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Viewpoint

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.

Categories
News

Before graduation, this junior hopes to walk a mile with 500 students

When junior Lane Obringer transferred to Notre Dame from Saint Mary’s College last year, the self-described extrovert from Charlotte, North Carolina, was eager to make new friends.

“It was difficult to meet new people. You felt like you were living your freshman year all over again while being a sophomore, and COVID probably made things difficult as well,” Obringer recalled. “It takes a lot of extraversion to hop right into meeting new people all over again … and I am a very extroverted person, but I wanted to create a platform to streamline the process rather than attending a million club meetings.”

Obringer said she wanted to create a way to meet lots of people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives in an environment where they could have real and honest conversations.

This became the inspiration behind the Instagram account she founded last semester, @lanewalksnd.

In the account’s bio, a link leads to a Google Calendar where any Notre Dame student can sign up for a 20-minute, one-mile walk around Saint Mary’s Lake with Obringer. As of Sunday, she has walked with 73 students and is almost 15% of the way to her goal of walking with 500 students before she graduates in the spring of 2024.

Her thoughtfully-designed Instagram feed features photos of each student she’s walked with, decorated with their names and facts about them in Obringer’s flowy and often colorful calligraphy.

Obringer started @lanewalksnd last semester and, when she began the project, she said she was certain only her close friends were going to sign up for walks.

“I thought … I wouldn’t really meet other people, and my first four walks on the very first day were all people that I had literally never seen in my entire life,” she said.

That very first day was Easter Monday this past spring. Soon, Obringer was going on four walks every day last semester, including Saturdays and Sundays.

This semester, she said she’s limited her schedule to three walks per day so that she can “be more present” with every walker.

“The benefits of doing this project are definitely meeting other people,” she said. “That sounds kind of surface level, but there’s something to be said about walking around campus and seeing a friendly face or recognizing someone’s name.”

Obringer added the walks have allowed her to connect with many people outside of her typical social circle. Furthermore, the @lanewalksnd project relates to Obringer’s future career goals.

A psychology major with minors in innovation and entrepreneurship and gender studies, Obringer hopes to pursue a career in organizational health, which she describes as “fun HR.”

“It’s understanding how people and teams work; how to make you like your job,” she explained.

In her studies, Obringer said she finds it interesting that 97% of psychological studies focus on the clinical or abnormal, while only 3% of studies focus on positive psychology. She tries to incorporate positive psychology into her walks and the interactions she has with each walker.

On every walk, she said she takes into account this question: “How do you make someone feel like a valued member of a community?”

“So that’s what taking their photo at the end of the walk and posting it on the Instagram is about … because you feel like, even though it’s very, very small, you’re part of something larger and, ultimately, that’s what I think a lot of Notre Dame students strive for,” she said.

For the duration of each walk, Obringer said she tries to give walkers space to talk about whatever they want.

Junior Drew Braaten, a business analytics major with an interest in filmmaking, walked with Obringer at the beginning of this semester. He called the walk a “15-minute, new friend appointment.”

“It was a beautiful Friday afternoon,” he recalled. “I was super interested in hearing about the project and asked her questions about how she keeps up all the walks. Lane was interested in my video-making. We finished the conversation with the wholesome story of the last time she cried.”

Sarah Mahoney, a sophomore environmental science and pre-med student who walked with Obringer in April, said “there was never a gap” in their conversation.

“Sharing a personal experience and conversation is a truly impactful way to get to know another person on a deeper level,” Mahoney said. “[Lane’s project] is such an inspiring project and a great way to unite students in the ND community.”

Contact Claire Reid at creid6@nd.edu.