike some as a utopian condition, especially feminist and gender scholars who have long argued for a more flexible system. Without a sense of gender, one cannot be susceptible to gender stereotypes or discrimination. One might conceivably feel a sense of freedom to style oneself, physically and emotionally, according to preferences not dictated by gender.

Yet not everyone finds genderblindness utopic. For some individuals, gender disorientation can be emotionally painful. Blogger Amanda Forest Vivian writes in one post: “I’m upset because I feel like there’s no word to describe my gender expression and the gender expression I’m attracted to. It’s probably silly to be upset about not having a word for something, but because I don’t feel represented in either straight or queer communities, I do have a desire to articulate what it is that I am.”21 While academics spend significant time deconstructing terms and questioning their usefulness, for individuals, having a term to describe oneself can be tremendously important. Vivian finds the lack of such a term problematic, perhaps in part because a term might provide resources for identification. When she writes that she does not (p.187) feel represented in “either queer or straight communities,” she may be implying that there’s a lack of identification or consubstantiality that would make it possible for her to feel accepted within those groups.

In a similar vein, the potential loss of an identificatory term can be equally troubling. One forum poster, Sleeping Chrysalid, writes that she was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child but has come to identify herself primarily as someone who is transgendered. On learning of a possible connection between the two, she panicked: “I am constantly plagued by the thought that my identity crisis may just be a result of aspergers [sic]…. It is crushing to hear that aspergers is characteristic of the male brain. My brain has many other female charactersitics [sic]. I can think about my feelings. I can write beautiful essays and I am doing just as well in english [sic] as I am doing in math.”22 This passage illustrates that Sleeping Chrysalid had built up an identity around the notion that she possessed a brain with “female characteristics.” She sorted a number of her abilities into that category, such as her writing and English skills (gendered female) as opposed to math skills (gendered male). The possibility of disrupting this plan was frightening, since it would mean reshaping an orientation built up through rhetorical resources and now broken. Reorienting an identity based on Asperger’s syndrome would require Sleeping Chrysalid to pick up the pieces and find new connections, new resources of identification.

Despite the difficulties of orienting oneself to a stable gender category, the topic of gender provides a point of identification for autistic individuals with nontraditional gender identities. On message boards and blogs, they share experiences with alternative gender self-concepts in ways that might be confirmatory. Bryan Crable notes that this kind of interactional rhetoric can be crucial to establishing a secure identity. Internet communication can provide a source for interactional rhetoric, or “discourse aimed at gaining another’s cooperation in the creation or defense of the rhetor’s desired identity” that is not otherwise available to individuals who might be isolated from others like them.23 Posts on one popular internet site for autistic people, WrongPlanet.net, often take the form of identity confirmation, starting with a question like “Is anyone else here … ?” (followed by “transsexual,” a “girly girl,” or what have you). The string of responses usually tends to second this identity. For instance, when one participant posted the question, “Does anyone else here have Aspergers and are gay,” he received the response, “We have an entire LGBT subforum.”24 Or, more simply, when one poster asked “Anyone else here not interested in relationships?” she received (p.188) the simple response “You are not alone.”25 In short, online fora can offer resources and support for alternative self-identities that might be lacking elsewhere. These Web sites provide opportunities for interactional rhetoric that confirms and validates identities.

Although many autistic individuals find gender itself confusing, a point of disidentification as much as identification, that does not necessarily mean that they identify with the opposite sex. Indeed, women who write about their experiences with gender often protest against the assumption that they are “male-brained.” This assumption follows from Baron-Cohen’s extreme male brain theory of autism, which posits that autistic individuals demonstrate hyper-developed male attributes such as a propensity for systematic thinking, computers, and numbers, and a lack of female attributes, identified as social and empathizing skills. For example, although women may identify a number of perseverations, or intense interests, they do not always connect those to a male-type brain. In an online discussion published in Women from Another Planet, posters called Jane and Mary Margaret noted their ongoing relationship with animals; Diane and Wendy talked about their interest in cats; Kalen revealed her passion for computers, and Coa and Toni described their love for reading novels.26 None of these (except computers) capture the kinds of male-associated systemizing activities listed in the extreme male brain theory; in fact, many of them could be seen as examples of empathizing activities, depending on one’s perspective.

Indeed, the writers argue that they “are fully capable of empathy,” a skill they exhibit by listening and observing carefully, by overlooking social categories and stereotypes, and applying empathy not just to humans but also to animals, plants, and inanimate objects. Mary Margaret writes, for instance, that she finds “most of humanity is ignorant for not hearing and seeing what is around them”—the rocks and trees, machines, and other people “without voices,” such as the Alzheimer’s patients with whom she works.27 In Songs of the Gorilla Nation, Prince-Hughes describes her close connection to her “gorilla family,” which she first encountered at a zoo and later studied as an anthropology graduate student. “These gorillas,” she writes, “so sensitive and so trapped, were mirrors for my soul…. Because the gorillas were so like me in so many ways, I was able to see myself in them, and in turn I saw them—and eventually myself—in other human people.” She writes passionately about how gorillas are misunderstood, portrayed as savage murderers or “caricatures of fully formed humanity,” denied the empathic understanding traditionally accorded only to (p.189) humans.28 Indeed, these writers offer an expanded notion of empathy, one that addresses the broader spiritual concerns that are often lost in the neurotypical world (or sought out in high-priced yoga classes or mindfulness retreats). This form of identification seems to operate along alternative lines of affiliation, with gender being one of the least important resources for identity.

Gender as Resource of Ambiguity

Indeed, for some individuals, gender ambiguities are not necessarily negative; instead, they offer resources for thinking about gender in new ways. Autistic experiences with gender offer what Burke calls “resources of ambiguity,” heuristics for thinking about gender as something other than a binary. As Burke writes, “It is in the areas of ambiguity that transformations take place.”29 He might also point out that it is precisely because gender is ambiguous that humans are motivated to advance what the communication scholars Kevin R. McClure and Kristine M. Cabral refer to as “rhetorical construction of realities,” in this case, of genders.30

Writers sometimes situate themselves between available gender terms. Shiva writes that, though he appears unambiguously male because of his facial hair, large feet, and low voice, he also has long hair and self-identifies as not having “any sort of ‘internal’ gender identity whatsoever.”31 Jean Miller notes that she doesn’t, either: “I myself live a somewhat femme life but it feels in some sense detachable, a costume. I was an androgynous kid and most clearly perceive the world in a non-gendered way.”32 While Shiva situates himself as a “third gender” between male and female, Miller positions herself between femme and androgynous or nongendered. Both of these writers find an alternative, ambiguous position from which to understand themselves.

Similarly, Lindsay, who maintains a blog called Autist’s Corner, describes her “persona and self-concept” as more masculine than her clothing and appearance might indicate. For Lindsay, the distinction between her persona and her appearance offers a way to understand one’s gender as both masculine and feminine, not one or the other. Feminized items of clothing and jewelry do not necessarily symbolize femininity, in Lindsay’s case, either: “I’ve got a particular fascination with shiny objects, so when I wear lots and lots of gaudy jewelry, especially rings (which I often do), I often hypnotize myself looking at them as my hands move through the air. I also like to wear long, trailing skirts, the movement of which I find soothing.”33 Yet Lindsay (p.190) recognizes that her clothing choices might be read as feminine even if her persona is not.

