All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome and being an aspie woman

[Image description: the cover of All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome, which features a grey tabby kitten with an open mouth. A sticker indicates that the book was shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.]

[Image description: the cover of All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome, which features a grey tabby kitten with an open mouth. A sticker indicates that the book was shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.]

In conversations about Autistic people and our frequent love of cats, people often mention the book All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome by Kathy Hoopmann. It’s a children’s book that puts information about Asperger’s syndrome next to photos of cats that vaguely relate to the text. This is presumably to bring out the similarities between aspies and cats, like our love of routine, sensitive hearing and avoidance of eye contact. I think it’s a great idea, but I hated it because of the pronouns.

All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome refers to Aspergian people using only masculine pronouns (he/him/his). I’ve read a lot of books that always use masculine pronouns to refer to people whose gender is arbitrary, and I find this sexist and unpleasant, but it’s never put me off completely like it did with All Cats. But in the context of Autism, gender is a big deal for me.

I was twenty when it was first suggested that I might be Aspergian, and at first I thought it was ridiculous, because I was nothing like what I thought Asperger’s was. Then when I started reading about it I realised that Asperger’s would explain a lot of the things I thought were uniquely wrong with me, like my highly sensitive hearing and literal understanding of language. But I also read descriptions that I didn’t relate to at all, like the idea of a ‘little professor’ who is obsessed with computers or public transport and who doesn’t understand pretend games.

As I waited for my NHS Asperger’s assessment I was desperate to know if I had found the explanation for why I felt so different from everyone else, and for the things I had always thought were wrong with me. I built myself up for the day when I’d finally know the answer. The appointment was a few weeks before I was due to start university and I was glad that my diagnosis would come in time for me to get extra support.

But the psychiatrist decided that although I met most of the criteria for Asperger’s, she thought my intense interests in cats and fiction were normal, so I didn’t meet the narrow interest criterion. She said she couldn’t tell whether I had Asperger’s or not, and that I’d need to have another assessment with someone else. But she didn’t know how long I’d have to wait or even whether the assessment would be funded. I was distraught.

But I was lucky. My parents found a psychologist who specialised in diagnosing Aspergian girls and women, and paid for me to have a private assessment just before I started university.

Around that time I learned that the Aspergian traits of girls and women often appear different from those of boys and men, and that the way most nonautistic people understand and write about Asperger’s is based on how it appears in boys only. It’s not just me this affects; so many Autistic women have stories of missing a diagnosis in childhood, of having to fight to get one, of having multiple misdiagnoses.

Eventually I found a list of Aspergian traits specific to women and felt so relieved to learn that other people like me existed and to see our existence recognised. I learned that although the special interests of Autistic boys tend to be focused on things other people see as weird, Autistic girls often have unusually intense interests in topics other girls find interesting– things like animals and literature.

It was painful growing up not knowing there was anyone else like me, and believing there was something terribly wrong with me. And it was painful going through a failed assessment, to get my hopes up and share personal information with a stranger so I could get an answer that never came. I knew these experiences were likely related to my gender. My mum bought me All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome right after I got my diagnosis, when the pain was still raw. So I couldn’t bear to see another example of Autistic women being ignored and left out.

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Asexual, aromantic, Autistic

Pretty much the only way I resemble the stereotypes about autism is that I’m asexual. This means I don’t experience sexual attraction. I’m also aromantic, which means I don’t experience romantic attraction either. Sexual and romantic attraction are distinct, though I don’t understand the difference between them. I don’t see myself ever having a sexual or romantic relationship, only close friendships, and that’s fine.

Asexual people are diverse. Some of us do experience romantic attraction, with different romantic orientations such as biromantic or heteroromantic, and have romantic relationships, often with sexual people. Some asexual people have sex with their romantic partners, for example for the benefit of their partners, or in order to have children. Other asexual people, like me, are repulsed by sex.

(For more information on asexuality, try the Asexual Visibility and Education Network.)

There is a small amount of evidence that Autistic people are more likely to be asexual than nonautistic people are, although the methods used in these studies are problematic. The possibility of some kind of link between autism and asexuality is fascinating to me, but studies that connect the two can pathologise both. (The summary of this paper seems to imply that asexuality, and also bisexuality and tomboyism, are either testosterone-related medical conditions or abnormalities, and contains the phrase ‘increased male risk to developing autism’.)

(Speaking of stereotypes and pathologising, I have a psychiatrist’s letter that claims my ‘lack of interest in the same things as [my] peers including any sexual relations’ is suggestive of Asperger’s.)

Double disavowal

Most Autistic people do experience sexual attraction, so I can see why sexual Autistic people would want to distance themselves from the stereotypes and emphasise their sexuality. When Lindsey Nebeker asked Autistic self-advocates about myths about Autism and sexuality, many people talked about the myth that we don’t have sexual relationships, and one person said the greatest myth is that we are all asexual (then ignorantly cited the fact that many Autistic people have children as evidence of their sexuality). David Preyde wrote of this myth,

This pernicious myth is making us even more isolated, and making it even harder to find whatever form of human connection we might be looking for.

My people are being cockblocked.

It needs to stop.

But sometimes it feels a bit like they want to distance themselves from me, too.

It’s not just Autistic people who are assumed to all be asexual, but disabled people in general. And this has led to many disabled people disavowing asexuality as they claim that all disabled people are in fact sexual, just like everyone else.

And at the same time, the asexual community disavows disability. Asexuality is often seen as evidence of a disorder, and in countering this, many asexual people emphasise the fact that there is nothing wrong with them.

Asexual people who deny a link between autism and asexuality often pathologise autism at the same time. For example, Lara Landis wrote on Asexual News,

A higher incidence of Asexuality among people with Asperger’s Syndrome is to be expected, An inability to perform relationships is listed as a symptom of for the conditions, according to Medscape.com. An inability to form relationships applies to all relationships, not just sexual ones.

The continued pathologization of Asexuality is not a tenable position.

And a comment on the article complained about too many people coming out as Autistic on an asexuality forum, making the asexuals look bad.

I’m asexual too but these people want nothing to do with me.

This double disavowal creates a horrible situation for people who are both asexual and disabled.

Shared experiences

Autistic and asexual people share many experiences. Each group is thought to make up about 1% of the population, and being a minority leads to us feeling we don’t fit in. Many people’s reactions to learning that they are Autistic or asexual are similar: this explains why I feel so different from everyone else.

Both groups are pathologised and seen to be in need of curing. Both groups are poorly represented in the media. Both identities are inherent to who we are, and influence our relationships.

And the experiences of both the asexual and the Autistic communities are disbelieved and invalidated. I’ve been told that everyone experiences sexual attraction, and even the names of the people I fancy. I’ve been told that everyone in the room noticed the nonverbal communication I didn’t notice, and that sounds that hurt me are harmless.

Autistic people and asexual people have a lot in common, so it’s very sad when members of one group try to disassociate themselves from members of the other.