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    • Welcome to all of our panelists and to  everyone who’s following the conversation on Cake.  Our panelists are speakers, authors and autism advocates and have many thoughts to share on how society can best support the needs and dreams of individuals with autism.

      Before we begin, I should remind everyone of an interesting twist to our conversation:

      Due to our panelists being in different parts of the globe, we are extending the timeframe for panel responses. Our panel begins on Friday afternoon and responses from panelists will trickle in throughout the weekend.

      To avoid missing out on any of the conversation, please make sure to click the blue FOLLOW button at the top of this thread.

      So let’s get started. I asked our panelists to share their thoughts on the question,

      Does Society make it harder for Girls with Autism?

      Panelists before you dive into this question, please first share a bit about your background and why this question is important to you.

    • Thanks for inviting me to discuss this important topic. About me: I'm an educator, author, and school technology director. I have several close family members who are on the spectrum and I am also neurodiverse so this is a topic that has special relevance for me, my family, and some of the students I work with. As a man, I can't pretend to have direct knowledge of the lived experience of autistic girls and women. I can only offer my second hand thoughts based on research, reading, listening, and observing. I hope it's helpful but also urge people interested in the subject to read the many amazing books published by autistic women. A few examples include :

    • Thank you for having me on the panel. I am an autistic adult who was diagnosed in early childhood. Before the age of 4 I did not have much language and was given a laundry list of things I would never achieve by medical professionals at the time. Being a girl on the spectrum was especially different. When I was diagnosed only one in every 2,000 births were diagnosed with autism, and girls were even more rarely diagnosed. This topic is important to me because I have found that being a woman on the autism spectrum presents different challenges and strengths than it does for men. Because men were predomninantly diagnosed, there is not much awareness in how these differences may look. Today, I am a law school graudaute and run a blog https://www.edgeoftheplayground.com. I speak at various events to advocate for adult services as well as mentor others who are autistic. I am also a ceritfied yoga teacher and teach yoga classes specifically designed for neurodiverse people, keeping sensory needs in mind.

    • Brad, thank you so much for joining the panel and for sharing several resources to better understand what autism looks like for women.

      I wanted to share an excerpt from the description of The Place Inside the Storm, which comes out in April.

      It’s 2038. Tara Rivers is fourteen years old, socially awkward, and a bit rebellious. Her family has recently moved to Los Angeles from the Pacific Northwest ‘rogue’ clusters. Tara feels alone and confused. She doesn’t have any friends here, except her cat, Xel, a sophisticated robot with artificial intelligence. She knows she should try to make friends but the social rules other kids seem to understand without thinking don’t come to her as easily. Without warning, the corporation where Tara’s parents work makes an offer they can’t refuse. They tell Tara’s parents she is autistic. They want to put an implant in Tara’s brain to ‘cure’ her autism so she can fit in with the corporate culture. If her parents refuse, their jobs will be in jeopardy.

      How similar are Tara’s challenges to those of your female students and family members with autism?

    • Welcome again!  If you’re reading this and have been waiting for our panel to continue please continue to be patient as more good discussion is on the way.

      During this break, I thought I’d share some resources that may be helpful for families with a child or transitioning adult with autism.

      If you’re enjoying the discussion via a link from Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, may I suggest taking a moment to register in order to receive notifications of new responses from our panelists?  Click the blue Follow button at the top of this thread and then the pink sign up button.

    • Interesting question. First, I would reiterate what edgeoftheplayground wrote about under-diagnosis of girls. If you read the history of autism as a recognized condition (I would highly recommend the book Neurotribes by Steve Silberman to any readers interested in this) you will find that it has been thought of up until very recently as something that disproportionately affects boys. The diagnostic criteria and the training are heavily biased toward the ways that autism presents in boys. As a result, the data researchers have comes mainly from boys. So, we have a vicious cycle in which boys continue to be diagnosed early and girls are often missed. This is one of the first things we find out about Tara, the protagonist in my upcoming novel: she is autistic but she has never been diagnosed. Although the pragmatics of the situation are different because it's a science fiction novel set in the near future, I wanted the reality of that to be something the book explores.

      In terms of the challenges Tara faces, I did try to model her a bit on autistic girls and women I know or have known. Girls often have fewer repetitive behaviors and may be closer to typically developing males in their social abilities. Tara's issues have more to do with feeling like she doesn't belong, not knowing how to fit in, being overwhelmed by some kinds of sensory input, executive functioning difficulties, melt-downs, and dyspraxia.

      Two interesting and current lines of research on autism strongly shaped some of how I wrote Tara's character. First, I have seen a couple of studies showing that neurotypical people tend to make snap, unconscious judgements of autistic people and, based on those judgements, are less favorably inclined to socialize with them.

      The second has to do with the apparent inability of many autistic people to entertain two opposing beliefs--effectively the ability to believe two contradictory things at the same time.

      Both of these lines of inquiry point to important but previously poorly articulated ways in which autistic thinking is different from neurotypical thinking. I tried to use this in the book when Tara was faced with situations that were relevant.

      Truthfully, though, it is difficult for me to write a first-person protagonist who does not share my inner life and way of thinking so I think, in the end, Tara's way of thinking about and reacting to her experiences has more to do with me projecting how I would think and react than with any careful planning and consideration I carried out. I hope she comes across as a truthful character and that people can learn from her and see themselves in her struggles.

    • Mikhaela, thank you for joining our panel.  I know your blog has been extremely helpful to families and adults in navigating the transitions to adulthood for individuals on the spectrum.

      I was hoping you could share your thoughts on this Twitter comment to “Does Society make it harder for Girls with Autism?