Reflections by autistic women who have become mothers also provide resources for ambiguity. Although Miller never expected to become a mother, finding that she did not identify with that socially constructed role, on conceiving she soon found that her “maternal pessimism gave way to wonder and ecstasy.”34 She encountered difficulties in the first few weeks of caring for her son Adrian because she found it difficult to assume the gendered role of mother given her own sensory and emotional needs. Yet she also recounts how she gradually learned to interpret his needs (some of which she attributes to her son’s reactions to overstimulation).35 Family relationships, then, provide a resource for thinking about gendered roles in an alternative way. Miller developed a different understanding of herself as a mother, one that did not entirely conform to mainstream representations.

In addition, autistic women find points of ambiguity between the culturally constructed identity of an autistic person—stereotypically a male—and their own interests and identities. Women often point out differences they’ve noticed between themselves and males with an ASD. One poster on the Web site WrongPlanet started a forum topic by asking whether others’ “collecting habits or special interest areas/obsessions differ from the male stereotypes that are perpetuated in the assessment process.”36 The title of the forum, “So, I don’t collect toy dinosaurs or stamps,” reflects the presumption in autism diagnosis that autistic people will display interests in specific kinds of male-oriented activities. On another thread, posters considered their experiences in relation to Baron-Cohen’s extreme male brain theory of autism. While some noted that they related better to men than to women, most also identified ways in which they did not fit the theory. For example, a poster using the name Revolutionrocknroll wrote, “I think I’m more compassionate/empathetic towards others than the average male but less than the average female—in terms of caring about/relating to other people.”37 Another wrote that while she finds it hard to understand other women, and may seem less stereotypically feminine than most women, her choices of dress and appearance depend more on sensory issues than on any desire to reject femininity or “being girly.”38 Through interactional rhetoric, these participants seem to find resources for forging alternative gender identities together.

(p.191) Inventing Gendered Social Codes

Other individuals tend to argue for gender as an in-built condition or an ability to recognize gendered social codes. In particular, some rely on neurological explanations grounded in metaphors of circuitry and wiring common to contemporary discourses about the brain. “My nervous system seems to be configured differently,” Susan Golubock writes in her poem “Different on the Inside.”39 Meyerding writes that her wiring didn’t allow her to identify with other girls, that she lacked “the social code capacity programmed into their brains.” Here, Meyerding describes social interaction as a “basic operating system”—one that women and girls are expected to be especially good at operating.40 For these writers, gender forms part of a built-in mental computer, an operating system one either has or does not have that allows one to understand, interpret, and perform gender appropriately.

At first glance, this language seems to echo the approach offered by Baron-Cohen and others who posit differences between male and female brains, who similarly rely on informatic metaphors of wiring and code. Further, such understandings may seem to contradict feminist views of gender as socially constructed or stylized repetition. Yet Golubock and Meyerding do not claim that they possess male brains. It is not a female brain that they lack but, rather, the “social code capacity” to recognize gender as an important variable. This view actually calls into question the notion that gendered behavior is necessarily connected to sex. If femininity were naturally connected to femaleness, women such as Golubock and Meyerding would not find it so hard to perform correctly. Their ways of talking about gender signify, instead, that gender is a sociorhetorical system into which individuals are drawn, but not without some requisite neurological orientation (whether innate or acquired). By recognizing gender (and being taught to do so), most become individuals who inhabit gender. Individuals with autism may not recognize gender in the first place or may learn to do so later in life.

One reason for this may be linguistic. Although not all autistic people have language delays as children, some do. Since gender depends on rhetorical and linguistic factors, language delays may also delay a developing sense that boy and girl, blue and pink, trucks and dolls are typically linked in discourse as well as social acts. Without words for “boy” and “girl,” one might not develop a gendered sense of “appropriate” behaviors. Alternatively, the sensory processing differences (p.192) many autistic individuals describe may inhibit a sense of gender—which essentially involves grouping individuals into two categories based on assumptions about what lies beneath their clothing. Autistic individuals may focus on other elements, or they may focus primarily on minor details (the color or texture of someone’s clothing or hair rather than the general category of “boy clothes” or “girl clothes”), missing the forest for the trees, so to speak. For this reason, they may not completely participate in the sociorhetorical system that produces (and often mandates) binary sex or gender roles.

Given their difficulties understanding gender, rather than incorporating gendered norms reflexively or automatically into their identities, these writers had to carefully study gender as a set of codes or signals. Autistic women often describe how they gradually learned about the social expectations tied up with femaleness and femininity. Judy Singer notes that “it is women who are more often the social gatekeepers who scrutinize our manners, care more for them than for our minds, and want to keep us out of the club.” She attributes a range of social roles to the average or neurotypical woman, such as “taking a precise reading of all the social currents of a given moment … sniffing out the exact social dress code that precisely fits the moment in history … or reading all the social cues in a group.”41 By identifying gender expectations as socially constructed roles, Singer develops an explanatory framework that helps autistic women interpret their difficulties in identifying with a gender. One might argue that Singer stereotypes neurotypical women here—certainly, not all women of any kind are adept at reading social cues or spotting the latest fashion trends. Singer points out, however, that, in the aggregate, these skills are socially assigned to the female role (rather than located in their brains). Any woman who fails to develop these skills might be read as less feminine or may be excluded from female groups.

On her blog, Vivian writes that the term women is a code for a range of attributes that she does not find applicable to herself: “attracted to men, mostly spends time with other women, socially sensitive, emotional in a particular way…. People use the word ‘women’ as a code word when they are talking about abortion and birth control, which are things I support, but which are not things that personally affect me. I’m not against the people the word ‘women’ stands for, but I don’t feel particularly attached to them either.”42 As a signifier, women evokes a range of associated behaviors, concepts, beliefs, and debates—a representational system with which biological women are meant to (p.193) identify. Vivian’s confusion about gender identity means that she does not identify with the symbol “woman” in discourse any more than she does with the identity position.

Finding an appropriate term with which to identify may seem a futile project if one does not fit into the traditional (and limited) categories available for gender expression. Yet naming, Burke notes, is important for self-identity as a rhetorical project. Indeed, he writes: “The mere failure of a vocabulary to draw all lines to the right places is to a degree malignly persuasive (and all vocabularies naming social and political relations in the large must err somewhat in this respect).”43 The “malign persuasion” in question might be the fact that lacking a term or word with which to identify might persuade people that they do not fit, that they are anomalous or that they lack a gender identity. Hence, it is understandable that people such as Vivian may continue to search for terms with which to identify, even temporarily.

