Content warning: Contains mentions of sexual assault/domestic violence
I was diagnosed as autistic at 20 years old, after a long process of not being able to explain exactly why I felt so different to ‘other girls’. As it turns out, I wasn’t just suffering from internalised misogyny.
I am indebted to mid-2010s social media and blog-based ‘autism in women and girls’ myth-busting, which helped to counter the stereotypes I consumed through the mainstream media’s overwhelmingly male depictions of ‘Aspergers’. These accounts taught me that autism is much more diverse than you’d think.
Some autistic girls and women do embody the aloof male ‘geek’ stereotype depicted in, say, The Big Bang Theory. However, autistic bloggers like Samantha Craft have raised awareness of how autistic girls may fall under the radar because their autism manifests differently. From an early age, girls are socialised to be caring and considerate of other people’s needs. As a result, autistic girls may appear more socially well-adjusted than their counterparts.
Autistic media representation is on the rise. In recent years, we’ve had fictional depictions of autism on television including Netflix’s Atypical and Amazon series As We See It. I mean, we’ve even had our own dating show, Love on the Spectrum.
“Sometimes, I feel pressure to put aside my identity as a woman and a feminist and ignore this sexism for the ‘greater good’ of disabled people’s empowerment.“
As an autistic feminist, I have mixed feelings about these offerings, all of which deal heavily with the topic of (usually heterosexual) dating while autistic. A major recurring problem with how autism is portrayed in these shows is its reinforcement of oppressive gender roles. Gender stereotyping is of course not limited to TV depictions of autism, but they do display a distinct type of sexism that can be uniquely harmful to autistic women.
Sometimes, I feel pressure to put aside my identity as a woman and a feminist and ignore this sexism for the ‘greater good’ of disabled people’s empowerment. I want to be happy for autistic men who feel affirmed by a media that depicts them as worthy of love. However, when the affirmation of autistic men’s desirability upholds patriarchy, I can’t just stand by and watch.
In the supposedly wholesome As We See It, an autistic woman (Violet) and two autistic men (Jack and Harrison) navigate the delayed quasi-adolescence autistics commonly experience in our twenties. The show inadvertently sheds considerable light on the double standards applied to autistic women and men regarding dating and sex.
Jack, an awkward virgin – who is perhaps the most stereotypical autistic in the series – resembles The Big Bang Theory‘s ‘Sheldon’ archetype of autistic masculinity. Jack doesn’t understand boundaries, but the people in his life aren’t especially interested in helping with this unless he disrespects someone of higher standing, such as his boss at work.
“Autistic men can be just as abusive as neurotypical men, and autistic women have the most to lose from the narrative that autistic men are inherently unthreatening.”
In one incident, he tracks down his father’s neurotypical cancer nurse, Ewatomi, through a geotagged Instagram post. This extremely creepy behaviour, which is depicted as a product of his autism, somehow leads to romance. And when Jack plans to propose after just one date, no one in his life intervenes. To make matters worse, after his unsuccessful proposal, Jack is effectively rewarded for his behaviour with sex.
Ewatomi is considerably older than Jack, which might be why, thankfully, she seems in control of the situation. But for autistic women, setting boundaries can be more difficult, a factor making us vulnerable to abuse. One research study found 79% of autistic women had experienced domestic violence or sexual assault, compared to 26% of neurotypical women. It’s troubling that the series doesn’t do more to unpack how behaviour, like Jack’s, could harm a woman with less negotiating power.
Violet’s vulnerability is referred to repeatedly in As We See It, but overriding her boundaries and preferences is treated as a solution to the problem. She is literally dragged out of a bar by her angry brother after a disallowed date with a neurotypical man and is pushed to date a man called Douglas because he’s also autistic. And so, he’s viewed as ‘safe’.
Autistic men can be just as abusive as neurotypical men. And autistic women have the most to lose from the narrative that autistic men are inherently unthreatening, because we’re more likely to date them compared to neurotypical women.
Violet spends the entire series rejecting Douglas, before developing sudden romantic interest in the finale. The fact that Douglas wants to date a woman who has essentially been coaxed into liking him is a massive red flag to me, an autistic woman.
“Both on TV and in life, autistic men are let off the hook for behaviours that autistic women are punished for in our search for love.”
Although Atypical was controversial in the autistic community during its four-season run – some people argued that it portrayed autistic males as sexist – it treats Sam’s missteps with a nuance As We See It lacks. After Sam breaks into his female therapist’s apartment, she’s angry and she ends their therapeutic relationship, sending the message that it’s okay to set boundaries with autistic men, actually. Not exactly a groundbreaking feat of feminist TV, but I’ll take it.
However, the show lacks sympathetically written women’s perspectives on dating while autistic. It isn’t the job of every show to represent all experiences. But as a group engaged in a continued fight for recognition, autistic women are justified in feeling insulted by a show that depicts autism as a straight man acting like a creep.
Love on the Spectrum is yet another mixed bag. Lonely autistic adults are set up with others with the same diagnosis. It’s warm, funny, and full of parents who seem to genuinely love their kids, despite popular discourses framing autistics as burdens. Less praiseworthy is its warmth towards one of the bachelors, Michael, who exhibits a traditionalist worldview where a man’s role is to provide. He also doesn’t want a woman who is ‘gothic’, ‘tomboyish’, too pretty, or too ugly.
Even when he voices opinions uncomfortably reminiscent of incel forums, it’s laughed off. In contrast, when Maddi, an autistic woman, sets out her ideal boyfriend criteria (‘rich, tall, and muscular’), she’s immediately shot down and told to lower her standards.
Both on TV and in life, autistic men are let off the hook for behaviours that autistic women are punished for in our search for love. TV shows like As We See It and Love on the Spectrum suggest that autistic women shouldn’t date outside of neurotypical people’s narrow rules; we should settle for partners we’re not attracted to, but autistic men can do what they want. At least Atypical has scenes telling viewers that women aren’t obligated to endure harassment or stalking because the perpetrator is autistic.
But it’s just not enough. The media treats sexist autistic men with kid gloves, and until this changes, autistic women will keep paying the heavy price.
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