      We also have a question from our audience.  @Victoria asked,

      What is one thing you'd want everyone to know or understand better?

    • I relate to this tweet a lot. As an autistic adult I am
      constantly masking my autistic traits, mirroring neurotypicals and trying to
      guess their language.

      In this article, I explain what autistic masking is:

      This can lead people to sometimes assume I do not struggle
      at all. Because I am a woman with autism, I can often pass off autistic traits
      as quirky, which many people find endearing. While this makes it easier to keep
      autism as a part of myself that I reveal when I am ready, it also means I am
      often hiding in plain sight. When I do reveal who I am, sometimes people don’t
      understand the hidden struggles I actually face every single day, because it is
      not obvious to them. I have even received the above “compliment” before,
      someone telling me “congratulations, you don’t seem autistic at all.” Others
      invalidate me by telling me that I’m just a little quirky. Worst of all, some
      attempt to control or manipulate me using weaknesses they know about autism.

      In the below post, I describe how people have used my autistic traits to control me:


      It is not a compliment to tell me I do not “look autistic.” Just
      as it is not a compliment for me to tell you that you don’t look like you are
      grieving a loss. To say this is to discount my struggles and also discount a
      part of who I am.

      I have some advantages being a woman who is autistic. I can fly
      under the radar more easily, and especially in dating I don’t have to worry
      about relying on the dominating nonverbal cues quite as much because men
      typically are the ones who approach and pursue. While it is still difficult for
      me, I find I have an easier time even if I do not pick up on a nonverbal cue
      because society seems to be more accepting of quirky awkwardness from women. People
      are trusting of me because I take people at face value, and my naiveté of
      hidden motives or the ways in which girls nonverbally judge each other is
      something I’m often grateful for because it allows me to be genuine to all
      people and be spared hurtful feelings. My social slip-ups can often perceived
      as endearing.

      However, these same strengths that being a woman on the
      autism spectrum give me, are also my greatest weaknesses. It leads people to
      assume I am just like them. Little do they realize I am face blind, constantly
      second guessing myself due to not being able to interpret nonverbal language
      (which makes up about 90% of social communication), and battle sensory overload
      making tasks as simple as going to the grocery store often debilitating. These
      are the struggles you don’t see. Crying because I cannot find my way to a
      destination because I don’t have the spatial relations to turn myself around
      and find an alternate route, even if my final destination is only a mile away.
      Always needing to arrive with a friend somewhere so I can find the group I’m
      looking for in a crowd, and the terror of being separated from the group in a
      crowd knowing I’ll never be able to find my way. People assuming I’m shy
      because I don’t know how to participate in the conversation or social banter so
      I hold back, forced to observe and desperately attempt to figure out how to be
      a part of the moment. These are the silent battles no one sees.

      Finally, to answer the question, “what is one thing I want everyone
      to know/understand better” is that just as nuerotypical men and women have
      different strengths and weaknesses the same is true for autistic men and women.
      There is no “look” to autism and no two of us are the same, as no two
      neurotypical people are the same. Also, that while autistic women may appear to
      be more assimilated, do not take this to mean we don’t struggle. The ability of
      the autistic mind is truly incredible to me. My memory has allowed me to
      document endless amounts of social rules that don’t come naturally to me, and I
      am able to memorize very specific details about people’s appearances to
      compensate for face-blindness. I can perfectly mimic tone and can guess a
      response when I do not fully process the words someone has said to me. So,
      while I can do all of these things to appear a certain way, and to navigate
      your language it does not mean I have fully learned it. I am in a foreign land,
      and while I have found ways to navigate, this is not the same as knowing where
      I am. Never mistake this skill of navigation for full understanding.

    • The goal of these panels is to provide the audience with fascinating conversations that satisfy our need to learn more about the world and the people who inhabit it. I hope we met and exceeded that expectation this weekend.

      I want to do a wrap up of highlights and key takeaways from our discussions.

      Highlights

      We started our conversation on the question of “Does Society make it harder for Girls with Autism?

      Bradley Wright shared several good books on women with autism and their experiences, including Nerdy, Shy and Inappropriate; The State of Grace; and Rogue.

      Mikhaela Ackerman talked about her life growing up with autism.  When she was diagnosed with autism only one in every 2,000 births were diagnosed with autism.  Today that number is one in every 41 births. (source).

      I asked Brad to compare life in his novel’s dystopian future, where autism is outlawed, to the actual challenges that girls with autism face today.  

      Brad stressed that autism is still under-diagnosed in girls, meaning that because of natural defenses such as masking, girls may not receive the supports needed to be successful in school, work and relationships.

      Brad also shared an interesting study on how people subconsciously judge individuals with autism negatively and choose not to socialize with them.

      Mikhaela shared a couple blog posts that will help family members to support their transitioning adult.  Her first on masking, explains that masking is where individuals with autism hide behaviors in order to appear like a typical socially adept person (a neurotypical person).  

      Masking takes an incredible amount of emotional and mental energy to pull off and a typical day can leave one physically and emotionally exhausted.

      Mikhaela was kind enough to answer @Victoria ‘s question,

      What is one thing you want everyone to know/understand better?

      There is no “look” to autism and no two of us are the same, as no two neurotypical people are the same. Also, that while autistic women may appear to be more assimilated, do not take this to mean we don’t struggle.

      I want to thank Brad and Mikhaela for taking the time to participate on such short notice and for allowing me to moderate the panel.  It was an incredible discussion.

      And a special thank you as always to everyone at Cake— @Chris @Vilen @Victoria and @yaypie —for building an incredible platform for amazing conversations!