Inventing Gendered Performances

For autistic individuals, gender may also constitute a performance in a rather literal sense: gendered characters offer them roles to play in their daily lives. Currently, theorists often define gender as a performance in a more metaphorical sense, as performativity, what Judith Butler has called “an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.44 For Butler, this performance is not simply voluntary, like taking on a new role in a play, but an embodied effect of continued acting according to social norms. Sometimes, autistic women write about their gender identity in this vein. In an online comment, Lindsay states that her own hypothesis is that “gender is essentially a continuous improvised performance of a role whose nature is never explicitly communicated to you, and whose script you have to pick up from subtle social cues, starting in childhood. It’s probably the single most intensively-socialized thing humans do, and the one whose ‘rules’ are the least explicit. Since autistic people are notoriously resistant to socialization, it just makes sense that we wouldn’t pick up as much of the gender programming as NTs [neurotypicals] do.”45 Lindsay’s understanding of gender echoes Butler’s argument that gender can be understood as a performance—not one that can be simply turned on or off, but one that is embedded in mental and bodily habits driven by social representations.

(p.194) Notably, though, some autistic women write about gender as quite literally a performance. Butler insists that one cannot put on or take off gender as though it were simply a costume or role. Yet conscious performance of a gendered character can become a coping strategy, an attempt to get along in social situations that feel false to the performer, even if it can “pass” as real to others. For example, Vivian describes her favored gender role as Manic Pixie Dream Girl: “My voice is kind of soft and little-girl-ish, I am solicitous to the point of sometimes going too far, I interject, I tease.”46 Nathan Rabin, who coined the role’s name, describes this stock film character as one that is used primarily to further a plot focused on a male character. Her quirkiness and zest for life help “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”47 We might identify Manic Pixie Dream Girl as the type of gendered character played by the female leads in Almost Famous (Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson), Yes Man (Allison, played by Zooey Deschanel), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Clementine Kruczynski, played by Kate Winslet), and 50 First Dates (Lucy Whitmore, played by Drew Barrymore). The female lead, in each case, plays a quirky, unusual, provocative woman—a free spirit who transforms the male lead’s life. She may have some kind of neurological condition: in 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore plays an amnesiac whom Adam Sandler must woo, from scratch, each day; in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Clementine has had her memory erased in order to forget her previous relationship with the lead male character, played by Jim Carrey. In short, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a stock character used as a vector for a male character’s personal development.

Yet this character provides Vivian with a culturally legible performance of gender. Vivian recognizes this performance as precisely that: “I know I act like a silly little kid, but I couldn’t talk in class or make friends without it. I need someone to be.”48 This role does not seem like one Vivian has made up out of nowhere; instead, it seems to be an amalgam of her observations of others (in life and in film) and the expectations required of women in different social situations. Her language shows that she does not view her chosen role as fully embodied, a product of repeated stylized acts that she has imbibed since childhood. Instead, she views Manic Pixie Dream Girl much more as a performance, a rhetorical device and a coping mechanism: the role offers “the only acceptable way for a girl to be weird” and “the only way of synthesizing my AS into a reasonably acceptable personality.”49

(p.195) For some writers, gendered performances are enacted in part through clothing choices. Women in online forums often relate that, on one hand, they were put off by the dress codes mandated by mainstream gender roles but that, on the other, they enjoyed using clothing to perform alternate roles. Scholars in rhetoric have noted that dress can serve as a rhetoric directed at outside audiences, as was the case with early women suffragists examined by Carol Mattingly in Appropriate[Ing] Dress, or the carefully articulated and repurposed gang colors Ralph Cintrón identifies in Angels’ Town.50 What is at stake in the case of autistic self-identity and dress, though, seems to be something more like the kinds of personal, material rhetorics identified in Karen A. Foss and Sonja K. Foss’s Women Speak. Foss and Foss locate rhetorical acts in a wide range of women’s activities, including needlework, photography, graffiti, interior design, and baking.51

Individuals who post on WrongPlanet.net’s discussions of fashion often identify with particular gendered characters. For instance, a poster named HarraArial recounts her “huge interest in alternative fashion (Victorian Gothic, Steampunk, and Lolita all come to mind).”52 Each of those styles might constitute a character HarraArial can perform while wearing that type of clothing. Another poster, CockneyRebel, prefers “Vintage, unisex Mod fashions,” while Pinkbowtiepumps describes her style as “mod, victorian and 50s housewife” combined.53 We might also note that the screen names these participants adopt may also reflect a rhetorical, interactional impulse; each one seems chosen to convey a particular identity or performance thereof, such as “50s housewife” or “mod.” (CockneyRebel might reflect the British origin of the 1960s Mod subculture.)

In other cases, clothing choices might be read by an audience in a particular way, reflecting what Francis calls the “adressivity” of gender,54 but used by the individual for other purposes. Prince-Hughes describes her 1980s-era wardrobe as follows: “I wore leather jackets because their weight and thickness calmed me; dark glasses, sometimes even at night, because they cut out some of the stimulation to my nervous system; and heavy boots that made me feel secure and grounded as I clomped around in them.”55 While others might have seen her as performing a Punk identity, for Prince-Hughes the performance was more embodied; she was performing and experiencing security through her clothing. All of these individuals have found that clothing serves a range of purposes, sometimes connected to a gender identity, and at other times connected to sensory or emotional performances.

(p.196) Donna Williams provides a good example of gender as a rhetorical performance because she has written about her developing identity extensively, in a series of four memoirs. In the first, Nobody Nowhere, Williams describes how she performed gendered roles as a coping mechanism. As a child she developed two different roles, Willie and Carol, which allowed her to interact with others. Willie, who emerged by the time Williams was three, was a pugnacious, impish boy, her defense mechanism against perceived threats: “Willie became the self I directed at the outside world, complete with hateful glaring eyes, a pinched-up mouth, a rigid corpselike stance, and clenched fists.”56 Shortly thereafter, Carol emerged. A bubbly, bouncy flirt, Carol was her tool for interacting with classmates, adults, and later, boyfriends: “Carol was everything that people liked. Carol laughed a lot. Carol made friends … Carol could act relatively normal. Smiling, sociable, giggly, she made the perfect dancing doll.”57 Williams did not exactly choose these roles consciously; instead, they emerged as personalities forged from parts of people she had observed (real and imaginary). These characters were called into play in different rhetorical situations. When Williams felt called to present herself as a good girl, to interact cheerfully with others, Carol might be called into play; when threatened, Willie might emerge. Both characters are “stylized repetitions,” in Butler’s sense, but they seem to be experienced as performances and not as entirely incorporated into a self.

Williams drew on both female and male characters to help her make her way in the world. In Everyday Heaven, she reflects on how these roles related to her gender: “As Willie, I felt male; as Carol, I felt female; as myself, I felt neutral. Willie was the embodiment of logic, my left-brain thinking unable to integrate with my right brain thinking that I associated with Donna and self. Carol was my imitation of girls and a social façade of ‘normality.’”58 In her blog, Williams notes that because she grew up “face blind” (she had difficulty seeing and remembering faces) and “meaning deaf” (she had trouble interpreting what others were saying) her gender identity was delayed.59 Carol and Willie were roles she developed, on top of what she describes as a neutral self-concept, in order to cope with the demands of the outside world. They were characters she could evoke in a performance of self. For Williams, gender was a rhetorical device that could be deployed, depending on the context, to act in accordance with societal expectation.

