Instructions for Being a Woman: the Secret to Autistic Camouflage
One of the reasons that women on the spectrum are not readily diagnosed is that we are better at camouflaging ourselves among other women. Part of this has to do with the fact that autistic girls’ special interests are often “normal“ girlish interests like horses or cats, fashion, celebrities, etc., taken to an extreme. But I think we have another advantage over our autistic male counterparts when it comes to camouflaging: instructions.
There is no shortage of instructions on how to be an acceptable woman in our society.
It starts when we’re small, when little girls are socialized differently from little boys. We’re taught not to play rough, not to get dirty, not to argue or talk back, not to be loud. We are constantly bombarded with admonishments to be a “little lady” and to “play nice”.
When we’re exposed to the natural selection of the playground, these rules from our parents and teachers are reinforced by our classmates. We know when we stray from the acceptable path because the other girls punish us with exclusion, mockery, and all the poisoned barbs of which pre-adolescent girls are capable. By this Skinner-esque conditioning, we gain a foundation in social interactions that shows us what behaviors and aspects we should imitate – i.e., the popular girls. We may not succeed in that imitation, but we learn that is what we are “supposed” to be.
As we enter adolescence, we are ushered into the world of unreasonable beauty and behavioral standards along with our NT peers. While this certainly creates extra pressure for us, it also presents us with our first access to clearly spelled-out instructions on How To Be A Woman: teen magazines. These magazines tell us how to dress, how to fix our hair, and wear makeup, but they also discuss how to make friends, how to act with people we’re attracted to, and how to handle conflict.
These magazines were invaluable to me as a pre-teen and teenager. I didn’t have much instruction in being feminine at home, and, in fact, I was prevented from doing some of what other women consider basics, like using conditioner on my hair and plucking my bushy eyebrows. What I couldn’t learn from a role model, I tried to learn by reading, and I credit those teen magazines for the fact that I had any friends at all in my early teen years. Without them, I would not have learned the social scripts that later allowed me to get by or the outer trappings of womanhood that eventually let me “pass” for an NT.
There are other magazines for adult women – there are even magazines devoted to women of different age groups. They all cover pretty much the same things that the teen magazines did: age-appropriate versions of how to dress, how to wear your hair, how to do your makeup, along with how to handle romantic relationships, work conflicts, and family issues. I don’t pretend to know why NT women use these magazines – and they obviously do, because they’re still around – but they offer the same advice and instruction that I needed as an adolescent, on an adult level.
I found myself turning to these magazines in my early 30s when I realized that I had no idea how to be a 30-something woman. I knew that the clothes I’d worn when I was 25 didn’t feel right anymore, but I had no clue how to dress like an adult without dressing like my grandmother. At work, I was still stuck in an entry-level position despite having been there for several years and watched others get promoted over me, and I didn’t know why until someone told me I wasn’t “professional” enough. I studied how to talk to coworkers, how to make the right impressions, and I was grateful that all the information I needed was out there and available for me.
As adults, and as parents, autistic women can always depend on the lifestyle blog, the mommy blog, the fashion blog to keep us up to date on how to be an acceptable woman. There is near-endless information out there, whether you need help with children’s birthday parties, dealing with your parents, dressing your age, cleaning your house, grownup socializing, or balancing work and life without driving yourself nuts. There’s so much advice that one can easily go down a rabbit hole for hours on any of those topics. It isn’t always geared directly toward autistic women, but it’s always clear enough that we can extrapolate for our own use.
I don’t know why NT women have so many sources of instruction on How To Be A Woman, but I’m very grateful for it because it’s helped me tremendously.
By contrast, autistic men don’t have all these instructions. They’re bombarded with messages of toxic masculinity and pop culture definitions of a “man”, but very little in the way of clear instructions. Personally, I think The Art of Manliness is a great resource, and I’ve seen a few GQ guides that look like they would be helpful, but that’s about it.
When you look at it that way, is it any wonder that autistic women are better at blending in?
I don’t intend to make any judgment call as to whether camouflaging is a good thing or not. Like so many aspects of autistic life, it’s a very complex question. For the fact that it prevents many autistic girls from getting the diagnosis and help they need, of course, it’s not good. But as an adult who has to live in this NT world, it does make it much easier to get along in society. There are situations in which I feel I need to appear as “normal” as possible, and in those cases, I actively go searching for the advice I know is out there to teach me how to do it. But I don’t do it all the time, and in my own space, I couldn’t give a flip less about being an “acceptable woman”. It’s not necessary to follow all these rules we’re given, but I think they’re a useful resource when needed. Do you feel like you had instruction in how to be a woman, man, or person growing up? Where did you find your role models or your explanations? Do you feel like you’re still lost?