Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Article in the Guardian about Women with Autism

A British newspaper, the Guardian, ran an article today that echoes much of what I've been saying on this blog. It's about women and autism, and despite being filed in the "Life & Style" section (where apparently all news about women lives), it's quite insightful and well-researched. I'll post some choice quotes here, but I also definitely recommend going over there and reading the whole thing.

The highlight of the article, for me, was this lengthy quote from a middle-aged woman, Selina Postgate, who has just recently been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, about how she thinks her life would have been different if she had been an autistic man:

At school I was bright, but eccentric. If I had been a boy, that would have been tolerated more. I'd have gone into science, I'm sure - I might have gone on to be a nuclear physicist. I'd have met some girl who would have become my supportive wife and she would have made up for my social shortcomings, in the eyes of the world, and I'd have been the rather odd but brilliant professor who couldn't really handle social occasions but who was always well looked-after by his lovely wife, and who did so many wonderful things at work that none of it mattered anyway. Instead of that, though, I have achieved practically nothing. Relationships, like jobs, have gone out of the window - I've not had the self-awareness to hold down either. Being an autistic woman has been pivotal to everything that's happened to me. If I'd been an autistic man, my story could have been very different.

In our culture, social and emotional work is women's work. All women are expected to do it --- to swoop into the conversation like graceful Valkyries and rescue (male) people who are in danger of embarrassing themselves, to soothe wounded egos, to pay adoring attention whenever someone (again, male) wishes to pontificate, to put aside their own worries, needs, fears and doubts to minister to everyone else's. Women are social gluons; their activity allows interactions between men to proceed smoothly.

Men, of course, are unaware that this work is even being done. That is also part of the job --- do your part so well that you make yourself invisible. (Autistic women are also unaware; we might know in theory that this happens, but we sure couldn't point it out if it were happening in front of us. This lack of awareness does not simply make us functionally men, however. Everyone else still expects us to act the part of a woman, and when we do not, it seems harsh and unnatural to them).

Here's the article's author, Joanna Moorhead, stating concretely what Ms. Postgate implies in her suspicion that her autism would have been less of a hindrance had she been male:


This means that women with autism often struggle at work because they lack what is often taken for granted in women - the intuitive ability to understand where people are coming from and how to manage situations. Because of subtle sex differences, we tend to "expect" more of women in the workplace in terms of smoothing things over, of saying the right thing; and whereas we would excuse a man who lacked these abilities, we are subliminally a lot less forgiving of a woman who has similar shortcomings.

I did not cover this in my series on employment issues in autism --- the only sex difference I had expected to find was discrimination against women for being women, which is particularly rampant in the technical professions autistics tend to choose. GallingGalla's comment on my second post in that series does point to this, as do the six interviews I quoted from in my first post: when autistic people do get hired, they tend not to last because it becomes clear that they don't fit in, or interpersonal conflicts arise which they are not equipped to negotiate. I hadn't thought of this in gendered terms, assuming it would affect male and female autistics equally, but now I see that given the disproportionate share of the burden women normally carry in social interactions, an autistic woman would have more problems navigating relationships with her coworkers than an autistic man of identical abilities.

There are two potential solutions I see: educating employers and coworkers about autism (ideally, the employer would provide training for the coworkers; not everyone wants to be the Walking Psychology Textbook, and doing that should not be required of them), and becoming a more truly gender-equal society. Gender equality, in actual material terms, will probably have to involve socialism, since the disproportionate burden on women to do unpaid work in the home and in relationships grows out of the alignment of male and female with the public and private spheres of activity. While that split is very old, much older than industrial capitalism, it was in industrial capitalist society in the Victorian Age that it was most heavily romanticized. In that time and since, Catharine MacKinnon argues in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, it is women's unpaid work within the home that has allowed men to labor outside it for so much of their lives. Capitalists exploit men (and, now, women as well) by buying their time and labor from them at less than its true value, and men exploit women by "paying" them in room and board (or, in the case of a dual-income family, half of room and board) for housework, childcare, emotional support, managing the family's schedules and social life, maintaining extended family ties, and whatever other duties women perform for men free of charge. In both cases, the difference in value between the services rendered and the compensation awarded for them allows the party doing the exploiting to carry on. A company that paid its workers exactly what they were worth would go bankrupt, and a man who tried to work long hours at a demanding job without a wife or other companion to take care of him would not be very happy or healthy. He probably would not do as well professionally as his competitors who were married.

So, to lift the burden somewhat off of women's shoulders, governments and employers would have to offer public services roughly equivalent to what women currently do in private, and for free. That's where the socialism comes in. It is my hypothesis (but nothing more than a hypothesis) that if these supports were made available, the taboo that currently parcels out separate sets of social duties to the sexes would erode.

4 comments:

thinking about difference said...

very interesting blog! thanks for pointing it out to me! i'll be sure to check it out!

i'm still wondering whether business would go bankrupt if they pay workers closer to the 'real' value (but then again, what should be this value?). i'm not sure that would necessarily be the case, since sometimes a business will sell a product at maybe 10 times its production cost.

but i see what you are saying about the invisible - yet expected - role of women supporting working men (while being employees themselves, most of the time with a double task: work at the office, and then work in the household).

Lindsay said...

Hi, Thinking about Difference!

I'm also not entirely sure how the "real" value of labor is determined; I'd be willing to settle for "a good living wage" as a working definition.

When I read Marx and Engels in college, the point they made was that the value of someone's labor was the product of that labor. That is also the definiton that earlier philosophers, like Locke, use: according to Locke, "improving" a natural resource by adding your labor to it (whether by chopping down a tree to make firewood, planting crops on an acre of land, gathering wild fruit or whatever) made that natural resource yours. So, for an employer to have you labor for him, he is taking the product of your labor and selling it. As long as he makes any profit at all, therefore, he is cheating you because that product itself (however it is valued on the market) is rightfully yours.

shiva said...

Selina (who i know thru several lists and message boards) was actually badly misquoted in this article. She was interviewed under the impression that it was about the difficulty of *getting a diagnosis* as a woman on the spectrum, not of *social life in general*.

I agree with some of what you have to say on the issue (will have to think a bit more as to whether i agree with all of it), but i think there are also difficulties autistic men face that autistic women don't face (and i think one thing autistic people of *all* genders face in this society is the inability to fit into gender stereotypes).

Will come back to this later...

Lindsay said...

"Selina ... was badly misquoted in this article."

Oh, really? That's too bad. I thought what she was quoted as saying made a lot of sense, and was well-phrased and vivid. Now I'd like to know what she actually said!

I've read about how hard it is for women to get a diagnosis of autism or AS. (I think I have a post on that somewhere). I seem to have dodged that particular bullet; I was diagnosed at the age of five, and my mother says she could tell I was different from birth.

I would be very interested to see what the special problems autistic men face are (I don't doubt there are some!). There is one advantage autistic women have that autistic men don't, which is that the traditional housewife role allows for us not to have to try to "make it" in the world. There's still the whole matter of getting married (or finding a non-married partner --- or several --- to support you) to worry about, but I have no doubt that many men wish it were easier for them to be the stay-at-home parent.