Perhaps because she was used to this, Williams extended that performance to include sexuality. As a teenager, she writes, she performed (p.197) as Carol in order to avoid homelessness, tolerating “domestic prostitution” in a series of abusive relationships. Later, she experimented with heterosexual and homosexual relationships, almost as though she were trying on sexual orientations the way she had tried on Willie and Carol. After a negative experience with a male partner, she sought out a female partner, noting the “almost male sexuality” she felt when encountering women at a lesbian bar. When that relationship ended, she realized that “lesbian” was not the proper term for her sexual orientation: “Perhaps I was bisexual. Perhaps I just chose human beings and it didn’t matter too much about their gender.”60 The role of lesbian gave Williams a way to act on her attraction to a human being who happened to be a woman, a role to enact. Ultimately, though, Williams married a man and came to describe herself as a “monogamous genderqueer bisexual happily living in a straight marriage who generally feels like a gay man in a woman’s body.”61 In order to come to terms with herself as a person, Williams had to reject the roles she had taken on as coping mechanisms, and to invent other terms with which to describe her self-concept.

These examples both confirm and challenge a feminist understanding of gender as performance, as Butler proposes, or as something one does rather than something one is, a view advanced by West and Zimmerman.62 On one hand, Vivian and Williams both view gender as a sort of stylized performance, which seems to confirm these feminist understandings of gender. On the other, neither Vivian nor Williams seems to view gender as fully incorporated into their identities, bodies, or minds—unlike the feminist theorists arguing that ritualized performances of gender materialize as layers of embodied habits and actions. Instead, they tend to view gendered characters almost as theater—costumes to be taken on or taken off depending on the situation.

Inventing Idiosyncratic Genders

Other writers draw on a collection of terms to express an idiosyncratic view of gender and sexuality. These terms provide an alternative framework to help autistic individuals with nontraditional gender identities to affirm an individualized character.

In Songs of the Gorilla Nation, Prince-Hughes writes that “having autism underpinned much of my gender identity or lack thereof.” She rejects the idea that “autistic people simply don’t have sexuality”; instead, she (p.198) insists, “it is different and takes more time to unravel.”63 Her autobiography recounts, in part, the process by which she came to understand her gender and her sexuality.

First, she describes how commonplaces drawn from gay, lesbian, and feminist communities helped her understand herself. As a teenager she used the term “queer” for inventive purposes in order to develop her burgeoning sense of character and identity: “I thought about the definition of ‘queer’ and concluded that in the broad sense I qualified under that category. I had no overtly sexual feelings for anyone, male or female, but I had to admit a desire to be near some women because they made me feel good.” Later, she used discourses available in the feminist atmosphere of the 1970s and 1980s, committed to “searching out my own internal intimacies without outside influence.” She joined a local gay and lesbian group, subscribed to Psychology Today and the monthly newsletter of the National Organization for Women, and drew on ideas about gender diversity to consider whether “one could be ‘lesbian’ in one’s orientation to the world but choose to never have sex.”64

Later, Prince-Hughes used commonplaces (verbal and otherwise) that she encountered when she began dancing at a female-owned strip club. During that period, she writes, she began to confront her sexuality: “I watched erotic videos, read all kinds of manuals, listened to women talk in the dressing room offstage about the things they really liked in a lover, and grilled them about what worked and what didn’t.” Using these “protocols” in her encounters with women, she gained a reputation that attracted more than a few takers. Yet she eventually realized that she had mistaken sexual interest on the part of these women for love and the desire for a relationship, though she herself did not love these women, feel fulfilled by the relationship, or necessarily want a relationship. Drawing on available discourses of romance such as popular movies, Prince-Hughes writes, she believed that it was her duty to move from initial attraction to a long-term relationship. She also used topoi of hegemonic femininity as a point of differentiation: “I knew I did not want to choose a subservient role in a relationship, that I wanted to be an intellectual, and that I wanted someone to respect me, support me in reaching my goals. I had always associated these needs with masculinity.”65 Accordingly, Prince-Hughes took on the masculine character in a relationship, becoming a chivalrous caretaker—only to find herself often in the position of being taken advantage of by women simply seeking material or physical comfort.

(p.199) As an adult, Prince-Hughes writes, she realized that “being and … sexuality were unique and not readily classified.” However, these ideas only became available when she read about more deconstructive approaches to gender that encourage “un-labeling” of sex and gender-based identities. In addition, by studying gorillas, she gained a new vocabulary of identity. After one encounter with a male silverback gorilla, for instance, Prince-Hughes writes, she “began to see that the core of my being was a great deal like this male core: looking on from the outside, blank-faced, with a deep and abiding need to protect and comfort in a world where my ways of feeling and acting no longer had context.” This realization helped her understand human men and relinquish her fear of them, realizing that human men, like the gorillas she observed, were constantly confronting the unrelenting vicissitudes of modern life, “unable to protect their families” and railing against their ineptitude.66 Prince-Hughes’s evolving sense of gender and sexual identity, then, moved through a series of topoi from queer to lesbian to idiosyncratic.

Williams is not alone in applying queer terminology to her self-understanding. These terms provide an alternative framework to help autistic individuals with nontraditional gender identities to understand themselves in a positive manner, to affirm an identity rather than a lack or fault. Queer and trans understandings of gender provide some writers with alternative concepts and terms from which to craft an identity.

A number of autistic writers describe identity types that they have tried on. Vivian writes that she experimented with a range of terms, including “butch” and “trans,” but eventually rejected those terms as unsuitable. She has settled on another term: “If I can get away with using the word ‘faggy’ without being a gay man, that’s the best word to describe my gender expression and the gender expression I’m attracted to.”67

Whereas Vivian finds terms drawn from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) communities useful, others are drawn to the discourses made available by a growing community of individuals who define themselves as asexual. People with disabilities are often stereotyped as lacking in sexuality, an idea that disability studies scholars have worked hard to unpack. However, it is as important to valorize asexuality as it is to affirm sexuality, since both are valid and important identificatory positions for individuals with autism. One blogger, who uses the pseudonym Thevenerablecortex, writes that being involved (p.200) with a college LGBT community did not work, “on the grounds that I, as an asexual, didn’t feel that I fit-in with a group which was (in large part) defined by its deviation from the canons of sexual ‘normalcy.’”68 Another blogger writes, “I sometimes identify as an asexual lesbian … but I’m not really 100% sure that’s the right label either, so I don’t use it that much.”69 For these bloggers, “asexual” serves as the best available term with which to identify, but this term does not always coincide with those used in autistic or LGBT communities.

Thus, autistic individuals may draw from a wide range of terms with which to understand their gender and sexuality. The availability of these terms means that those who do not identify as simply male or female, gay or straight, have alternatives. But terms do more than that. According to Burke, “names embody attitudes; and implicit in the attitudes there are the cues of behavior.”70 For him, attitudes are incipient actions, and in them lies “the realm of ‘symbolic action’ par excellence.”71 In this case, then, names provide resources for symbolic actions that individuals use to understand themselves and others, to affirm identity, or to cope in relationships. Assuming the term “bisexual” might lead one to experiment with different kinds of sexual relationships, while the term “trans” might lead one to experiment with cross-gender clothing or behaviors.

