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The forgotten women

In my columns, I’ve primarily focused on my own experiences to provide insight into neurodivergence. However, while I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts and personal history, there are obvious limitations to this approach. Neurodivergence can manifest itself differently from person to person, and one’s other identity factors can also contribute to unique experiences. Hence, this week I’d like to focus on how neurodivergent women encounter their own specific challenges, challenges formed by the toxic intersection of misogyny and anti-neurodivergent discrimination.

While neurodivergent women have always existed, there are typically let down by exclusionary diagnostic criteria. Autism diagnosis methods were “developed using the experiences and symptoms of cisgender white males” (Astra). ADHD diagnostic methods are similar; the “early studies were based on the behaviors of white hyperactive boys” (ADDitude Editors). As a result, many of these women have never had their neurodivergence officially recognized, leaving them in an often-lonely position of uncertainty, even when they know that something sets them apart from broader neurotypical society. This underdiagnosis has had ripple effects, influencing popular conceptions of neurodivergent conditions, as most people will imagine a boy when considering the prototypical example of a child with something like autism or ADHD.

More challenges arise when people dismiss potential signs of neurodivergence due to gender stereotypes. If a girl on the spectrum cries due to overstimulation, we say that she’s just being excessively dramatic and emotional. If a girl with ADHD struggles to complete certain tasks in the classroom, we simply shake our heads and call her scattered, and then we tell her that she’s simply not destined for academic success. Instead of considering the possibility of neurodivergence, we crush girls and women under the weight of gendered tropes, producing feelings of stress and insecurity.  

Because our institutions fail to recognize and dignify neurodivergence, young women are often implicitly forced to “mask,” or hide, their quirks and differences; even if something produces anxiety, they’re left with no option other than to internalize their worries and concerns. The editors of ADDitude Magazine note that “society’s long list of expectations for women — managing the self, the family and the home — requires consistent coordination of executive functions.” Although “women with ADHD are not well-wired for these demands,” they must conceal their personal concerns in their attempts to satisfy such standards (ADDitude Editors). Zhara Astra, an autistic woman who is currently a professor at Arizona State University, notes similar struggles, sharing that her peers never “suspected [she] was on the spectrum” partly because she “had become accus tomed to masking [her] quirks.”

Challenges can persist in adult life, particularly in relationships. In a keynote address to the United Nations, Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Julia Bascom discusses how autistic women, and neurodivergent women in general, experience higher levels of domestic and gender-based violence relative to neurotypical women. She explains that due to “lifetimes of behavioral conditioning and compliance training,” neurodivergent women are often “groom[ed] and victimize[d]” (Bascom). Even worse, when neurodivergent women try to speak about the violence they’ve endured, their different communicative tendencies and preferences might result in service providers failing to adequately assist them (Bascom).

Indeed, misogyny and ableism can coalesce to create enormous obstacles for neurodivergent women seeking recognition and respect. To remove them will require the efforts of many different societal actors, from academic communities to individual people.

First, the field of psychology must explore and address the under-diagnosis of neurodivergent women. In particular, diagnostic criteria that is currently based on data of white male boys should be updated to acknowledge the different ways conditions like autism and ADHD can manifest in women. Diagnosis can be empowering because it serves as “an answer and an explanation…a way out of cycles of self-blame and guilt…a passport to an entire community…[and] a connection to the understanding, supports and services [women] need” (Bascom). This empowering tool can help reverse the negative impacts of the insecurity experienced by women uncertain about their diverging minds.

Second, families of possibly-neurodivergent girls should cultivate an environment of acceptance. Instead of viewing these girls’ anxieties as inconvenient drama, they should recognize them as genuine emotions that demand empathetic responses.

Finally, and most importantly, everyone — including neurotypical people and neurodivergent men — must actively surround themselves with the perspectives of neurodivergent women. In the process of writing this article, I consulted various articles written by women who have provided me with insights that have broadened my understanding of autism beyond the limitations of my own personal experience. I’m eager to delve further into these female experiences. I hope that in response to my article, you will join me, taking a few moments to look for neurodivergent female perspectives, whether they exist in social media posts, articles or creative works of art. Doing so can prevent us from, to use Julia Bascom’s words, “tell[ing] narrow stories about autism,” such as ones that suggest that “being autistic and being an adult or a woman are incompatible.”

Jack Griffiths is a senior at Notre Dame majoring in English with a supplementary major in global affairs. His areas of interest include neurodivergence, migration and the intersections between faith and public policy. When he’s not writing, you can find him singing with the Liturgical Choir, walking around the lakes or playing Super Smash Bros with folks in his dorm. He can be reached at jgriff22@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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