Nonetheless, other individuals refuse such terminology altogether, such as this poster on an LGBT discussion group for people with autism: “i’d say i was more intergendered than transgendered. basically, i don’t feel like a ‘man’ i don’t feel like a ‘woman’ and don’t really want to be identified as either one … i’m sort of a neutral mishmash of masculine and feminine.”72 Another poster offers a similar refusal to choose: “More than feeling female (or male) I feel like me. I (and everyone else) shouldn’t be seen as a gender but as an individual whose traits are her or his own, period.”73 And a third poster writes: “I’ve never seen any purpose for genders. They don’t reflect anything real, since they take ‘this sex is likely to do this’ and turn it into a set of rules, making ‘likely’ into ‘has to.’ … And I don’t identify as either because of that. It’s abitrary [sic] and doesn’t fit anything about me.”74 By rejecting gender, these individuals seem to be echoing gender theorist Kath Weston’s call for a “zero concept” of gender, one that refuses to fix genders or to offer alternatives simply by multiplying the number of gender categories in our list. For Weston, naming genders “fixes as it nominalizes, encouraging people to look once again to bodies, to the visual, as gender’s ultimate referent.”75 Weston warns that categories (p.201) of gender are easily commodified and ranged into a continuum, with “masculine” and “feminine” securely holding up the terminal points. The possibility of a “zero concept,” the nongendered or ungendered, refuses this ordering principle, thereby making possible an understanding of gender as copia—an unordered collection of gendered concepts, including the nongendered. Rejecting gender might also be understood as an idiosyncratic interpretation, one that does not bow to cultural norms or discourses.

The profusion of terms used affirms the rhetorical utility of copia. By generating a range of possibilities, participants can rhetorically constitute possible identities for themselves and others. While gender theorists might privilege the moment of disidentification, individuals who participate in these discussions seem to want to find a stasis point of some kind. Terms for gender identity seem to offer these points of identification, even if they do not square up with mainstream, binary notions of gender.

Although these findings cannot be taken as representative of autistic individuals as a whole, their diversity does support an expanded concept of autistic gender identity that pushes past a gender continuum toward a copia, in which terms can be tried on and appropriated, discarded, and invented, while still being understood as embodied and constructed. The above sections indicate five possible rhetorical functions of gender: as disidentification, as a resource for ambiguity, as a social code or symbolic order, as performance, or as idiosyncrasy. Note that any individual might draw on and enact any combination of these gendered processes at any one time—they are not mutually exclusive. For instance, one person might disidentify with traditional notions of femininity and draw instead on elements of clothing and behavior as resources of ambiguity; another person might consciously perform a traditional gender role as a coping mechanism, even as she struggles to interpret the social codes that make that gender role natural for others. All of these gendered processes function as rhetorical resources for self-creation.

Autistic understandings of gender challenge feminist and gender theorists to consider gender as a rhetoric, one that is not simply discursive but material, embodied, neurological, and fundamentally multiple. Such a perspective does not preclude a feminist analysis of, in Bumiller’s terms, autism’s relationship with gendered organizations of labor, authority, and citizenship, nor does it preclude critiquing the tendency for autistic individuals to be pushed to conform to gender roles. Nonetheless, it does (p.202) encourage scholars of gender and feminist theories to include autistic perspectives, not just critiques of neurodiversity or autism discourses, in theorizing about sex and gender more broadly.

Incorporating autistic perspectives helps further denaturalize sex and gender not only as fluid concepts but as resources for rhetorical acts of self-fashioning. Paying attention to individuals with neurological conditions, in particular, helps denaturalize models of gender that might, in some cases, be better termed neurotypical models, since they sometimes presume an innate ability to decode and model an appropriate gendered character or, on the contrary, celebrate conscious acts of resistance to normalizing models. For autistic individuals, for instance, performing a stereotyped gendered character may be very much an act of resistance and survival.

Inventing Gender as Disorder in Scientific Discourses

Whereas autistic individuals offer a copia of available terms, theories, and self-understandings of gender, scientific studies tend to impose a less capacious model for understanding autistic gender identity. Most studies of this phenomenon employ the problematic psychiatric terms “gender dysphoria” or “gender identity disorder” (GID). Both terms imply that a failure to identify with one’s biological sex constitutes a disorder or lack.

Gender identity disorder was introduced into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the APA in 1996. In the DSM-V, GID was renamed “gender dysphoria.” The term may seek to lessen the stigma attached to the old term, but the definitions given still reflect a binary notion of gender, defining the condition most fundamentally as incongruence between “one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender.”76 In children, this incongruence depends on observations of the child’s preferences for clothing, play, and the like; in adults it depends more on the individual’s stated understanding of his or her gender (such as a strong desire to be the opposite gender in some way).77 Nonetheless, by continuing to include gender dysphoria in the manual at all, the APA reaffirms the normalcy of a binary gender system in which individuals are expected to conform to their biologically indicated gender. Those who fail to do so must have a psychiatric condition. By employing the logic and terminology of the (p.203) DSM, researchers exploring gender identity in autistic people tend to confirm that binary system.

The DSM definition of gender dysphoria sets up an either/or system: one is either feminine or masculine, either female or male. Sex, gender, and sexuality merge together in the criteria. In children, for instance, GID is indicated by “cross-gender” behaviors, such as dressing in girls’ clothing (for boys) or playing with trucks (for girls). This criterion indexes gender (masculinity or femininity). But researchers also pay attention to sexual attraction, especially in adolescents and adults, in whom desires for the same sex seem to confirm a GID diagnosis. Desire to be the opposite sex confirms GID—which refers to sex. Within this framework, there is little room for being nongendered, androgyne, or genderqueer. Instead, individuals are remediated into one role or another—either through behavioral interventions aimed at reinforcing the biological sex and its corresponding gender or through sexual reassignment, often recommended when those behavioral interventions fail.

In a study conducted by Annelou de Vries et al., the researchers provide notes about each individual, when the gender dysphoria presented, and whether it persisted. For younger children, GID was considered a possibility if the child demonstrated “inappropriate” gender behavior, as was the case for a toddler boy who was “fascinated by mermaids, fairy tales, dolls, ballet, dressing-up.” Although this boy’s fascination was mitigated in later years, his interest in ballet and theater was classified as a cross-gender interest. Another boy’s “obsessive dressing up” was reduced by a behavioral program, but he was “still wearing high heels” at age ten.78 In these studies, researchers imply that children with autism and a gender identity disorder are marked as in need of gender intervention, in addition to the many other kinds of interventions to which they are exposed.

The kinds of interventions offered are not specified in de Vries et al., but they are described briefly in a case study by N. M. Mukkades et al., in which two Turkish boys with gender identity issues are profiled. In each case, the behavioral modification approaches involved encouraging the boy to identify with his father and to separate from his mother—a model clearly linked to psychoanalytic views of the child’s love object.79 In both cases, such attempts were largely ineffective; one boy expressed a continual desire to be a bride, the other, a mother.

The features that are considered markers of cross-gender identification vary by culture. In the European study by de Vries et al., they (p.204) included interests in fairy tales, dolls, and dress-up. The Turkish study noted that one boy enjoyed playing with his female relatives’ scarves, using them to make skirts.80 And in a Japanese study, the authors profile a boy who “spoke in a girlish manner and covered his mouth with a hand when he laughed, as female individuals commonly do.” This boy enjoyed cute characters from television cartoons and “always painted cute girls surrounded with many lovely hearts and flowers.”81 Although all of these authors cast these feminine behaviors in these boys as inappropriate, the kinds of behaviors are to some extent culturally determined. In each case, the children in question are portrayed as seeking out the mannerisms, dress, and habits of the “ideal woman.”

Whereas individuals with autism are sometimes portrayed as being oblivious to culture and communication, these boys were clearly drawing from mainstream gender depictions. The Japanese case, for example, clearly reflects a culturally specific form of femininity called kawaisa, one that emphasizes cuteness in dress, comportment, handwriting, and appearance. In Japan, cute culture provides what Brian McVeigh calls “a socionormative commentary about how women should behave, especially vis-à-vis men.”82 Children who engage in these “cross-gender” behaviors clearly do partake of cultural messages, then, and incorporate them into their self-expression. Commodified depictions might have the advantage for children that they trope or simplify gender, providing clear-cut roles, habits, and expectations to model.

Nonetheless, all of these studies seemed to discount any possibility that ambiguous gender behaviors might be permissible in these children. Most take the notion of cross-gender identification, embedded in the DSM, as their framework. For this reason, I found no scientific studies that explored gender with the level of complexity expressed in the reflections posted on blogs and forums.

Most important, individuals writing about their own experiences tend to consider their gender identity as an integral part of themselves, but scientific studies often seek to explain away gender dysphoria as a symptom of autism. In their study of GID in Swedish individuals, M. Landén and P. Rasmussen caution that in some cases what might appear as gender dysphoria might actually be an expression of obsessive-compulsive behavior associated with autism. For example, an individual might display a wish to demonstrate “desire for a beloved person” through imitation.83 Along these lines, a case study conducted by Williams, Allard, and Sears reported that one boy enjoyed holding Barbie (p.205) dolls, but that he seemed most interested in the texture of their hair. The writers hypothesize that “the feminine preoccupations of these children with autism may have resulted from an inherent predisposition toward unusual interests combined with the boys’ social environment,” concluding that these behaviors are less likely to be related to “issues of gender identity roles/confusion.”84 Explaining away nonconformist gender behaviors may help reassure parents, but it seems that researchers seem uncomfortable with recognizing alternative gender identifications as valid, perhaps because scientific discourse does not offer appropriate language with which to express ambiguity.

Similarly, some argue that gender incongruence among autistic individuals may be an adaptation. In their profile of a forty-one-year-old man with Asperger’s syndrome who expressed cross-gender identification, Gerard Gallucci et al. hypothesize that “because one of the hallmark features of autism is a deficit in social functioning and difficulty relating to others, the cross-gender role may be a means of adapting to stressful developmental issues such as conventual sexual relationships,” and they hold out hope for pharmacologic and psychotherapeutic treatments that might alleviate this condition. These authors also connect alternative gender presentations with obsessive-compulsive traits, pathologizing gender difference as a psychiatric problem.85 Here again, gender ambiguity is posited as a problem or disorder to be remediated.

In another case, a study of a girl who expressed interest in being a boy and who refused to wear female clothing, Bernd Kraemer et al. argue that the girl may have adopted a male gender identity in part as a way to better integrate her low empathizing and high systemizing skills. While the fact that a number of boys express feminized interests goes against the EMB theory of autism, in this case, the writers find that GID is “thrown into doubt” because the subject’s highly developed logical thinking and dearth of emotionality were hallmarks of autism. Because these features tend to be culturally linked to masculinity, the authors conclude that they “may have led to a subjective consciousness in our patient of being male.”86 Clearly, these authors are invoking the EMB theory of autism as a possible explanation of this girl’s cross-gender identification.

As is often the case with such studies, autistic individuals have little, if any, voice. In keeping with a behaviorist model of psychiatry, researchers, in Charles Bazerman’s terms, “exclude introspection or any other attempt to gain knowledge of the subject’s internal processes (p.206) or sensations.”87 Bazerman argues that the rhetoric of psychiatry, in general, tends toward “the objectification of the subject,” so that those under study seem more and more like objects than people.88 We do not learn, then, why the children in question preferred cross-gender toys or dress. Instead, the researchers supply explanations to support or refute existing theories about autism and gender identity, including a model that assumes cross-gender identification is a disorder to be remediated.

Inventing Gender in Therapy Groups

In June 2010 the Riverside Press-Enterprise published an urgent call for girly paraphernalia on behalf of Capable Girls Group, a social group for girls with developmental disabilities: “We are seeking donations of new and unused hair brushes, combs, make-up, hair styling products, glitter spray, perfume, lotions, costume jewelry, scarves, hats, plain T-shirts, address books, nail polish, nail polish remover, and make-up bags,” the spokesperson, Lisa Marie Dryan, stated. The goal, according to this report, was to start a new program that would allow “Teen girls with some level of developmental delay [to] learn about normal teen activities such as fashion, make-up, manicures, pedicures and more.” They were also seeking “professional estheticians, stylists and fashion experts” to help out.89 In short, the girls with developmental delay needed assistance to learn the normative, gendered codes of teenage appearance and dress.

Popular advice literature and related publications routinely discipline autistic gender identity. As Sloop argues in his study of rhetoric and gender, “transgressive bodies that do not fit existing categories are forced, or disciplined, into those categories.”90 Bumiller notes that autistic people, especially, are often “explicitly taught about the relevance of gender performance” to dating.91 More broadly, though, autistic girls, in particular, are taught topoi of gender performance, in general—not just in order to get a date, but in order to fit in at school. Literature aimed at autistic girls emphasizes topoi of personal appearance, fashion, and beauty as key elements of a normalized identity. Further, these texts propose that a fashionable, gender-typical image can lead to social acceptance, self-confidence, and popularity. In this way, they present a rhetorical curriculum of femininity, a persuasive effort to discipline unruly autistic gender expressions.

(p.207) In order to do so, these texts first position autistic women as lacking in femininity, measured especially in terms of appearance and dress. These assessments are made not by autistic girls but usually by their mothers or by the authors, who position themselves as unproblematically feminine. Consider the example of Girls Growing up on the Spectrum: What Parents and Professionals Should Know About the Pre-teen and Teenage Years, a handbook for parents and their daughters on all manner of concerns, from handling peer groups at schools to dealing with puberty. The authors, Shana Nichols, Gina Marie Moravcik, and Samara Pulver Tetenbaum, draw on their experiences leading workshops for autistic girls.

The fashion section of the book offers anecdotes that position autistic girls as frumpy, unkempt social ignoramuses in need of remediation. When girls first arrive at the group meetings the authors lead, they are “not all anti-fashion or fashion-clueless”—but they are clearly assessed by the leaders for their needs for fashion intervention. Some may be wearing “fashionable but somewhat inappropriate clothing” (for instance, belly-baring or tight-fitting) and others may be disheveled and not well groomed, in “track pants, running shoes, baggy T-shirts, and sweatshirts.”92 Those who are not dressed in a “casual, fashionable manner” are presumably the targets of the intensive fashion curriculum.

Girls Growing up on the Spectrum offer strategies to help caregivers (usually mothers) remediate their daughters’ gender and fashion troubles, the same techniques the authors used in group meetings. They propose that mothers and daughters spend time doing “social anthropology” work, examining fashion magazines, catalogs, television shows, and teens at the mall in order to determine what clothes are in style. Although the writers insist the goal is for the girls to experience less teasing and to feel more confident, it is hard not to see the rhetoric of gender disciplining at work here. The book described workshops such as trips to the mall or the nail salon, attending separate sessions on fashion, accessories, and makeup, and studying Seventeen magazine and Cosmo Girl for cues to typical gendered presentation and behaviors. The book also includes a list of concrete goals for these girls to master, such as the ability to go to a store and choose appropriate clothing, to accessorize, and to have a personal style.93

These abilities become markers of gender discipline; in order to demonstrate it, autistic girls must learn to present themselves as typical girls or women, a presentation measured visually. The authors point (p.208) out a variety of possible styles or gendered characters: a girl may dress “sporty, casual, trendy, alternative, dressy, preppy, glam, grungy, goth, rocker, punk, urban, bohemian, chic, etc.,” but each of these characters must be carefully cued to styles available to girls in popular culture.94 These alternatives, then, are not really alternatives, since choosing any one of those styles to emulate would still require careful study of social gender norms for a particular clique. From this remedial gender text, autistic girls learn that they will be judged based on their conformity to a set of gender ideals. The authors state that girls can choose from a number of appropriate styles, but “tomboy,” “dyke,” and “butch” are not among them. Presumably, these choices would not be appropriate and would lead autistic girls to be stigmatized.

One comment on Amazon.com’s review page demonstrates how an autistic individual interpreted this approach to gender remediation. The commenter, “Sam,” writes:

I wonder if my mom read this, because I have been fighting her attempts to gender-condition me my whole life…. I am sick of the social expectations that are put on me because I am [a] girl. I am expected to be sweet, caring, talkative, empathetic but I am none of those things…. I just had to say something, because if a mother or caregiver reads this book, and decides to try to turn thier [sic] “tomboy” around, into a giry [sic] girl, it should be a crime.95

This commenter declares that, since childhood she has struggled against gender remediation, an imposed system of behavior and dress that did not square with her own desires.

The emphasis on achieving (or approximating) normal femininity in these texts seems to come from a well-intentioned desire to help autistic girls fit in. Yet this desire is fraught with assumptions about friendship that take neurotypical popular kids as the norm and that fetishize popularity as an end in itself.

Scholars trace the current manifestations of teenage popularity to trends beginning about the end of World War II, when the terms adolescent and teenager gained currency, high school began to be understood as fundamental for most children, and marketers began to see this new demographic group as a goldmine. From that time on, teens began to be targeted, in earnest, with messages about popularity, appearance, and the like, prompted in part by magazines such as Seventeen. The cheesy 1950s educational films promoting good hygiene, manners, and dating habits formed part of that trend.

(p.209) These trends only intensified in the years that witnessed a rise in autism and Asperger’s diagnoses. Teens were a shrinking demographic from the 1970s to the 1990s, but by the early 1990s their numbers once again grew, and they are now considered a powerful market force. It is little wonder that high school film and television shows such as Glee, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Gossip Girl, and High School Musical emerged. Coupled with the glut of teen clothing stores, teen music idols, and the like, these shows create a mainstream image of teenage life that is centered around high school class wars, appearance, and issues that are especially likely to affect popular kids (having two dates on the same day, for instance, or being tempted to take drugs at a party featuring letter-jacketed jocks). Scholars who study popularity in teenagers, such as Francis, argue that gender performance constitutes an important factor, with popular girls, in particular, learning to draw on “tropes of gendered performance,” such as an interest in fashion and celebrity or a flirtatious personality, to give an impression of a stable, conforming gender identity.96 Handbooks such as Girls Growing up on the Spectrum paper over the fact that all teens are, to a certain degree, performing characters, and holds up a monoglossic, rigid role of hegemonic femininity as the only one to which autistic girls should aspire.

Coinciding with the rise of all things teenager has been the practice of including children with disabilities in regular classrooms. This practice, usually termed “inclusive education” or “mainstreaming,” began in earnest in the years following the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and Public Law 94–142, which guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to each child with a disability in every state and locality across the country. Both were passed in 1975. By 2007, the U.S. Department of Education reported that “the majority of children with disabilities are now being educated in their neighborhood schools in regular classrooms with their non-disabled peers.”97

Mainstream education offers many pedagogical advantages for children with disabilities. Yet once included in regular classrooms, they face a set of challenges related to popularity or fitting in, a common topic of advice manuals for children and teenagers with autism (and other disabilities). For example, in an article titled “Fitting in: Tips for Promoting Acceptance and Friendships for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Inclusive Classrooms,” E. Amanda Boutot includes a chart of “popular versus unpopular characteristics.” Under “popular” characteristics, she includes “wearing trendy clothing,” “displaying leadership skills,” being “good at academics (girls) or athletics (boys),” (p.210) and having “good social skills.” Under “unpopular” characteristics, she lists “being from low socioeconomic status,” “playing alone,” being “poor students (girls) or athletes (boys),” and “display[ing] inappropriate or extreme behaviors.”98 The author presents these elements rather unproblematically as plain facts of school life—in order to be popular, one must possess the qualities listed in the first column and avoid those in the last.

Most often, conforming to rules about popularity also means conforming to gender expectations. Boutot’s chart insists that boys must be good at sports and girls must be good at school, but other qualities, such as what counts as trendy clothing or good social skills, also depend on gender norms. For instance, the need for trendy clothing is usually impressed on girls, especially, as a requirement for popularity. Girls may require more expensive clothing, a greater variety of items, and more investment in shopping for those items than is expected of boys. Similarly, the social skills that convey popularity are gender-specific and not always positive. For example, those expected for girls may include gossiping, flirting with boys, and subtly snubbing other girls, while boys may be expected to be good at telling jokes, mocking less popular boys, or teasing girls. All of these expectations involve rather superficial matters of appearance and behavior, and they also represent barriers for individuals with disabilities and others who do not fit the list of desired qualities.

Contemporary disability theory reminds us that disabilities depend heavily on socially constructed barriers. For example, stairs become a problem for people who use wheelchairs when no ramps are provided. A similar critique would point out that social impairments similarly depend on socially constructed norms of behavior. For example, in a materialistic society obsessed with appearance, it is not surprising that clothing choices represent a key element of fitting in. As a socially constructed norm, fashion offers a barrier, not only for those who are uninterested in fashion, cannot afford the latest styles or have trouble applying the oft-changing rules of fashion appropriately. These strictures apply, especially, to women, but increasingly to men as well. In a society that provided more leeway for acceptable gendered behaviors and interests, autistic individuals might not find fitting in as desirable or difficult.

Mainstream advice texts seldom take this approach to autism and social status. An example appears in the book Asperger’s and Girls. In “Girl to Girl: Advice on Friendship, Bullying, and Fitting In,” Lisa Iland shares some of the strategies she uses as a consultant on teen issues, (p.211) arguing that “social skills attained in teen years are essential life skills for college and workplace success.” She focuses her advice on “creating appeal and image,” “understanding where to fit in,” “meeting social expectations,” and “overcoming bullying and mean girls.” Throughout, she emphasizes that girls should focus on mainstreaming their image in order to become part of the “girl middle-class,” rather than limiting themselves by refusing to conform. She describes how typical girls use “image profiling” to determine where another girl fits in a social hierarchy using markers such as brands, accessories, and hairstyles to determine whether they should befriend that girl.99

Rather than confronting teen hierarchies or counseling girls to find a niche group based on shared interests, Iland advises starting with the low-ranking “unique/unusual groups” and then attempting to move up to the “middle/mainstream” group, and eventually, the vaunted “popular/elite group,” if possible.100 In order to do so, girls should inform themselves about “Boys, fashion, shopping, movies, and music” by watching MTV or by consulting Wikipedia to bone up on the latest in teen pop culture.101

My aim here is not to question whether inclusive education is a good thing for children with autism but to interrogate the logic of popularity that remains intact in discourse about fitting in. It puts the onus on the autistic student (like any other), who must struggle to conform to a schema that excludes them, and many other kids, who do not fit the mold. Gender disciplining forms a large part of this calculus. Remediation discourses seek to leave school hierarchies intact, rather than challenging teachers, administrators, and others to disrupt the popularity and gender ideals that penalize unusual children of all kinds, not just students with disabilities. In this way, a discourse of mainstreaming that emphasizes fitting in without changing the institution into which students with disabilities are placed falls short of full accommodation. We might draw a parallel to discourses of liberal feminism, which stress inclusion and representation of women in institutions, versus a model of radical feminism, which stresses the need for those institutions to be changed in order to accommodate women as well as men.

Advice books also offer a rather simplistic view of childhood and adolescent social groups and of appropriate gendered behavior. For example, the idea that school groups fall into an elite, middle, and lower group simplifies what may often be a more complex arrangement, avoiding mention of ethnicity and race, class, region, or specific interests (such as drama or student council).

(p.212) Autistic individuals offer a range of perspectives on this issue. Many argue that the goal of fitting in with mainstream society does not interest them. In the same volume as Iland’s article, Temple Grandin argues that autistic children should be encouraged to find others who share their interests, however obscure, rather than trying to reform their own interests around those of the majority. In her essay “For Me, a Good Career Gave Life Meaning,” Grandin explains that her friendships have emerged via shared interests: “In high school it was horses and later in life it was friends in the construction industry. We had a good time because we built things together.”102 She writes that she feels happiest when working on projects, not when socializing with other people—a fact educators and psychologists may find difficult to understand. Focusing on social skills, she argues, is important, but often ends up trying “to make us into something that we are not.” Instead, she argues, educators and psychologists should encourage autistic individuals to develop their intellectual lives: “One parent wanted to take her child out of computer science class to make him more social. The irony is that computer science class was probably the one place her child had friends and a social life.”103 In a similar ironic turn, Jennifer McIlwee Myers writes that the desire to cure someone with “a ‘disability’ that makes them less interested in social activities” by making them more social is equivalent to “curing broken legs through a regimen of jogging.”104 These approaches uphold sociability as a path toward friendship, love, and career success, overlooking the alternatives carved out by individuals focused on specialized interests, hobbies, or projects.

The emphasis on social skills seems even more pronounced when the child in question is female. While geek masculinity has become an acceptable, sometimes privileged, gender construct, geek femininity remains marginalized. The reasons for this marginalization lie in entrenched gender ideals. Sherrie A. Innes agues that “mainstream American society has a deeply rooted fear of brilliant women.”105 While brainy women are increasingly common in popular culture, they usually face difficulties with peer groups, dating, and social acceptance as a trade-off for their intellectual superiority.

Given dominant depictions of female popularity and the perils of female nerddom, it is not surprising that advice literature emphasizes social skills, popularity, and fashion for girls, especially. Yet autistic women seem happy with a range of social situations—many have satisfying romantic relationships, while others (like Grandin) are content (p.213) to remain unattached and maintain passionate investment in their careers. As Myers contends, the “societal obsession” with dating can hurt girls with autism and Asperger’s syndrome; instead, girls should be “encouraged from an early age to look at dating and marriage realistically, factually, and logically”—starting with questioning whether they really want these things.106

Autistic individuals also warn that autistic teenagers are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. In their book Autism-Asperger’s and Sexuality: Puberty and Beyond, Jerry and Mary Newport describe how, upon maturing, autistic women might find themselves objects of male attention and a potential path toward popularity. Mary writes: “Puberty helped in some respects [re: social skills] because I became sexy. I did everything to cultivate my looks. My peers’ reactions began to change in the ninth grade. I was not ridiculed as much. However, puberty was hard because adults were having sex with me, offering me marijuana, etc…. My ‘popularity’ was an illusion and became one of the saddest parts of my life.”107

Williams, similarly, describes a series of relationships in which she lived with men who provided her a place to live outside her abusive family home in exchange for sex, often taking advantage of the voluble and docile character Carol, who was eager to please.108 Advice that emphasizes social skills, popularity, and fitting in to gender roles may encourage girls to consider themselves objects of male attention and desire. Such advice might risk overlooking the tendency for autistic girls to fall prey to sexual abuse or violence.

In sum, mainstream advice (especially advice not written by autistic people) often seeks to shore up normative gender roles for autistic individuals, especially for girls. In this way, it disciplines gender through a process of remediation, often in ways that limit the potentially transformative insights that might be gleaned from autistic individuals and their experiences. No one theory of gender accounts for this range of insights; instead, we might draw from autistic people an understanding of gender as identification, as a neurological condition or capacity, as performance, and as idiosyncratic. Together, these elements might be understood as copia or congeries—a heaping up of theories, names, and qualities that range far beyond simple binaries (male-female, masculine-feminine, nature-culture, and symbolic-embodied). (p.214)


(2.) Ibid., 164.

(5.) Ibid., 4.

(20.) Linton, Claiming Disability (Kindle ed.), loc. 1868, 2040/3359.

(27.) Ibid., 54.

(35.) Ibid., 194.

(53.) CockneyRebel, “What Women Like Most in Fashion?”; Pinkbowtiepumps, Comment on “Fashion Style?”

(57.) Ibid., 19.

(p.251) (59.) D. Williams, “Face Blindness in Autism and Beyond.” Linton would point out the irony of these terms, as well. See Linton, Claiming Disability (Kindle ed.), loc. 2040/3359.

(64.) Ibid., 54, 58.

(65.) Ibid., 80, 83, 59.

(66.) Ibid., 59, 58, 130, 131.

(73.) Ibid., emphasis in original.

(80.) Ibid., 531.

(88.) Ibid., 271.

(93.) Ibid., 152.

(94.) Ibid., 151.

(97.) United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, “History: Twenty-Five Years of Progress in Educating Children with Disabilities through Idea,” 2.

(100.) Ibid., 38–39.

(101.) Ibid., 50.

(103.) Ibid., 150.